How to Pick the Right Binoculars
The most important part of choosing the right binocular for birding is determining
your primary use for that binocular. No one model or brand is perfect for
every habitat, climate, terrain, weather, or light condition – so don’t try
to find one binocular that does everything perfectly. That binocular does
not exist. Instead, pick the binocular that’s best suited to the type of birding
you’re most interested in. That way, you’ll get the most pleasure from
it in the long run, and the binocular will probably be more than adequate for any
other observing you might do.
If much of your birding is done in forests or woodlands,
for example, with mixed growth and both high and low overstory (where light is both
refracted and reflected), a close-focusing 7 x 35 might be the instrument of choice.
The popular 10 x 40 binoculars, with their narrower fields of view, are often too
powerful in situations like these, where both light and distances are limited. Higher
power binoculars often have a shallower depth of field, as well as not focusing
as closely, which can make it difficult to locate a small bird in a haze of out-of-focus
foliage. A low power, wide angle binocular like a 7 x 35 gives you a smaller bird
in a bigger picture frame, but one with lots of sharply-focused habitat around him
to reveal his behavior.
Consistently overcast sky conditions, however, or frequent
use in shadowed woods and forests, may call for a larger aperture (such as a 7 x
42) to make the most of the limited light.
Close-in backyard and neighborhood birding and nature walks
often need a compact binocular for more convenient carrying, plus a moderate magnification
for steadier hand-held use. Since most of these activities occur in the daytime,
the greater light gathering capacity of large aperture binoculars is usually wasted,
and smaller 20mm to 32mm objectives in a 7 to 8 power range are usually sufficient
– and more convenient to carry.
If you’re fascinated by rookeries on distant cliffs, or
birding for skittish gulls and terns on miles of deserted beaches, a higher magnification
10 power binocular may be just the ticket. Since lighting is less of a problem under
such conditions, an aperture in the 35mm to 42mm range is usually all you need,
and a waterproof or showerproof model might be appropriate. Even 40mm binoculars
can be sometimes excessively bright for seashore and pelagic birding, due to highly
reflective sand and multiple reflections from sunlight on water. You can reduce
eyestrain and headaches due to such excessive brightness by moving to a smaller
A large aperture binocular of 8 to 10 power and up is useful
for early morning medium distance fixed position birding at lakes or marshes. It
is also good for nature studies of whales, sea otters, mountain goats, etc. Its
use usually requires tripod mounting for steadiness.
An 8 x 56 binocular is often the instrument of choice for
raptor watching, as its great light gathering allows identification of underwing
patterns when high power but smaller aperture binoculars see only a black silhouette
against the bright sky.
Many birders consider a 10 x 40 binocular to be the ideal
size. However, you should consider the drawbacks mentioned above (usually a narrow
field of view and a shallow depth of field) if considerable close-in birding figures
prominently in your plans. It may be that two different binoculars will suit your
needs best – a 10 x 40 or 10 x 42 for long distance birding, plus a wide angle 7
x 35 or 8 x 32 for close-in work.
If your budget limits you to just one binocular, however,
one of the 8 power models in the 30mm to 42mm aperture range might be the best compromise.
Typically available in a variety of sizes, weights, and prices, they offer good
twilight factors and usually quite reasonable close-in performance, while still
having enough power for long distance work – all in a size small enough to be easily
portable and hand-holdable. The old expression "jack of all trades, and master of
none" probably best characterizes the performance of binoculars in this power and
No matter what power and aperture range seems best to you,
however, keep in mind some other important considerations – eye relief, binocular
weight, and your budget.
If you wear glasses when observing, look for long eye relief
so you can see the full field of view.
If you carry your binocular whenever you go walking, or
spend long periods with your binocular raised to your eyes scanning woods and sand
dunes, look for reasonably light weight. But don’t pick a binocular strictly by
weight. A binocular weighs only a fraction of what your arms weigh. What tires you
out when using a binocular is not the weight of the binocular, but the weight of
There’s a case to be made for choosing a binocular with
a little extra heft to it – as the extra weight soaks up minor hand tremors and
makes for steadier viewing. A few extra ounces won’t tire you out that much
faster, but it might let you see more clearly. Just be sure you have a wide neckstrap
for those heavier binoculars to make carrying them easier.
As far as your budget goes, keep in mind that doubling the
price you pay for a binocular does not mean you get twice the performance. Some
of the higher cost goes for features instead of optics – leather cases instead of
vinyl, more comfortable wide woven straps instead of narrow plastic, rainguards,
As a general rule, each doubling of the retail price of
binoculars from $50 or so up to $200-$250 results in a 20% improvement in optical
quality. However, beyond $250 each doubling of the price results in only a 10% improvement.
A $1000 pair of binoculars will not be four times as good as a $250 pair, even though
they cost four times as much, but a $250 pair will be visibly much superior
to a $50 pair.
Get the best optics you can afford. Good optics will last
a lifetime. So-so optics will have to be replaced frequently – and several inexpensive
binoculars will end up costing you more in the long run than one good-quality binocular.
Over a ten-year lifespan (although it will probably last
much longer), a $200 binocular will cost you only 19¢ a week more than a $100 binocular
that you may have to replace after a mere two or three years. But that $200 binocular
will give you much more than 19¢ worth of extra clarity, sharpness, and sheer enjoyment
every time you look through it.
Good optics are not an expense. They’re a lifetime investment
– and investing in quality always