A great pair of binoculars can set your wallet back a bit, so it’s a good idea to know what you’re looking for ahead of time. This will ensure you find binoculars you’ll love and that will provide you with years of quality use. There are many facets to consider, including magnification, image quality, your specific needs, and your budget. Read on to learn how to make the perfect purchase that’ll fit your requirements exactly.
You’ve probably noticed that every pair of binoculars comes with a numbered specification, like 8×42. Fortunately, that’s not a multiplication problem. The first number indicates the magnification strength, which in this instance is 8 times. The second number represents the lens size of 42 millimeters. Magnification itself can be tricky to get just right. You might think the bigger the number, the more awesome the binoculars, but that’s not necessarily true. The more you magnify your image, the more hyper-aware you’ll be of every tremor and flutter in your view. If you get a pair of 15x lenses, you’ll likely need a tripod to keep the image still enough to see clearly. If you need to be mobile with your binos, a tripod-dependent pair is probably not what you want. If binoculars aren’t giving you enough magnification and stability, you might consider a spotting scope instead. But maybe the stronger lenses fit the bill perfectly for you and the distances you need to see. If so, just keep in mind that your field of view (FOV) will shrink as the magnification strength grows. If you need to see a wide terrain, higher magnification is not necessarily the best choice.
Your lens is a lover of light. The wider the diameter of your lens in millimeters, the more light your binoculars will soak up. This is great if you plan to do night sky viewing or bird-watching in thick foliage, as it’ll enhance your vision. But if you’ll be watching lions on a sunny savannah or whales breaching in the sea, the abundance of light will work against you and your image quality. Smaller lenses are also better for portability, as they weigh much less. A good, middle-of-the-road lens is around 42 millimeters, and on the high end you probably won’t want to surpass 50 millimeters.
Another classification you’ll stumble across in your search is prism type. There are two main types of prisms in binoculars: Porro prisms and roof prisms. The easiest way to tell at a glance which prism is inside is to look at the binocular’s shape. If the eyepiece is in a straight line with the objective (main) lens, it’s got a roof prism inside. If the distance between eyepieces is narrower than the distance between the objective lenses, it has a Porro prism. While Porro prisms have a slight edge on image quality and economy over roof prisms, they’re typically not waterproof and are less durable. You might lose depth and clarity with a roof prism, however, but you’ll make up for it with higher technical specs, better magnification range, more compact design, and higher-quality waterproofing. But they also come with a higher price tag. You can read more about the different types here.
This is where we get into the nitty-gritty of finding the right binoculars for you. Whatever your hobby or needs, there’s a pair of binos out there that will fit you perfectly. Below are some of the more common uses for binoculars, and the best specifications to use for each activity.
Birds in treetops can be hard to spot without the right amount of light entering your lens. If you want the best birding experience, shoot for decent magnification and a higher lens size. A 10×40 is near perfect for general birding, but if you’ll be observing in thicker foliage, you may need to nudge that up to a 10×50. This will narrow your field of view, which is typically fine for observing small birds. If you need to view a wider area, or if you find the image too shaky, you can decrease to 8x and still get a great image.
Being out on the sea gives you a real sense of our planet’s vastness, and marine observing through a pair of binoculars can truly amplify this feeling. Being on the sea usually means a lot of light, and coupled with the reflective water, a large lens is going to strain your eyes faster than you can say “Nemo.” Aim for a 30mm lens for above-water viewing. If you’re watching from the shore, high magnification around 10x is nice. But if you’ll be standing atop a rocking boat, higher magnification will make your images too shaky. It’s possible you’ll want to use your binoculars underwater, as well. If this is the case, you’ll obviously need a waterproof pair, and you’ll want to aim for a little less magnification with large lens size. Most marine binoculars fall in the 7×50 range.
If you’re hiding out in a blind, you want the ability to spot game from long distances. You also want your binoculars to be rugged and waterproof to endure the changing weather. And you need the capacity to track moving game easily. A great specification for hunters is 8×42 with a roof prism. These binoculars will give you sharp imaging, they’ll stand up to outdoor conditions, they’re compact and lightweight, give you excellent field of view, and you won’t get image shake when you’re trying to follow a buck on the move.
If you’re out observing the world in all its glory, you need binoculars that are portable, sturdy, and give you a crisp, bright image. An 8x binocular is going to rock your world in most circumstances, but because you may be viewing castles on far hilltops or watching bear cubs tussle in a distant den, you may need to bump up to 10x. Remember that higher magnification shrinks your field of view, however. If you’ll be basking in panoramas, go for the 8×42. For more zoomed-in viewing, 10×42 should be perfect.
When I say astronomy here, I mean casual astronomy. If stargazing is your thing, a telescope is going to trump binoculars every time. But if you’re out camping or lounging on the deck, a pair of good light-ensnaring binoculars can be just right. You’ll want wider lenses in the dark, but if you go with higher magnification, you might want to attach them to a tripod to inhibit image shakiness. A 10×50 is a great start for stargazing, but you can even bump up to 15×70 for some amazingly detailed imagery. Be sure to check out the moon, the Messier objects, and our own solar system’s planets.
Since most sports are played on a field, you don’t want to buy a pair of high magnification lenses that will narrow your field of view. You need a nice balanced lens that will give you zoom, width, clarity, and perfect light balance. An 8×42 lens will make you feel like you have the best seat in the house.
You may be a jack-of-all-trades sort, or maybe none of the above categories quite describes you. If that’s the case, you probably need a versatile pair of binoculars that will serve you in any capacity. Fortunately, there’s a perfect binocular for you. Go with an 8×42. If you want to shell out a little more, a roof prism will be durable enough to last you for years. If your budget is a bit tighter, a Porro prism will give you great quality, too.
There is a wide cost spread between different binocular models, specifications, and prism types. A Porro prism binocular is cheaper to manufacture, and you’ll always find these on the lower end of the range. Plan to spend at least $100 for a decent pair. A roof prism binocular gets a little more high-tech, and you’ll notice the difference on the price tag. You could easily spend $200 to $300 dollars on a decent pair of roof prism binos. The higher the magnification for either type, the more you’ll pay.
If you’re not 100% sold on any specific model or strength, don’t spring for a pair of binoculars online. It’s a good idea to hit your local sporting goods store and test out a few models before you decide. You may be an Average Joe, but when you pick up a pair of 8×42 binoculars, you might decide they aren’t as awesome as the 10×42. You may feel that the jag in a Porro prism binocular feels better in your hands than the narrower shape of a roof prism, or vice versa. The point is, the “try before you buy” method is crucial to finding a pair of binoculars that is perfect for you. After you purchase your perfect pair, be sure to clean them as needed and keep them tucked safely in their storage case when they’re not in use. This will ensure your amazing new binos will last you for many long years.
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