Lightweight Scope Alternatives

Full disclosure before I start this article:  I hate scopes.  I hate them for the same reason I hate tripods - they're heavy, clumsy and they get in the way.  Carrying a scope over my shoulder means missing a shot of that Goshawk that just sped by me.  It also means a sore shoulder at the end of the day.  As a photographer, it's one too many pieces of gear I have to carry.

That said, I love the view a scope gives me.  Just about every day I see something that I wish I could get a closer look at...a seabird in the distance, a small songbird far off in a tree, or a hawk way off in the distance.   The magnification a scope provides is invaluable in these situations, and can be the difference between making an ID or not.  

This conflict has driven me to search for a scope alternative, something that's portable and unobtrusive that will give me that magnifying edge when I'm out in the field, and that I can pack easily into a carry-on on my next birding trip.  This magical device would be small, lightweight, sturdy and powerful.  Note that I’m not looking for something to replace my Swarovski 80HD scope to do hours of seawatching - the only thing that could replace that is, well, another Swarovski 80HD. Instead,  I’m looking for a sweet spot between that serious scope and my carry-around Zeiss 7x42 binoculars.

In my search I came across four different tools that might fit the bill.  I’ve had all four for about a week and have been testing them side by side: from the car, out the back window, and of course walking around birding.  My usual kit when I’m birding are my Zeiss binoculars and my camera - a Canon 7D II with a 300mm f/2.8 lens.  It’s a hefty setup, so the challenge was to have a companion tool that wasn’t going to weight me down, but still added value to the experience.  Here are the contenders:

Vortex 15x50 Mountain Scope Monocular - not unlike a single barrel of a binocular, this lightweight monocular weighs 15.2 oz, is 7 inches long, and has a field of view of 215ft.

Canon 15x50 IS Binoculars - image stabilized binoculars create a rock-steady view even when handheld; 41oz, 7.6”, and field of view of 236 ft.

Vortex Viper 15x50 Binoculars - roof prism binoculars weighing in at a light 28.4 oz, 6.7inches long, with a field of view of 210ft.

Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope - the classic, lightest-weight scope of any value.  20 oz., 8.2” long, 157’ field of view at 13x.

Here they all are for a size comparison:

Left to Right: Vortex 15x50 Mountain Scope; Vortex Viper 15x50HD binoculars; Canon 15x50 IS binoculars; Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope

Left to Right: Vortex 15x50 Mountain Scope; Vortex Viper 15x50HD binoculars; Canon 15x50 IS binoculars; Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope

I started with the Vortex 15x Mountain “Scope” - it’s basically an oversized monocular.  The lightest weight and smallest of the group, this is definitely a pocketable item.  It also has metal clips to attach it to your belt, and a tripod socket that might be good with a monopod or pocket-sized tripod.  Optical quality was very satisfactory.  So far so good!  But there were two important downsides for me.

First, the focus is very tight and awkward to use.  It has rigid tabs that give you a little better grip/leverage when turning the focus knob, but it’s still very difficult to focus, especially on a moving target.  That, coupled with a narrow depth-of-field, made them hard to use on birds.  Strike one.

Second, it was just too difficult to handhold.  The small size and light weight actually worked against it, and I found it was giving me the shakiest view of the four optics I tried.  Maybe if it was braced on something, or on a monopod, but that defeats the purpose for me.  So despite the appealing size and weight, this wasn’t going to solve my problem.

Next up was the Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope, an absurdly light and small scope, with a 13-30x zoom eyepiece.  One of the sharpest of the group optically, it fit easily into my jacket pocket, although it was longer and bulkier than the Mountain Scope.  Maybe because of it’s size, I was able to stabilize it more effectively when I handheld it (certainly not what this scope is meant for, but it’s what I’m looking for!).  Even better, it shipped with a very light, compact shoulder stock.  With the scope screwed on to that, I found I could get a very steady image from a standing position.  Of course, you could also easily get it on a monopod, beanbag or other rest and get a super stable image.  

The problem for me was that the field-of-view was very narrow.  It feels a lot like looking through a rifle scope, or through one of those old-fashioned brass telescopes.  And while the optical sharpness was certainly acceptable, the brightness left something to be desired, so overall the images felt dim to me.  Finally, the 30x zoom was nice by also very hard to get any value from handholding, and I found it didn’t give me much advantage (in that situation) over the 15x optics.  

I now turned to the Canon 15x50 IS binoculars.  The biggest and bulkiest of the group, I knew from the start that they would probably not be the portable sidekick that I was looking for.  But wow are they fun!  They had the most open field-of-view of the group, which gave me a nice feel when scanning across the ocean.  They are moderately sharp - not as good as the other optics I tried, but certainly acceptable.  

But the real excitement with these binoculars comes when you press the little button on the top of the casing.  That activates the Image Stabilization, and your shaky handheld image is suddenly transformed to a perfectly steady view.  The difference is remarkable, and the amount of detail your eyes can gather with a stabilized vs. non-stabilized view is considerable.  You can feel your eyes relax, now that they don’t have to work chasing that shaky image, and I understand why some seawatchers prefer stabilized optics for all-day scanning (the Zeiss 20x60 stabilized binoculars are great for that, although too big for my purposes).  

The experience is seductive, and I found myself wishing that all optics were stabilized.  But after some extended use and careful viewing, I had to let these binoculars go.  For one thing, they’re just too big.  Not only heavy, but quite bulky, they’re better suited for a car or boat than for carrying.  Also, as much as I like the stabilized image, there is a noticeable softening of the image when IS is turned on.  I would love to have a pair of these just for fun, but as a carry around birding tool they didn’t fit the bill.

My last pair was the Vortex Viper 15x50HD binoculars.  There are some other 15x50s out there - notably Swarovski, Zeiss, and Leica - but they all run in the 40+ oz. weight range, and they’re all pricy (starting at $1300).  For a secondary tool, that’s a little too heavy for me in weight and cost.  The Vortex’s, on the other hand, are about $650, and weigh a scant 28oz.  As a point of comparison, the new Zeiss 8x42 Victory binoculars weigh 27.5oz!  Somehow Vortex managed to squeeze a lot of power into a lightweight package, and that was a good start.

I found these bins had the sharpest and brightest image of the bunch.  The field of view wasn’t as wide as the Canon’s, but it was certainly acceptable and not nearly as restricting as the Nikon Fieldscope.  The fact that they are binoculars makes them much easier to hold steady (vs. a scope or monocular), and I can get a very stable image from them even over an extended scan.  

So until I find something even better, the Vortex Viper 15x50s are the winner for me! Sturdy, waterproof, and relatively lightweight, I can carry them in a big jacket pocket, on my shoulder, or even instead of my 7x bins when I want a longer reach.  I’m looking forward to really putting them through their paces in my upcoming trips, and I’m very excited to have this new tool in my bag of birding tricks.