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A Photographer’s Guide to Buying Binoculars By Scott Bourne

Summary: Read about a photographer's trek through the murky world of binocular buying.

I held my first pair of binoculars more than 33 years ago when Uncle Sam “invited” me to join the U.S. Army. I was at a God-forsaken place in Southeast Asia called Firebase Elliot. The government-issued binoculars in those days were the jumbo variety and weighed about six pounds. They were just one more piece of gear to carry with the 70 pounds I already packed on my back. I quickly developed an outright aversion to binoculars.

Since then, I have only used cheap opera glasses or occasionally borrowed a friend’s “instrument.” But 10 years ago, my wife gave me a nice pair of binoculars that I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, they were an off brand made in China, and while they worked very well, they literally fell apart.

Now that I am involved in some serious bird photography, I decided it was time to buy my first SERIOUS binoculars.

What follows is a report on my research, my experiences and my final choice of binoculars.

IN THE BEGINNING

If you photograph outdoors, binoculars are a valuable tool for spotting subjects. But I wanted binoculars that would do more than just help me spot wildlife or scenes for photography purposes. I wanted a pair that would double as good bird watching binoculars.

Before I could select the perfect pair for me, I went online and did some research. I was excited to learn exactly what all those numbers and specifications in the binocular ads meant. For those of you who aren’t rabid NASCAR fans, don’t hunt, attend sporting events or generally spend time outdoors with a good set of binoculars in your hands, you may find this next bit educational.

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

I had been using some $20 16x35 binoculars to watch birds in my backyard with poor results. You see, I didn’t realize that 16x binoculars offered WAY too much magnification. No wonder my head was spinning.

When you see numbers like 8x35 or 10x50, the first number designates the binoculars’ magnification. An 8x35 binocular makes something that is 800 yards away appear to be 100 yards away. A 10x50 binocular makes something that 1,000 yards away appear to be 100 yards away, and so on.

The second number in that designation relates to the objective lens measurement. This controls how much light gets into the binocular, sort of like a camera’s aperture. The bigger the number, the bigger the opening and the more light that enters. (That part is opposite of a camera. When talking about camera aperture, the smaller the number, the bigger the opening. Confused yet?)

Another number you will see bandied about is the rating for the exit pupil. The exit pupil is found by dividing the objective size by the magnification (i.e., a 10x40 binocular has a four mm exit pupil.) Look for a large exit pupil. When the exit pupil is large, you get a better low light viewing experience. For general daylight viewing, an exit pupil of two or three is adequate. Seasoned birdwatchers like a minimum exit pupil of four or five. This allows for better results near sunrise and sunset.

Another important measurement is eye relief. This is the distance a binocular can be held away from the eye and still present the full field of view. Extended or long eye relief reduces eyestrain and is ideal for eyeglass wearers. I consider 14mm eye relief to be the minimum acceptable rating for any binocular I would use since I do sometimes wear eyeglasses.

The final important rating is the field of view. It is defined by the width in feet or meters of the area visible at 1,000 yards or meters. Generally, as magnification increases, field of view decreases. A wider field of view – up to nine degrees – is considered a wide-field model and is desirable for wildlife viewing. Here are some other things to ponder when buying binoculars.

FOCUS

Most binoculars feature a centrally mounted wheel or lever that adjusts both eyepieces simultaneously. Some binoculars have a focusing device on one of the eye tubes that will compensate for differences in the strength of each eye. The feel of the focus wheel in your hands, and the time it takes to focus are key things to think about when choosing a binocular. Pay attention to the close focusing distance of the binoculars.

VARIABLES

I quickly learned during my research that there are lots of variables when buying binoculars. The “feel” of the instrument in your hands seems to be as important as the ratings. I also noticed that there seems to be more variation in quality within even identical models than you would find in a camera lens for instance. I can’t stress enough how important it is to hold the binoculars in your hands before you make a decision on which pair is right for you. So much of this is simple taste and preference that you cannot make an informed decision any other way. I also believe that HOW you intend to use a binocular may be the most important factor of all in making a selection. For instance, if you plan to do the majority of your binoculars work at sea, it appears that image stabilization (or some other similar technology) would be very important. If you watch birds at sunset, the exit pupil size may be your most important specification. Photographers who need binoculars to spot locations, will want to fall somewhere in between the needs of the casual user and the serious birdwatcher.

OPTICS

Another consideration is the two kind of optics that are available – porro and roof prisms. Porro prisms are the older style and cheaper to manufacture, but they are heavier. Some people believe they transmit a bit more light. It’s true that roof prisms weren’t quite as bright when they were originally invented, but special optical coatings, such as the phase-corrected coatings available from high-end manufacturers, have eliminated this drawback.

Most modern-day high-end binoculars – especially those used by bird watchers and photographers – are lighter roof prism models. In my opinion, roof prism optics offer a bit more detail. And they are as much as two thirds lighter.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

There are lots of features available on binoculars. Here are some that I consider to be very important.

1) I recommend waterproof (or at least water resistant) binoculars. You never know when it will rain or when you might have to work near a lake, stream or river. In other words, you may fall in and get wet.

2) Phase-corrected roof prisms. While porro prisms are cheaper to manufacture, roofs offer more detail and are lighter.

3) Nitrogen purged. This ensures that your binoculars never fog up inside, even if you go someplace steamy like the tropics.

4) Close focusing. It’s not imperative unless you also look for butterflies, but it’s nice to have. Look for a minimum close focus distance of 15 feet or more. The smaller the number, the better the close focusing capability of the instrument.

5) Weight matters. Not just to Weight Watchers. Try holding a heavy pair of binos up to your eye all day. For me, 26 ounces or less is the target.

6) A lifetime no-fault warranty. Why can’t everything be sold this way? I was impressed to find out that most good binoculars come with a lifetime warranty.

THINGS TO AVOID

Stay away from gimmicks. In my tests, the binoculars with gimmicks always did the worst job. For instance, stay away from zooming binoculars. They have poor optical quality. And beware of image stabilization. While it’s very important if you spend all your time on a boat, it is of little value to photographers. The tradeoff of poor low- light performance and clarity isn’t worth it. Also avoid fixed focus binoculars. They are to binoculars what fixed focusing and disposable cameras are to serious photographic equipment.

FAVORITE BINOCULARS

I recently looked through more than 25 pairs of binoculars, ranging in price from $100 to $2,000. Here are my favorite choices.

LOW END

On the low end, I was extremely impressed with the Promaster Infinity 8x45 binocular. At under $150, this instrument has all the right features. In fact, these binoculars have many more features than you would expect in this price range, including good coatings, good exit pupil ratings and a nitrogen filled optic to avoid fogging.

MIDRANGE

My clear favorite in the midrange is the Eagle Optics Ranger Platinum Class 8x42. At $379, they are a cut above some of the $800 binoculars I tested. They offer a perfect magnification range, they’re fast, lightweight, and offer a good viewing angle. They are also waterproof, feature roof prisms, and offer best-in-class 19.5 eye relief. They use multi-coated optics, phase-corrected prisms, and are nitrogen purged. They come with a lifetime warranty and feature good close focusing range. I own a pair.

MONEY IS NO OBJECT

The first time I saw the Swarovski EL 8.5x42, I fell in love with it. I had no idea how expensive it was. I just knew it was a great instrument. With a street price of just under $1,700, the EL series has it all. They are sharp as a tack, and they offer the best contrast and color fidelity available. The extra touch of magnification (as opposed to the usual 8x42) makes it just that much easier to see everything, even in very low light. They have every feature you’ll want and none that you won’t. They are the sharpest, clearest, quickest focusing, best clarity-providing binoculars you can buy. And they really will last a lifetime. I have a pair of these on order.

A LIFETIME INVESTMENT

A good pair of binoculars should be treated like a good camera. These are lifetime investments that should bring years of pleasure. You don’t have to buy the most expensive pair unless you need them. My advice is to buy the best you can afford. Handle lots of different binoculars to find the best fit for your needs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Bourne is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press,  His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.

Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He's appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of Photofocus.com, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, WA.

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