Birding Binoculars

What kind of birding binoculars do you use? How do you chose a good model?

Obviously, the best way to pick out a pair of binoculars is to try them out, but in doing so, I strongly urge you to try at least a couple of pairs that are beyond your budget, and work your way down from there. Not knowing what an excellent pair of binoculars is like makes it difficult to judge among the lesser forms that you will ultimately have to pick from. Putting it another way, if all you know is the $50 special, and you use a pair of them for a season or two, then the first time you bring a nice pair up to your eyeballs you’ll realize that you had no clue what you were missing. By trying the higher quality binoculars you will understand the necessity of getting the best pair you can afford. Fortunately, the difference between the $50 binoculars and the $200 binoculars is probably much greater than subsequent increments of several hundred dollars. Truthfully, though, the binoculars you want and can actually afford if you save up, and if good binoculars are really important to you, are probably in the $300 – $500 range.

There are three brands that make, at their top end, birding binoculars that are generally regarded as the best: Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski. As long as you are spending thousands of dollars on the binoculars, you might as well go for the higher end within those brands and the 10x instead of some lesser magnification. For a little over 2,000 you can have: A Zeiss Victory such as the Carl Zeiss Optical Inc Victory RF Binoculars (10×45 T RF); The Swarovski Swarovision (comes in various sizes) such as the Swarovski Optik Swarovision 10X50 Binoculars; or my personal favorite if I owned one, The Leica Ultravid (comes in various sizes) such as the Leica 10×42 Ultravid HD

Since you can’t afford any of those binoculars, and the people who make binoculars know that, there is a series that will cost you probably less than $500 and serve you very well. These are probably as durable and flexible, but without the over-the-top super duper optics, but very close. When I have compared the upper end with this middle end (under in-the-store conditions, mostly) I usually can’t see that much of a difference, but I’m sure it shows up over longer use and under a wider range of settings. The Leica 8×20 BCR/Black Ultravid Compact Binocular is admittedly over $500 usually, but may be the best of the middle range. The Leupold Katmai 8X32Mm Compact Binocular Black 56420 or similar models from the same manufacturer are generally ranked very high. The Nikon 7519 Monarch 12 X 56 MM All-Terrain Binoculars are far from compact but excellent, rugged field binoculars. Also look at the Celestron Ultima binoculars.

At the lower end, all these brands as well as Eagle, Swift, Bushnell and others, make binoculars around $100 – $150. You will notice the difference. There is a good chance you’ll want to have one or two small binoculars to have handy by the back yard window or some other convenient location. For this, just go to your local camping supply store and see what they have on sale. If you go to REI, for instance, they’ll probably have their own brand $50 model which would be based on (or rebranded) Eagle Energy binoculars, or something similar.

We have one pair of fairly nice binoculars that we use all the time, plus three of the small el-cheapos, one in my car (hidden well out of sight lest someone think they are worthy breaking in to filch), and the others at the cabins. My mother in law won a pair of giant field binoculars with the most amazing zoom on them, which she keeps at the cabin, and they work great in certain ranges but otherwise give me a headache and are hard to hold. When there is a bird you want to look at, you’ll be fine with almost anything to bring it in closer. All these options work. But for regular use, you will be much, much happier with the better quality optics from the middle, or dare I say, upper end of the range.

Comments

  1. #1 BJN
    December 12, 2011

    I’d add a suggestion to also try stabilized binoculars. There’s a significant weight and complexity penalty, but you may find a stabilized view much more comfortable and you may be able to see more with a steady view. We have a pair of nice, bright Swarovsky birding binoculars but I’ll often choose to carry our Fujinon 12x Techno-Stabi binoculars. The Swarovskys are brighter and have better contrast, but I find it easier to see details and watch for longer periods of time with stabilization.

    Fujinon has a couple of models and they make Nikon’s stabilized binoculars. Canon has a wide range of models. Be aware that some models are water resistant while others offer “waterproof” performance.

    Stabilization also lets you use higher magnification binoculars than you’d find practical in conventional optics.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 12, 2011

    BJN: I specifically avoided discussing image stabilization because I have virtually no experience with it, but what I have tried I like a lot. It ads cost, but is probably worth it.

    A hint for stabilizing images, especailly relevant to wildlife photography as well: If you are in a vehicle, turn it off!

  3. #3 rturpin
    December 12, 2011

    I’ve never found stabilization that important for 7x or 8x glasses. Except at sea. On the low end, my typical pocket glass is the Brunton 6×30 monocular. It’s waterproof, and I don’t have to worry that any mishap will knock it out of alignment. And it fits in my pocket. Larger and better binoculars let you see more. But I end up having this one with me more often.

    YMMV.

  4. #4 Ole Phat Stu
    December 12, 2011

    You can’t hold anything above 12x steady, so if you are going for higher magnifications or zooms get a tripod or at least a monopod. Something else to lug around, so probably better for cabins etc. I use a spotting scope. My friend Andreas uses a superzoom digicam :-)

    Whatever. Get a large aperture too, it collects more light.
    Aperture divided by magnification = exit pupil, e.g. 7mm at disk, 3mm in bright daylight. So 50/8=7 is a dusk-capable size, 30/8 =~4 is a daylight size.

  5. #5 hannah's dad
    December 13, 2011

    My family conspired together secretly over a period of months to buy me a pair of Leica Ultravid HDs for my 65th birthday. They took the advice of my nephew a PhD ornitologist.
    When I got them I was overwhelmed, too damn scared to pick them up cos they just scream quality and cost.
    The most expensive things I have ever owned was/is my house, my car[s] and now … these binos.
    I love them.
    I used them on my trip to SW USA recently and saw some great birds.
    I am privileged and humbled.

  6. #6 Comrade Carter
    December 13, 2011

    I just make absolutely sure I get binoculars with no “key logging” software, and absolutely make sure they aren’t made by Apple.

  7. #7 Daniel J. Andrews
    December 15, 2011

    I have the older 8.5×42 Swarovski model–the one that gives you sore fingers when trying to dial the focus to near and far. They’re great for tundra, mountains, open areas, but for forest birding it takes too long to change the focus. After three days at Point Pelee, both my focusing finger tips were sore.

    I also have a 300 dollar pair of Pentax DCF series. Slightly less wide field of view, not quite as sharp when pushing the optics to the limit, but when I first looked through them, my thought was, “I shouldn’t have bought those Swarovskis”. They are also lighter, more compact and focus much faster. On my birding trips (pleasure and work-related) I take the Pentax unless I’ll be working or hiking in the mountains or tundra, or at the ocean.

    Before then I used Bushnell 10×50 with the instafocus. They worked well for me although I had to buy a new pair (50 to 75 dollars back then) every couple of years. Then I looked through a good pair of ergonomic binoculars and that was it for those Bushnell types (they do have some nice middle-grade binos, but I tried one and I didn’t find them balancing quite right in my hand–which is why it is important to actually try binoculars yourself as you need to know how it fits in your hands).

    I also have some Leopolds. Definitely not as sharp, but I use them for close focus (they focus down to under 5 feet) for butterflies and other insects. At close range they’re good–for distance birding the lack of sharpness may mean the difference between a lifer or just another unknown bird. When in Arizona we saw a bird’s heading popping up from the top of a cactus. With the Leopold’s I couldn’t tell what it was. I switched to the Swarovski and the pattern on the head was sharp and I could see it was a mockingbird. My wife (to be) was using the Pentax and she also was able to identify it with those.

    Anyway, if buying binos again, I wouldn’t bother with the high-end ones. The ones in the mid-range 300-500, or even to 700 will offer views that may be almost indistinguishable from the high-end binoculars. If I wear the high-end ones, I feel a bit silly as they might be saying, “Here’s another sucker conned into buying overpriced alpha binoculars”.