Olaf Soltau, a member of the New York Chapter of the Audubon Society, shared his experiences and opinion: “I use Swarovski EL 10x42s. But it took years before I felt ready to move up from 8x to 10x. For beginners, I always suggest 8x40. Think Goldilocks: not too strong, not too weak, not too heavy, not too flimsy. It's simply the best compromise. Higher magnification makes the image too shaky and the birds too hard to find, especially for beginning birders. Lower magnification simply doesn't bring the birds close enough. There are, of course, exceptions. 10x40s are OK if most birding takes place in wide open spaces like grasslands and coastlines, where the birds are often far away. I used 8x40s for years until my hand had gotten steady enough and my bird-finding-through-binos skills had become good enough for 10x40s. Another exception: People who don't have the physical strength to carry 8x40s around all day long can opt for 8x30s, but that means sacrificing image quality.”
Close focusing is key when trying to see detail on things like butterflies, wildflowers, and the like. Our pick gets as near as 6.5 feet, and though a few binoculars focused closer than that, several contenders didn’t get anywhere near getting near. The Nikon Prostaff 5, for example, couldn’t bring objects any closer than 16 feet into focus. We liked the Prostaff 5 as a budget pick, but we warn that they’re not for looking at butterflies or anything that requires getting ultra-close for detail.
The easiest way to tell if your binocular employs BAK4 or BK7 is to turn it around, hold it 6 to 8" away from you and look down the objective and observe the exit pupil. If you can see a squared-off side to the general roundness of the image, the binoculars have BK7 prisms. BAK4 prisms show a truer round exit pupil, which translates to better light transmission and edge-to-edge sharpness.
One aspect of binoculars often overlooked by birders is minimum focusing distance (or close focus). The binocular brings the distant bird visually closer to the birder for observation and analysis, but the Audubon Society’s Eric Lind is quick to point out that birding can easily involve looking closely at birds and insects that are relatively close to the observer. Having a close minimum focusing distance might give you an amazing close-up view of that feeding hummingbird or majestic butterfly. Binoculars with higher magnification will, in general, have longer minimum focus distances.
Whether you’re bird watching, hunting, or even just taking an exploratory hike in the wilderness, a good pair of binoculars is one of the most useful things you can bring along with you. Though they’re not immediately thought of as a necessity by those who don’t have a direct need for them, binoculars can provide some true entertainment and fascination in the outdoors. If the fishing is slow, for example, checking out the herons across the lake or scanning the treetops for hawks is a great way to pass the time waiting for a bite. But in order to use them for situations like the above, you first have a pair. And, as with anything else, you should always research binoculars before you buy them. Read on for an elementary guide to binoculars for the outdoors.
For the mechanics, Fujinon was the first company to have developed stabilization with high-speed gyroscopes and they brought this feature to market as the "Stabiscope" in 1980 with a 14X binocular. The design was improved and the Techno Stabi introduced in 1999 at price points that make it competitive with the Canon offerings. This stabilization approach works particularly well in adjusting for large movements, such as experienced with vessels on water, but also does admirably with smaller movements. Fujinon optics have earned their reputation for excellence and provide an above average crisp, clean, and bright viewing experience.
Look at your binoculars as a long-term investment. Unlike the latest electronic gizmos your binoculars won’t become obsolete in six months, and if properly cared for the view through them won’t deteriorate over time. A good pair of binoculars will keep delivering value week in week out, year after year for decades. More expensive binoculars are also made with better quality materials and to tighter production tolerances, and are built to cope with the rigours of life in the field.
Most standard tripods can be used, but because you are looking upwards, it does mean that the eyepieces will be in an awkward position. The best way to get around this is to use a chair and position yourself almost under the tripod. With traditional tripods this can be a little awkward as the legs often get in the way. I recently tested a Vanguard Alta Pro tripod that has an adjustable central column that you can effectively use to position your binoculars away from the center of the tripod (see image below) so you can more easily position yourself under your optics, which I found worked really well for astronomy. For more read my review of the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT Tripod.
The world of binoculars is vast and constantly evolving. No matter what you’re using them for—from a night at the opera to hunting on the tundra to comet watching—there is something for everyone at every price. This article has offered a basic introduction to the terms and technologies that will affect your buying decision and the overall performance of the optic. After making your selection, don’t forget about the accessories that can enhance your viewing experience and turn a good view into a great view.
We’ll finish off this list with a pair of binoculars with rangefinders that are a bit different than the other offerings above. The binoculars we’re discussing are ATN’s BinoX-HD, 4-16x. You might think they aren’t exactly a budget offering, but they’re very far from the premium ones by Nikon and Carl Zeiss. Factor in the functionality they offer, though, and you might be inclined to change your mind on the “budget” part. When you try to take a look at some traditional night vision devices online, you will find that many quality options tend to be upwards of $2,000. Many people don’t want to spend that amount of money on such a product, and you can’t really blame them. The BinoX-HD break that pattern, by providing Gen1 night vision, with a price that’s a fraction of the competition’s.
Seeing as all of the major manufacturers of optics have a pair or two of laser rangefinder binoculars, it’s no surprise that Nikon wants to be in that game as well. The LaserForce 10×42 is among their best offerings, but what really makes it stand out is the 1900 yards distance however, that number should be taken with a grain of salt. Even Nikon themselves mention that the number was achieved under their measurement conditions, and you might not be able to achieve the same in less-than-ideal conditions. Aside from that, its features and specifications are more or less on par with other premium offerings from that price range. Let’s take a better look at the specs.
The second thing you'll want to do is to focus on a bright star. Ideal astronomy binoculars will show it as a well-defined pinpoint of light with two or three concentric rings of light. In a binocular of average quality, it will not be sharply defined. To say it differently, it will be a bit fuzzy. A binocular of poor quality will show it as a fuzzy-edged pyramid or other odd shape. There are not many binoculars which achieve the ideal!
Think about how you will use your binoculars. If you are using them for the occasional stargazing but also want to take them along for trips and events, then you’ll be better off with lighter, more portable models. 10×50 Binoculars are great for watching the stars yet still easily carried around and used without a tripod. You will not have any issues with achieving a stable image. These will also be handy for general viewing, travel, bird watching, hunting, sports etc.
If you can afford them, as they do cost a pretty penny, they will give you clarity unmatched by anything else. When you’re looking at something, you’ll feel like you’re actually looking through your own eyes, and not through a pair of rangefinder binoculars. This is the best of the best, the crème de la crème, if you will. The premium optics have a multi-layer glass, and fluoride, which results in a lot of light being able to go inside the lens. You’ll be able to see objects right before it gets completely dark, with ease. That coating we mentioned is LotuTec, and it also plays a big role in the vividness of the image.
Binocular buyers are immediately confronted with several purchasing decisions. Not only are there numerous brands of binoculars on the market, they come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and feature options. B&H Photo writer Christopher Witt recently published an in-depth Binoculars Buying Guide that dives deep into what you will find on the shelves of the B&H optics department and on the SuperStore website when searching for a pair of binoculars. Luckily, if your mission is viewing birds, purchasing options can be narrowed a bit. For this article, we will focus here on what specifications birders should consider when binocular shopping, and not reproduce everything from Chris’s excellent article.
Looking at the basics, you’ll find that all binoculars come with a set of two numbers. They can be 7×42, 7×50, 8×42, 10×52 etc. This is a pretty important number with rangefinder binoculars, and any binoculars in general. The first number will tell you the magnification. For example, a 7×42 will show you objects 7 times closer than the naked eye. The second number tells you how big the objective lens is in mm. A larger objective lens lets in more light, and you’ll be able to see a brighter image. This could be especially beneficial in darker conditions. What you should know is that higher magnification will reduce the amount of light that’s available, and a large objective lens will make the binoculars large and heavy.
Higher power doesn’t necessary mean better bigger; the amount of magnification you’ll want depends on the end use. Low-powered binoculars from 6x to 10x magnification work great for most outdoor activities and sporting events where you’re keeping up with fast-paced action (a larger lens size and increased field of vision are also recommended for keeping up with the action). Higher magnifications are best for longer distances and less mobile objects, like landscapes or the night sky (and a larger field of vision is not necessary).
For outdoor activities like bird-watching, hunting or even viewing a sports game from a high-up stadium seat, these binoculars provide an excellent view. Top Ten Reviews lauds these binoculars for their durability and ease of use. "Add this to its unparalleled viewing experience, and you have the best binoculars we reviewed," Top Ten Reviews states. While these binoculars do provide an impressive view, with12x magnification, they're also heavier than average, weighing in at 36.2 ounces (1 kilogram). Eyeglass wearers won't have a problem using these binoculars; you can adjust the eye-relief distance to make these fit with or without glasses on. These binoculars are fog-proof, waterproof and super-durable, so you don't have to worry about damaging them with outdoor use. And according to Top Ten Reviews, these binoculars work great in low-light situations, so you can use them for nighttime skywatching as well as daytime sport.