Binoculars for Hunting & Target Shooting in Low Light

This question comes from Brian, a long-time BBR Patreon supporter looking for an improved performance at dusk from their current Vortex Diamondback 10x42 binoculars:

Question

Hello, I just realized I’ve been subscribed to BBR for a long time, but never got around to sending a message.

I have a set of Vortex Diamondback 10x42s, but I am considering upgrading. They aren’t the best at dusk. I could probably sell the Diamondbacks and have about $550 USD to spend on a replacement.

  • What would you recommend for binos in that price range?
  • Or should I save up till I’m at the $1000 USD mark and stick with the Diamondbacks for now?

My primary use is long-distance shooting, a combination of hunting and target.

I like Vortex Optics and use their Viper PST 2.5-10x32 FFP and 1-4x daily on my rifles. Unfortunately, I had to use Vortex’s warranty in the past but was blown away by the service level.

Despite the excellent service, it would be nice to have reliability and a good warranty. I am not stuck on Vortex as a brand though.

I am hard on my gear; it gets bumped around hunting through the brush, put away wet, and rarely makes it back in a case.

Therefore, captured/attached lens covers will be a must. – 8x or 10x is fine for my use. – A reticle would be nice but is not a must-have. – I often shoot with safety glasses on, so the binoculars will require either flip cups or twist cups as well. – Limiting weight is nice but not crucial – Waterproofing is vital; drop resistance from 3-5 feet is also a good thing.

  • 8x or 10x is fine for my use.
  • A reticle would be nice but is not a must-have.
  • I often shoot with safety glasses on, so the binoculars will require either flip cups or twist cups as well.
  • Limiting weight is nice but not crucial
  • Waterproofing is vital; drop resistance from 3-5 feet is also a good thing.

Answer

Hi Brian,
Firstly – Many Thanks for the support, it is very much appreciated, and am really glad you finally got around to sending me a question, but sorry to see you go.

Vortex Diamondback HD 15x56 Binoculars

Vortex Diamondback Binoculars

As you can see by my favorable review of the Vortex Diamondback HD 15x56, at their price range, I think the Vortex Diamondbacks offer excellent value, and at this level offers very good performance, which I would say matches or indeed beats most binos under the $500 mark.

Low Light Performance & Exit Pupil Size
Your 10x42s should not be terrible in low light, but this configuration with 42mm objective lenses and a 10x magnification and the resulting 4.2mm exit pupil (42÷10) will certainly not be the ideal choice in very low light and you will get an improved low light performance with the same level of optics by increasing the size of the exit pupil to more closely match that of the size of your dilated pupils in these light conditions.

As you can read about in my complete guide to the exit-pupil, this can be done by either decreasing the magnification and or increasing the size of the objective lenses.

Long Distance Shooting
You say that either an “8x or 10x is fine” for your use, but also that your main interest is in “long-distance shooting, a combination of hunting and target”.

I am not sure what distance are involved, but if you wish to view a high level of image detail at distance perhaps 8x may not be ideal? What do you think?

Math:
Anyway if we do some math to help us take a look at some options:

An 8x42 gives us an exit pupil of 5.25mm (42÷8) which improves on your 10x42s and a generally pretty decent in low light (assuming they also have a good level of optics and coatings), but when you consider that a young adult’s pupil can dilate to around 7mm, there is still room for improvement.

By the way, I am not sure of your age as it is important to also note that with age your pupils are less able to open up and therefore there comes a point where a large exit pupil will actually be of no further benefit.

Anyway lets take a look at some other options, but also keeping in mind that larger lenses mean you have to carry about a larger and often heavier instrument:

50mm
Another common size of objective lenses is 50mm and can help in low light increasing the size or weight by that much:

So an 8x50 gives us a 6.25mm exit pupil or you could go for a 10x50, which will improve on an equivalent quality 10x42, but potentially be a fraction less able than an 8x42 in low light, but you have the advantage of the 10x power giving you a little more image detail.

56mm
Next up are binoculars with 56mm lenses, which I really like for low light and for me are about as large as I would consider for hand-held use – One of my all-time favorite low light performers is the Steiner Nighthunter 8x56 Binoculars which at around $800, maybe something that you would also be interested in (see recommendations below).

56mm binoculars have become really popular with some hunters, but it does depend on whether you want to have the extra bulk with you.

8x56mm gives you the ‘ideal’ 7mm exit pupil and any larger is really not necessary, whilst the 5.6mm exit pupil you get with a 10x56 binocular surpasses that of an 8x42, and you have the added bonus of extra image detail.

12x, 15x or even 18x 56mm binoculars are also available, but in these instances, you need to balance the need for image detail versus low light performance, increased image shake, and a reduced field of view.

Recommendations:

Within your initial budget of around $550 USD, I can think of a couple of excellent alternatives to the Vortex Diamondbacks that you have:

GPO Passion ED Binoculars

GPO Passion ED Binoculars

I tested the 8x42 version of the GPO Passion HD series which I thought was truly excellent with twist-up eyecups with plenty of eye-relief (which you need for wearing safety glasses), a very wide field of view, and excellent quality optics and coatings.

The build quality on these is excellent as well and from my own personal experience with them as well as the fact that I have had more than one person come back to me to say just how good the level of service they get from GPO is, I am sure it will be on a level with Vortex in this regard.

GPO Passion HD Binoculars
The GPO Passion ED is available in a 10x42, but If you want larger objective lenses, you will need to save up for the even better Passion HD series, where you get the choice of 12.5x50, 10x50, and 8.5x50 versions as well as 42mm versions.

These Passion HD binoculars are about $1000 USD and for sure would be something I would recommend if you decide to go for a higher-end product. You can read my full review of the 10x50 GPO Passion HD Binoculars here.

Hawke Frontier ED X Binoculars

Hawke Frontier ED X Binoculars

Coming in well under your initial $550 budget, I feel the Frontier ED-X from Hawke Sport Optics would also make an excellent option should you decide to stick with an 8x42mm binocular.

Much like the GPO Passion HD, they have plenty of eye-relief, an extremely wide field of view and an excellent level of optics.

I also like the tough magnesium chassis which is both water and fog proof, so should be able to handle whatever you put them through!

Steiner Nighthunter (Shadowquest) 8x56 Binoculars

Steiner Nighthunter (Shadowquest) 8x56 Binoculars

As I mentioned earlier, these Steiner’s are what I take out when I want the best possible low light performance on a binocular that is still relatively easy to carry about and use from the hands.

The level of optics and coatings is just about as good as it gets and this combined with the Porro prism design means that not only do you get a massive 7mm exit pupil but according to Steiner, an industry-leading level of light transmission (+96% across all visible wavelengths) as well. The downside is that this design does make them bulkier than a 56mm roof prism instrument.

Note however that the Steiner Shadowquest does not have twist-up eyecups, but they do have plenty of eye-relief and I am perfectly able to use them with my glasses on. I also really like the side shield eyecup design that blocks out any distractions and light from the side that I feel gives a more immersive viewing experience.

Also not that as far as toughness goes, Steiner binoculars are legendary and I am sure they will easily handle whatever you go through with them.

Price
These High-End Binoculars cost approx $800 / £800 – so would be the option you save up for, but I do feel they deliver an excellent performance to price ratio and quite a bit of a saving on your maximum $1000 budget.

Bresser Pirsch ED 8x56 Binoculars

Bresser Pirsch ED 8x56 Binoculars

At about $650 / £449 / €449, the 8x56 Bresser Pirsch ED could also make a very good lower-cost alternative and is more compact due to the roof prism design and I would recommend it to you if you were in Europe, but the German brand can hard to find in the US. Anyway if you are interested, it is always worth it to take a quick look, you may find them.

More Info & Further Reading

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