Join Date: Dec 2002
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Celestron Trailseeker 80 - First Impressions
I haven't noticed a large amount of information out there on this particular scope so I thought I would share my first impressions of it as a bird viewing (rather than digiscoping) scope. I'll post a more detailed review in the equipment section later once I have a chance to put it through its paces more thoroughly.
I picked up the trailseeker as an upgrade to my existing scope - a dinky little Kowa TS-501 50mm travel scope which was my first scope and has been my only scope for the last 16 years. It's showing its age and has never been really useable beyond about 30x magnification (and even then was very marginal) at any distance over about 50m. The final straw for it was finding the Tufted Duck at Werribee, where the difference between my scope, my father's Kowa TSN-821 and some of the other scopes I cadged a look through (Vanguards, Bushnells, Kowas etc…) was just too much for me to take anymore. Being on a $15 tripod that had been repaired multiple times with coathanger wire and fishing line meant I needed a new tripod too.
So I needed an upgrade and my birthday was coming up, but had a number of constraints. First and foremost was budget: $600 AUD (mortgage, kids' cocurricular needs, earning power all made this the maximum) for both scope and tripod, which puts most of the higher end scopes and bigger/bigger name tripods out of my reach. Secondly, I've had to lug my father's scope and tripod (a heavy duty swarovski jobby) around to get out to prime watching points (5km hikes in some instances) and at 6 kg combined weight, that is more than I want to carry for any real distance. The third "constraint" is versatility - bird photography is not my thing, but I still wanted the option of taking consistent ID shots (not random hand-held pictures with the phone's camera that may or may not be half-black and blurry through hand-shake) and possibly videos as well; I also like to look at the stars when I'm out camping, so a scope that could double up would be handy.
In the end, I narrowed it down to a Celestron Ultima 80 (around $400 AUD), an Acuter 80 (around $350 AUD), a Saxon Precision 80 (around $300), a Bushnell Trophy Extreme 80 (around $440) which would leave enough to get a tripod for around $180. The trailseeker retails for $600 AUD here, which took all my budget leaving none for the tripod. So why am I writing about the Trailseeker then? Long story short, scopes in the USA, even after currency conversions, tax and shipping are taken into account, are significantly (as in hundreds of dollars) cheaper than in Australia, so I picked up a Trailseeker 20-60x 80 for less than the price of its lower-specced cousin the Ultima, and even after getting the tripod, it came in under budget and arrived in less than a week (from half a world away! - with internal post in Australia I would have been waiting for at least as long, and probably longer).
I finally got to set it up this weekend just been and have had a little play with it - no serious birding because I was in bushland/farmland and the longest sight-line I had was about 100m (330 ft) up from the valley floor to the gum trees in the top paddock.
Build: It feels solid, but not heavy (polycarbonate innards instead of aluminium I think). It didn't feel like a toy or a cheap instrument; there is no flex in the body and the rubberised armour is firmly attached. The foot is small, but well positioned for balance - although when a camera is attached it would have been nice to have had the sliding balance bar that comes with the Trialseeker 100 as it became quite eyepiece heavy with a DSLR attached. The rotating feature of the foot holds its position with no give or wobble and was easy to loosen and tighten. The sliding lens-shade holds its position and doesn't have any lateral 'give' when extended. A nice feature for travelling with it is the screw on aluminium eyepiece cover which envelops the entire eyepiece assembly protecting it from knocks and which feels very robust. The 80 is a large scope and gives the impression of being large when you look at it.
Initial viewing: Well, to say it is several steps up from what I had previously would be somewhat of an understatement. The brightness! The clarity! The edge-to-edge focus! The ability to see colour beyond 30x magnification! So I was coming from a fairly low base. At 20x magnification, it is very bright, colours appear vibrant and true-to-life, it is a sharp image edge-to-edge, with no visible to the eye pincushioning or distortion in the plane of focus. I did notice that out-of-focus foreground objects became quite distorted at the edges, even though point-of-focus and behind-focus objects weren't. It was weird; the background objects blurred out but kept their relationship to the plane-of-focus, but foreground tend to bend and warp at the edge of the field of view. I have no idea why, and it wasn't distracting - I only noticed it because I was staring at the edges looking for distortions.
At 30x on high contrast (white branches against a blue sky in the summer sun) there is some purple fringing if you pay attention, but I needed to be looking for it to see it. At 40x, it was a bit dimmer than 30x and a bit more purple. At 60x, the narrow depth of field made it difficult to judge the edge-to-edge focus, but it was not noticeably out of focus. The purple fringing was visible on high contrast, but not on low contrast edges and did not overwhelm the image. On a Black-faced Cuckooshrike against the sky (pale grey, almost white plumage) when I looked for it, it was clearly apparent, but did not detract from the colours (which overall were less vibrant) and did not intrude on the identification or on delineation of edges. It wouldn't be any good at 60x for someone whose primary purpose was photography, but for bird watching it was a very good, very useable image. The glass is fully multi-coated with Celestron's XLT coating (which is meant to be better than the coatings on the Ultima), but isn't ED glass (which the next-level-up Regal has).
I did a side-by-side with my father's scope which is a TSN-821 with a 32x WA lens, with mine set on 30x magnification. The trailseeker compared favourably - slightly better edge-to-edge focus, but narrower field of view. Both had good colour and resolution, but the Kowa had a warmer (warmer than naked eye) colour cast. Purple fringing was minimal on both. No complaints from me there, but I may need to invest in a WA eyepiece somewhere later down the track.
Back in Melbourne, I was able to do some viewing of the night sky - about 1 1/2 hours after sunset. The light pollution here is horrible, so it wasn't a real test of the scope, but two things stood out. 1) for a spotting scope, it was relatively easy for me to find objects at 20x magnification. The field of view is enough to allow me to point in the general direction and then search to the object - better than some previous scopes I've tried this with. And 2) The views through it were decent enough for an 80mm scope; I could resolve the Trapezium in Orion's Nebula, see the individual colours of the stars in the Jewelbox cluster and sight Ruby Crucis at 20x and at 60x magnification. It has nothing on the 10" dobsonian reflector I am used to using, but for packing in the back of the car for a camping trip away from the light pollution, it should do just fine for Messier objects and planets. The ability to use astronomical eyepieces could also come in handy here.
The scope did well to pick up detail and colour in areas of gloom. I was in direct summer sun looking into an undergrowth area 10m away at a sub-adult Satin Bowerbird where I could only see movement/shape and no colour with the naked eye. I was able to see feather colour and edges to feathers, eye colour and the colour of the objects the Bowerbird was picking up from 20x up to 60x magnification. But to give it a proper workout I need to have a predawn or dusk session to see how it works when everything is gloomy.
Focussing and zooming: I really like the dual-focussing knob. It worked smoothly on coarse focussing with just the index finger. The fine-focussing moves with it, is easier to turn and neither has any slack to take up when focussing. There were no catches or grinding at any point on its travel from close to far focus. Two issues - it needs refocussing every time the magnifaction changes; and the stay-on-case is not well designed and interferes with the focussing knob unless fully unzipped.
The advertised minimum focussing distance is 7.4m. I measured my scope in at just on 5m for its closest point of focus.
The eyepiece zoom is light-to-the touch, but to be frank it feels a bit cheap. There is some slack and it feels a little grainy. It doesn't appear to be an issue but I don't know how reliable or sturdy it will be down the track. Having said that, the eyepiece itself is a rigid structure - the zooming is internal to the eyepiece. The eye-cup is a hard plastic twist up/down type instead of a rubberised cup. I found that as I changed magnification, I also needed to change the height of the eye-cup to maximise the view. Fully-out at 20x and half in at 60x gave me optimal viewing.
I had a quick go at attaching an SLR using the T-mount adapter (there is an adapter you screw on to the eyepiece that has M42 threads that you attach your personal T-adapter to). Unless you have a t-mount that you can alter the orientation of the bayonet fitting relative to the internal thread, your camera may well be mounted at an interesting angle to the eyepiece. I do have a t-mount that can do that, but it is significantly thicker than my one without that function, and this introduced some vignetting at lower magnifications. But, you can use it to take pictures. I haven't included any here because they aren't particularly good, but that is a product of my camera technique rather than the scope. Focussing and metering with my particular camera require skills and techniques that I need to practise. Suffice to say, the pictures weren't much chop, but they were consistent and better than holding my phone to the eyepiece. Purple fringing on the high contrast areas was more noticeable on the photos than in viewing, but that may have been partially a product of my inability to focus properly. I need to play around with this a lot more before commenting further.
So yes, those are my first impressions. From that limited play, it is a better scope than I was expecting to get. The ease of use, the quality of the build and the quality of the image for a watcher (not a photographer) are in excess of what I thought I would get. I would have been happier with less, so I'm extremely happy with the more that I have. I should be able to take it out for a field test this weekend, and should get down to Werribee in a fortnight's time to give it a serious workout.