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Nature Notes: Binoculars

Ed Robinson
April 7, 2023

History tells us that the early Egyptians were the first to experiment with slices of crystal to improve human vision. By the 12th century A.D. early opticians were creating basic lenses from glass and putting them in frames to correct vision problems. Historical records show that the first person to seek a patent on a telescope was a Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, in 1608. His rudimentary scope consisted of a concave lens in the eyepiece and a convex lens on the other end, designed to magnify images three times. His claim to the invention was disputed so the patent was disallowed but the Dutch government hired him to build copies of his telescope for military and shipping uses.

We all learned in school that Italian Galileo Galilei was the inventor of the telescope but in fact his telescope did not emerge until 1609. To give him his due, it was an impressive 20 power scope designed without Galileo having seen the Dutch invention. Galileo later built a 30 power scope and used it to survey the heavens, learning a great deal about the moon and the planets in our solar system. Over the ensuing centuries many clever engineers and scientists contributed further innovations of the telescope.

The issue is that humans have two eyes, not one, and the use of both eyes gives us superior distance vision that we now refer to as binocular vision. It is impossible to say what clever person first put two telescopes together side by side but Johann Friedrich Voigtlander is given credit for producing the first portable binocular around 1823. Over the years, many innovations followed in lenses and focus systems at the hands of brilliant designers like Ignazio Porro and Carl Zeiss, whose names live on in the design of modern binoculars.

antique binoculars with leather case

Antique binoculars (iStock photo)

The upshot is that today we can choose from a vast array of binoculars from manufacturers around the world, at prices ranging from $25 to $20,000 or more. There is a binocular product out there to suit any possible need but the specifications, materials, features and marketing claims are enough to scare off many consumers. During a couple years of part time work at LL Bean’s hunting and fishing store, I had the opportunity to deal with lots of binocular customers. It was often a challenge to get them over the hump of buying a decent pair of binoculars without wasting their money or leaving them overwhelmed by the decision process.

The right pair of binoculars for you can be a source of great pleasure, whether you want to watch boats and airplanes at a great distance, to study birds in the fields and forests around home, or to see what your neighbor is eating for breakfast. Please recognize that no one product will be well suited to every possible application you may encounter. At the risk of giving offense, if you limit your binocular budget to $50 there is no need to read the rest of this article. Yes, you can purchase cheap reading glasses at Reny’s for $3, but if you have serious vision issues or spend your days reading small print, you need high quality eyeglasses that cost up to $400. If you buy inexpensive binoculars and expect to use them for serious birdwatching or star gazing, you will be sadly disappointed and you will have a staggering headache from looking through terrible lenses. You would be surprised at how many people are unfamiliar with how to properly fit and focus their binoculars to their unique vision.

There are some basic concepts to consider before spending money on new binoculars. First, we need to understand the numbering scheme that defines the capabilities of each product. You will notice that a binocular might be labeled as 7×35 or 10×50, along with many other choices. The first number is simply the power or the degree of magnification – a 7x binocular makes a distant object appear seven times larger, while a 10x binocular makes it appear 10 times larger. The second number describes the size of the objective lens (the end opposite the eye pieces) in millimeters.

What are the practical implications of these numbers? On the face of it, you might be tempted to think that if 7x magnifies an object seven times, then a 15x binocular must be twice as good, right? Not so fast! Notice that the 7x binocular is smaller and lighter in your hands, much easier to carry around or to hang on your neck. Those 15x binoculars are heavy enough to require a porter to carry them in the field, and in fact, few people use such powerful binoculars without a tripod. Such powerful binoculars are fine if you work in a lighthouse or if you are studying the rings of Saturn but they are impractical for most field use.

Please consider a couple additional points on magnification. Relatively few high-power binoculars are purchased so the manufacturing costs are higher, making them more expensive to purchase if you want a high-quality instrument. Even more important is your ability to hold your chosen binoculars without movement in your hands for more than a few seconds. If you intend to watch a pair of indigo buntings building a nest 75 yards away, you need to hold those binoculars rock steady or your vision will suffer quickly. Those of us past the age of 50 soon find that our ability to hold binoculars in place begins to suffer as we lose strength and small tremors creep into our limbs.

There are advantages to large objective lenses, such as the 42 mm or 50 mm binoculars that are very popular these days. In simple terms, the larger the objective lens, the more light that can be directed to your eyes. In the midday hours, especially in bright light, almost any binocular can provide all the light you need to observe small creatures at a distance. The difference arises early and late in the day, in poor weather, or when you are birding in a forest with lots of overhead cover. Those big lenses can allow you to observe a fisher or owl on the move soon after dawn or just before twilight descends upon the day. The rule of thumb is that the number of your objective lenses should be at least four times the magnification power of your binocular, for instance 8×32. This is especially important in lower cost binoculars where the lens quality is suboptimal.

Of course, big lenses have their downsides, starting with bulk and weight. I find that any binocular that weighs more than 24 – 26 ounces can be uncomfortable on my neck after an extended period hiking or in an observation post. Make sure that you have a wide strap, ideally with some flexibility to ease the strain on your neck (neoprene is great for this application). I often use a chest harness that puts most of the weight on my shoulders and keeps the binoculars from bouncing on my chest as I walk. Still, you should consider whether you will use the light gathering ability of large objective lenses enough to justify their bulk and often, higher expense.

High powered binoculars like the 10x – 15x models are great if you are looking at relatively fixed objects at a distance, assuming you can support them with a minimum of vibration. 7x – 9x models are preferred if you are often on the move and your chosen subjects are going even faster. It can be difficult to spot a quick moving animal and bring those high-powered binoculars to your eyes with any kind of speed and accuracy. One of the considerations you should consider in your buying decision is the field of view – how wide is the sight window through your binoculars. Not surprisingly, inexpensive binoculars often suffer on this point.

I own multiple binoculars including inexpensive 7×35’s that I leave in my boat, to the lightweight Leupold 9×25’s that often ride on my belt or in my pack on long hikes or fishing/hunting trips. My truck carries my Nikon Monarch 10×42’s for spotting distant wildlife along the highways when I travel. For serious birding adventures, I alternate between my Kahles 8×32’s for close encounters in heavy cover and the 10×42’s for wide open country like Wyoming. If I had to pick just one pair of binoculars for most of my jaunts, it would be the 8×32’s since they are made with high quality, distortion-free glass, they are easy to carry, and they are fast on target if I am trying to track an elusive warbler darting through heavy cover.

There are several other considerations that affect the price and the practical value of binoculars. I would not consider a binocular that was not tested as fog proof and waterproof. This is not because I intend to drop them in the ocean, but I am often outdoors in poor weather. On a cold, frosty morning if I go from a warm cabin to the outdoors, I want to ensure the binoculars will not fog up for an extended period of uselessness. Durability is also important because bumps will occur and you do not want all those expensive lenses to be knocked out of alignment. Ideally your binoculars will have a coating like rubber to absorb vibrations.

When you come down to it, the quality of your binoculars is mostly determined by the lenses – how they are made, how precisely they are ground and polished, the coatings applied to them and the way they are arranged within the twin tubes of the binocular. It is not possible to go into all aspects of lenses here but please consider that you generally get what you pay for in this regard. If you carefully compare a $100 binocular from Joe’s Discount Sporting Goods with a $3,000 pair of Zeiss, Swarovski or Leica binoculars, particularly in demanding conditions, you will see a demonstrable difference. Paying more for extra low dispersion glass is useful. Getting better clarity and color rendition all the way to the edge of your view is important. Multi-coated lenses all the way through the binocular will improve light transmission and prevent distortion that can lead to poor visibility and eye strain.

Unless you are blessed with a big trust fund, money talks when buying binoculars. But consider that a good pair of glasses will last through your lifetime with proper care and be handed down to a deserving child or grandchild with an interest in the outdoors. If I lost the 3 pairs of cheap binoculars in my possession, it would be no big deal, but I take very good care of those Kahles binoculars. Another consideration is that good binoculars come with excellent warranties, in many cases, for a lifetime of repairs and tune ups.

Over the years I have been asked many times to recommend a reasonably priced, functional pair of binoculars for friends with general usage in mind. If you can afford $1000 or more, go for it; those Leica, Zeiss or Swarovski binoculars will be heirloom quality if you buy the right pair for you. For most people, spending $300 – 400 will allow them to buy very respectable binoculars that will handle almost any field or weather conditions and a broad range of uses. The brand names I would consider include Nikon, Leupold, Celestron, Vortex and Opticron.

No matter what, please make sure to wear and handle binoculars, and to test them before buying, ideally outdoors. Borrow some from friends to compare and contrast, and look for details and color in dark corners, not just bright sunlight. If you push me for a single recommendation, it has been and remains the Nikon Monarch M5 or M7 glasses – no one who bought these on my advice has registered anything but delight with their purchase. Get out there and good luck!

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.