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Magnification and Light
First recognize that bigger isn’t always better. Binoculars bear two numbers: 7×35, 8×30 or 10×50, for example. The first is magnification. You’re fine with 7- or 8-power. Sure, a power of 10 makes everything appear even larger, but it also magnifies your own trembling (and who doesn’t tremble in the presence of birds?). Higher magnification also reduces your field of view – the breadth of habitat you see out there. You spot a bird, lift your binoculars for a look … and find no bird in view. If this is all too familiar, your optics might be too powerful (or your aim needs practice). I bird with a pair of Zeiss Victory FL 8x42s.
That second number is the diameter of the objective lens (the bigger end) in millimeters. A larger lens gathers more light and therefore improves the view, but it also adds weight and bulk around your neck or in your pack. There is little reason to go larger than 42 (or smaller than 30).
Which brings me to compact binoculars. Avoid them. With an objective lens around 20mm, the view is dark and dingy. And compacts are nearly impossible to use while wearing gloves or mittens during winter birding. Their only reason for existing might be as your spare pair in the glove compartment. I backpack with mid-sized 8x30s.
Next, beware of unruly eye-cups. We used to nestle our eyes into rubber eye-cups. Birders wearing eyeglasses would fold the eye-cups down to position their eyes the proper distance from the lenses. Modern eye-cups twist out to various positions, an innovation that has ruined some fine binoculars. Poorly designed eye-cups can twist on their own out of position. It can ruin your chance to see something fleeting and good. So, when shopping, be sure the eye-cups snap and lock in place – all the way down, all the way out and at one or more points in between.
Test drive any binoculars in lousy light – not bright sunshine, where most binoculars will perform well. Avoid gimmicks such as zoom lenses, built-in cameras and models with a technology that stabilizes your hand trembling. Make sure your binoculars can focus on objects as near as six feet. That’s because at some highly evolved point in your birding career you will discover the pleasure of watching insects (butterflies, dragonflies and tiger beetles, for example). And you will curse your binoculars if you must back away from an insect in order to get it in focus.
Even if you’re standing by your old clunkers, learn the diopter correction. It allows you to adjust your binoculars for the natural variation in your own eyes. The correction is easy to perform but varies by model. If it’s not right, everything you view will be out of focus. Once you’ve made the correction, however, your binoculars may be out of focus for the person who shares them with you.
Care and Cleaning
Dirt, pollen, fingerprints, egg salad, coffee and worse will inevitably find your optics. The critical advice here (besides investing in lens solution and cleaning paper or a lens cloth) is to buy a lens brush. Always brush away grit before you start rubbing your lenses to clean them. And always rub gently.
Spend as much as you can. If birding is big in your life, spend big money and spread the costs well into your bright future, which can be 15 years or more if you choose well and take good care of your investment. My suggestion is that you rob a bank, win the lottery, inherit a fortune in order to buy a pair of top-line Zeiss, Swarovski or Leica binoculars. But if you’re like the rest of us, below are some mid-priced suggestions – in the range of $200 to $350 or so. First, some caveats: The most important is that I myself haven’t actually evaluated these binoculars. It’s not my thing. This post is a collection of other reviews and sources (listed below). If you disagree with what’s below, leave a comment. If you’ve got a model to add, leave a comment. Here’s my list:
- Nikon Monarch 8×42 – If your head hurts and you really don’t want to think much more about binoculars, pick up a pair of Monarchs for about $200 or so. The glass is sharp and they focus close. I am a bit critical of the eye-cups. But, overall, these are great all-around binos at a decent price. Lots of my pals have them and love them. Note that Nikon has recently revised the Monarch line to include higher-mag versions, better glass and higher prices.
- Swift Ultra Like 8×42 – It’s been a while since I’ve seen a review of recent incarnation of the Ultra Lites, but they’ve been good binos over the years. Have a look at them.
- Vanguard Endeavor ED 8×42 – I’ve never seen them. But they rated top of the line in a Birdwatcher’s Digest review (below)
- Eagle Optics Rangers 8×42 – These binos get good review from many birders on budgets. I own a pair of 8×32 Rangers for butterfly watching; I like them.
- Vortex Stokes Broadwing 8×42 – Pete Dunne likes them. They focus to 4.4 feet, which is about the distance to your actual feet.
- Derek Lovitch two-part essay on mid-priced binos (via his web site): Part 1 | Part 2. It’s good stuff. Don’t take my word for it; take Derek’s. I’ve birded with the guy. He knows his optics.
- Birdwatcher’s Digest Mid-priced Binoculars Roundup – It includes a number of models completely foreign to me. But it’s a fairly trustworthy source.
- Birdwatching.com’s Mid-Priced Binoculars Roundup – These folks have a connection to Birdwatcher’s Digest.
- Pete Dunne’s Pick of the Pack from New Jersey Audubon and Cape May Bird Observatory.