For the Birds Radio Program: Buying Binoculars, Part I

Original Air Date: Dec. 9, 2008

What considerations do we take into account when looking for affordable binoculars? WIth inexpensive glass and coatings, lower power can be a better buy.

Duration: 4′53″
  • optics


Buying Binoculars Every year around gift-giving time, people ask about binoculars, and this year the interest is higher than usual. When the economy is bad, a lot of us turn to simple pleasures like nature and birds. But ironically, the optics we need to enjoy nature and birds can cost more than a month’s mortgage payment or rent, or even many used cars, so this year most people’s questions are about how to choose binoculars they can actually afford.

My first pair of binoculars—the ones through which I got magnificent views of over 250 splendid species—were inexpensive Bushnell “Instafocuses.” They were 7x50s, but at the time I didn’t have a clue what the numbers meant. The 7 referred to the magnification power—how much closer they made an object appear than it really was. The 50 referred to the size, in millimeters, of the objective, or outer, lens. The bigger that number is, the brighter the image, but the heavier the glasses. I was in my 20s and had never used binoculars before, so the heaviness of mine didn’t bother me in the least. And they magnified birds well enough to get fine looks.

I didn’t know it at the time, but mine were a great configuration for inexpensive binoculars. As with most things, a lot of people seem to believe that bigger, or more powerful, is better, and you can understand why they’d think that about binoculars. If the whole reason you buy them is to make birds appear closer, then it follows that the closer you bring them the better, right?

Manufacturers make compromises on glass grinding, coatings, and precise configuration of the lenses when they’re cutting costs. The higher the magnification, the more noticeable those compromises, and also the duller the image. Within any line of binoculars, the lower power models are going to have better optical clarity than the higher ones. So my 7x glasses had the best optical clarity of their line. Another advantage to lower power is that you have a wider field of view, allowing you to see more birds simultaneously when watching migrating or swimming flocks, and when you see a bird and pull your glasses up, you have a better chance it being in view first try. Also, lower power glasses minimize shimmer over water and mudflats, and also minimize any hand shaking due to tremors or shivering. The one disadvantage to lower power glasses is, of course, the lower magnification, but I’ve found that you don’t actually lose any resolution—for the same model, any subtle feature you can see through 10x glasses is going to be equally discernable through 7x. I’d only consider 10x binoculars if price was no object and I were buying Zeiss, Swarovski, Leica, or the most expensive model from other companies. I used to have 10x40 Zeisses which I loved, but really, after comparing so many binoculars in my last job, I just don’t see the advantage of 10x over 8x, so I don’t think I’d ever want more powerful glasses than that anymore.

My second pair of binoculars were 8x Minolta Pockets, which were the best pockets I’ve ever seen, but I’d never ever consider pocket binoculars, and strongly recommend against them—there are far too many compromises made on optical quality to make them so tiny. But because I lug a lot of equipment, I do like small binoculars. My current pair is Leupold Katmai 6x32, and they are splendid—not much bigger or heavier than pocket binoculars and far superior in every way. Next time I’ll talk about other features to keep in mind when buying and using binoculars.