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Picking the Right Binoculars

By James Reddoch 

I frequently get questions about binoculars, like what do I need for bird watching and what do those numbers mean? It might surprise you but for much of my birding career, I seldom carried binoculars. In my earlier years, I did not think I could afford binoculars, thought they were too heavy and cumbersome, or frankly, didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to use them properly. As I got older and more serious about birding (and my eyesight got worse), binoculars have become more important and I now consider them among my prized possessions. With spring upon us and birds who will soon be arriving on their annual trip north, I thought it would be a good time to answer some of the questions I often hear. 

When it comes to determining what binoculars are right for you there are a number of considerations. How you plan to use them, your price range, as well as your personal preferences are all factors. Understanding some basics will help you zero-in on what best meets your needs. not let a piece of equipment get in the way of getting out, listening, and looking for birds.

There are two basic styles or shapes of binoculars. 1.) Roof prism – the more common type used by birders these days, and 2.) porro prism. Porro can be cheaper but tend to be a little bulkier and heavier. Either style is entirely appropriate for birding. Your personal preference is what counts. 

What do those numbers stamped on the binoculars mean? Binoculars are stamped with two basic numbers – for instance 8x42. The first number, 8 in this case, is the magnification or power of the binoculars. The second number is the size of the objective lens, in this case 42. This second number indicates how much light is let in through the far end of the binoculars. An 8-power binocular is the most common for bird watchers with an objective lens of 42.  It might be tempting to get a higher magnification and larger objective lens. Bigger should be better, right? Unfortunately that may not be the case for bird watching. The larger the numbers, the heavier the binoculars and the harder it is to hold them steady. For birding, the sweet spot is around 8x42 or 10x42. 

There are, however, other considerations. My wife does not like my high-end (read expensive) 8x42 roof prism binoculars because they are heavy. She prefers her Opticon Discovery WP PC. They are 8x32 roof prism binoculars. They are considered light weight and almost pocket size. In truth, we are more likely to stick hers in the pack when we are hiking because they are so light and easy to use. However, there are tradeoffs with small and light. In this case, the smaller objective lens makes it harder to find the bird especially if it is moving fast, and they are not as good in low light. But otherwise they are a solid set that meet her needs and often mine, too. These are a less expensive set as well. And that is another point. Optics have improved since my younger years. It is now possible to get a solid set of water proof, fog-resistant binoculars for a reasonable price. 

High-end binoculars can cost over $1,000, but a good, serviceable, roof prism binocular set can be found in the $200-$300 range. For porro prism, you may find you spend even less. If you are shopping, here is a link which may help you explore your options

In all cases, I would strongly suggest you try different binoculars before deciding. I have made the mistake of buying binoculars without trying them first and have usually regretted it. Go to a sporting goods store like the Maine Audubon Nature Store, L.L. Bean, L.L. Cote or Cabela’s and try a few pair. You will quickly zero in on the pair that is right for you. 

My final comment on this subject - using binoculars takes practice. I know a lot of adults who tried them, found them frustrating and therefore don’t bother. Picking the pair that is right for you is just the beginning. You will need to adjust them for your eyes and face and then practice using them. Don’t get discouraged. Come on a bird walk with me this spring. I am glad to help you with a few extra tips that have helped me. Most important, do not let a piece of equipment get in the way of getting out, listening, and looking for birds. This is just a tool to help you get to know them better. There are many, many times that even though I have them around my neck, I can see and hear everything I need without their help. Good luck birding! 

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