Get the Best Birdwatching Binoculars for you!
The right binoculars for you will depend on a lot of things such as whether you are just beginning the hobby and this is your first pair or whether you are getting to the stage where you know the short-comings of your ‘starter’ binoculars and are looking to upgrade. Of course, a lot of difference will also be made by just how deep your pockets are. It would be easy to give you the choices of the most coveted optics, but for many of us they will simply not be affordable.
If you’ve been birding with for a while you will have seen loads of other birders carrying a bewildering array of brands, sizes, shapes and colours and will probably have hear a lot of advice or read many on-line or magazine reviews. The thing is that each of us is unique and we all have a different set of needs and desires.
So, how do you go about choosing the right ‘bins’ for you?
I suggest that, unless you are independently wealthy, you should not dive in and spend a fortune on the top-class optics. The truth is that half of people taking up a new hobby stop participating after a few months. Cupboards are full of golf clubs and drones, oil paints and fishing rods. So, start with something under £100. There are some good buys out there and even if you want a top name brand, optics retailers carry a lot of pre-loved gear. But even the inexpensive end of the market is awash with choice so everything below applies to your first pair, just even more so when you upgrade. Expensive binoculars should last you at least one decade and maybe several.
Try Before You Buy
Optics can be pricey so you need to get the right one for you. If you have birding friends ask them for a go with their binoculars and see what features you like, hate or absolutely need.
Many RSPB reserves and others have ‘field days’ where optics retailers bring lots of kit for you to try out. Some hold equipment demonstration events where you can try a range of binoculars out for yourself, comparing brands, magnifications and the rest, and you can ask for expert guidance.
Most good retailers will be happy for you to try bins out in the store, and some even have something good lo look out next to their premises.
Make Informed Decisions
Roof or Porro Prisms
Porro prism binoculars were the standard when I started birding, but then, in the late 1960s a couple of companies introduced roof prism binoculars and now they are almost universally used by birders. (The objective lenses of roof prisms are straight in line with the eyepieces.) Roof prism binoculars caught on quickly because they are, on average, comfortable to hold, more compact and lighter. Being more complex in their interior design they are also more expensive to make, although that has equalised over the years.
Optically there is little difference except in the marginally extra amount of light that reaches the eye. The cheapest ‘starter’ binoculars still tend to be porro prisms and it can be argued that they offer better value for money at the low to middle end of the market.
Magnification, light & field of view
Remember generally the bigger the magnification the smaller the field of view… if you want to see more detail at a distance then you need more magnification, but you will be able to look at a smaller area and that can make it harder to find the bird you want to see. If the field of view is increased to allow more to appear then the weight of the binoculars will likely rise too.
The ‘field of view’ is how wide an area is viewable at a fixed point. With binoculars this is usually expressed as an angle or the width of an area viewable at 1000m.
The simplest descriptions you will see give magnification and lens diameter. So 10×50 means the image will be magnified by ten and the far end of the binocular lenses are 50mm.
Most birding binoculars are 7.32, 8×32, 8×42, 10×42 and 10×50. Most birders will choose one of the middle three. Some say 8×42 is the ideal when looking into trees and bushes and 10×42 is better when looking at birds on a marsh or at sea. The lens diameter also determines how much light gets to the eye. I am no tech guru, ask an expert at a retailer to explain this to you if my explanation baffles you. The reason why even higher magnification is not useful is that as the power increases so does the interference caused by hand tremor. Having said that it is possible to use some higher-powered binoculars with a tripod to make them steady.
There really is no absolute ‘best’. What is best for you is what works and you find most comfortable to use.
My advice is to start the process of choosing binoculars by comparing magnification and field of view of ONE brand so that the quality you are testing is the only factor. I am most comfortable using 10×42 and my wife prefers 8×42, when we swap around (we have the same brand and model) we immediately notice and swap back to what suits us.
Coatings are there to overcome problems. Each time light passes through a lens some of it (c.5%) is reflected back. As there are many glass surfaces in modern binoculars this could lead to half of the light reflecting round inside the binoculars and so both dimming the image and making it bleary. Bigger lenses reduce this problem but add a lot of extra weight.
Coatings were developed that reduced this loss by as much as 4% or the 5% lost. Modern optics now have multiple layers of coatings which means than now, instead of half the light reaching the eye, 95% does in the best binoculars. As you might expect the thinner and better the coatings the more expensive the optics become.
Its worth noting that some of these coatings are now offered for spectacles, so you might want to get those coatings to ensure no light is lost from your personal lenses.
ED & HD Glass
Lens quality is often related to price. Often when at high magnification there is a colour distortion at the edge of the lens – giving a slightly different hue. More expensive ED (Extra-low Dispersion) lenses help correct colour aberrations. HD (High Definition) coatings supposedly focus more light giving sharper images – but is sometimes just a marketing label applied to ED lenses.
If you are a spectacle wearer you need to make sure that any eyecups can fold away so your glasses touch the lens. But how well this works will depend on the length of the ‘eye relief’ (how far back from the lens your eye can be and still see all of the field of view). Spectacle wearers need to ensure that the binoculars they buy off long eye relief.
(Bear in mind, too, that it’s difficult to use bifocals or varifocals with any optics, use single focus ones. When birding I wear what my wife calls my ‘Harry Potter’ spectacles… they are large and circular so the frames never get in the way when using binoculars. They are my ‘reading’ prescription, but long-distance ones work just as well.
It has taken me ages to get used to using bins while wearing specs, but now I am used to it the advantage is plain to see. If, like me you are short-sighted on one eye and long-sighted in the other you will still find getting the dioptre setting is crucial.
Its no good having the perfect binoculars if they are too heavy to carry around and use all day long. There are accessories (bino-suspenders) that can allow you to carry binoculars around your neck and distribute their weight more evenly to take the strain off your neck. However, it is also important that you can raise them and keep them at your eyes without it putting too much strain on your arms. You might even consider additional, lighter weight bins that are not as optically good if there are times when use them continuously and it’s too fatiguing, as well as your best quality optics for the shorter outings.
Pupilar distance varies and some pairs of binoculars may not feel comfortable if the distance is wrong for you.
Dioptre adjustment is achieved through different mechanisms on different brands (some even hold patents so have exclusive features.)
Focusing wheel ratios also differ. In some binoculars a tiny movement of the focusing wheel makes a big difference and it may be hard to make fine adjustments. Others allow lots of movement to achieve the same change, but the drawback is that you cannot refocus quickly.
Carrying straps can be well padded or less so, may be easy or hard to adjust for comfortable length and may have poor or excellent ways to attach to the body of the bins.
Minimum focusing distances also vary greatly. It is frustrating to be in a hide where action is happening directly below but you cannot get a clear image when so close. The top end products will often focus at as little as a metre away. If you are interested in invertebrates as well as birds you will need to be able to focus down as much as possible to look at insects that are close but small.
This is another often neglected issue.
Guarantees & Repairs
The price you pay may be reflected in the standard of aftercare. If you buy cheap equipment from a non-specialist, on-line retailer, do not expect a long, guaranteed life or the best after-sales service. The top makers (selling at the top price) may well give you a lifetime guarantee and repair or replace parts, sometimes without charge.
Keep them clean
Lenses need protection and looking after, use the dust-caps or rain-guards! Every time you finish for the day, get used to wiping lenses with a lens cloth – especially if you’ve been near salt water – and clean with a lens-cleaning fluid.
The body also needs looking after dirt and especially sand can accumulate in eye cups, hinges and around focusing wheels, so take a good look every few weeks or if you’ve been around dust and sand and give the body a good clean up.
Don’t be tempted to dispense with carrying cases as they offer added protection when not in use. They will stop some wear and tear and keep them cleaner.
Good binoculars are costly to replace. Most household policies will cover you IF you specify the item on the policy. There are also specialist companies that offer optics insurance.
Where to Buy
If you look at the Fatbirder binoculars review page you will see that there are some ‘click-thru’ buying opportunities. But the choice is yours.
Buying direct from the makers is sometimes an option and usually carries full guaranties and repair facilities.
Good specialist retailers abound, many with a national presence. They can give expert advice and are often a source of ‘pre-owned’ options. Top quality binoculars hold their value, and some sellers offer part exchange and offer a guarantee based on their own refurbishment. You can sometimes get top-of-the-range used optics for the same price as a new mid-range ones.
On-line, non-specialist sales are cheaper for some optics (although some top makers will not sell through them). If you decide to go down that route make sure they have a good returns policy and for goodness sake take advantage of a ‘demonstration day’ at a reserve and TRY BEFORE YOU BUY!