Zeiss Victory Harpia 85, a brilliant spotting scope with smidgens of imperfection: Equipment Reviews

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

Some favourable alignment in the heavens (I expect), and Zeiss India’s excellent customer service, had me in possession the Zeiss Victory Harpia 85mm, their absolute premium offering in their range of spotting scopes, for a few days recently. My expectations were high, given Zeiss’s reputation for making stellar optics for nature observation and my own experience as a user of their 10×42 Victory T-FL binoculars. My first views through the scope were as per expectation – crystal clear, crisp views of backyard birds, including the richly coloured Indian Golden Oriole and the striking Loten’s Sunbird, both relatively rare visitors to this space, among commoner subjects like Coppersmith Barbet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Rufous Treepie. The images were tack sharp in the centre of the view, as one would expect of such high-end optics and while not quite as saturated or contrasty as the view through my Zeiss Victory T-FL binoculars, the colours were pleasingly natural, with no evident bias in colour temperature. It was effortless to discern the subtle colour variations and structural differences in feathers of various backyard birds, the intricate details of veins on the leaves of a Peepal Tree, the subtle variations in the buff, brown and grey tones on the Three-striped Palm Squirrel, the nuances of the head scale arrangement on an Oriental Garden Lizard – all pointing to the scope’s ability to resolve fine detail at various magnification settings. The views were also amply bright (more on this later) and with adequate shadow detail (upto dusk/in high contrast situations). All told, this was easily one of the finest optics I have had the pleasure to look through. However, I had not yet discerned that special view that elevated it from a mere observation tool into something subliminal.

For consistently magical views though, it took a trip from my backyard to a regular birding haunt, around a countryside lake surrounded by tall grassland and scrub. The scope really shone in this open habitat when its super wide field of view (63m-21m at 1000m across the 22x-65x zoom range, with a consistent 72° apparent field of view through the zoom range), became (oh so much) more than just useful. Whether it was watching a pair of Common Kingfisher or a White-eyed Buzzard, perched against the wide open, shimmering lake, a family of Little Grebe dabbling in the bright grey waters of the lake, Purple Heron on their hunting forays, tip-toeing against the background of tall grasses, subjects placed in the context of these wide-open spaces, popping out 3D like from the background,  resulting in engrossing images accompanied by the sounds of nature, only interrupted by an inner voice which kept repeating the term “wow”.  Then there are practical upsides to this wide field view, including the ease with which one can follow flying birds, like terns, with minimal panning or having surprise visitors emerge into view, as has happened to me, in one memorable example, of a glorious, male Red Munia appearing into the view, while I was looking at a detail-rich view of a Plain Prinia, allowing me to enjoy this attractive spectacle just by turning the focus ring. This environment also allowed for testing the ability of the scope in highly backlit situations, where, for example, I was duly impressed when I could make out the faint suffusion of yellow on the throat of a Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, perched on a wire about a 200m away, heavily contrasted against a bright sky. Another situation where the scope proved invaluable was when I visited a brackish lake and the ease with which I could make out patterning/markings on the wings/body/face, the colour of the legs/beak, the plainness (or lack of) of the underparts etc, of distant waders, most in non-breeding plumage, all nuances vital for identifying this group of birds – more vindication for the scope\’s ability to resolve fine detail.

Unsaddled by the zoom mechanism, the eyepiece is compact and easy to look through

Ergonomically, this full size, seemingly robustly armoured, weighty but well-balanced (I could handhold quite easily for short bursts of viewing), waterproof scope was a very easy to look through, with or without eyeglasses, with a fair latitude for the angle of the eye placement. A novel design on the scope body, incorporates the focus mechanism adjacent to the zoom, making it convenient to use both features with one hand, while looking through the compact eyepiece. The focus ring is geared, allowing for an intuitive to use quick and fine focussing mechanism based on the speed at which you turn to ring. Barring the tightness of the zoom ring (which I expect, will ease over time), the scope was so easy to use (especially mounted on the Manfrotto MVH502AH fluid head, which balances the scope perfectly and allows for ultra-smooth panning movement, and a robust tripod), that the physical set-up was barely noticeable, as should be the case, allowing me to enjoy the scope\’s stellar optics, unfettered.

The the zoom and focussing rings are conveniently placed next to each other

All, however, was not perfect, and this scope displayed a few optical imperfections as well. For example, edge sharpness at its widest magnification suffered noticeably, and there was evident chromatic aberration towards the edges as well. However, as wide as the field of view is and as far into the edges that these imperfections occurred, it never really practically affected my viewing experience in any situation I found myself in. Also both chromatic aberration and edge sharpness improved with increasing magnification, the former virtually disappearing at some point. There was a smidgen of chromatic aberration, even in the centre of the view, in such extreme situations, such as viewing an all black, male Asian Koel against a bright, white background, but this too showed only at the widest magnification.  However, perhaps the biggest limitation of the scope could be that its maximum exit pupil diameter is limited to 2.5mm, due to some quirk of design, the physics of that I do not understand, rather than closer to 4mm, as should have been the theoretical limit based on specifications (85mm objective and 22x widest magnification)*. While this was bright enough for everything I used this device for, I can imagine scenarios where I would miss that extra light reaching my eyes, such as when looking to id a bittern, amidst reeds, at the cusp of darkness or while observing a crepuscular mammal blending into its dark environment. For someone consistently using their scope where light is a limiting factor, perhaps other choices would make sense, but this would mean missing out on that brilliant 3D rendition within an encompassing wide field of view, on most other occasions, taking nature observation from the practical to the sublime, that this scope excels at.

*I understood that the aperture of the scope widens with increasing magnification, making use of the full 85mm objective from about 35x or so, making the absolute light gathering ability of scopes equivalent to its theoretical limits at higher magnifications, and hence comparable to any other scope of similar specifications beyond this threshold.

Disclaimer: I have fairly limited experience looking through premium spotting scopes, barring the Swarovski ATM 65mm with the 20-60x eyepiece, which my cousin (very kindly) loaned me for a few years. This was a very good scope, but never gave me that wow factor from its optics, which I have had the privilege of experiencing while looking through a couple of binoculars, especially – the Zeiss 8×32 Victory T-FL and the Nikon 8×32 SE. My current scope, a Pentax 65 EDA-II with a  Pentax 14mm XW eyepiece, provides a wide (fixed 28x), sharp, colour neutral image in good light, but has obvious limitations while observing backlit subjects or in fading light, as well as the finicky eye-placement it demands to enjoy the full image circle. I have never really looked through ultra-premium scope offerings Leica, Swarovski, Kowa, Nikon and the like, and as such have no basis for comparison for my experiences through this scope. Also, this is meant as a non-technical, end-user review of the scope and all impressions are subjective, as seen through the eyes of a keen nature enthusiast.

The travails of spotting scope shopping in India

A series of events, all associated with a search to upgrade my fairly good, compact, Pentax spotting scope to a full size model, with higher quality optics, led to Zeiss India kindly loaning me this Harpia scope. Based on reviews online, I had narrowed down my choices to Vortex Razor HD 27×65 85mm, Nikon Monarch 20x-60x 82EDa Fieldscope and the Zeiss Gavia 30x-60x 85mm, all mid-range full size scopes, with reputedly comparable optics, with only the variation in price, seemingly, a factor to consider. Vortex does not seem to market their scopes in India and Nikon does not market this particular model in our country. While Nikon does seem to be marketing their ultra-premium, albeit dated ED Feildscopes here, their unresponsive sports optics marketing division here put paid to any plans I had for considering these. Only Zeiss India, with their proactive marketing team, and quite excellent customer service as it turned out, got in touch and promised delivery of the Gavia within a reasonable timeframe, loaning me a demo piece of the Harpia, when delivery of the former was delayed due to COVID lockdowns in Germany. Another option I seriously considered, although priced higher than these offerings, was the Swarovski ATS models with their choice of wide-angle or traditional eyepieces. Here again I hit a stumbling block, when I found the local authorised dealers less than helpful with information about delivery times etc. The only premium spotting scope that I found readily available at the time of looking, was the Leica Televid 82mm (straight) with the 25x-50x, through the Leica India Store and their helpful staff  promised delivery of the angled version in 3-4 weeks (as tempting as this was, I had to pass, given that this was well outside my budget). I suspect India is on the cusp of becoming a large market for good quality binoculars and spotting scopes and it would be really useful for end users like us to have the ability to walk into a store, try a demo unit, before making a purchase decision or at least have an opportunity to interact with a well informed sports optics marketing team during the process (written in hope that someone reading is incharge of such decisions!).

For those interested, we have also written up a piece titled “Binoculars for Nature-Watchers“, which introduces the nuances of choosing binoculars for this activity, as well as de-jargonises some of the language in this article.

Digiscoping with the Iphone SE 2020 (no adapters*)

I found this set-up adequate to capture record shots, by placing the Iphone SE 2020 camera on the eyepiece without adapters, especially with the scope parallel to the ground or pointing upwards. While pointing downwards I had to manoeuvre the subject off-centre on the scope to get the subject on the phone camera, as the phone camera’s lens did not capture the entire field of view through the scope. There was also little areas of distortion or black-outs in the image, which, however, mostly occurred only the edges, hence rendering a good % of images usable/adequate for uses like bird id or to for publishing on the internet (by cropping out the distortions). Some example images (all cropped to at least half the original size), with this set-up, below:

Gray Heron
Jerdon’s Bushlark
Whimbrel
Asian Koel
Brown Shrike

Zeiss India mentioned that they were coming up with dedicated digiscoping adapters for the Harpia, at which point I expect this sort of set-up to more than just passable for wildlife photography.

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