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VTBIRD  August 2012

VTBIRD August 2012

Subject:

Binoculars for birding (long and opinionated)

From:

Larry and Mona Rogers <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Vermont Birds <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 29 Aug 2012 11:13:09 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

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text/plain (82 lines)

A friend who is just getting started in birding and knows very little about binoculars asked me for some advice.  I made up the following three page screed which she appreciated.  Admittedly this is longer than most VTBIRD postings; feel free to skip over it if you want.

Larry Rogers

A simplified guide to binoculars for birding

 

Fundamentals

Binoculars are described by two numbers: their magnifying power, and the diameter of their objective or front lenses. Typical binocular sizes might be 7x23 (magnifies 7 times with 23mm objective lenses). 8.5x42 (8.5 power - 42mm objectives), or 10x50 (10 power - 50mm objectives).  There is no one ideal size for all applications which is why manufacturers offer so many different models.

Higher power is useful at times but can have its drawbacks.  More magnification means more shaking from any tremors you may have in your hands.  Also, generally speaking, the higher the power, the narrower the field of view.  For birding I have always felt that a wide field trumps absolute magnification power.  Finally, for a given objective lens size, the higher the power the darker the image will be in dim light.  Generally speaking, if you need more than 10 power you should be looking spotting scops and not binoculars.

For birding, larger objective lenses mean better performance, up to a point.  For a given magnification, larger objective lenses make brighter images in dim light and a wider field of view.  However, big lenses mean big binoculars and big clunky binoculars are heavy and somewhat awkward to use.

Reasonably sized binoculars for birding seem to range from about 7x35 to 10x50, although some people find 10x50's a little too big.  There are a lot of excellent compact binoculars on the market in such sizes as 7x23, 8x20, or 9.5x25, but these are really too small for serious birding use.

Years ago Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss, three makers of very expensive and very good binoculars, started producing in-line binoculars which had straight viewing tubes rather than the conventional poro prism style, wherein the objective lenses are farther apart than the eyepieces.  Fashion has a lot to do with what sells in the binocular world, and now most everybody is offering the straight line configuration, while regular poro prisms are disappearing.  The shape of your binoculars is not terribly significant.  I've always favored old school prism binoculars for a couple of reasons, none of which are really too important.  Poro prisms provide a better stereoscopic effect, are usually lighter than the equivalent in-lines, and are easier (cheaper) to collimate if the two images get misaligned due to dropping or other misadventure.  Actually these are all minor points - the main thing is that straight line binoculars are taking over the market.

 

Other considerations

Eye relief is the distance from your eyes to the eye pieces.  If you wear glasses the longer the eye relief the better.  Just about all binoculars will work with glasses, but a short eye relief will cause some vignetting, or loss of field around the edges.

There are significant differences between Moisture Resistant, Water Resistant, and Waterproof binoculars.  All binoculars these days are moisture resistant - damp weather will not fog them up and a little rain will not faze them.  Water resistant means that they will survive an occasional heavy splash.  Waterproof means that they can handle Baptist-style full immersion.  My old waterproof Swift 8.5x42 Audubons, which I've had for about twenty years, have been underwater two or three times, even one time intentionally.  

Funny fact: Every new pair of binoculars I've ever seen, regardless of its purported degree of water resistance, comes packed with a little envelope of desiccant.  Why's that?

In addition to birding, if you get into butterfly watching close focus is important.  I don't do butterflies but some friends that do like Pentax binoculars for close-up work.  I've looked through some 8x45 Pentaxes which let me focus on my own toes.  Impressive.

How fast a pair of binoculars focuses can make the difference between identifying a fleeting bird and seeing a blur.  Mona and I are using two different model Swifts and we both like them a lot, although both seem to focus a little too slowly for my taste.  Not terribly important, but something you might want to notice when comparing binoculars.

 

How to select and buy a pair of binoculars

There are good binocular reviews on several websites such as www.Betterviewdesired.com.  I'm suspicious of any binocular reviews in magazines that accept binocular advertising.  Reviews are helpful, but you really should try binoculars with your own eyes and hands before you buy.  This is hard to do in Vermont.  Several places sell binoculars, but I am unaware of anybody that handles enough different brands to allow serious comparison.  There are three things that you can do: 

Check your local papers for organized birdwatching walks in your area.  Local Audubon Society  chapters in Rutland, Middlebury, Manchester and several other places organize monthly or bi-monthly walks all year long.  Tag along and tell people that you are interested in comparing binoculars.  Birders are a friendly lot and may let you try their binoculars, in addition to expounding (sometimes at great length!) the virtues and failings of various brands.

Go to a birding conference.  These are held at various birding hotspots throughout the country, usually on an annual basis. Mona and I have been to several of these in places like Cape May, NJ, Harlingen, TX and Sierra Vista, AZ.  They are always great fun and it seems like every binocular maker in the world shows up to peddle his wares.

Go to a large city like New York or Boston, or maybe even Montreal, find the largest camera store in town, and try out many different makes and models.

When it comes to actually buying binoculars, there is an ethical question involved.  Usually the lowest price will be found on the internet.  Going into a camera store or birding shop and trying out lots of different binoculars and then going home and ordering the ones you like from Amazon.com maybe should bother more people than it does.  There is also the matter of buying from the internet to avoid paying sales tax, or shopping in New Hampshire for the same reason.  Let your conscience be your guide.

Another strategy that might work if you are in a place that supports them, is to try pawnshops.  Binoculars are definitely hockable.  You should know exactly what you want to buy before you go in the door.

 

What to avoid

Do not buy variable power or zoom lens binoculars.  They are usually pretty crappy and don't work terribly well.  

Avoid "auto-focus" binoculars which supposedly change their focus as you point them up or down.  Even if they worked (which they don't), I imagine that they would be pretty annoying.  

Canon, a company known for great optics, makes an expensive line of image-stabilized binoculars, some with up to 18 power.  The ones I've looked through don't work terribly well.  The image is stable enough but the field of view is narrow and they weigh a ton.  Avoid.  

Avoid any binocular with any sort of cross hairs, rangefinder, or other fancy reticules.   These are designed either for hunters, who can use them to figure how far it is to that antelope on the other side of the valley, or survivalist types who want to play Navy Seal.  Not needed.

As mentioned above, stay away from any binocular with an objective lens smaller than 35mm or less than 7 power magnification.  Similarly, view with suspicion anything with over 10 power or greater than 50mm objective lenses.

 

Brand Recommendations

You can figure on spending somewhere between $125 and $2,500 for a pair of decent birding binoculars.  Generally the quality follows the price, but, quite frankly, there is not all that much difference between the performances of $250 and $850 binoculars.  Usually within a manufacturer's product line, higher magnification equals higher price.  This is something of a rip off since it's hard to see how a 10x45 binocular would cost any more to make than an 8x45, but this is the way of the world.

At the low end, avoid Tasco, Jason, Vivitar, Emerson, Magnacraft, and other el cheapo brands.  Also stay away from the under $100 models from such reputable manufacturers as Nikon, Bushnell, Pentax, Swift, and several others.

If you win the lottery, look into Swarovski, Leica, Zeiss, and the current king of the hill, Nikon EDG's.  All of these have street prices of over $2,000 - EDG's are pushing $2,600.

In between there are any number of other good brands.  Most of the major Jap camera companies (Pentax, Nikon, Olympus, Minolta, etc.) make good binoculars over a wide price range.  Mona and I like Swifts.  Our friends down at the Rutland Audubon Society all seem to be buying Eagle Optics.  Other high end optical companies such as Celestron, and Bausch and Lomb are also good. Steiner produces some fairly expensive, very good binoculars with sexy red lens coatings, but I don't know too many birders that use them.

If you enjoy shopping, have plenty of time and adequate cash, buying binoculars can be a lot of fun.

 

 

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