Clean Your Optics: The Unbearable Brightness of Seeing

Some years ago an acquaintance who had just retired from a long career doing maintenance on high-end movie cameras gave me an optics cleaning kit. I thought this was nice, but I doubted I’d use it much. After all, I always had my shirttail and a bit of saliva handy to clean my old standby binoculars. Then I got a major optics upgrade and began to feel a bit more protective about my new optics and their pristine lens surfaces. I used the cleaning kit and was knocked out by the results. REALLY clean lenses. I immediately cleaned every binocular and pair of glasses in my house.

A good optics cleaning kit should consist of:

  • A soft hair-bristle brush for whisking away dust, bread crumbs, sand, Cheeto bits, and any other abrasive particles that might damage lens coatings or lens surfaces when you are wiping the lenses with a cloth.
  • A soft cleaning cloth, preferably one designed specifically for cleaning coated glass surfaces—like a microfiber cloth. Lens tissues will work, but they do not seem to get things as clean as a soft, absorbent cloth.
  • A small bottle of lens cleaning fluid. The fluid should also be designed for use on coated lens surfaces—no Windex please.

Most optics manufacturers sell cleaning kits with their birding optics. These kits are also available from your eye doctor, though the brush may not be included. You can find a soft hair-bristle brush at a drugstore (look for make-up brushes) or at an art-supply store (buy an inexpensive artists’ brush and cut the handle short for better portability).

I always carry a cleaning kit with me in the field. One never knows where that stray dollop of mayonnaise will fall, and the old lick-the-lens-and-wipe-it-off-with-your-shirt strategy is a great way to degrade the quality of your optics. Each minute scratch in the lens coatings diminishes the light transmission efficiency of your binocs, and over time these scratches will drive you insane.

When I lead a field trip at a birding festival I often line everyone up for Optics Inspection. I ask the worst offenders (those with the filthiest optics) to step forward. Surprisingly these same people are usually the most avid birders in our group. After I clean their binoculars, I enjoying hearing the shouts of wonder, joy, and astonishment, including some expletives normally reserved for sightings of horned guans and ivory-billed woodpeckers.

I’m not sure why, but I get a great buzz out of cleaning the optics of others. It’s easy to do, takes just a few minutes, and the results are immediately appreciated. At a festival in West Virginia last year a returning attendee came up to me, handed me his binoculars, and said “Bill I’m so happy you’ve got your cleaning kit again this year. As you can see, I’ve been saving up!” Except for the plastic toy, there was an entire Happy Meal of food on the lenses of his binoculars. “This might require a backhoe and a pressure washer,” I explained. “Or you could invest in some new binoculars and a lobster bib.”

My cleaning kit lives in a side pocket of my birding trip backpack. I have a smaller kit in my field guide pouch, and a lens cleaning cloth that tucks into its own little neoprene pouch clipped onto my binocular strap, so I am never without some means for cleaner lenses. Carry your cleaning kit with you on all your birding adventures and you’ll always be prepared for the unbearable brightness of seeing.

Tips for Cleaning Your Optics

  1. Hold the binocs up and, brushing up from underneath, use the soft hair-bristle brush to whisk off any particulate matter. Brushing from below allows you to use our friend gravity to your advantage.
  2. Inspect the brushed-off lenses and repeat the brushing until all crumbs and dust are removed.
  3. Spray a light coating of lens cleaner on your cleaning cloth and apply to the lens with a light circular motion. For slightly unclean optics there’s no need to spray the fluid directly on the lenses.
  4. In cases of extreme lens grunge, spray the cleaner directly onto the lens and let it soak for a few seconds to loosen up anything adhered to the glass surface. MAKE SURE YOUR CLEANING SOLUTION IS INTENDED FOR USE WITH COATED OPTICS. You may need to repeat the fluid/cloth step to remove all the streaking.
  5. As a last step, a quick fogging breath onto the lens and a few soft swipes with the cleaning cloth will remove any streaking or residue from the cleaning solution.
  6. To check out your work, tilt the binocs so the light reflects off the surface (you’ll be looking at the lens from a 45-degree angle). Any remaining streaks will be easy to spot and attack.
  7. Go find some birds and enjoy your clearer, brighter, greatly improved outlook.

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