Binoculars vs Telescopes: When to Use Which?

binoculars vs telescopes

Image credit: Airman Ricardo J. Reyes

In the broadest sense, binoculars and telescopes serve a similar function. They’re meant to take an object that is far away and give you the ability to examine it more closely. However, the degree to which they can perform this task, their relative prices, and the conditions under which they’re easiest to operate can all lead to differences in how much you get out of your purchase. If you want to get a great deal for the money, you’ll need to figure out which model best fits your needs.

Major differences

While we cover some specific use scenarios below and cover how those will affect which model is right for you, we’re going to start by talking about some of the major differences between the two.

The first big difference between binoculars and telescopes is the number of lenses and eyepieces they use. Telescopes use one of each, while binoculars have two eyepieces and two lenses. While this sounds like a straightforward difference, it has a lot of ramifications for the image you’ll eventually see.

Since binoculars have two lenses, they provide a wider field of view. However, telescopes tend to use larger lenses, which let in more light and can lead to crisper images.

The second big difference between the two is that binoculars typically have between 6x and 12x magnification. That means an image will appear six to twelve times large than it would with your naked eye. While you can find binoculars with greater magnification, they typically require the use of a tripod, as the slight movements of your hands while holding them will lead to a very shaky image.

Telescopes, on the other hand, start at about 20x magnification. High-quality models, which can run hundreds or thousands of dollars, may come with a spotting scope that provides 30x magnification, and a main telescope that can provide many times as much magnification.

Consequently, modern telescopes are going to be overkill for most land-based observations, and their zooms are so great that it’s nearly impossible to use them without a tripod. Consequently, if you’re going to be moving around, you’ll always want to be using a pair of binoculars. If you’re observing the stars, you can use binoculars, but you’ll be able to get the best quality for your eyes and camera with a telescope.

For nature watchers

If you’re going to be out and about in nature, it would be hard to find a better tool for sightseeing than a pair of binoculars. Most of these tools come with a neck strap, allowing you to hang them around your chest and have them ready for use at a moment’s notice. They have enough zoom to allow you to make out fine details at medium range. If you come across a stationary animal or bird, you’ll be able to make out scales and feathers at this distance.

If you’re going to be stationary, you can make use of a telescope mounted on a tripod, which will let you observe animals and other natural formations in more detail at the same range, or at the same detail, but from further away. The big problem is the tripod. You have to carry it around with you beforehand, adding a lot of weight to your excursion, and you have to take the time to set it up before use, making it bad for quick-moving animals or other fleeting events.

Overall, your binoculars will be your best bet while out in nature.

nature watchers

Image credit: Seattle Parks, Flickr

For astronomy

The telescope is generally associated with the night sky for a reason. If you want to get good, clear images of the moon, other planets in the solar system, or even faraway stars and galaxies, then you’re going to need to let in a lot of light and have great magnification. That’s a niche that telescopes excel in. Plus, these objects tend to move very slowly or not at all, which makes them easy to track with a tripod-mounted device.

Some high-end telescopes can even orient themselves in the sky, and come with a large, preprogrammed collection of thousands of stars and other objects so that they can spot them out without you having to know where they are.

Binoculars can also be used to examine the night sky. You won’t get the same degree of detail that you would with a telescope, and you won’t have as much luck seeing the sky in areas that suffer from light pollution, but binoculars can be a cheaper alternative to telescopes for people who want to be able to do other things with their magnification devices.

use for astronomy

Image credit: Mike Quinn, National Park Service

For picture takers

If you’re an avid picture taker, you’ll probably be better off with a telescope. While you can find adaptors for some binoculars, more telescope brands and more telescopes are made with photography in mind. Consequently, it’s easier to find an adaptor for your camera. Since you’re already using a tripod with your telescope, it’s easy to produce images that require long exposures or careful positioning, since you won’t have to add any extra equipment to the setup.

However, you might be able to get the same performance, or better, with a spotting scope instead of a telescope. Spotting scopes fill the area between binoculars and telescopes when it comes to magnification. You still have to use a tripod with these devices, but they strike a nice balance between terrestrial and celestial observation, as you can do both with a spotting scope.

If you’re going to be taking a picture with your smartphone, then you may actually want to get a pair of binoculars. While they aren’t super common, manufacturers do make smartphone adaptors for binoculars that allow you to use your smartphone to take pictures.

telescope with camera

Image credit: David DeHetre, Flickr

For campers

If you want a magnification device to take with you to go camping, you have a few options. If you’re going to be primarily using it on the trail on the way to your campsite, then you would benefit more from the use of binoculars. If you’re going to use it mostly at your campsite, then setting up a tripod isn’t a big deal and allows you to see long distances without leaving.

There’s also a day/night split going on. The binoculars are probably better in the day and give you a nice, portable tool to use for observing animals or other parts of nature that are close to a medium distance away.

At night, however, you stand to benefit a lot from the use of a telescope. You can see the starts better in the country better than you can in the city since you’ll be less affected by light pollution. That gives you the ability to see stars and other formations which you would otherwise be unable to see. It also gives you the option of taking crystal-clear pictures that you wouldn’t be able to get in the city.

telescope on tent

Image credit: Jeff, Flickr

For use on water

Generally speaking, telescopes aren’t built to be waterproof. It makes a certain amount of sense. If it’s raining outside, the cloud cover is going to block out any stars and render the telescope useless for its primary use case. Furthermore, they’re hard to use on ships that have any kind of sway or rocking to them.

So, if you’re going to be boating, a pair of binoculars is going to be a great buy. Not only are there a ton of models that are designed to be waterproof and fog-proof, but there are even models that are designed to float so that they’re not gone forever if they fall in the water.

Still, you should do your best to keep your binoculars from getting wet. While the internal components may not be damaged by the exposure, water on the lenses could lead to blurry images, and when it dries, it could leave streaks behind, requiring you to so some tricky cleaning.

binoculars on view deck

Image credit: scholty1970, Pixabay

Conclusion

We hope that our guide has helped you gain some clarity on when you should be getting a pair of binoculars and when you should be investing in a great telescope.

Telescopes excel when the object you’re viewing is far away, and when you’re able to use a tripod to stand still to keep the image clear. Binoculars, on the other hand, are better for when you’re moving around, and a tripod would be an inconvenience.

The good news is that you’re not limited to getting just one or the other. Since their use cases are so different, getting one of each can be a great way to maximize your experience, and give you crystal-clear views and images of everything from birds to stars. That way, you won’t feel like you’re missing out on a great experience, and always have the tool you need to make the best of the situation you’re in.