Good News ! – The quality of binoculars has improved drastically over the past few years at the same time that prices have come down. To select the right binocular for you, you need to focus (ha ha) on seven important features.
Binoculars have two numbers, such as 8x42 or 12x50. The first number is the magnification or “power”. Eight means that an object will appear eight times closer than it would with your naked eyes. A magnification of seven is nice for general nature viewing while magnifications of eight or ten are the most popular for birding and sporting events. Twelve is used for sailing and astronomy. A magnification of 6 is nice for kid’s binoculars or compact binoculars you might take to a concert.
2. Objective Lens Size.
The second number is the size (in millimeters) of the lens at the far end of the binocular. A larger lens lets in more light. The coatings on the glass lens also have a lot to do with the amount of light that reaches your eyes. Compact binoculars have smaller objective lenses so less light reaches your eye. This is no problem in broad daylight, but it will make it harder to see things at dawn and dusk.
3. Close Focus.
You may want to look at a flower or butterfly that is only a few feet away. The close focus number tells you the shortest distance (in feet) that you can focus on. For birding, you will want a binocular with a close focus of seven feet or less. For sporting events, this will not be important to you.
4. Field of View.
This number tells you how wide an area you can see through your binocular when you look out 1000 feet. It is nice to have a wide field of view, but as magnification increases, the field of view declines. The eyepiece design also affects the field of view.
5. Roof vs. Porro Prism Binoculars.
All binoculars come in two basic “shapes”. Porro prism binoculars are typically larger and bulkier and cheaper to make (For example, see the 6.5x32 binocular to the left). But they offer a more 3 dimensional effect. Roof prism binoculars have internal focusing that makes them sturdier and more waterproof.
6. Eye Relief.
This refers to the maximum distance your eye can be from the eyepiece and still see the entire field of view. This is important if you wear glasses. Unless a binocular has a minimum eye relief of about 15mm, there will be some difficulty in comfortable observing and in seeing the complete field of view when wearing eyeglasses.
7. The 3 Ws – Weight - Waterproof - Warranty.
If you are going out birding all day, the weight hanging around your neck will soon become very noticeable. Newer binoculars are manufactured with materials that help reduce the weight. Some very inexpensive binoculars may not be waterproof. You should avoid these. Finally, make sure the manufacturer has a good warranty and will fix your binoculars if something goes wrong.
There are many great binoculars. If you want to spend $2,000 on a top-of-the-line binocular, we recommend the Leica Ultravid HD 10x42, Swarovski EL 10x42 or the Zeiss Victory FL 10x42.
If you are not made of money, we recommend Vortex binoculars for their exceptional combination of quality and price. We have looked through a LOT of binoculars over the past few years and we are quite sure you will find that Vortex binoculars are an exceptional value.
Top Picks Under $1,000:
Vortex Viper HD 10x42
Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Top Picks Under $500:
Vortex Talon HD 10x42
Vortex Talon HD 8x42
Eagle Optics Ranger 10x42
Eagle Optics Ranger 8x42
Top Binocular on a Budget:
Top Shore Birding/Raptor Watching Binocular:
High end: Vortex Kaibab 15x56 or Vortex Viper 15x50
Budget: Vortex Diamondback 10x50
Top Butterfly Binocular:
High end: Viper 6x32
Budget: Eagle Optics Ranger 6x42
Top Kid's Binocular:
Top Spotting Scope:
Vortex Viper HD 20-60x80 Angled Spotting Scope
Fun Fact to Annoy Your Friends: You would need four eyes to use a pair of binoculars! All you need is one binocular to see the birds!
Loons bobbing on the lake, eiders out past the jetty, or thousands of "peeps" on the mudflat. Quick! Get the scope! No one has bad breath. We are talking about telescopes -- or "scopes" if you are a birder who knows the lingo.
Spotting scopes are great for viewing birds that are just too far away to see with binoculars. With luck, the birds are sitting still and the scope is stabilized on a good tripod. A spotting scope is a compact telescope designed primarily for observing things on earth -- not in the night sky. A scope is typically used in situations where you need magnifications beyond the range of a typical binocular.
For birders, this means you might need a scope when you are observing birds out on a mudflat or in the middle of a lake or on a very distant tree. Typically a bird will be over 1/4 mile away before you need a scope. Scopes may not help much in mid-day when heat waves distort the image. At other times, scopes can provide you with the "killer look of a lifetime!"
We have taken a look at spotting scopes. The hands-down winner is Questar. But you pay for quality and not all of us can afford well over $2,500 for a scope (that's discount -- not retail). A number of new scopes have been developed by Swarovski, Kowa and others within the last few years. The Kowa TSN-824 body with the 20-60 zoom lens is very popular. The Swarovski ST80 is also a great scope as is the Leica APO Televid 77mm.
Birding etiquette Tip: Offer to carry someone else's scope after they have been kind enough to let you use it.