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Zeiss Victory Harpia 85mm Scope Review

I’ve had readers write and ask why I don’t review spotting scopes. Often the answer surprises them: it’s not some disdain for terrestrial viewing, but a lack of time and money. Actually, I’ve long wanted to try out a really good spotter for astronomy.

So when the opportunity arose to test Zeiss’ latest and best scope - the Harpia – I jumped at it. I’ve tested the Harpia the way I usually do bino’s, but for astronomy like a telescope too. Read on to find out how a premium scope fares when taken outside its comfort zone on the night sky...

At A Glance

Magnification

22-65x zoom

Objective Size

85mm

Eye Relief

13mm measured, but feels like 15-16mm with my specs, see below.

Actual Field of View

63.2 – 21.0 m / 1000m

Apparent field of view

72°

Close focus

~3.2m

Transmissivity

88%

Length

~420mm with eyepiece and lens shield retracted.

Weight

1935g w/o eyepiece

Data from Zeiss/Me.

What’s in the Box?

The Victory Harpia gets a long, thin version of Zeiss’ premium Victory binocular box, with a magnetic catch, a thick foam lining and ... a huge image of a Harpy Eagle (of course!)

Zeiss’ Victory packaging now has a uniform style.

All you get in the box is the Harpia ...

... the Harpia eyepiece is sold as an accessory.

Design and Build

Zeiss currently have two lines of spotting scopes – Victory Harpia and Gavia. The Harpia comes in 95mm and 85mm apertures and is Zeiss’ premium scope, part of a range of top-end German-made products under the ‘Victory’ label. The Gavia comes under the mid-price Conquest sub-brand and is made in Japan.

Zeiss have thrown everything at the Harpia, including multiple FL glass elements, to create a cutting-edge scope with a broad zoom range, an extremely close near focus and a wide field of view at all magnifications.

The technology to deliver such a leading range of abilities doesn’t come cheap, though: the eyepiece alone is more than many mid-priced scopes. That said, plenty of other brands – not all as prestigious as Zeiss – do sell scopes in the Harpia’s price range.

If you’re used to scopes from those other brands, the Harpia has an unusual feature. Zoom control is on the body, not the eyepiece, so there is currently only one eyepiece available for both 85mm and 95mm models.

Zeiss Harpia is part of a range of premium products under the ‘Victory’ label (here with 10x42 Victory SFs).

The Harpia isn’t much larger or heavier than this 60mm astro’ scope (a Takahashi FOA-60).

The cheaper, Japan-made Gavia 85 for comparison.

Body

First impressions? I was surprised at how small and light the Harpia 85 is, much lighter than my Tele Vue 85 for example, at just under 2 Kg. Despite this, it’s actually quite a bit heavier and longer than the Gavia 85 (see above). Still, pulling it from its foam-lined box, the Harpia felt almost insubstantial compared to a typical Astro’ telescope.

Zeiss are coy about what the Harpia is made of for some reason, but given how light it is I’m guessing either a reinforced composite like the old FL range of binoculars, or perhaps magnesium like the Gavia.

Used as I am to astronomical telescopes from the likes of Tele Vue, Takahashi and Astro Physics, the Harpia’s outward appearance seemed almost ... well, a little plasticky really, whilst also feeling much more like a mass-market consumer product (a camera maybe) than most telescopes I review.

Closer inspection reveals excellent fit and finish, though, with smooth black armour on top and a nicely textured area at the back/bottom for grabbing the scope to move it about. I did notice that the smooth part of the armour is quite prone to nail scratches and marking.

At the front is a sliding dew-shield/sun-shade that clicks out with a refined and smooth action. At the other end is a port with a bayonet fitting for the eyepiece, with an optical component (prism or possibly lens) sealed into the base of it, so there’s no way for water or dust to enter the scope body.

Despite its light weight, the Harpia is nitrogen filled and waterproof to 400 mbar, same as their binoculars (and the cheaper Gavia too). I didn’t test it to that degree, but it survived heavy rain with no problems. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a great feature for astronomy: in showery weather I wasn’t worried about leaving the Harpia out.

Focuser

The Harpia’s focuser is unusual, at least for me, so I’ll go into some detail for any other Zeiss scope neophytes out there.

The focuser is the broader of the two deeply-ribbed rings that encircle the scope at the back, the narrower one behind it being the 3x zoom control.

The focuser has a dual-speed feature built into the single ring: large movements make coarse focus shifts and smaller movements fine ones. The fine focus part has a very light touch indeed and very fine adjustment. When you reach the coarse part of the focuser travel, you feel a slight ‘bump’ in the action and the action becomes heavier as coarse focus engages.

This two-speed mechanism mostly works well by day, and the snappy optics do really need a fine focus to nudge them in.

Especially at night, though, and sometimes during the day too, I found the dual-speed function made the focuser frustrating to use: I’d focus through then back up, only for the focus point to have moved because I’d gone through the fine/coarse threshold without realising it. There’s a definite learning curve here.

There seems to be quite a lot of focus travel, but that’s because close focus is a simply outstanding feature of the Harpia – I measured 3.2m across the whole zoom range (Zeiss conservatively claim 3.5m), at which it is absolutely tack sharp across the field. Wow. It’s a fabulous feature and allows the Harpia to function as a long-distance microscope.

I left the Harpia out for some hours in temperatures around freezing, to see if the focuser and/or zoom would stiffen up. They didn’t.

Focuser is the wider front ring, 3x zoom control behind, twist to the left to zoom in.

Optics - Objectives

The fixed part of the objective appears to be a triplet comprising a single front element of crown glass, with a large air gap and then a cemented crown/flint doublet behind. I guess that the two crowns are premium ED glass: Zeiss claim “FL glasses and other specially formulated glass types”. It’s interesting to note that the cheaper Gavia also has “HD Optics” and two crown elements, but is not as perfectly corrected for false colour.

Well behind the Harpia’s objective proper are a focusing lens and then a separate zoom lens assembly. It’s a complex optical system.

The zoom control varies the objective’s effective focal length between about 165mm and 486mm (the eyepiece F.L. is fixed at 7.48mm), giving a focal ratio between F1.94 and F5.7.

~F2 is crazy fast by astro’ telescope standards, but false colour isn’t the problem you expect because it’s only that fast at the lowest power of 22x. At the top end, 65x in a F5.7 triplet doesn’t sound too challenging – familiar astro’ scope territory.

The pinkish T* coatings (a Zeiss trademark for almost a century) are very transparent and give an excellent overall transmission of 88%. The coatings also include Zeiss’ LotuTecTM water-repellent treatment that sheds rain and makes it easier to wipe away fingerprints.

In terms of stray light protection, the tube is painted matt black inside and has two knife-edge baffles, one immediately behind the objective. The lens ring is micro-ridge-baffled against veiling flare; but with the hood extended, flare shouldn’t be a problem anyway.

Zeiss’ signature T* coatings compared with a recent Canon/Optron lens (in a Takahashi FOA-60).

Look past the coatings to see the baffles and complex internals for the focuser and zoom optics.

Optics – Eyepiece

Unlike some other scopes, the Harpia shares a single fixed-focal-length (7.48mm) eyepiece with the 95mm model. The eyepiece is quite large and has a huge (31mm diameter), flat eye lens.

The eyepiece secures to the scope via a twist-lock bayonet fitting with solid metal blades that holds it very securely. You have to press in a button to twist and remove it. A trivial gripe is that the alignment dot is positioned between two of the bayonet blades and so hard to spot.

The downside of the integrated eyepiece approach is that you’re stuck with one eyepiece (at present anyway), whether you like its characteristics or not. This feels odd to a consumer of astro’ eyepieces. The big advantage is that the zoom control is much larger and more convenient than it could be if the eyepiece zoomed (much easier with gloves).

The zoom magnification range, 22-65x on the Harpia 85, is quite generous for a spotting scope. But if you’re not an astronomer, look away, because I have to point out that using interchangeable eyepieces in an 85mm astro’ scope would give a usable magnification range of ~10x to 200x (but with other limitations, of course).

The eyepiece is expensive for a non-zoom item. At around £500, well into Tele Vue Ethos territory, but with much less glass (and field width too). Here, the field is 72° - only moderately wide by astro’ eyepiece standards (which offer up to 110°), but the zoom maintains it across the whole range – both unusual and impressive (and a key difference with the Gavia).

Eye relief measures roughly 13mm from the rim of the eye cup and seems to maintain it across the zoom range. For those who view without glasses, the eye cup twists out and extends.

The eyepiece is not all good, though. The field isn’t perfectly corrected – sharp to the edge, it has rather more pin-cushion distortion than I’m used to in a telescope, presumably to avoid the globe effect when panning.

More problematic for me is the increase in false colour off axis, which is quite pronounced in high-contrast views, even at low power.

Interestingly, the Harpia’s optics are not locked in to this eyepiece - experiments with a Nagler (an 80° astro’ eyepiece) gave an excellent view. However, though the Gavia has a 1.25” astro’ eyepiece adapter for its bayonet fitting, the Harpia does not (at least that I can find).

Mounting

The Harpia has a built-in mounting ring. The tube can be rotated in the ring, having loosened a lock knob on the right side, in order to change the eyepiece angle (very handy for astronomy). It rotates smoothly, with click-stops and a refined weighty feel.

Attached to the ring is a mounting shoe that can function as a dovetail, but also has a standard ¼ - 20 thread for tripod mounting as an insert in a 3/8 thread.

I mounted the Harpia on a light Berlebach ash tripod with a matching head that took the Harpia’s size and weight perfectly, look good in a domestic setting (watching the boats sail by from your cliff-top hideaway maybe?), competing with Swarovski’s similarly-spec’d ATX Interior at a slightly lower price.

For serious field use, you might choose a carbon tripod and a heavier scope-specific head.

The Harpia 85 is compact enough to fit in a domestic setting.

Accessories

No case, or even objective cap, is provided. The eyepiece does come with a cap on a lanyard, though. You can buy a quality stay-on case as an accessory.

In Use – Daytime

Ergonomics

Eyepiece comfort is good with no troublesome blackouts, with or without specs. I can see all of the field with specs on, but only if I really push my specs into the eye cup, otherwise I lose a lot of the field.

Often the Harpia seems parfocal across its zoom range, an impressive feature. But puzzlingly, sometimes it is not. At first, I thought I was brushing the focuser ring whilst zooming, something that’s all too easy with numb fingers or gloves. But at other times I definitely didn’t brush the focuser ring and yet the focus point still shifted, usually when zooming in.

The Harpia is so compact and light, it’s not an issue to just pick it up and carry it on a tripod. But, as I pointed out before, for extreme portability you might choose the Gavia 85, which is smaller and lighter still.

The View

The view is typical of Zeiss at their best: bright, very high in resolution, with a cool-yet-natural colour balance that I particularly like; and sharp to the edge in a way that Zeiss binoculars are not (see below).

Optical quality is extremely high, esp. for a prismatic, zoom system. Plumage is delivered in startling, almost iMax fidelity: pin sharp and vivid.

Brightness is subjectively at binocular levels at low power (very similar to the 10x42 SFs I’m testing at the same time, in fact), when the Harpia’s exit pupil is binocular wide. So, at 22x, I can enjoy bride-white snowdrops pushing up through the leaf litter of my local copse on a very cloudy and dim day in late winter.

However, at 65x, daytime brightness does drop off a lot, both centre-field and slightly more at the edges. This is an observation not a criticism, but it does impact dusk viewing, see below.

Focus snap is the kind of absolute you only get with really excellent optics of any type. However, at the full 3x zoom (65x magnification), the Harpia does have a very shallow depth of field and a tiny focusing sweet spot, an absolute point: now, you really need that fine focuser (and ideally a very stable tripod) to find it.

1x zoom - 22x magnification.

3x zoom – 65x magnification.

Flat field?

As I noted above, the field is proverbially tack sharp edge-to-edge, even at minimum focus distance and maximum zoom, confirmed by viewing a meter rule 3m away.

There is, however, quite a bit of pin cushion distortion, probably to allow comfortable panning. Even so, panning does create some ‘rolling ball’ effect, more so than the Gavia, presumably due to the wider field.

Chromatic Aberration

My standard test of focusing through branches silhouetted against a bright but cloudy sky reveals almost zero false colour from the objective. The Harpia is significantly better than the Gavia in this respect.

I usually do this test at 100x, but it’s still impressive at 65x - better than a Tele Vue TV-85, for example, with just a slight tinge of green one side, purple the other.

But considered as an integrated system with the eyepiece, it’s not as perfect. There is lateral colour both off-axis and when moving eye position, sometimes quite a lot.

What does this mean in practice? Watching a crow in silhouette, at any power, it’s impossible to avoid some false colour fringing where black feather meets sky.

This snap reveals the Harpia’s pin-cushion distortion and lateral false colour.

In Use – Dusk

The Harpia 85 is bright at lower powers and works well into dusk. You could enjoy excellent 22x views in woodland right into early twilight. Veiling flare under a brilliant dusk sky is a non-issue with the sun-shade extended.

However, zooming in to view waders – Curlews and Oystercatchers - far out on the bay sands at twilight makes me realise that for high-power use at dusk, or for lower powers in deep twilight, you’d really need the Harpia 95.

In Use – Observing the Night Sky

General Observing Notes

One of my main goals in testing the Harpia was to see how a premium birding scope performs for astronomy, so I’ll spend some time going into detail. Just skip this section if you’re not interested!

Although the field shows some pincushion distortion (perhaps to enable non-emetic panning), stars remain points until the last few percent when a just a little astigmatism creeps in that wasn’t apparent by day.

Star testing a spotting scope isn’t really fair. Nonetheless, the star test looked good, with nice rings one side and slightly fainter ones the other. However, the in-focus Airy disk showed slight flare to one side, suggestive of very subtle misalignment. Again, this is no fault in a spotting scope.

One unexpected issue was that the maximum field of 4° sometimes made finding fainter targets challenging without a finder, more so than with binoculars that share your naked-eye line of sight. Still, the Harpia is much better than the Gavia, which has only 1.9° maximum at its lowest power.

That two-speed focuser, which mostly works well by day, occasionally made perfect focus seem vague and un-snappy (it isn’t). Another comfort issue was with the fixed, 45° eyepiece angle, which isn’t ideal for viewing near the zenith.

On the positive side, the ability to zoom in without swapping eyepieces turned out to be a great feature for astronomy.

Snap of the Moon taken through the Harpia at 65x with an iPhone X.

The Moon

A thick crescent Moon just before first quarter was a perfect, crisp and sharp world at 65x, with no false colour even focusing through the limb.  Light bleed into the dark space around was low too. A really wonderful view and a genuine surprise for me, but only after a few minutes of cooldown – just like any astro’ scope!

The Moon’s rugged topography, revealed in hard contrasty whites and greys, included a lot of detail – the slumped walls of crater Catherina near the terminator; the crater-filled southern highlands. Rima Ariadaeus cutting a black line of shadow through the highland terrain south of Mare Serenitatis, where a line of peaks south of crater Silberschlag (a German astronomer) were sending long and spiky dawn shadows westwards.

Later in the lunation, the day before full Moon, I enjoyed viewing the stripes in Aristarchus’ walls, ghostly Reiner Gamma, the central peak in nearby Marius and the peak in Pythagoras too, right on the terminator. Comparison with a perfect 60mm astro’-scope (Takahashi’s FOA-60) at 100x magnification suggested that resolved detail was much the same.

I would be very happy to use the Harpia myself for exploring the Moon. Is the view as good as a fine astronomical refractor? No, but it’s quite close.

Mars

The Red Planet at the end of an opposition period was the only planet around and only ~7 arcsecs in apparent size, a challenge for any telescope.

At 65x I was able to focus Mars into a tiny gibbous disk with a hint of a marking (just a dark speck) within it. I checked my app to be sure. I’d got lucky and hit a time when the most obvious surface feature, Syrtis Major, was in view.

But Mars was sloughing off a lot of stray light into the seeing, a sign of optics that struggle with its long wavelengths and something I’ve seen before – no issue, this is a spotting scope, after all.

Near an opposition I’d expect the Harpia to show surface markings on Mars – remarkable for a telescope with so much optical complexity.

Deep Sky

Despite a maximum field of view of 4° at 22x, the Harpia still frames a lot of larger clusters nicely. The Pleiades fitted perfectly in the field at 22x and looked their best – misty diamonds on velvet, just the way a fine astronomical refractor shows them. But I would have liked to zoom out to a slightly lower power.

Later in the night, the Beehive cluster showed its main stars as glittering pinpoints to the field edge, as only a fine refactor can, but went deeper to show masses of embedded fainter stars too.

The chain of clusters, M35 to M38, running up through Auriga, were properly resolved into starbursts at this aperture, likewise the Double Cluster and nearby Stock 2 and the Owl Cluster, sweeping from Perseus to Cassiopeia.

The Orion Nebula was a lovely sight, with sweeping arms of nebulosity and some whorls and clumps in the bright inner region: much the same view as through a Tele Vue 85. The field of view at 22x easily encompassed the whole of Orion’s belt, with lots of brilliantly sharp stars filling the field.

Zooming in on big and bright globular cluster in M3 in Boötes (no need to swap out eyepieces) began to resolve the misty ball into myriads of individual stars.

Castor split easily, but I failed to split Rigel which depends on a very clean Airy disk at high power.

The Harpia makes a surprisingly good astronomical telescope for Deep Sky and the Moon, a remarkable achievement for a birding scope even if it is less ideal for planets and doubles.

Zeiss Harpia 85 vs Tele Vue TV-85

The TV-85 is a compact astro’ telescope that also gets quite widely used for terrestrial viewing. How does the Harpia compare? For a start, the Harpia is a much more complicated device. The TV-85 is just a doublet in a tube with a rack-and-pinion focuser (more recent versions get dual speed).

The Harpia is much lighter, waterproof and more rugged. It will mount on an ordinary photo-head that the TV-85 would overload. Surprisingly, the Harpia also has less false colour from the objective system.

However, The TV-85’s ability to use any eyepiece allows it to pull ahead in many situations, day or night, potentially revealing more at higher powers and with a wider less aberrated view. But to realise the TV-85’s full potential, you would need to invest in several eyepieces and a diagonal.

Unless you’re just determined to have the very sharpest high-power view, you’d surely choose the Harpia for terrestrial use. For astronomy, you would undoubtedly pick the TV-85, unless trekking in to some remote spot to view.

Summary

In most ways the Zeiss Harpia 85 exceeded my expectations and then some. It does something I suspect would have been impossible even a decade ago: stunningly sharp, bright, flat-to-the-edge views from a few metres away (yes, even at 65x) to distant galaxies. You could use it as a long-distance microscope for flowers and insects, or as an astronomical telescope ... with a spot of birding in between!

Is the Harpia worth its high price, then? Absolutely!

I was so impressed with the Harpia it almost feels churlish to criticise it. But it isn’t perfect, so I must. The clever dual speed focuser mostly works well, but not always for me. The objective-eyepiece system which delivers many amazing things has a bit too much lateral false colour and pin-cushion.

The Harpia is obviously is its element on terrestrial targets, of which it delivers wonderful views. Would I buy one just for astronomy? Honestly, no, because there are better ways to spend the money. But the Harpia can certainly do astronomy, giving excellent lunar and deep sky views. One specific use case might be for astronomy at remote locations: no astro’ scope of this aperture is as light to trek with, or as rugged and waterproof.

The Harpia 85 is a remarkable bit of optical engineering. On a warm summer evening you could focus from a bee three metres away to the Moon and get a flawless view of both, stopping off at a watchful owl on the way. Highly recommended.

 

Buy Zeiss Harpia 85 from Wex here: