A bird watcher is only as good as the equipment he carries.
Binoculars are essential for bird watching. They are what lets you enjoy these magnificent creatures. They will have specs like 8×40. The first number is the magnification and the second one is lens size. Other features need to be considered like ease of use, weight, and optics.
I want to dive deeper into what makes bird watching so fun in the first place.
Understanding Bird Watching Binoculars
When you go searching for a binocular to buy, you will be bombarded with specs and terms. If you are a beginner, all these can feel overwhelming. Do not worry. It is not that difficult to wrap your head around.
Let me break down everything you need to know about them. I will also include an in-depth buying guide later on in the article. This section will focus on the more technical side of things and teach you the basics of binoculars so that you actually understand the specifications you need to look for.
There are essentially two types of binoculars that you need to care about. One is Roof prism binoculars and the other one is Porro prism.
Porro prism binoculars look more like traditional binoculars. They have the objective lens slightly offset from the eyepieces. On the other hand, roof prism binoculars give you the external look of seeing straight through the lenses.
Roof prism also tends to be more expensive. But there are a couple of advantages to them. They are much lighter and more compact. In the past, roof prism was significantly more expensive.
But since technology nowadays has advanced, the price has come down. So, you can go for these. Those who are looking for a bit cheaper option can also go for Porro prism. No matter what you do, avoid cheap field glasses. They are usually shaped like porros. But have a straight-through view.
When I talk about weatherproofing, I am mainly referring to waterproofing. Modern binoculars ‘ exteriors are pretty robust. They can actually handle a little bit of water pretty well. Water becomes a major problem if it somehow gets inside the binoculars though.
That can cause major problems for the internal mechanism. The inside of binoculars is made with complex and delicate technology. And water is a complete no-go. And if water is left inside them, there might even be mold.
You do not need me telling you that is very bad. So, binoculars need to be waterproof. This means the exterior should be designed in a way that does not allow water inside easily. This is quite important.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to get a pair of binoculars that are easy to use. That is where the straps come in. When you are buying binoculars, most of them will have straps.
These are usually narrow straps made of nylon webbing. It will usually go around your neck. This makes it easy for you to carry the binoculars. You will have easy access to it. So, when you need to quickly pull them out, they will be right there around your neck.
Not to mention, having a strap makes it much easier to carry them rather than always holding them in your hands. The straps are also a matter of preference. Some may prefer something wider.
They can be more comfortable. Another new addition is binocular harnesses. The straps on these will go over your shoulders and under your arms. So, it removes the weight of the binoculars from the shoulders. Which is, of course, much more comfortable.
You need to properly test the binoculars you buy. There are a couple of things you need to keep in mind for this. One of the most important things is proper alignment. If the alignment is off, then it causes a lot of eye strain.
Simply look through the binoculars. Make sure that there is no visible distortion. Also, the full field of view needs to be in focus. If you are opting for cheaper ones, you might need to deal with misalignment. This needs to be corrected.
However, even some expensive ones can have some variations in individual models.
Step 1 – Reset the binoculars on a table
Reset it on a completely level table. Make sure to do this in a way that they focus on a horizontal line at a distance. You can then look through each of the lenses. Step a little back and just look through.
What you are looking for here is that the horizontal lines in each lens are actually horizontal. They should be in the same position vertically in both lenses too.
Step 2- Repeat the same for the vertical line
For the right vertical alignment, both lines should be in the same positions vertically. Doing this will help you test the binoculars correctly and will also make sure everything is aligned.
There is also something very important you should note. If you wear glasses, the eye relief measurement is worth considering. For contact lens users this isn’t a major problem though. All binoculars will consider this.
When looking through the lenses, if you need to readjust it by moving them from side to side, it probably does not have enough eye relief. And if you can see a larger field of view without your glasses compared to when you look with your glasses on, that also means that there is not enough eye relief.
Look for an eye relief specification that states 15 – 16mm. You can also go more than this depending on what works for you. But 15 – 16mm is a good starting point. The confusing thing is this specification is different for different manufacturers.
So, you need to actually test it and look through the binoculars to get the right idea. If you always wear contact lenses or glasses, always make sure to wear them when you are testing the binoculars as well.
Another small detail to pay attention to is the distance between the two eyepieces. Some models have adjustable eyepieces. Those are pretty helpful for those who have eyes that are closely spaced. These are also great for a child.
Another thing, do not look through the store windows. It will give you a distorted image and will not be an accurate representation of the condition when you are out bird watching.
What you can do instead is look at a dimly lit area in the store. This will also give you an idea about how the pair will perform when you are looking at birds in shadows.
Okay, before we dive into what other things you need to look for, let’s talk about the specs first. You need to understand them properly to know how they will perform when you are bird watching.
Binocular specs will give you two numbers. They are mostly written like 8×30. Each set of numbers means something different. Let’s get into it. It is a bit technical, but once you get the hang of it, you will see these numbers are pretty easy to understand.
The first number, in this case, 8 is the magnification. Or you can say that this is the magnification power of the binoculars. So, a model that says 8x will make things you look at 8 times closer to you.
You might think that the bigger the magnification, the better. While the more magnification there is, the closer the object will be. But there are some disadvantages.
High magnification will enhance any movement. So, if you move your hands, it will essentially magnify as well. That is why having steady hands is important. Very high magnification might be troublesome for older bird watchers or youngsters who do not have particularly steady hands.
Your field of view will also get reduced. That is another thing to keep in mind. You do not want a very small field of view since it will be harder to spot birds on large fields. And it will also be a bit difficult tracking the bird when it moves around.
Okay, so that was the first number. The second number denotes the size of the objective lens. It is measured in millimeters (mm) and in this case, it is 30. The bigger the lenses are the lighter they will let in.
This will make it easier to spot a bird in shadows and darker areas. But just as with magnification, there are some disadvantages. One of the most obvious ones is weight. The bigger the lens, the heavier and bulkier the binoculars will be. It is as simple as that.
Holding a heavy binocular all day long can get tiring. Not to mention they can get difficult to hold steady as well.
Exit Pupil Measurements
The two numbers of magnification power and lens size will give you the exit pupil measure of the binoculars. What it means is the size of the light beam that enters through the lenses. This needs to be within the sweet spot range.
If the light beam is too small, then your eyes will get less light and the scenes will be darker. On the other hand, if the size is too big then your eyes will not be able to make use of all that light.
Exit pupil is calculated by simply dividing the objective lens size by the magnification. And it is measured in mm as well. In this case, it will be 40/8 which equals 5mm. A good range for the exit pupil is to be between 3-1/2 to 6 mm.
However, for older bird watchers, more than 4 mm is unnecessary. They will not get many advantages with larger exit pupil numbers.
Field of View
This is an important spec. A good field of view will make it easier for you to track the bird’s movements and also spot them. Following a bird around in its natural habitat is very fun. If your field of view is too narrow, you will have trouble with that – which beats the purpose of bird watching (duh).
FOV is described in degrees or within the field (at 1000 yards). Understanding the degree measurement can be difficult. So, you can convert it into yards. Just multiply it by 52.5.
Getting a binocular that has a very high FOV will tend to make them big. The prices can be higher as well. A typical binocular for bird watching will fall between 350 to 450 feet at 1000 yards.
You also need one that has close focusing. You can focus 10-12 feet which is always a great thing. And avoid fixed focus binoculars and close focus of distance of more than 15 ft.
The optic coating will reduce the glare. It will also make the image much sharper. It is pretty easy to find binoculars that have coated optics. Even some budget options will have a coating on them.
The difference is in the coating itself. All optic coats are not made equal and different manufacturers can have different qualities of the coat. That is something you need to keep in mind. Generally, expensive binoculars will have a higher quality coat.
Buying The Right Binoculars For Bird Watching
The size should be your first thing to consider when buying a binocular. You do not want it to be too big. Also, if it is too small that is a no-go as well. Many people may think that binoculars that are too big will make it difficult to hold them steady.
The same is the case for ones that are too small and light. You need to find the sweet spot for yourself. 8×42 or 8×32 is a good size. Some hardcore bird watchers that look for more power can go for 10×42 size models.
Then comes the budget. Of course, you will need to pay for it. The good thing here is that binoculars will come in a wide range of price points. You can find something between $200 to $1900.
So, it should not be a problem finding a pair that works for you and your bank account. Choosing one that is within the range of around $300 to $500 is a good bet. You will get a good balance of quality. And it also will not break the bank either.
If you are completely new to it and want to spend less on your first binoculars, then you can go cheaper. Those who want the highest performance can look for options that are over $1000.
Ease of Use
Look for something easy to use. Pay attention to whether it is comfortable to hold. Where is the focus button? Can you reach it comfortably? Just make sure the model you want to get is easy to use.
How are the fit and position? You need to look into eye relief as well if you wear glasses.
Brand and Warranty
Brand and warranty are important as well. There are a lot of models in the market. It is needless to say that not all brands will give you the same level of performance and quality. Look for ones that have good ratings and go with renowned brands.
That is the safest way to end up with a good-quality binocular. In the case of warranty, the longer it is the better. You should be able to find ones that give your lifetime warranties. Those are completely worth it and have higher resale value.
What might be an essential feature for some might not be the same for you. So, it is better to identify what features are must-haves for you. For example, if you travel a lot, then you might want to look for something lighter.
And if you wear glasses, ones with proper eye relief are important. Keep all things in mind. At the end of the day, you are going to use binoculars. So, you need to pick what you are comfortable with. It should work for your use case and be to your preference.
When shopping for optics, you must buy from a reputed place. A shop that is trustworthy and not just looking to make a quick buck is your best bet.
Also do not cheap out on the optics either. If you are just looking for the best deal, you might not end up with a quality product. So, it is better to balance price and quality here.
How Long Will You Use It For?
If you know you are going to use the binoculars for a long time, it is very much worth it spending a bit more on it. Think of it as an investment (which it is). A high-quality one will last you for longer and will be a joy to use as well.
On the other hand, if you are sure that you will change them soon, then maybe do not go too overboard with it. At the end of the day, you need to decide how long you will use it and spend it appropriately.
Lastly, there is resale value. Whether you plan to use your binoculars for only a year or two, or more, you will end up selling them later down the line. All binoculars will not give you the same resale value.
That is why it is better to go for brand names and quality products. Because when you go to sell it, you will fetch a better price for it. That money can be put towards your new binocular. High-end models tend to hold their value more.
Top Bird Watching Binoculars
- ZEISS Conquest HD 8X42
These are a marvel in engineering and are some of the top ones you can buy. In other words, these are expensive. But do not be put off by the price. It matches the features you get with this one.
First up the super great build. This binocular is built like a tank. So, if you need something very robust, you can go for these. The lens diameter is 32mm and has a magnification level of 8x.
That should give you enough magnification and the size will not be as bulky either. Do you know the best part? The 8×32 model is only one of the variants and is the minimum specs you get for this. That means if you are hunting for something more powerful, you can get that too!
Ask around anyone who knows their optics, and they will tell you what a juggernaut Zeiss is in the field. They make some of the most high-quality optics you can find and this one is no exception.
- Nikon Monarch 7
Nikon’s Monarch 7 is an 8×42 model. If you do not want to spend a ton of money, then get this one. The price point of this is great value for money. It can also be a good way to get into bird watching. So, these are great for beginners as well.
Just because these do not cost as much, do not mistake it for a low-quality binocular. The optics are still very good. Nikon is a reputable brand as well. So, it is no surprise that their binoculars are so good.
The large 42 mm lens means you get superb low-light performance. So, if you are out bird watching at night or when there is little light, you can still have a fantastic experience. Its build quality is superb and should last you for quite some time.
Another bonus is just how easy it is to use. The grips are very comfortable to hold. On top of that, you also get a strap to make carrying this around very easy. It’s also water and fog-proof.
- Celestron Nature DX
Okay, here is the deal, although the Nikon does not cost as much as the Zeiss one, it still is costly. But if you want a budget option, then Celestron has you covered with their Nature DX 8×42 model.
I would personally still go for the Nikon one but if you are on a really tight budget, this one should work fine. The build quality is not bad and should handle general wear and tear well. But I would not say the build impressed me. There is some room for improvement.
The optics and image quality are really good though. So, you shouldn’t face any problems there. The magnification is great. It is 8 times magnification as you can probably tell from the 8×42 spec I mentioned.
FOV or field of view was pretty good too. It can even come close to some higher-end models on the market. Overall, for a budget option, the Celestron Nature DX is not a bad one by any means.
- Vortex Optics Diamondback HD
Those who love the outdoors and are always on the move will love these. Vortex Optics perhaps managed to make one of the most durable binoculars you can buy right now. The build uses rubberized armor for its construction.
It makes for a robust chassis. Since it uses rubber, you get quite a good grip as well. It’s water and shockproof which increases the durability even more.
Another little detail you will love is how well it works with glasses. If you need to wear eyeglasses, these will be very comfortable to use. The eye relief is pretty impressive and gives you enough room for adjustment.
The lens is multi-coated which offers superb imaging. The reduced flaring means you get a crystal view when using these and the FOV is 393 ft. As a cherry on top, there is close focusing too! It is effective for 5 feet of distance.