Being able to see distant objects in dim light is a common requirement in many hobbies and professions. Hunters and naturalists will often be out in the woods during dusk or dawn, which is the time of most activity for many animals. Sailors and boaties may have to navigate in twilight conditions.
Performance in low lighting is a major test for binoculars. The differences between different models will be much more apparent than when viewing in broad daylight.
Note that this article is not about night vision binoculars, we have a separate article covering those.
So, let’s get into it. I’ll give you one recommendation right off the bat. If you’re not interested in all the details, then this is a perfect binocular for the task. I’ll review more products towards the end of the article.
There’s a number of things about this Eschenbach that make it an excellent tool for low-light viewing. The one that stands out is that it has a commonly encountered magnification factor of 8x, while the lenses are huge at 56mm. This results in a very high exit pupil number (7mm). If you don’t know what this means, then in simple terms it means that the images coming out of this bino are very bright. I explain exit pupil in a lot more detail below.
This German-designed model has superb optics, as is common for European brands. You get all the lens coatings and BaK-4 prisms you’d expect from a high-quality optical instrument. The remarkable thing about the Eschenbach is that it has actually been designed with wildlife viewing and/or hunting in mind. It will perform superbly in limited light.
It’s not the smallest or the lightest bino out there, but that’s going to be an issue with any model that provides good low light performance, because you simply need the big lenses to take in as much light as possible.
Overall, I’d recommend having a good look at user reviews on Amazon – you’ll see that people (many of them verified buyers) are absolutely amazed by the Eschenbach Sektor 8×56.
If this is not quite the binocular you’re looking for (maybe you want 10x magnification, or smaller size), then scroll down to where I review other excellent products with different characteristics.
There are a number of things one has to take into account when looking for optics suitable for dim lighting conditions. Let’s review them one by one. This will hopefully give you a better understanding and allow you to make a good buying decision and get the best binoculars for the money.
Magnification is the most obvious parameter of any magnifying optical instrument – it’s how much bigger the objects will look compared to real life. Most binoculars have fixed magnification and generally I don’t recommend going for variable zoom ones.
I would not recommend buying binoculars with magnification over 10x. There are a few reasons for this. The first one has got to do with low-light capabilities. The higher the magnification, the lower the exit pupil number and hence the dimmer the perceived image. Read below for more information on the exit pupil and how it works.
Secondly, if you’re going to be using the binos while on the go, especially out in nature or on the water, you may find that getting a steady image from magnification factors above 10x is quite difficult.
Third, if you’re searching for and observing animals, you want to maintain some decent field of view. Higher magnification numbers mean narrower FOV.
Objective Lens Diameter
You know that there are two big lenses at the front of any binocular. These are the objective lenses and their size determines how much light the binocular can gather and “feed” into your eyes. Therefore, the darker your surroundings, the bigger lens you want to have to see well. This comes with downsides of course – binoculars with large lenses will themselves be large and heavy and limit the situations where you can actually use them.
For situations with low illumination, I wouldn’t even consider any lens size under 42mm. Diameters of 50mm or 56mm would be even better. The lens diameter is the number after the ‘x’ in binocular specs, e.g. 8x42.
If you divide the lens size by the magnification, you’ll get a number called the “exit pupil”. This may be a bit of a mysterious value for many people, but it simply means how large of a beam of light will exit the eyepiece and enter your eye. As you can imagine, the greater the number, the brighter the resulting image, which is very important for dimly lit objects.
Go for at least 5mm (e.g. with 10×50 or 8×42 optics). Around 7mm would be even better, such as with classical marine 7×50 binos.
Other Great Buying Options Reviewed
With some of the basics covered, let’s have a look at a few excellent products to consider.
I’ll start with this high-end option. It will not be for everyone’s wallet, but it’s one fine piece of optical equipment. It has a nice 10x magnification and this is compensated by the large 50mm lenses. Vortex is known for making very good optical components and this is one of their top-range models, so expect the images to be amazing. It has high density (HD) glass, and special anti-reflective coatings on the lenses for excellent performance in poorly lit conditions.
If you’re serious about your hobby or profession, be it birding, hunting, wildlife tracking etc, then this is definitely one bino to consider. You may be on the fence about the price, which is understandable, but I suggest you go have a look at user reviews over at Amazon. The feedback is nothing short of amazing.
Steiner is a German company known for making primarily marine and military optics. You’ll recognize their binoculars by their distinctive shape. You’ll notice that the lenses are spaced far apart. That’s because these binos use Porro prisms, which are often said to produce brighter images due to a simpler path that light has to follow. Though it’s significantly cheaper than the Vortex above, you will still get stunning views.
One of the upsides of widely spaced barrels is that you get good depth of field, which is good for spotting objects and gauging distance to them.
Steiner binoculars are known for their rugged design and these ones can take a lot of rough handling – something to consider depending on your intended application.
If you need a more budget-friendly option with the same basic parameters, have a look at this Carson model. They’re also 10×50 and of roof prism type, so somewhat more compact than the Steiner ones. This Carson product has been praised for high quality optics despite the relatively low price. Some users say that they have better brightness than some of the really well known binoculars models, such as Nikon Monarch 5 and 7.
All of the above binoculars models have 10x magnification and 50mm lenses. Those are good numbers, but may be a bit too much. You may find that 10x means that field of view is a bit too narrow or that it’s sometimes hard to get a stable image. 50mm lenses also make binoculars quite bulky and heavy.
So, if you want a really good general purpose bino that’s a bit smaller than options above, then taking a look at the Athlon Optics Midas is a must. These are some of the best rated binoculars, including by birders. Birders are very demanding people when it comes to optics – their goal is not to simply spot an object, but also to observe it in fine detail while enjoying all the colors and textures.
The Midas has 8x magnification which is great for most purposes and 42mm is the most common lens size for 8x binos. The optical elements in this bino are top-notch and it has been widely praised for its performance when used in minimal light. Users say the brightness of the image under dim conditions is astounding, going as far as to say that they’re only marginally less bright than multi-thousand dollar binoculars from high-end manufacturers. So these are some of the best binos you can get under $500.
This here is another product from Vortex. The Diamondback series is a much cheaper alternative to their Razor line-up. If you like the idea of buying a Vortex, including the lifetime warranty they give for their products, but you find it hard to justify the expense of getting yourself a Razor or a Viper HD, then absolutely do check out the Diamondback series. Price-wise I’d say they are lower-mid-range, but they are still excellent as far as optical quality and build goes.
The Diamondback line-up was updated in 2016 and includes great improvements to the ergonomics, weight and brightness, which is of particular interest given the topic of this article. If you have a look at the Amazon page, you’ll notice that the user reviews (many of them from verified buyers) are really good.
Note that the Diamondback is a whole range, but for good observation in lower light conditions, I’d recommend considering only the 8×42 and 10×50 configurations. These have a nice exit pupil of around 5mm.
One major takeaway from this article should be that exit pupil is of great importance when choosing binos for dusk, dawn and other dim viewing. You can buy the most expensive bino on the market, but even the best quality optics cannot overcome physics: if the magnification is too high and the lens diameter too low, your images will be dim.
When making your purchasing decision, first determine your budget. With optics, you get what you pay for, so be prepared for a high quality gadget to cost more than you initially expected. Then figure out your purpose: the best low light hunting binoculars will usually be different from marine ones, for example. Always remember to read user reviews and FAQs – these reveal many details you wouldn’t otherwise think about.
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- How to Choose Binoculars by Their Low Light CapabilitiesWhat distinguishes a binocular that performs well in dim light from other types? Read this article to find out how to choose great binoculars for twilight conditions.
- 4 Situations Where You Need Binoculars that Can Handle Low LightingYou can use pretty much any decent binocular in broad daylight, but it's the dusk and dawn where the quality of the optics really makes a difference. We cover some cases where this is particularly important.
- How Binoculars with Great Light Transmission Differ from Other TypesIf you are new to low light binoculars and have never really used one before now, you might find it difficult distinguishing the top brands from the regular binoculars some people use. This is even so because most binoculars have...