Bird Watching Binoculars
Working as a safari guide, I have always owned a pair of optics that could more than hold their own as birdwatching binoculars but also be really good general outdoor and wildlife binoculars. If you plan to use your binoculars for general use as well as birdwatching, I think that a good pair of binoculars for safaris are ideal, good all rounder's as it were.
But what if you are after a pair specifically for birdwatching? Lets go over how to choose and just what makes the best birding binoculars:
How to choose Binoculars for Bird Watching
As you will know, within the field of birding, there are many different sub categories and observing birds over long distances in wide open areas like at the coast or near a lake is very different to going birding in a thickly wooded forest. So it is impossible to say that this is the best birding binocular and leave it at that, you need to decide if you need a pair for a specific niche or if you are looking for a good all round birding binocular that will perform well in a variety of different situations.
Once you have done this, I think the best way to choose the right pair for you is to first take a look for all the features that are important for your type of birding and rate them in importance. Then all you have to do is find which binoculars have the most or if possible, all the features that we are looking for in your price range:
Getting closer for a better view is the main reason for getting binoculars for birds or most other applications and so this makes sense that the optical magnification, zoom, or as some people call it the 'power' of the binoculars is the first place to start. As you are trying to get as close to the bird to distinguish as much detail as possible, most people assume that the binoculars with the most powerful magnification are the best...
Bigger is not always better
There are a number of drawbacks to high powered binoculars the main ones are: You will often get a narrower field of view (FOV), less apparent depth of focus, a less bright image, and higher magnifications also make it harder to keep a steady, shake fee image as even the slightest movement is magnified.
A few things can be done to make the view through binoculars more steady, like attaching your binocular to a tripod using and adapter or even electronically powered stabilization, like the excellent range of Canon Image Stabilized binoculars, but this does not solve the other problems of having a smaller field and depth of view.
If you plan on using one pair of binoculars for all your bird spotting in a variety of situations, an 8x magnification is the most popular choice for a few reasons:
Wider field of view. You spot a bird high up in a tree and quickly raise your binoculars to your eyes. The wider the field of view, the more likely that your aim will be correct and that the bird will instantly be in the field of view, without having to search about for it. This is especially true for smaller, fast moving birds that don't stay put. Lower magnification in binoculars means a wider field of view, so many birders prefer 8x to 10x.
Better image stability. More power isn't always a plus in a handheld optic. A 10x image is shakier because any hand movement is magnified as much as the image is. Many people find they can actually see more detail hand holding 8x than 10x binoculars.
Better with glasses. When wearing eyeglasses, your eyes are positioned farther away from the eyepieces. How far back your eyes can be and still see the whole picture is called eye relief. It's much easier to find 8x binoculars with enough eye relief to work with your glasses than it is to find 10x.
So to sum up: 7x or 8x binoculars will work well in most types of terrain and in a wide variety of situations, forested areas to open fields. The images tend to be brighter with wider fields of view than higher powered binoculars. The wider field of view makes it easier to follow fast moving birds as well as scan for birds in the distance.
With 10x and even more powerful binoculars you will get more detail which is good for spotting birds of prey, waterfowl, and large birds or wildlife. These birds tend to be slower moving and are often out in the open, where the narrow field of view will also not be such an issue. When using a very high-powers (approx 12x or more), you will need a very steady hand or tripod or some sort of image stabilization and it is very important to stay away from cheap binoculars with high magnifications.
For more on using 10x binoculars, read my in-depth article on 10x42 Binoculars for Bird Watching where I discover that for some people and in some circumstances, 10x42 binoculars may be the ideal choice for your birding binoculars.
(importance of magnification 8/10)
The field of view is basically the width of the scene that is in view when you look through your binoculars. As I have already discussed with the magnification, a nice wide field of view is important and at the very least preferable for most types of birding and indeed in most bird watching binoculars.
This is because a wide field of view will make it easier to find small, fast moving objects like birds and provides a more immersive, big-picture experience. On the down side, you sometimes get a loss of pinpoint detail that you find in higher magnification binoculars.
In simple terms a lower magnification often means wider field of view. A field of view that is too wide will sometimes result in distortion at the edges of the image especially with very cheap binoculars.
So what you are looking for is a nice wide field of view within your chosen magnification. This is one way (amongst others) of helping you decide between two birdwatching binoculars of the same magnification, take a look at which has a wider field of view. For more take a look at this article on Wide Angle Binoculars. (importance of FOV 8/10)
For birdwatching binoculars as well as any other pastime where the subject does not stay still and is fast moving, the speed at which you can focus the binoculars onto it, is as important at the Field of View. This is because if you can't correctly focus on the bird quickly enough, you could miss seeing it altogether.
Using the focusing wheel should be an intuitive and as simple as possible. To achieve the quickest and best focus you will usually turn past the sharpest point and then back to it and any slack in the focus mechanism messes with this strategy. The knob should turn smoothly throughout its entire range and if you detect sloppiness while turning the focus knob, it raises doubts about the overall quality of the binoculars.
The focus knob should have a nonslip surface, so your fingertip gives a secure tactile feedback and tells your brain you don't have to push down hard for traction, just move your finger. A soft rubber surface with a pattern or ridges usually works well. Also look out for a fairly large wheel that is easy to reach and that protrudes out from on top of the binoculars, which will make adjusting the focus even with thick gloves on, as simple and accurate as possible.
The Focussing Mechanism
Most binoculars use a fixed linear focusing gear (although I have seen a few that change ratio depending on how fast you turn the dial or some that have different ratios at the opposite ends of the focussing plain, but they are not very common).
Another consideration are fixed focus binoculars (sometimes mistakenly referred to as auto focus binoculars, or sometimes slightly more accurately described as focus free or always in focus binoculars) These have a very large depth of view and once you have adjusted them to your eyesight, which only needs to be done once, they will be permanently in focus from a given distance to infinity. The obvious advantage of this is that you never have to change focus, which in terms of speed can't be beaten. On the down side,depending on the distance of the bird from your position, you won't always get the sharpest of images. If you want to learn more read my article on self focusing binoculars. (importance 6/10)
The size and weight of your instrument can be very important in some situations, and almost completely irrelevant in others, it all depends on how, when and where you do most of your birding. The size of the objective lens usually has the biggest influence as to the weight and size of a pair of binoculars:
Most compacts have objective lenses of between 25mm to 28mm. A light and compact binocular is much easier to carry around with you all day. Smaller binoculars may also actually let you see more because you're more likely to have them with you when you need them as you never know when a birding opportunity will arise. Compact binoculars are also great for when you're traveling, where you may not always want large high-value optics dangling from your neck and so it's nice to have binoculars that will tuck into a purse or jacket pocket.
On the down side, the smaller objective lenses cannot gather as much light as ones with larger lenses and so with all else being equal they will usually not produce as bright an image, which is especially noticeable in poor light conditions.
Full Sized Binoculars
Most full sized optics have objective lenses of between around 42mm. Whist larger and heavier binoculars may be more difficult to carry about, it may be irrelevant if you do most of your bird watching from a fixed location like a hide or in your back garden. Or for some people the benefits of a larger, heavier binocular outweigh the hassle of carrying them about:
Mid Sized Binoculars
For many people the ideal compromise will be a mid sized binocular which have objective lenses of around 32mm. These are becoming increasingly popular, and there are many good arguments in their favor. Whilst it is true that larger objectives can theoretically deliver brighter, higher resolution images, with magnifications of around 8x, it is actually quite hard to detect a qualitative difference between 42mm and 32mm objectives. In my opinion, at 8x or 10x, the quality of the optics and their coatings is far more important than the size of the lenses.
(importance of size and weight depends on how you intend to use them: 2 - 10)
This is very important if you use glasses and want to keep them on whilst using you bird watching binoculars. Take a look at Eye Relief in my glossary for a detailed explanation, but basically it is the distance from the ocular lenses where you will see the full field of view. Eyecups on the binoculars ensure that your eyes will be at the correct distance, but if you wear glasses, you can't get your eyes as close to the lenses, so you need to adjust the eyecups to ensure that even with your glasses on your eyes are the correct distance from the ocular lenses. Binoculars with a longer eye relief are ideal for those who wear glasses as they basically project the image further beyond the ocular lens, giving you plenty of room to play with. So if you wear glasses, you should be looking for an eye relief of at least 15mm, to see the full image full image. The down side to long eye relief is that it usually reduces the field of view. Some people wonder if you need to wear glasses at all using binoculars, well If you are near-sighted or far-sighted, you can use your binoculars without wearing glasses and the binoculars focus will compensate, but if you have astigmatism, you will need to use your glasses.
Eye-cups are related to the eye relief as they keep the distance from the oculars to our eyes, but also help keep stray light away from your eyes while using binoculars. Some eye-cups are made from rubber and can roll up or down depending on whether you use lasses or not. The problem with these is that the constant rolling causes the eye-cups to break. Another type are eye-cups that slide rather than roll, but these can be hard to keep in place. The third type are eye-cups that twist up and down and so they can be left at any position from all the way up to all the way down, some even have click stops at regular intervals with the eye relief distance for each stop marked on the cup so you can get the perfect eye relief for your vision. (importance 8/10 if you use glasses)
Most reasonable quality binoculars will be fine in light rain and humidity even if they are not fully waterproof which you may think would be fine, but even if you are not a "all weather" birder and don't plan on going out in bad weather, you should look for a binocular that is both water and fog proof and here is why:
Binoculars that have been completely sealed, often with o-rings will prevent any moisture from getting inside them. This seal not only prevents moisture from getting in, but will also stop dust, and debris from getting into the system which could lead to your view being spoilt.
Also look for binoculars that have been either nitrogen or argon purged. This means all the internal air has been replaced with a dry gas which will protect them from any internal fogging. This fogging can occur when you get rapid temperature changes or in places that have high humidity levels. A secondary benefit of this is that it protects the inner workings from corrosion because there is no internal moisture. For more information read my article on waterproof and fogproof binoculars (importance 6/10)
Most binoculars these days come with some sort of anti-reflective lens coatings on their lenses, which assist light transmission. Anti-reflective coatings can make a really big difference on the brightness of the image produced. For example I have often looked through binoculars with smaller objective lenses, but with high quality anti-reflection coatings and noted that they outperform binoculars with much larger objective lenses, but with fewer or no coatings.
To give you an idea, the table below shows the average Transmittance by type of coating:
|Per Single Lens Surface||10 Lens & Prism Surfaces|
|No Coating:||96%||(0.96) x Power of 10 = 0.66 66%|
|Single-Layer:||98.5%||(0.985) x Power of 10 = 0.86 86%|
|Multilayer Coating:||99.5%||(0.995) x Power of 10 = 0.95 95%|
So beware of these lower quality optics by taking note of how the manufacturer describes their coatings. "Coated" means a single layer antireflection coating on some lens elements, usually the first and last elements (the only ones you can see). "Fully Coated" means that all air to glass surfaces are coated. This is good. "Multi-Coated" means that at least some surfaces (again, usually the first and the last) have multiple layers of antireflection coatings. (A multilayer coating effectively reduces reflected light that cannot be eliminated with a single-layer coating, and increases the transmittance of light.) Multiple layers are about an order of magnitude more effective than a single layer. "Fully Multi-Coated" means that all air to glass surfaces have received multiple layers of antireflection coatings, and this is what you want in your binoculars. (importance 7/10)
Below are some binoculars that I have reviewed and that I recommend as great bird spotting binoculars.
I would love to get your comments and well as your opinions, have I missed out anything or do you think that some of opinions or assumptions that I have made are wrong? Do you want to or do you already own the ideal pair of binoculars for birding? If so please let us know what you think:
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