I have been through a lot of spotting scopes. Some good (Pentax 65ed), some not (Leupold Green Ring). Some portable (Leupold Gold Ring FLP) and some not (Nikon Sky and Earth).
For a couple of years now I have been toting around my Zeiss Diascope 65tfl (Thanks SWFA!) while out scouting, hunting, birding, and generally … looking. I thought I had reached the do-it-all spotting scope nirvana. A pretty light, pretty sharp, pretty contrasty (is that a word?), pretty ergonomic total package. It wasn’t too heavy to throw in the pack. It was a good for judging antelope out the pickup window. It was always on the tripod in front of the picture window at home for when I caught the itch. I thought I had my last spotter.
I think I should have known myself better than that.
Something happened last summer. I discovered digiscoping, and a new, wondrous, expensive world opened to my eyes. I mated up my Canon A590 IS to my trusty Diascope and voila … pretty good pics. Then what happens when I rotate the camera dial to the little movie camera icon? OOOOHHHH … videoscoping! More success brings more questions: What if I found a way to use my SLR camera? Do you think my HD camcorder would work? Yes, sure, you bet. A little online surfing brings friendly help from around the planet. Suddenly new terms are creeping into my vocabulary: vignetting, ISO, mirror slap. I’m finding out about sensor sizes like four thirds, APS-C, and full-frame.
My results seemed pretty good, until I started looking at some digiscoping galleries online. Holy crap! That was a sharp photo! My eyes wandered to the equipment list Swarovski 80HD. Next gallery … Leica APO 82. Next, Zeiss 85TFL. Next, Kowa 883 pure flourite crystal lens. Those guys are getting fast shutter speeds. For Heaven’s sake, they were getting pics of birds in flight! It became woefully apparent: I NEEDED a new spotting scope. My trusty 65mm objective just wasn’t cutting it. I wanted some big glass.
I started looking around. There are some nice looking scopes out there, right up to where you see the price tags. I decide I just needed to save and get what I really wanted. I headed down to the local sporting goods store and talked to the guy behind the counter. “Can I check out some spotters outside?” “Sure, but it won’t do you any good … this is the best scope for the money.” He pulls out a huge contraption called a Nikon Prostaff 82. I didn’t think this thing was in the league of scopes I was looking for, but what the hey. I took it outside. Not bad at low powers, but at high powers, a narrow, dim view. I told him I am looking for something with a wider field of view. He told me the field of view is the same for all scopes of the same “lens size and power.” I replied, “You mean exit pupil?” He blinked. Uh-oh, somebody didn’t pay attention at the rep’s employee training.
Thank God for the good information I’ve found on Optics Talk!
I pack up and head elsewhere. For the next four months I stopped at every sporting goods store I drove by. I poured over postings on Optics Talk (and elsewhere). I looked through every high end scope I could get somebody to take out of the case. I looked at lots of varied resolution charts. I bothered a lot of salesmen by asking to take three scopes outside, at dusk … again.
In the end, I found out that unit variation plays quite the role in spotting scopes. I saw some Zeiss 85tfl units seemed to have significantly different resolution capabilities. None were poor performers, mind you, but some were better than others. I noticed the Swarovskis I looked through were consistently … awesome. Side by side, the Swarovski 80HD and a “good” Zeiss 85tfl were quite similar in resolving power. Both at the resolution chart, and outside in my own subjective opinion looking at various subjects. The Zeiss images had a yellow bias it seemed. The Swaro was pretty neutral. The Zeiss had it’s usual mega-wide zoom with astigmatism at the low powers. It took a long time to find one, but I finally found a $4000 Leica Televid APO 82, and it’s heralded 25x to 50x wide angle zoom. The same store even had the new Swarovski 25x to 50x wide angle eyepiece. A head to head showdown commenced. The optical performance was pretty much a tie. Flat field, excellent contrast, wide, wide, wide, and oh so sharp. Funny thing, the Swaro was much harder to get a full field of view than the Leica. The eye relief was definitely more critical. The Swaro required a perfect eye position to get a full field, while the Leica was quite forgiving. I switched to the Swaro 20x to 60x eyepiece, and the critical eye relief was gone. Just nice sharp views right up to 60x. I really liked that scope, and eyepiece combination, and knew many digiscopers had used it successfully. I started feeling confident that the Swaro would be my choice.
Then I looked through the Kowa 883. I was able to compare it directly to the Swaro. It was brighter in low light, without a doubt ... I suppose that 8mm of extra objective doesn’t hurt. It also had a little narrower field of view. I had heard and read about the Kowa’s clear edge in pure resolution. I did not see it … to the extent it has been proclaimed. The resolution capabilities seemed pretty similar outside the store. I went inside and found I could definitely see one more fine line on the resolution chart with the Kowa. Back outside, looking at subjects within 100 yards … slight edge to Kowa. Looking at subjects far away … no noticeable edge to my eye. It seemed that maybe the volume of air you look through, and the resulting mirage and other effects, may have been the limiting factor on spotting scope performance when you get to that level.
ENTER THE RAZOR
I hadn’t really considered the Razor HD as an option, because I figured if I was going to save and spend $1600 bucks, I might as well save longer and go all-out with $3000 or more. I’m glad I decided to look through one. Hello!!!!!! Wait a minute salesman, can I bring out that Swaro one more time? Side by side with the Swaro, I found the two scopes had almost indistinguishable images! Side by side with the “good” Zeiss: coin toss on resolution, and the Vortex had better color fidelity! The image was fantastic, flat field, super sharp, excellent color, brightness a touch better than the swaro and similar to the Zeiss. Eye relief? Long, and non-critical.
On an optical level, all of the scopes I looked at were comparable, even the lauded Kowa. All of the scopes controlled chromatic aberration exceedingly well. I could only see it in the most extreme high-contrast situations in the Swaro, Zeiss, and Vortex, and even then it was ever so thin. Contrast was excellent in every scope, with the Swaro and Leica leading the way. Some were better than others at certain things: The Kowa was brightest, and had the best resolution. The Leica had the widest, easiest view. The Swarovski was all-around great. The Zeiss was bright and sharp. The Vortex was similar to the Swarovski in image. Image quality was not the determining factor for me. Their image performance was that close.
So what does make the decision? I was concerned about the Kowa’s crystal lense’s durability. I had heard rumors they are fragile. I didn’t want to think about that in the field, real or not. The Zeiss was nice, but I was always accidentally unscrewing the eyepiece from my Diascope 65, and it didn‘t have the digiscoping accessories I would have preferred. The Leica was nice in all areas (save digiscoping accessories), but didn’t really stand out, and it should at $4000. The Swarovski was awesome in all categories and had many digiscoping accessories available, but used the helical focus, and I prefer dual focus. The Razor