Best Telescope For Land Viewing – The Answer Is Not What You Think

best telescope for land viewing

I have owned and used many different telescopes, including refractors, reflectors, and compound telescopes. Throughout my life and viewing experiences, there have been a number of instances where I wanted to use a telescope to get a close-up view of terrestrial objects and events. I did a huge amount of research and here’s what I found…

Best Telescope For Land Viewing


The best telescope for land viewing is actually a specialized type of scope called a Spotting Scope. The advantages of using a Spotting Scope for terrestrial viewing are:

  • Ability to quickly change the magnification power to provide zooming in and zooming out
  • Doesn’t require the purchase or use of any additional equipment/lenses (i.e., image erector diagonal)
  • Excellent daytime image quality results
  • Compact size and lightweight when compared to a full-size telescope
  • May be used for entry-level astronomy activities, such as view larger/brighter object (e.g., moon, some planets)
  • Close focus capability

I have found that the best type of telescope for viewing people is a refractor telescope because it is the easiest to use and provides exceptional viewing results when setup correctly.

What Is A Spotting Scope And What Is A Telescope?

A Spotting Scope is a high magnification monocular (one eye) scope that is normally tripod mounted. As far as physical appearance and characteristics, a Spotting Scope looks very similar to a telescope (e.g., tubular body, a single eyepiece on one end). However, a Spotting Scope is generally shorter in length and the eyepiece is usually offset and/or angled. In terms of magnification power, a spotting scope is typically more than a pair of binoculars but less than a telescope.

A Telescope is constructed with very powerful optics that are capable of high magnification along with interchangeable eyepieces. They are also designed for use on a tripod and generally provide the user with viewing distant objects with one eye. Telescopes have a relatively large aperture (objective lens or mirror) that are specifically designed and constructed to a large amount of light into the telescope.  This is extremely important when viewing celestial objects like distant planets or stars.

The Telescope Disadvantage: The Inverted and Reversed Image

However, people watching using a refractor telescope requires the use of an image erector diagonal in order to correctly invert the viewed images.  This special type of device will fit in between the eyepiece and telescope. It typically contains a series of mirrors or prisms, configured and coordinated to “flip” an image into the correct orientation.

Without an image erector diagonal, the objects viewed through a refractor telescope are upside-down (aka inverted) and reversed.  When viewing planets, stars and other celestial objects it doesn’t matter if they are inverted. But when viewing terrestrial objects (e.g., mountains, buildings, scenery) having the viewed image upside-down is distracting, annoying and some people would even say confusing.

What Is The Difference Between A Spotting Scope And A Telescope

There are a few main differences between a Spotting Scope and a Telescope. Take a look at the comparison list and you’ll get a better understanding of each device and what purpose they are best used for:

Characteristic / Criteria

Spotting Scope

Telescope (Refractor-type)

Image Erector Diagonal


No, must be purchased separately otherwise viewed images will be upside-down and reversed.

Magnification Power

Varies, but typically between 60x – 80x

Varies, but maximum magnification power can be 400x or higher

Zoom In/Out

Yes, the user can easily and quickly vary the magnification while simultaneously viewing

No. Altering/adjusting the magnification requires the user to stop view and manually change the eyepiece

Portability / Weight

Varies from the manufacturers, but the typical length can be around 14 in

Varies from the manufacturers, but the typical length: around 33 in for a refractor-type

Aperture / Objective Size

Varies, but typically 60mm to 80mm

Varies, but typically sizes are 100mm to 160mm for a refractor-type telescope

Daytime Use


Marginal. Most telescopes are designed to let in a significant amount of light, which may be ineffective for daytime viewing

Nighttime Use

Fair-to-Poor. It may be used during nighttime and works best for viewing illuminated objects

Yes, a telescope is specifically designed to be used in low-light conditions

Can Be Used To View The Moon



Can Be Used To View Planets

Fair-to-Poor. Only useful for larger planets which are well-illuminated with a clear atmosphere


Can Be Used To View Stars

Fair-to-Poor. Only useful for larger planets which are well-illuminated with a clear atmosphere


Image Stability

Requires a tripod

Requires a tripod

Close Focus

As close as 6 feet


Field Of View

With the ability to zoom in/out, the user is able to adjust the field of view while viewing

(Higher magnification = Smaller field of view)

 Fixed field of view that is based upon the magnification power as computed from the combination of the aperture/object, focal length, and the eyepiece metrics.

How Much Magnification Is Needed?

For viewing land-based objects, I have found that lower magnification power works best. In fact, I seldom have a need for anything higher than 20x magnification. Don’t believe it?  Take a look at some example images that I photographed, they are a view from a second-story bedroom window looking towards the backyard.

Spotting Scope Viewing Land Objects 1xAt 1x magnification, this is the view as seen with an unaided eye.  In other words, if you were viewing the backyard with just your eyes (no scope), this is exactly what you would see through an optical scope set to provide 1x magnification power. This level has an overall view of the backyard.  You can see the tool shed sitting in the back corner of the backyard, a small fire pit located in the center of the yard, the perimeter fence, and neighbor’s trees located on the other side of the back fence.

Spotting Scope Viewing Land Objects 2xAt 2x magnification, this view is through a Spotting Scope that effectively doubles the size of the image. The tool shed and fire pit become the primary focal points of this view. As you can see, there is still a small section of the perimeter fence visible, as well as lower portions of the neighbor’s trees. Most of the yard is eliminated from the view.



Spotting Scope Viewing Land Objects 4xAt 4x magnification, the viewed imaged is quadrupled relative to just plain eyesight. The details of the tool shed start to become evident. The individual tiles on the roof are discernible. Additionally, you can see each of the hinges that used to mount the doors, as well as the lock/latch mechanisms. Also, take notice of the individual leaves that are on the tree in the background, as well as the blades of grass that are along the bottom edge of the tool shed.


Spotting Scope Viewing Land Objects 8xAt 8x magnification, the individual pieces of wood used to construct the door are visible. You can also begin to discern certain shapes of objects through the small panes of glass in the door even though it is dark inside the tool shed. If someone were to turn an interior light, I have no doubt that people’s faces and specific objects could be easily identified.



The Importance Of A Stable Tripod

With any optical device, one of the critical supporting components is the Tripod and mount. The Tripod is a three-legged device that is used to hold an optical device (e.g., spotting scope, telescope) in the desired position.  This means not only the correct height but also at the desired viewing angle.

tripod exampleIn order to accomplish this, the scope is attached to the Tripod with a component called the “Mount”.  The Mount has the necessary physical characteristics and parts that allow it to be attached to the Tripod while also securely holding the scope.  The Mount is designed specifically designed to hold the scope in a precise position (e.g., azimuth and elevation) so the person viewing objects through the scope is not required to hold or support the scope in any fashion.

What To Look For In A Tripod

  • Rock-Steady Holding – Ideally you want zero vibration. This means stability and protection from strong winds, people walking by, ground vibrations/movement, acoustic sounds waves, etc.
  • Fingertip Adjustments – All adjustments (up/down, open/close, left/right) can be easily made with minimal pressure, but the result is tight and secure
  • Sturdy Construction – Nothing flimsy or over-stressed. For me, I have found that the weight of the optical device mounted on the tripod should be no more than 35% of the rated capacity. Some people might think that this is overkill, but they can’t argue with the viewing results that I achieve.
  • Quality Materials – Spend a few extra dollars in order to receive a higher quality tripod, it’ll be worth it when you realize that you’re still using a 10-year old tripod (mine is over 14 yrs old!).
  • Waterproof/Rust-proof – This is especially necessary if you think you might be using the tripod in damp and/or humid conditions.

Best Telescope For Apartment Spying

Best Telescope For Apartment Viewing

Because of the specialized intended use (e.g., surveillance), I also recommend using a Spotting Scope for this application. In my career as a government contractor, I actually drafted several White Papers regarding this type of application. Many of the papers involved the use of both optical and non-optical covert surveillance methods.

My research resulted in the adoption of Spotting Scopes as part of a standard-issued equipment kit based upon:

  • The prescribed daytime/nighttime scenarios
  • Functional Capabilities Required (e.g., on-the-fly zooming)
  • Physical Constraints: Limited length, Minimal weight, etc

As a result of the analysis, we demonstrated that Spotting Scopes provide the best fit for most surveillance the applications. Because of my position and experience,  I get asked about the magnification power needed for apartment spying, and people are often surprised when I tell them my recommendation for low-power Spotting Scopes. In general, I have found that sufficient results can be obtained with a relatively lower power scope. Take a look at the example images below.

Spotting Scope Apartment Spying 1x At 1x magnification, you can see the overall building. This magnification power is equivalent to viewing the building with just your eyes. You can see the building and surrounding area, which includes a swimming pool and sitting/lounging area. Additionally, there are three cabanas that have daybeds for sitting, relaxing and sunning one’s self, and there is a person swimming in the far end of the pool. You also see large, potted palm trees and a solar panel array on the roof. The apartment balconies all have yellow accent paint on the common/shared wall.


Spotting Scope Apartment Spying 2xAt 2x magnification, the view focuses on just the balconies for each of the apartments. You are able to view all eight of the payment balconies and some of the sitting area along the pool. Also included in this view is the entrance doors to the building that connect the pool area with the first-floor building access.



Spotting Scope Apartment Spying 4xAt 4x magnification, the apartment balcony of interest is identified. You can see furniture and items resting on a table. The neighbors to the left have small, potted plants along the front edge of their balcony. They also have two small trees, neither of which have any visible leaves. The neighbors on the right have a patio set on their balcony that consists of a table and at least rounded chairs. There is also a centerpiece on the table that appears to be a candle inside of a glass holder.


Spotting Scope Apartment Spying 8xAt 8x magnification, the balcony of the apartment is framed within the view. You can clearly see the table, two chairs (both facing outward), two vertical lamps (one with a bulb, the other lamp is missing a bulb), the metal trash can, built-in balcony light, items on the table, and two louvered panels in the back leaning against the wall.



Spotting Scope Apartment Spying 16xAt 16x magnification, you’re able to see each specific item and possibly even notice small details that weren’t visible at the lower magnification powers. For example, it is possible to identify the items on the table. You can discern the individual boxes and almost read the logo writing on the large brown box.



Spotting Scope Example

Celestron Spotting Scope

Celestron 52250 Ultima Zoom Spotting Scope (80 mm)

I like to use a high-quality Spotting Scope mounted to a stable tripod for any type of surveillance activity. This type of setup is preferred by professionals instead of trying to adapt and use a telescope. So whenever I am looking at or evaluating a Spotting Scope, I immediately check for several things:

  • One-Hand Operation
  • Fingertip Zoom In/Out Control
  • Multi-Coated Optics
  • Sight Tube For Quick Targeting
  • Waterproof

And then, of course, I verify that the scope is designed to be mounted on a tripod. Some other nice things are lens cap covers, lens cleaning cloth, and of course a carrying case for storage and transportation.

What Is A Spotting Scope Good For

Target Shooting, Archery – Often seen at a range a spotting scope is a good choice when setting up in a fixed position on a tripod for quickly checking out how well or how badly you shot.

Surveillance – For constant monitoring of a distant location, a spotting scope set up on a tripod can be an invaluable tool.

Sniping – Spotters are used by the forces and combine with long range snipers to assist with target acquisition and determining range.

Hunting – Similar to sniping, a hunter would use a spotting scope to find and track a long range target. Literally to ‘spot’ one before either setting up a shot or moving in closer. With the magnification available on a spotting scope you can watch a target from long enough distances that it can have no sense you are there at all.

Bird-Watching – Spotting scopes are common with birdwatchers for long range birding.

Astronomy (entry level) – Whilst you’ll get more magnification out of a telescope, a 60x spotting scope mounted on a tripod is good enough for entry-level astronomy and will give a good view of celestial bodies like the moon or Jupiter.

Digiscoping / Photography – If you couple a camera or a smart-phone with a spotting scope you can turn it into a powerful telescopic lens.