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How to choose Binoculars


Below are the factors to consider in selecting the binoculars that best fit your preferences and needs. View the discussions under the assumption that all other factors are equal. They rarely will be, but this will help with the importance factor you assign to each spec in the O4B Scorecard. The specs we compare are:

The View


Power

More magnification results in larger objects in the view and more ability to distinguish detail. It also means that the binoculars will be harder to hold steady, a narrower field of view, and less apparent depth of focus. There are tricks to make it easier to hold binoculars steady, but even 10x may be too difficult for some people to handle.

Field of View

Field of view, stated in feet (or meters) at 1000 yards (or meters), is the width of the scene that is in view. A wide field of view makes it easier to find birds when looking through the binoculars. The trade-off is in loss of the ability to resolve detail. Other factors being equal, lower magnification means wider field of view, but increased eye relief and nearer close focus also narrow field of view. Too wide a field of view will often result in distortion at the edges of the image.

Exit Pupil

This is the size of the image at the focusing point of the binocular. It is computed by dividing the objective size by the magnification (power). You can find exit pupils ranging from 7mm (7x50, 8x56) to 2mm (10x21). A larger exit pupil means a brighter image. It also means that it is easier for your eyes to stay on the image when it is bright out and your pupils are contracted.

Eye Relief

Eye relief is very important to eyeglass wearers. It is the distance behind the ocular lenses at which the image is in focus. Since eyeglass wearers can't get their eyes as close to the lenses, longer eye relief will project the image beyond their glasses. With sufficient eye relief, usually at least 15mm, eyeglass wearers can see a full image. Long eye relief will usually reduce field of view.

If you are nearsighted or farsighted, you can use your binoculars without wearing glasses and the binocular's focus will compensate. However, if you have astigmatism, you will need to use your glasses.

Close Focus

All binoculars can focus at infinity. The real trick in binocular design is in how closely it can be made to focus. Any birder (or butterflyer) who started out with a cheap pair of binoculars has experienced standing 10 or 15 feet behind the rest of the group to look at a bird that was inside their close focus capability. General-purpose binoculars have a close focus around 20 to 25 feet. A good birding binocular should have a close focus of 10 feet or less, with the current close focus champ coming in at a mere 3 feet. (Sure wish I had those when the Townsend's Warbler landed on my knee during a pelagic trip.)

The Glass


Objective Lenses

In the optic equation, objective lenses are the light gatherers. Larger lenses let in more light. A 50mm objective lets in nearly 42% more light than a 42mm objective, and twice that of a 35mm lens. More light gathering means more detail when the light level drops, and therefore, more quality birding time when the birds are active.

Prism Glass

There are two types of prism glass currently in use: BK-7 and BaK-4. Both names indicate the element used to modify the glass composition. Ba is barium; B is boron. BaK-4 is the better and more expensive prism. Any binocular that has BaK-4 prisms will probably say so in their specs. If the prism glass is not specified, assume it is BK-7.

Coatings

Both prisms and lenses get coated. The main reasons for using them are to reduce internal reflections and correct the focusing of the various wavelength of light. The number and types of coatings are discussed in the All About Optics section. Each level of coating adds cost but improves the image.

The Body


Body (Prism) Design

This is one of the most basic choices in choosing your binocular. Porro prism binoculars are less expensive to make than roof prism binoculars. You can get the same optical quality for significantly less money. However, they are heavier and harder to weatherproof. A roof prism binocular of the same optical quality will be lighter and have fewer problems. Even though they cost more, they will probably be more rugged, and in the long run, they may also be more cost effective.

Weight

F=ma. All you really need to know about weight is Newton's Second Law of Motion. Yeah, right. You also have to consider the implications. What we're really talking about is mass. Weight is mass at gravitational acceleration, i.e. directed downwards. It takes more force, and therefore more energy, to lift a more massive binocular, hence you will feel more fatigued at the end of the day. But forces don't only point down, and Newton's First Law of Motion tells us that it takes force to change a body's motion. A heavier binocular will also resist moving, so it should be easier to hold steady.

If you take the time to do the research, you will find a wide range of weight specifications for binoculars in the same size class. One manufacturer has a line with a 10x42 that weighs 25 ounces and a 10x50 that weighs 29. Another has a line with a 10x42 that weighs 30.7 ounces, and a 10x50 that weighs 40.9. As you can see, objective size contributes to the weight of a binocular, but may be only a small factor. A lot depends on other design specifications. If you want the extra light gathering capability, you can find binoculars that are within a useable weight range.

The bottom line about weight is that it is one of the most overrated of all binocular specs. Today's construction materials are lighter and stronger than ever before. With some mid-priced, bright, quality, 10x50 binoculars weighing less than 30 ounces, any able-bodied adult should be able to handle them easily. Unless you are very experienced, you would have a hard time picking up a binocular and telling whether it weighed 28 ounces or 32. Even over a day's use, it is doubtful most people would know the difference.

The real concern should be balance rather than weight. A well balanced binocular should put very little stress on your arms, wrists, and hands. A poorly balanced pair, even if it is lighter, will strain your muscles by forcing them to work against the unnatural torque.

Ease of Focusing

Often overlooked until it is too late, focusing mechanisms can be a joy or a pain, depending on your preferences. The keys to a good focusing binocular are speed and precision.

If you can't change focus quickly, you'll miss the bird. A good focusing mechanism will go from close focus to infinity in a full turn (360º) or less. Most binoculars have a linear focusing gear. If the gear has a slow gear ratio, it will do well in the close range, but will be difficult to focus in the distance range. If the gear ratio is fast, it will be difficult to focus in the close range but excel at long distance. A new innovation in binocular focusing is the variable speed focusing gear. With this type of gear, the focus is slower close in and faster farther out.

If you can't get a sharp focus, the image will be difficult to look at. At any distance, you need both the proper focusing speed and depth of focus to be able to hit the mark. If a binocular has shallow depth of focus, it will take extra effort to get the image tack sharp. This can also affect focusing speed when close to proper distance.

Eye Cups

Eyecups help keep stray light away from our eyes while using binoculars, and help measure the distance from the oculars to our eyes. Originally, eyecups were made of rubber and could roll up or down depending on whether the user wore eyeglasses. The problem was that repeated rolling cause the eyecups to break. The first advancement was eyecups that slide rather than roll, but these were hard to keep in place, so they were replaced by eyecups that twist up. They can be left at any position from all the way up to all the way down. The newest eyecups have click stops at regular intervals in the twist-up path with the eye relief distance for each stop marked on the cup.

Protection


Weatherproofing

Weatherproofing ranges from none to showerproof to waterproof to nitrogen purged. Waterproof sealing is done with rubber "O" rings. Active birders should get nitrogen purged waterproofing, whether they live in a humid climate or not. Nitrogen purging can also keep out dust, sand, or anything else that can get inside the binoculars. That's why we prefer the term "weatherproofing".

Armoring

Usually made of a synthetic rubber, armoring protects the body of the binocular from physical harm due to bangs, bumps, and corrosive elements. The more you pay for your binoculars, the more you want to treat it like a long-term investment.



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Learn About Optics


Day Optics

Designs - Quality, compacts, porro and roof prism designs for binoculars and scopes...
Designations and Considerations - Designation values, eye relief, weight & cups, exit pupil, and twilight factor...
Additional Consideration - Focusing, field of view, depth of field, weather proofing and nitrogen fill...
Optic Components & Image Quality - Lenses, mirrors, coatings, aberrations, distortions, and alignments...
Spotting Scopes - Construction, Objective lens, eyepieces, angled or straight, and focusing...
Tripods - Heads, legs, monopods, shoulder stocks, and window mounts...
Digiscoping - About, power, editing, considerations, cameras, techniques, and effects...
Care & Tricks - Holding techniques, cleaning, carrying, and protecting your optics...

Night Vision

Starlight Technology - NV Types, Starlight Technology defined, basic design and IR Illuminators...
Starlight Technology Night Vision Generations and Devices - Generation 1 to 4 - levels of NV technology, types of devices and their uses...
Use & Care - How to use, controls, and care for NV devices, extending capabilities...
Digital Night Vision and Thermal-Imaging - Digital NV and Thermal Imaging, how they work and compare to standard NV...

Buying Guide

Binoculars - All the factors to consider when buying binoculars.
Bins for kids - Special Considerations for children's binoculars.
Challenged - Special considerations with binoculars for the physically challenged.
Spotting Scopes - All the factors to consider when buying a spotting scope.
Tripods - Selecting the best tripod for your scope.