How To Choose The Best Spotting Scope Tripod

In yesterday’s review of the Hawke Endurance spotting scope, it became clear that there would be much benefit in a story on how to choose the best spotting scope tripod. So here it is…

Tripod Overview

In fact, a suitable tripod is an essential requirement for getting the best results from a spotting scope. When you’re dealing with magnifications of – say 75 x – two things immediately become apparent…

First, it’s tough to find the target. And when you have, it’s difficult to move your view by small amounts and in a controllable manner.

Secondly the potential for shake is incredible! Even the slightest vibration causes the image to jump and become blurred. Then, no matter how good the optical quality of the spotting scope, you can’t see the target!

The answer – clearly – is a good, stable method for supporting the spotting scope. A tripod is the obvious solution. But not all tripods are alike, so let’s look at how to find the best spotting scope tripod.

Hawke Spotting Scope

Most tripods are developed and marketed for photographic use. Basically, they consist of three legs, a central column and a “head”, the part to which the camera (or spotting scope) is attached.

As there’s about a Zillion photographic tripods out there for sale, there’s obviously many combinations of legs, column, head and price! Rather than survey the whole tripod world, today we’ll concentrate on what I have found to work well and what does not.

Choose The Right Head

Most photographic tripods designed for use with still cameras are supplied with a “ball head”. Ball heads allow a camera to be positioned quickly and at any angle. They’re then clamped into position for taking a photograph.

Ball heads are simple and usually inexpensive. They’re ideal where exact precision of aim is not necessary and where you don’t want to view multiple targets at different locations. Generally, they’re not recommended for heavy loads.

This small tripod that’s sold for use with LabRadar has a ball head. It’s ideal for the recommended purpose.

But say you’re observing hits at benchrest shooting. You’ll need to move the spotting scope horizontally and vertically in small, controllable increments. Try doing this with a 4 Lb spotting scope at 75x magnification will rapidly make you seasick and frustrated!

There has to be a better way, you’ll think. And there is! It’s called a pan and tilt head.

In the photographic world, pan and tilt heads are usually specified for movie/video cameras. They provide horizontal and vertical movement. Pan and tilt heads will support heavy loads and they’re easily controllable using an extended handle. The better ones are “fluid damped” for better control and stability

This makes pan and tilt heads ideal for spotting scope use in benchrest competition, or for most other types of target shooting.

How To Choose The Best Spotting Scope Tripod

Needless to say, there’s different types of pan and tilt head, as we can see from a comparison of these two samples. The head on the right is larger, has a heavier capacity and is fluid damped. It also has two handles for moving the head.

So this is the type of head I recommend.

Looking at the photograph above, you’ll see a screw thread sticking up. That’s for attaching the camera or spotting scope and it’s actually mounted in a “plate”.  In order to be used, the plate is removed from the head and attached to the spotting scope.

As you’d expect, there’s different types of mounting plate. The one I use is a quick detach plate – it’s on the right of the photo below. Different plates are compatible with specific tripods. The mounting plate is usually bundled with the tripod.

How To Choose The Best Spotting Scope Tripod

Tripod Legs And Central Column

It’s very tempting to choose a lightweight tripod with multi-stage collapsible legs, like the one below. This certainly makes it compact and portable.

But – trust me on this – you’ll regret going that route because this type of tripod generally will NOT provide the stability in use you need. (Been there, tried it, got the badge!).

So, heavy weight legs, with the minimum number of sections and a “spreader” (bracing) mechanism that’s supported on the central column are prime requirements. Yes, it’s going to be heavy and cumbersome to move around, but if you really want to use that spotting scope to its potential, that’s what you’re going to need.

The central column allows the height of the head to be raised without changing the setting of the legs. It’s usually geared, with a lever to turn to change height. Don’t forget to have a tripod high enough so that you can use it when standing – if that’s what you want…

The central column assembly will also usually include a bubble level – like the one you can see above. This will help you to level the tripod if required and make it easier to observe those multiple benchrest targets when using the pan capability of the head.

Best Spotting Scope Tripod Summary

So there’s my suggestions for how to choose the best spotting scope tripod. As with most things, there’s a wide range of prices for tripods and you don’t want the cheapest. But – on the other hand – you probably don’t need the absolute top-end model either. Around $250-$350 should buy you a very serviceable spotting scope tripod.

What do I use? Well, it’s a old model Davis and Sanford Provista 18 with an FM18 Fluid Head. I bought it many years ago and it’s in use every day. Every studio (white background) photograph ever published in HAM has been taken with the help of this tripod.

It was also a perfect compliment to that Hawke Endurance ED 25-75 x 85 spotting scope!

The current version of this tripod is listed below.

Davis & Sanford PROVISTA7518B Pro Video Tripod with V18 Fluid Head