If you’re interested in bird-watching then let me extend a very warm welcome to the original Twitter.
Birds are not only various, beautiful, and secretive they’re also endlessly fascinating.
There’s nothing like spending a quiet day watching birds, it brings down your stress levels, stimulates your mind with fresh air, and gives you the chance to connect with the natural world – but only if you can actually see those small birds that blend into their environment!
Stress levels rise when your binoculars let you down. In fact, unless you’re looking at an ostrich, you’re going to struggle without good binoculars.
A pair of binoculars are the most important piece of equipment a birder needs, so let me guide you through getting a decent pair of second eyes so you have more chance of ticking a bird off your spotted list.
How Do Binoculars Work?
Binoculars are two telescopes placed side by side. There’s a telescope for each eye and they’re held together by plastic or metal frames.
Binoculars magnify an object using lenses to bend light. The first lens is the objective lens. It catches light from distant objects. The second lens magnifies the object.
But bending light means the light rays cross over and you get an upside view! That’s where prisms come in.
Prisms are what make binoculars heavy. They’re thick pieces of glass that reflect the light so your image orientation switches and it appears the correct way up.
What Do All The Numbers Mean?
Binoculars are sold with lots of numbers attached, but it isn’t difficult to figure out what they mean.
There are two sets of figures you need to pay attention to as they identify the specification.
The numbers on binoculars show magnification power first and then the lens diameter.
So, for example, a pair of binoculars sold as 7×35 means the object will appear 7 times closer.
35 refers to the diameter of the objective lens – the lens furthest from your eye. It’s measured in millimeters and determines how much light gets through. More light entering the binoculars means a clearer view.
But wait. There are other letters and numbers waiting to trip you up – be not afraid!
B = rubber eye-caps or push down eye-caps which are suitable if you wear glasses
GA or RA = rubber-coated binoculars with extra rugged protection.
Porro Prism or Roof Prism – That Is The Question
When you’re looking for binoculars there are two main build types on offer. These are Roof Prisms and Porro Prisms. The only real difference is how the light is channeled to your eyes – and of course, each has pros and cons.
- Roof Prism Binoculars
Roof prisms have their eyepieces in line with their objective lens so they look more streamlined. They are often smaller, more compact, and more lightweight than traditional porro prisms.
- Porro Prism Binoculars
Porro prism binoculars are the original binoculars. The eyepieces are not in line with the objective lens so they have a staggered appearance.
They’re heavier and more cumbersome than roof prisms but do give a clearer image because they have greater light transmission.
Another bonus – porros are cheaper because the technology is simpler.
Roof prisms are the most popular buy due to their good looks and lightweight design, but porro prisms can give a better-quality image especially if you’re spending around $100 mark.
Purists often use porro prisms and they work just as well. It all depends on how you’re intending to use them. If you’re out trekking for the day then roof prisms are light and more portable, but looking from your kitchen window changes the game.
To sum up – they both work just as well!
Consider Weight and Portability
Kitchen window birders don’t need to worry about portability, just knock yourself out with whatever you like, but birders after something out there in the wild will need to take a journey, and its likely to be an off-roader.
Ergonomic, lightweight binoculars are your best bet if you’re heading out. Bear in mind you’ll be lifting and holding them to your face numerous times during the day and that gets tiring.
Miniature binoculars are so lightweight that you can just leave them around your neck or pop them in a jacket pocket, but they don’t let in as much light as larger pairs so the visibility is reduced.
It’s a trade-off that only you can decide. Are you willing to carry a heavier pair of binoculars if it means that elusive bird is well and truly spotted? Good for you.
If weight is an issue then look for lightweight binoculars because there’s nothing more miserable that lugging excess weight around the countryside.
I recommended purchasing a decent strap that doesn’t dig into your neck because even the lightest binoculars end up digging into your skin. Straps that come as standard are not usually good enough quality. Look for something padded that’s adjustable.
And while we’re talking about portability don’t forget about carrying case weight! It’s a mistake we’ve all made and I’d like to pass on the wisdom. Carry cases can really add extra weight to the package.
Do I Need Lens Coating?
Buying binoculars with lens coating is a smart move.
Coatings improve light transmission which is all important because there’s no point looking through blurry, dark binoculars.
Lens coating boosts light as it bounces off the prisms and lenses inside your binoculars. Each time it bounces light loses some of its brightness, and you lose your view.
Coatings help brighten the image and reduce internal reflections.
Here are the main coating types:
- Coated – will have some minimal coating
- Fully coated – Don’t be fooled – this isn’t a full coating!
- Multi-coated – This gives a pretty good coating without the hefty price tag
- Fully multi-coated – The best of the bunch, lots of coating to brighten the bird.
Oh-So Important Magnification
Magnification is one of the most important aspects of binoculars, along with the objective view lens.
As we’ve seen above, magnification is the first number on the specification. So:
7 x 10 = magnification is 7 times closer
8 x 25 = magnification is 8 times closer and so on.
Simply put, the bird you’re looking at will appear seven or eight times closer than it is in reality.
You may think that more magnification is better? Not necessarily so.
A high magnification means the image is closer, but it will appear duller, and you’ll have a smaller range of vision.
A higher magnification also means you’ll have to deal with ‘effect motion’, which is when the bird goes out of focus because your hands are shaking or the wind is buffeting. A lower magnification reduces effect motion. If you’re shaky – opt for a lower spec.
For the best overall birdwatching binoculars, you should look for 7x or 8x magnification. If you’re hiding in a shelter and have a tripod, go for a higher number.
The Objective Lens Diameter
On to the second specification number folks. It’s an important one so go grab a coffee if you need a boost.
The second number on your binocular’s specification refers to the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters. The larger the number, the bigger the lens is.
The objective lens is the lens closest to the object and furthest from your eye.
It’s important because it’s the lens that lets in light. Bear in mind that binoculars work by bending light, so no or poor light equals no magnified image.
The larger the objective lens is, the more light your eye receives and the brighter your bird will appear. A mid-range objective lens is around 30mm.
Which you choose depends on your needs. For a bright image but heavier binoculars go large.
Personally, I don’t think you can go wrong with 7×30 or 8×30 when you’re starting out.
Are Zoom Binoculars Any Good For Bird-Watching?
Binoculars with adjustable focus enable you to zoom in on a bird. Standard 7x25s or 8x30s won’t zoom in or out and stay on their specific magnifications.
Zoom binoculars aren’t recommended for birding because the image isn’t always clear and they can develop more faults than others.
What does “Exit Pupil” Mean?
Another number to contend with, but be not a’feared. Exit pupil is basically a measurement that indicates how well binoculars perform in low light.
Hold your binoculars up to the light. See that center circle? the size of that should correspond with your pupil.
It sounds tricky but in low light, we generally have wider pupils at around 5-7mms. If the exit pupil size matches up, they are good for low light. Just for comparison purposes in bright light your pupil will be around 2-3 mm.
If you aren’t intending to use binoculars in poor light conditions don’t worry about exit pupil.
What About Waterproofing?
I think waterproofing is essential, and that’s because several pairs of my early binoculars were destroyed – once by a wet, boggy puddle and the second by a rainstorm.
These disasters occurred because I fell for ‘weather-resistant’, not ‘water-proof’. Weather-resistant binoculars may survive light rain, but not mud submersion or a proper storm drenching.
The inner workings of binoculars are delicate and need protection. Any water seeping in will not only distort the image, but it’ll also start destroying the components.
Just because you don’t intend to swim in them it doesn’t mean they won’t get wet. Accidentally dropping them in an estuary or river, wet, foggy conditions, and sweat can all cause a problem.
Look for O-ring sealed binoculars to keep out moisture and eye-guards that cover eyepieces from rain.
Another good move is to look for nitrogen or argon purged binoculars. Purged binoculars are filled with dry gas so they won’t fog up from the inside.
These defenses also keep out dust and debris that tend to get lodged in the lenses and block out the very spot that rare fledgling chose to sit in.
Cake crumbs falling into binoculars slung around your neck is a common way to destroy your equipment – be warned!
Do You Wear Glasses?
Oh, the crisis of whether to keep your glasses on when birdwatching!
I can tell you from experience that hurriedly raising binoculars to spectacles can result in a bruised nose and eyebrows, not to mention bent glasses, so take it steady!
If you wear glasses look out for binoculars with eye relief.
Eye relief indicates how far away your eye can be from the eyepiece before the view is muddied. You’ll need 15mm – 17mm depending on your spec’s thickness.
Also, check out rubber eyepieces that can be moved to accommodate glasses.
These keep out any extra light that can interfere with your view. Rubber eyepieces twist up and down, pull forward, or move in a variety of ways. If you’re wearing glasses keep them down so your eyes are closer to the lens.
But wait, if you are using binoculars do you even need to wear glasses?
If you’re near or far sighted then no, you don’t need them, but if you have astigmatism, then yes you do.
One thing – false eyelashes and mascara can smudge lenses and ruin a day out, so fellas keep eye makeup to a minimum.
Dioptre Adjustment – Excuse Me?
What now? Dioptre who?
We’re all individuals and therefore we have different sized eyes.
The wideness of your eyes is served by the dioptre adjustment. Set it to suit your facial contours. Binoculars should be stiff enough to stay put once set in place.
It’s important because it compensates for the differences between the strength of your eyes.
The Field of View / Angle of View
This refers to how much width you can see through the binoculars. Wide view binoculars are ones with more than 65 degrees apparent field of view.
Many bird watchers like a wide field of view, so it’s easier to spot a bird in the first place, but a wider field of view is achieved with lower magnification specs.
It’s down to your preference, there’s no right way. I don’t use a wide angle.
How To Focus Binoculars
An all-important step is focusing your binoculars. Here’s how.
- Look for the central wheel. Most have them no matter what the price
- Look through the binoculars to a distant spot
- Move the central hinge mechanism until you see one circle
- Now cover one telescope and use the focusing wheel until the image becomes clear
- Swap and do the same with the other eye.
- Set the dioptric adjustment with the hinge mechanism so the image is clear
- All set to go.
Few people will have the same focusing needs, so if you lend binoculars out you’ll probably have to reset them.
It’s quick and simple once you’ve practiced. I’d recommend doing it a few times at home just in case they get knocked out of shape in the field.
Do You Need A Tripod For Bird Watching?
Generally speaking, you won’t need a tripod with binoculars because they’re made for scopes which are single barrelled.
However, if you choose a pair of binoculars for birdwatching that are heavy – say 10x magnification plus, and you’re bunked up in a hide then a tripod is a great investment.
They help keep binoculars steady and take the weight from your arms. They provide essential maneuvering when you need to drink coffee from a flask without missing a flutter.
Look for sturdy adjustable legs so you can set a tripod up on uneven flooring. An adjustable pole is essential too or its backache for you. The central pole should also be sturdy otherwise it’ll be prone to floor vibrations that make your binoculars wobble.
Aluminum and carbon fiber tripods are available, the difference being that carbon fiber is much lighter and much more expensive.
That’s all a newbie birder needs to know!
Bird-watching is one of the simplest and least expensive hobbies around.
It’s an endlessly fascinating treasure hunt that requires patience and deep-seeking skills. Some folk call birding ‘the humane version of hunting’ and I like that description a lot.
Whether you enjoy the solitude of birding by yourself, or fancy joining a group for social fun a, decent pair of binoculars is essential – the rest you can muddle by with.
I hoped that’s helped! To sum up, remember that an all-round pair of good birding binoculars are 7x or 8x magnification – roof or prism is up to you. Spend as much as you can afford and then get to know your binoculars well.
A cheaper pair of binoculars well used are better than an expensive pair poorly used. ‘All the gear and no idea’ certainly applies to binocular purchase.
Good luck fellow birders, I hope you spot everything on your list and more.