After a decade and a half in the optics retail business, there are a few truths I’ve come across when helping birders find a good fit with the optics they to study and enjoy birds. Some bits of wisdom are about navigating through a selection of optics around some genuine limitations, such as budget, weight, and magnification. Other considerations can be more subjective, like ergonomics, brand affinity, and even nostalgia. One consistent truth for most birders with whom I have consulted over the years is that there isn’t one ultimate or perfect binocular. While that holy grail of optics may be eternally elusive for most of us, the following 10 points—steps on the paths to perfection—may just help you get a lot closer.
1. Pick A Size. This is the starting point of a decision. Learn about what the numbers on the binocular mean, and determine what size binocular is going to best suit your needs. For bird watching, most serious birders agree 8×42 is ideal. It’s a configuration that does well in low light conditions—dawn and dusk, when wildlife is active; has a generous field of view; is easy to hold steady; and isn’t too heavy to spend a day carrying out on the trail. If you want a little more power, consider a 10×42. If you want something lighter weight, look at an 8×32.
2. What’s Your Budget? Once you’ve settled on the right size binocular for you, the next step is to narrow the field of contenders by determining your price range. You can find perfectly adequate entry-level binoculars for less than $200. Better mid-priced binoculars will come in around $300 to $400 dollars. Some would call this the sweet spot in pricing, where you get some of the best performance for the money. Subtle improvements in clarity and brightness become clear when you jump up to the $500 to $600 range, with more notable performance advantages observed in the $1,000 price range. Beyond $1,000 we get into the super-premium segment of the market, where precision, durability, and performance are all at their peak. These are binoculars that will run north of $1,800 and are an absolute joy to use and easy on the eyes in any and all lighting conditions. Are these binoculars worth the cost? The answer requires subjective debate. I can however, with all objectivity, tell you that they are better than the rest.
3. What Is Essential to You? Determine which binocular features you can’t live without. If you wear eyeglasses, a binocular with long eye relief is likely to be critical for you. For some buyers, quality is the first consideration. Maybe you’re an avid butterfly watcher, so close focus is imperative. Identify the attributes most important to you as a way to focus in on binocular models that are contenders, and omit those that will leave you dissatisfied.
4. Ease of Use. A binocular has to be user friendly to be functional. When you grip it, does it fit your hands well. Is the focus easy to find, comfortably located, and easy to adjust? Be sure the binocular barrels fold close enough to suit the distance between your eyes. If the fit and operation of the binoculars feels awkward or clumsy, time to consider a different model.
5. Brand and warranty. With so many offerings on the market place in any given price range, it’s worth considering the reputation of the manufacturer and what level of support you can expect after you make your purchase. Some companies identify customer service and satisfaction as priorities worth investing in, while others may prioritize the sales aspect without much consideration of the fact that you may need service or additional assistance in the future. Along with a company’s reputation for service, take a look at the warranty that comes with the binocular. Lifetime warranties are typical for binoculars these days, and some manufacturers even offer no-fault warranties, which will cover accidental damage caused by the user.
6. Where is the best place to buy optics? Don’t shop only for the best price. You’re considering a serious investment and it’s worth knowing a retailer’s reputation for customer service and attentiveness to your needs, as well as familiarity and expertise with both your hobby and the optics. Binoculars are a piece of gear you are likely to live with for a while, so it’s good to know who you can turn to for information on warranty, spare parts, or other issues that may arise. The retailer is often your first resource for this kind of support and is likely more experienced in dealing with the buying public than the manufacturer is.
7. How long am I going to use this? Think about your investment over the period of time you will be using these binoculars. If you’re buying a binocular that is going to be your ultimate pair, then you might want to consider busting open the piggy bank to get one of those premium models. Not only are the optics great, but they are built to last. Some birders think of a binocular as a purchase every three or four years, and as a result, won’t want to invest as heavily in their binocular du jour.
8. Resale value. Not all binoculars retain their value equally. Some birders buy binoculars with the intention of using them until they wear them out. Others view their binocular as an instrument that they will use for a while, but plan to resell it when it becomes time for an upgrade or change in size. High-end and well-known brands tend to retain a higher resale value than less expensive options. Some binoculars will come with a transferable warranty that extends to a secondary purchaser, which is an added value.
9. How many binoculars do I need? Some birders buy one binocular to suit all or most of their needs, while others find it necessary to have a back-up bin, or to own binoculars with various magnifications to choose from depending on the habitat they are birding. In addition to full-size binoculars, lots of birders opt to own a compact binocular to keep in a glove box or hand bag in case of unexpected birding opportunities. Some birders keep a spare binocular next to a favorite birding window or on a weatherized porch.
10. There is no “ultimate binocular.” This brings us back to where we started. Finding your ideal binocular involves the acceptance of compromise. With high-power comes a reduction in brightness and field of view. Compact typically means less light-gathering capabilities. If you want the highest-grade glass in your binocular, not only will it cost you a bit more, but your bins will be heavier as well. Along those lines, at a given price range, the optical performance between various makes and models tends to be comparable. Even among the absolute best binoculars made today, there is little consensus on which is the top dog. If there were an “ultimate binocular,” the list of factors to consider when deciding among birding binoculars would be, simply: “Buy the ultimate binocular.”
So there you have it, ten tips guaranteed to make your next binocular purchase easier. For more information on optics and all things birding, subscribe to Bird Watcher’s Digest and keep in touch with us at birdwatchersdigest.com.