Swarovski ATX scope review

2013-05-02
Last autumn, we were delighted to receive the continuing support of Swarovski Optik. They have been providing us high quality optics to conduct our count, as always loaning their newest products. This time the package included a couple of EL50 10x and 12x Swarovision binoculars. A BRC review of this EL12x50 bin can be read here. Also several scopes were included, among them there was a real hidden treasure, one of their brand new ATX-spotting scopes. In advance, we were warned that Swarovski would launch a new revolutionary product in late summer and they might provide us one for a review. And what a revelation it is, the new modular wide zoom scope! But we had to keep it secret for a while, as the premiere and media launch should be theirs. Dale Forbes (Head of marketing at Swarovski Optik) confined us later it was the first of its kind that left Austria, the one shipped to BRC!

So there it was, the 85mm ATX-scope, first deployed on our little hill near Sakhalvasho, Georgia. 
The attentive blog follower might have noticed the odd-looking scope in one of our first season posts. And it was used, a lot! As we watch the skies almost continuously, from dusk till dawn, in good and bad weather, for two months long, we had plenty of opportunities and conditions to test it in. As you might know, we had a lot of challenging raptors to identify.
Below, we represent the main pro’s and con’s of this scope, inspired by the findings of our count coordinators and volunteers, who handled the scope.

Modular design

The new modular features is a huge change in design and reminds a bit of the lens and body setup in photography. The lens part has the focus ring and can be switched, with a 65mm, 85mm or 95mm version. Don’t be confused, this is not the focal lengths as in camera-lenses, but refers to the objective lens diameter. The higher, the more light that gets in. 

 

The body part combines the eyepiece and the zoom ring. When the two parts are put together, the focus and the zoom ring are right next to each other, and can be handled with one hand. The same body part fits all three lenses, so you can switch between them according to your needs. It gives a 25-60 magnification on the 65 and 85 modules, and a 30-70x on the 95mm. We were equipped with the 85mm, both in weight and light transmission intermediate, and with a magnification perfectly suited for the job.

Physics

In weight, the scope appeared light and in combination with the traveler carbon tripod a perfect combination. We are hiking up the hill daily and very much prefer light luggage. The length is, due to its modular design, shorter than usual and fits better in backpacks. The scope proved perfectly waterproof, even during heavy rains we had no problem at all, even when the scope wasn’t protected under our shelter. The front lens cap disappointed a bit, as after using it a lot of times, the coil spring got loose and we couldn’t use it anymore. It would be nice to have the protector cap fixed with a band like the cap for the ocular.

Zoom & focus

The zoom on the scope is the excellent. While the 25x magnification is perfect for scanning and counting distant streams of  birds, the 60x is essential to tackle the identification of individual raptors. And while zooming in between those magnifications, it is striking how large the depth of field is along the reach. The image stays sharp and bright till the maximum of the zoom, with little adjustment in focus needed. 

 

One hand use of focus and zoom appeared very handy. It enables you to adjust focusing when zooming in or out, while staying on the bird. This proved extremely convenient when watching thermal soaring raptors, when you notice an odd looking bird in a ‘kettle’ and can instantly zoom in and get in focus with one hand while using the other hand to follow the birds circling in the flock.  Most of us got used to it quickly and having the zoom right there made for quicker and more efficient zooming to get crucial IDs. To be able to handle the right ring when looking through the scope, there is a clear difference in tension between the soft focus and hard zoom. This makes it easier to keep the two apart, when handling them blind, but it also needs a firm hand. Smaller hands might find it a challenging factor to deal it with one single hand. 
 

 

The focus wheel to the contrary is soft and easy to adjust, with smooth and efficient focusing along the range with a twist of the wrist. Identifying or aging raptors sometimes needs a close look on single birds and their plumage details, and throughout the range the scope gives an amazing crisp and sharp image. Only at close distance it is difficult to adjust the focus only for few more meters on moving objects. Especially when fully zoomed in, the depth of field is a bit less (but still big compared to other scopes), then correct focusing becomes quite delicate.

Image and field of view

The overall image is very impressive, giving a colorful and natural view. The sharpness to the edge is stunning, with no differences from the center to the edge. The scope has a very broad field of view, even when zoomed. One always has to get accustomed with pointing a new scope, but with some practice, we found if fairly easy to catch raptors in the blue sky. In brightness the scope performs very well! Of course, this feature is helpful for accurate identification but in fact during an entire migration season in our region, the brightness is sometimes too much for the naked eye. Then a pair of sunglasses came in handy. The contrast was very noticeable on cloudy days with less sunlight or even back-lit. When once a dark falcon came over our station observation, we were able to correctly identify as an Eleonora's Falcon, because we were able to note the contrast between the wing feathers and the wing coverts only with the ATX scope. Most other scopes had problems to clearly show the contrast under these bad light conditions.

Overall, the team of Swarovski Optik has lifted their scope standards to an even higher level, as this is simply the best scope available at the moment! The one hand handling of both focus and zoom ring is revolutionary, while the view is among the brightest, flattest and sharpest available. Find out more on Swarovski's ATX-website.
We are looking forward for next season, where we will test the digiscoping opportunities these new scopes offer!