Tele Vue 85: An Unconventional Scope

For many years the Tele Vue Ranger 70 mm ED scope has been the BVD Reference Standard for optical performance. The Ranger, at 70 mm, is brighter and sharper than any of the conventional 80 mm scopes I have tested, with the exception of the new Pentax 80 mm ED. You will note the word conventional in the last sentence. The implication, of course, is that the Ranger is unconventional, and that is certainly true. The Ranger is Tele Vue's attempt to fit their world-class astronomical optics into a package a birder is likely to be willing to carry into the field.

Ranger (left) and TV 85 (right, hood extended) both with 8-24mm zoom eyepiece

On the whole the Ranger is remarkably effective. It features a unique draw tube focus with a helical collar for finer movements. A draw tube is just what it sounds like. You simply slide one tube out of the other to make the scope longer and establish focus (yes, just like those brass telescopes in Moby Dick or Dances With Wolves). With a little practice you can get to rough focus in a fraction of a second, and the helical focus collar makes precise focus about as easy as it gets. The body, while still the overengineered solid metal, indestructible product typical of Tele Vue, is stripped down to save weight. The Ranger also has one of the most intelligently designed field cases I have ever had the pleasure to use. And the optical performance is nothing short of amazing. Whenever I have it in the field I get a line behind the scope—a line of people who want to see what the bird actually looks like. Tele Vue even has the excellent Vixen zoom (which looks and acts very like the Swarovski zoom), especially made up to their exacting specifications, and the combination makes a exceptionally fine birding instrument—so fine that it set the clear standard—until the Pentax 80 mm scope came along.

The Pentax is just a shade brighter in all situations, and their huge zoom is even better than Tele Vue's incarnation of the Vixen Then too, it is conventional scope, with the focus knob where you expect it, full waterproofing, and a relatively light weight composite body—much more user friendly in the field. I even have to wonder if the field cases weren't designed by the same hand—the Pentax field case is second only to the Ranger's for ease of use in the field.

Interestingly enough, the Pentax, like the Tele Vue, was designed around the eyepieces. Both Tele Vue and Pentax produce world-class astronomical eyepieces and their scopes are designed to use them. When the review of the Pentax scope came out, Al Nagler, chief designer and president of Tele Vue, was in contact immediately. He was not, of course, happy that any scope had surpassed the optical magnificence of the Ranger and was eager to have me take a look at their new 85 mm scope and a new set of high performance eyepieces.

You see the Tele Vue 85 in all its considerable glory in the photos at the top and above (in comparison to the Ranger). The 85 is a no-compromise Apochromatic astronomical scope, one of the finest ever made for looking at almost anything in the night sky.

Apochromatic: fully corrected for all chromatic aberration, which means that all of the color fringing, the rainbowing that effects all glass lenses, has been eliminated by the careful selection of glass and the design of the several elements of the objective lens. Apochromatics produce the purist colors possible in any optical image.

Astronomical scopes don't, of course, have to take weight and size into as much account as birding scopes. A little extra mass only adds to their stability on the massive tripods they are used with. Then too, the focus is generally relatively slow and exceptionally precise, since the stars and planets are not going to leap off the branch and fly out the field anytime soon. Note the 85's large focus wheels (no they are not, as you may have assumed, wheels for carting the thing around). And, while field of view is important for those studying deep sky objects (clouds of glowing gas or concentrations of stars), it is not nearly as important as it is for birders trying to find and follow moving birds.

That said, the Tele Vue 85 is designed to be portable. One of the constraints of today's astronomy is that most of us have to travel to find dark skies. Given that, there is a move to more compact and transportable scopes. The 85 is right on the edge of what it might be possible for a really dedicated birder to carry into the field. It weighs, according to my bathroom scale (using the weigh yourself, weigh yourself holding the scope, subtract method), just under nine pounds with the zoom eyepiece, and, with the focus tube and the lens hood completely retracted, is 22 inches long. For comparison the Pentax, even with its considerably larger zoom, weighs about 3 pounds and is 19 1/2 inches long. The 60 mm Nikon Fieldscope comes in at two pounds and 13 inches long. What that means is that the Fieldscope with the Junior Tripod weighs at least four pounds less than, and takes up not much more space than, the Tele Vue 85 all by itself.

You might think that the next thing I am going to say is the you will need an equally massive tripod under the Tele Vue, making the whole thing impossible to carry in the field. Fortunately, however, the Tele Vue is superbly balanced and its mass actually lends stability to any tripod you use with it, making any of the standard Bogan/Manfrotto tripods and heads (with the exception of the Junior, who's head, I don't think would be up to the continuous strain) quite effective. With a set of 3025 legs and a standard pan head the 85 package weighs about 12 pounds and is exceptionally stable in the field. A pound can be saved by using the 1.25 inch Everbright diagonal instead of the 2 inch diagonal I tested (though that would make it impossibe to use the big 2 inch mount eyepieces like the 22 mm Nagler Type IV discussed below).

Okay, so why would anyone even think of carrying such an elephant into the field after birds? I mean, 12 pounds might as well be a ton by the end of a two mile hike or three hours into a CBC.

Simple answer: the view! You will note here that I did not say "the ability to make IDs at greater distances," or "the ability to make IDs where other scopes would fail." The fact is that I doubt you would ever find yourself in a situation where the extra resolution and brightness of the 85 would make a difference in your ability to identify a bird. (A possible exception would stationary birds at very great distances, on days with very still and very clean air, where the ability to go to powers above 60x could make a difference.) No, the issue here is not identification level detail. The issue is the view—the shear beauty of the living bird, at any distance between 10 feet and half a mile, as seen through Tele Vue 85.

the business end: 85mm objective vs. Ranger's 70mm

As I have said before, the 60mm Nikon Fieldscope will show you all the detail you need to see, from 20 to 60x with the new zoom. By that I mean that it shows enough detail to identify and enjoy any bird you are likely to see in the field. And, believe me, I demand a high level of detail beyond what is necessary merely to identify the bird to enjoy it. I want to see something very close to the living bird. I want to be able to appreciate in inner architecture of the feather patterns—to see, at reasonable distances, the individual barbs on the feathers, even the breast feathers. I want the color to absolutely precise and as subtle in its shading and tones as it would be if I walked right up and held the bird in my hand. Again, at anything out to 60x, scopes like the Nikon Fieldscope or the Pentax 80 mm ED or the Tele Vue Ranger (or the Swarovski or the Leica or the Kowa or the Bausch and Lomb or the Swift 80 mm scopes, for that matter) will show all the detail I need to see.

The Tele Vue 85 goes beyond need. The 85 shows, at any distance and any power, right out to the limits of daylight viewing, all the detail, I am convinced, that there is to see. In direct comparison with the finest scopes on the market, the Tele Vue 85 consistently shows a brighter, more subtly detailed, image of the bird. You can see things in the Tele Vue's image that just aren't there in the Pentax 80 mm or the Nikon Fieldscope. You can see things in the 85's image that aren't there in the Ranger. In the testing situation pictured above on the Kennebunk Plains, the detail was especially evident in the breast feathers of the hawk. All of the scopes clearly showed the feather pattern of the breast. The 85 showed individual feathers. At closer range, the 85 is the equivalent of a long range microscope, showing more detail than you could possibly see with the naked eye, even at 25x. At 75x, you can see the lice crawling in the feathers (no, not really, but you can easily see feather dander and frayed barbs on cooperative birds).

22 mm Nagler Type 4 in its massive 2 inch mount,
zoom in adapter for comparison.

The 85 is, again, basically an astronomical scope designed around its eyepieces, and Tele Vue makes some of the finest astronomical eyepieces on the market. The 8-24mm zoom is only surpassed by the massive Pentax zoom (the Pentax is a shade brighter when used on the Tele Vue 85 than Tele Vue's own zoom—if I were investing the TV 85, I would have to carefully consider which zoom eyepiece I wanted with it).

Tele Vue's fixed power eye pieces are second to none. The 85 features a full 2 inch eyepiece mount, which means that it can use the supersized eyepieces like the Nagler Type 4 22mm (providing a 27x view). The 22mm Nagler has to be seen to be believed, and so does its view. The view is wide, bright, sharp, and detailed. It is as close to walking 27 times closer to the bird as you are going to get, and, due to its size, it is extremely easy to look through.

Part of the reason for the 85's overall brightness, besides the obvious advantage of an 85 mm objective, is the coating on the huge mirror diagonal that bends the light around 90 degrees to reach the eyepiece. The mirror, as well as being (did I say already) huge, is coated with a special 99% high reflectance coating to reflect every erg of energy to your eye.

In addition to the picture window view of the 22 mm Nagler I had a chance to test three eyepieces from the new Radian line. Again, these are eyepieces designed for the demanding astronomical market—relatively high power eyepieces with the widest possible field of view and exceptionally long eyerelief. I tested the 12 mm, the 8 mm and the 5 mm (50x, 75x, and 120x on the TV 85). I have to say these are impressive eyepieces. There is nothing of the pinched-in, squinty effect of most high power eyepieces. These are bright, wide, and almost effortless to use. With pop up, pop down eyecups they are a thoroughly modern, no-compromise design that complements the high quality optics of the 85's objective perfectly. They would bring out the best in any scope with a 1.25 inch eyepiece mount (standard astronomical size). The view of the hawk in the test setting above at 120x was spectacular: bright, sharp, and easy to look at—certainly pushing the limits of what is possible in daylight terrestrial viewing.

Of course, the TV 85 would make an ideal scope for the birder with a co-interest in astronomy. There are very few other scopes on the market that bridge the full range of optical utility from sparrows to galaxies as well as the Tele Vue 85. I will certainly be packing the 85 when I take a group to Acadia National Park this month, for those storm driven pelagics, but also just in case we get a dark sky I can't resist. With the proper camera mount, the 85 would also make an exceptional 600, f7 telephoto lens. Tele Vue also sells a .8x converter/corrector for photographic use that makes the 85 into a wide field 480 mm f5.6 lens.

the back end: compare the size of the mirrors and the very different approach to focusing in the 85 (left) and the Ranger (right).
120x, 75x, and 50x Radian Eyepieces: as good as it gets
The Tele Vue 85 kit: case with an assortment of eyepieces

So, to sum all this up, the Tele Vue 85 easily sets a new standard for optical performance in a scope compact enough (barely) to take into the field after birds. Would I carry it? Probably not. At 11 or 12 pounds with a usable tripod it is just too heavy. On the other hand, if I were going, for instance, hawk (or Grasshopper Sparrow) hunting on the Kennebunk Plains, or shore birding on Bolivar Flats, or looking for pelagic birds blown in close by a storm off Two Lights—anywhere I could set it up within 100 yards of the car—then I would definitely pack it and a full range of eyepieces or whichever zoom (Tele Vue or Pentax) I ended up with. If I was out to wow a group of new birders, or to make that definitive ID of a local mystery bird—or just to impress a group of jaded birding friends—then I can't think of an instrument more likely to light up a birder's eyes and mind, novice to expert. If I had an afternoon to just study birds from a stationary location—to really look and enjoy the incredible beauty of the living birds—then the Tele Vue 85 would be the scope I took with me. And, even now, every time I look at a bird through one of the exceptional conventional spotting scopes I have to use, I will be thinking: "I wonder what this would look like through the Tele Vue 85? I wonder what this bird really looks like?"

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