Nikon Fieldscope III ED & 20-60x Zoom

It is long past time for a review of the "new" Nikon Fieldscope III ED. I have had one for a year or more now and we still have the Fieldscope II listed as the Reference Standard for 60 mm class scopes. There hasn't been much action in the 60 mm class—perhaps because birders are (mistakenly, see below) convinced that you have to carry a "big" scope (80 mm or larger) to get the kind of performance a birder needs in the field. Optics makers, obviously, put their product efforts into the class of scopes that is selling. We have seen quite a few new 80 mm scopes over the past 5 years, but the Nikon Fieldscope III ED is the only "new" scope introduction in the 60 mm class over that same time period.

If you have followed my testing here on BVD, you know that the 60 mm Fieldscope II ED is my day-in, day-out scope. It is the scope I picked, out of all the ones in my basement, to take to the ABA convention in Beumount, Texas this spring. (I would have packed the III, except that the III I have is "straight through" while the II I have is an "angled" view—I always carry an angled scope when birding in a group, since it is much easier for birders of different heights to use.) Once again, whenever we were on an interesting bird, I had a line behind the little Nikon generally several people longer than the ones behind the 80 mm Leicas and Swarovskis. (One factor was certainly that it was the only scope that "short" people could look through easily—but only the crisp, bright, no-compromise view can, and the compact size, can explain the number of people who came back for a second look and then jotted the make and model of the scope down in their notebooks.) I remain convinced that in 95% of birding situations, an exceptional 60 mm scope will show you all there is that you need to see. In a very few situations (dirty air, unstable air, or fog) the 60 mm scope will actually outperform the the bigger scopes at equivalent powers.

And, what is more, you are much more likely to have a scope like the Fieldscope with you when you need it than you are any of the 80 mm scopes. The 60 mm scopes are tiny when compared to almost any 80 mm scope. Some of the composite body 80 mm scopes don't weigh much more than a solid metal Fieldscope, but I find that when you are carrying a scope long distances, the size of the scope is just as important as the weight. Then too, the smaller scopes require less massive tripods (see the piece on the Nikon/Manfrotto Junior Tripod below). The net result is a scope/tripod package that you can sling over your sholder on an improvised camera strap and carry all day long. It will often make you the only birder in the group (besides the leader who gets paid for his or her suffering) still carrying a scope at day's end (especially in an endurance test like a CBC or once in a lifetime fieldtrip to Bolovar flats—the only birder off the bus with a scope ready when the Frigate Bird finally appears. No scope, no matter how sharp it is, is going to be much use if it is back on the bus or at home in the closet.

The only time an 80 mm scope will show a clear advantage is in deep shade, heavy overcast, or twilight—and then the difference will not be one that will make or break an ID—just enough of a difference to be visible in direct comparison, and to add to the aesthetic appeal of the image. The image through an 80 mm scope is often easier to look at, brighter, and with a bit more inner detail, but the 60 mm scope (if of equal quality) will almost always show you as much usable detail (see the more detailed discussion of this in the review of the Tele Vue-85.)

What finally pushed me over into actually reviewing the Fieldscope III ED was the arrival of the new 20-60x zoom eyepiece. Nikon has always had, in my opinion, one of the few usable zoom eyepieces on the market (along with the Swarovski, the Pentax, and the Japanesse scopes that use Vixon's Swarovski look-alike or one very like it, no matter what it says on the lens barrel (Swift, Celestron, Kowa, Bausch & Lomb, etc.)). Unfortunately the Nikon zoom was only 20-45x and the lack of a true high power was sometimes (rarely, but occasionally) limiting. The new 20-60x zoom takes care of that problem nicely.

New features in the III include full multi-coating of all surfaces, waterproofing, a slide-out lens hood, and a somewhat, overall, more modern look. Remaining from the II are the compact size and medium weight, the helical focusing ring (you twist the whole ring, like the focus on an old fashioned 35 mm telephoto lens, as opposed to turning the the focus knob, as on most other scopes), the industrial strength solid metal body, and the (equally industrial) ugly green color.

All of the new features are welcome and well implemented. The waterproofing is especially appreciated. I have gotten used to the helical focus and actually prefer it on a scope this size. I've even learned to live with the color.

What, in my mind, makes any amount of ugly scope easy to live with is a exceptionally beautiful view of the bird. The image quality of the Nikon Fieldscope III ED has to be seen to be believed. This scope is sharp! Colors are clean and pure. Contrast and color differentiation are excellent. Every detail of the bird is easily visible right out to the limits of whatever power you are using. The image is bright and easy to look at. Only in direct comparison to an exceptional 80 or 85 mm scope will you see any improvement in brightness.

This is especially true with the new zoom. On the overcast, foggy day when I did my primary testing (see the photo above), the image at 60x remained surprisingly bright and the color easy to see.

The new zoom appears brighter over all than the old 20-45x; partly due, no doubt, to the full multi-coatings (the 20-45x zoom is still available and has now been fully multicoated as well). Overall I am every pleased with the 20-60x zoom. The field is bright and even and usably wide at 20x and eyerelief is adequate with my eyeglasses (it may be a bit on the short side for some eyeglass wearers). At high power I can not see the full field (I could with the old 45x), but the view is so bright and sharp that I am willing to sacrifice a bit of field. In side by side comparisons with the exceptional Pentax 80 mm (the current Reference Standard for spotting scopes) at 60x, though the Pentax image was a bit brighter, I could see as much detail in the Nikon and the fields of view were very similar. Very impressive!

Birders will be faced now with the choice of zooms from Nikon. I have no hesitation recommending the 20-60x. The extra reach is worth loosing a bit of field to eyerelief at high power. The one exception would be birders who wear glasses that hold them well back from the eyepiece. Then, I am not sure either zoom would be a good choice. The 30 or 40x Wide Field eyepieces might be better choices for birders needing maximum eyerelief. I am becoming especially fond of the 40x WF eyepiece. On this scope it is exceptionally bright and sharp and provides a good field even with my glasses. It could easily become my full time eyepiece. For those of you who yearn for higher powers, the 60x Wide Field is also amazing, yielding a surprisingly bright and wide field at that power—indeed, providing one of the best, and easiest to look at, 60x views I have ever seen.

All in all the 60 mm Nikon Fieldscope III ED is clearly the Reference Standard for 60 mm scopes. Given the optical and mechanical quality, the wide range of excellent eyepieces, and the compact size, there is nothing else on the market that comes close to it. Though I know there are situations where the 80 mm Pentax would show me more detail, and the 85 mm Tele Vue (see below) would be significantly brighter and have a significantly greater reach, going up easily to 150x and out to the practical limits of daylight viewing, the fact is, that for 95% of my birding—of, I am convinced, any birder's birding—the Fieldscope is all you need. The Fieldscope is a true "don't leave home without it" scope, and for that reason alone it will remain my overall favorite birding scope. That Nikon manages to pack big scope performance into this tiny package is a tribute to their commitment to make the best optics possible. That they continue to make and market this scope in a world where everyone thinks 80 mm is what you have to have is a tribute to their commitment to give birders the optics they really need, as opposed to what is popular at the moment. So, Swarovski, Leica, B&L, Kowa, where are your 60 mm scopes to compete with the Fieldscope? Let me tell you, the Fieldscope III ED will be one hard act to follow.

Nikon/Manfrotto Junior Tripod

While on the subject of compact wonders, the Nikon/Manfrotto Junior tripod is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Again it is a question of usability vs. performance—in this case usability vs. stability. The Junior is weighs pounds less than the next lightest Manfrotto (that is "Bogan" to many of us) tripod. It is almost as light as one of those flimsy department store video tripods. With all four sections of the legs and the center post extended it is actually taller than the 3001 tripod (see the photo at the top), reaching my true eyelevel (I am a shade under 6 feet). The legs lock with simple twist collars at each junction which are actually quicker to use than anything short of flip-locks. In addition it comes with a fairly well designed quick release head—no fluid motion, but certainly smooth enough for use under a scope. The head, like those ill-famed video tripods, uses a single control as the pan handle and to lock lock vertical movement. I especially like the handle because it is short enough to get your eye up to the scope without puncturing a lung, and short enough to make packing the tripod easy. A second, much smaller, knob locks horizontal motion but you rarely need to tighten it. The amazing thing is that the tripod, under anything up to the 80 mm Pentax (with which I use it all the time) is not noticeably less stable than tripods weighing twice as much. Quite a feat! (You should note tha no tripod I have yet tested gives a stable view at 60x in any kind of wind, and that, again, at high powers, all tripods will show significant image movement every time you touch the scope.) The Junior is available in black from Nikon under their own label, and in regular aluminum from Manfrotto. Check it out. With the Fieldscope on top, it makes the smallest possible high performance birding outfit you are likely ever to find!

top to bottom: TV85, Pentax 80mm, TV Ranger, Nikon Fieldscope 60mm