Binocular-buying tips

Binoculars

When it comes to choosing binoculars for the cottage, it’s a jungle out there—seriously. There are more than 1000 models available on the North American market, and the amount of information online can be even more overwhelming. Once you’ve spend time doing your research, you’ll likely be no closer to picking a pair of binoculars and the baby woodpeckers will have long since flown the coop.

To help you find exactly what you need, we asked Pelee Wings Nature Store’s Mike Malone for advice on picking some binos for the cottage. He broke down the science into manageable bits to guide you through the process of picking the perfect unit.

Doing the math

All binoculars have three basic features stamped on them. An example is “8 x 24, 350 feet at 1,000 yards. The “8” refers to the magnification, which means that whatever you’re looking at will be eight times closer than it would be with the naked eye. The 24 is the diameter of the objective lens (the big end) in millimeters. The remaining numbers are field-of-view: at 1,000 yards away you can see a field of 350 feet across (linear field). Sometimes field-of-view is given in degrees, for example: 7 degrees (angular field). If the binocular models you’re looking at use different measurements, you can convert linear field to angular by dividing by 52.5. For example, 350 divided by 52.5 = 6.66 degrees.

Decoding the numbers

Now that you know what the numbers mean, where does that get you? Well, for hand-held field use, you generally want somewhere between 7 to 10 times magnification. It can be difficult to hold a 10X magnification pair of binoculars steady, especially if you’ll be on a boat or dock, so 7 to 8 times is generally best for hand-held applications. Anything bigger will require a tripod.

If you’re looking for a compact unit that doesn’t have too much weight to it, then a 24-32 mm objective lens would be a good range. The bigger the objective lens, the more light will get to your eye, so if you think you’ll be using the binoculars during dusk and dawn, when wildlife is more active, then you’ll want a larger objective lens. The trade off of course is that the larger the objective lens, the bigger and bulkier the unit.

Waterproofing

When it comes to binoculars, waterproofing means they’re submersible up to six feet of water. Water resistant or splash-proof does not mean waterproof. Why does it matter? Well, if you’re paddling, birding in the rain, or going outside into the cold from a heated room, eventually your unit will fog up. This can be fixed by warming the unit overnight, but really ruins your chance of seeing any wildlife. Waterproof or fogproof units won’t experience this problem, but will cost you upwards of $200.

Prisms and optical coating

Prisms and optical coatings account for a lot of the price variation in binoculars. There are two types of prisms, which spin an image around to put it right-side-up. There’s the cheaper BK-7 or the much better BAK-4. BAK-4 is a finer, higher density glass, which eliminates internal light scattering and produces a sharper image. 

Coatings can be put on all the lens surfaces—prisms, oculars, and objectives, and can be of silver, magnesium or flourite. They increase light transmission to your eyes and reduce reflected light bouncing back out, as well as improve contrast.

Phase coatings on good binoculars improve both colour rendition and contrast. There is lots of hype regarding coatings, with confusing terms like coated optics, fully coated glass, and multi-coated. The best binocs are fully multi-coated, an expensive process with molecular-thin coatings applied in stages and baked-on. In some binocs, all 16 glass surfaces are fully multi-coated. The very best binoculars, ranging from $600 to $2,000 in price, will incorporate this expensive process.

“You can look through these babies at something as common as a starling and still go, ‘wow’ at the incredible detail, contrast, and brightness,” says Malone. “It’s like someone turned the lights on.”

What to consider if you wear glasses

So you wear glasses and want to be able to use binoculars without removing them? Then you want some binocs with LER (Long Eye Relief). This is for people that wear glasses to help them see long distances. You should be using binoculars with your glasses, but the units with LER are made for you. Make sure it’s in the manufacturer’s specs.

Comparing price

Generally there are 3 grades of binoculars: standard grade, priced up to $200;  premium grade, in the $300 to $900 range; and professional grade, in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. However, the very small professional grade Swarovski, Zeiss, and Leica  compacts can be had for around $600.