If you are a fan of birdwatching or in general like to watch the beautiful wildlife, you will need adequate clothing, a notepad to take notes, a book with illustrations so you can identify the birds, and most importantly – binoculars. And not any type of binoculars, but high powered binoculars, which will allow you to enjoy the magnificent view from afar and without disturbing the birds in their natural habitat. There are different types in the market, and we are going to see different types with different specifications. There are also alternatives that can be used, such as spotting scopes, which are basically half a binocular. Depending on the need, some might want to acquire binoculars with image stabilizing technology, or get a tripod, especially for longer viewings, if the binoculars are heavy, or for binoculars with high power of magnification, so as to provide a blur-free and stabilized image. Here are some binoculars with different features and price ranges that can be found on the market.
Vortex Optics Viper HD Roof Prism Binocular
These are premium quality binoculars providing everything you need and omitting the things you don’t, making it one of the most lightweight in its range. As the name indicates, they have a Roof prism system, as can also be noticed from their sleek design, giving better resolution and contrast of the image. The lenses provide high quality light transmission as a result of the anti-reflective lens coating. Movable eyecups allow for optimization for comfortable viewing with or without glasses. There is also a possibility to adjust the diopter on each lens for possible focal differences between the eyes. The design is waterproof and fog proof, making it a great choice for observing in changing weather conditions.
One of the most promoted things for this model is the high definition images. It offers impressive resolution and high color fidelity, thus making the images clear as day. What gives an even better image resolution are the proprietary coatings on air-glass surfaces which increase light transmission. Moreover, they are waterproof and fog proof. O-ring seals prevent dust and moisturefrom penetrating the binoculars for good viewing experience in any environment. The tubes are purged with argon gas – this is to prevent fogging of the lenses in different temperatures. The outer layer is made of rubber, which makes it more secure and less prone to slipping. And last but not least, the price. Although not considered as one of the cheapest in its class, it gives great value for money and is much cheaper than other binoculars which provide very similar features.
What is considered its biggest flaw is the fact it is manufactured in Chine. Users usually expect a product with a higher price and high quality features to be produced in countries which evoke higher fidelity of quality, like Japan. Apart from the production country, users in general are very satisfied with the product, and particularly with the following features:
- Value for money – usually half the price of a similar model from manufacturer Nikon
- Bright image, especially performant in low brightness conditions
- Clarity – provide good image for far away objects.
- Good warranty conditions
- Lightweight, ergonomic and compact for holding
Why you would want high power binoculars as opposed to the regular ones? As mentioned before, high power binoculars will allow you to observe an object from a greater distance. All the binoculars have a size with two numbers and an ‘x’ in between. For example, 10×40. The first number represents the power of magnification. So if the first number is 10, the object looks 10 times closer than I actually is and what you would see with a naked eye. When this number is 10, the binoculars are considered as high powered, and it is not recommended to use these types of binoculars without the use of a tripod. The reason for this is the largeness of magnification, thus making the need of a steady support necessary for a clear view. This often poses the question: How far can I see with the high power binoculars? And the answer would be: You can see as much as your eyes can see, but the objects you are observing will appear much closer. The second number, in our example 40, is the diameter of the lens or the size of the front lens. The bigger this number is, the more light enters the binoculars, thus the image is brighter.
Another number you will see in binoculars specifications is the exit pupil. This term represents the magnitude of the circle of light visible to the ocular of the binoculars. The bigger the exit pupil is, the lighter the image. To calculate the diameter, simply divide the size of the lens with the power of magnification number. (for binoculars 10×40, the exit pupil is 4). The exit pupil is a rough guide for sharpness. Binoculars with a large exit pupil will provide a brighter image in low light conditions. For normal viewing during the day, an exit pupil of 2.5-3mm is enough. For astronomers, the desirable size would be 5-7mm. An exit pupil with size larger than 7mm is a loss of light, because the human eye cannot be opened wide enough to accept and exit pupil larger than 7mm.
Relative brightness, as the exit pupil, is a term for image brightness. It is by formulating the exit pupil squared. So if an exit pupil is 4mm, the relative brightness will be 16mm. And as the exit pupil, the relative brightness should not be taken literally when considering the specifications, as it is not the same for all binoculars, depending on the padding of the lens, the optical quality… In real tests there are premium binoculars with relatively low RE which are brighter than binoculars with larger lenses.
The twilight factor – this is yet another mathematical formula which gives a number of details in conditions of poor lightning. The formula is calculated by taking the square root from the magnification times the diameter of the lens. So if the binocular is 10x40mm, the twilight factor is 20mm. The twilight factor also depends on the padding of the lens and the quality of the inbuild optics. A low priced binocular won’t have the same image quality as a premium one, regardless of the same twilight factor.
Eye relief is the distance between the eye and the binoculars where the binoculars still provide a full field of view. The larger the distance, the greater the eye relief, and is also adequate for anyone wearing glasses. Binoculars come with: Twist up, Pop up or with a soft rubber Fold down eyelids on the lens that go down and are suitable for people with glasses. These options offer everyone the possibility to see the whole field of view.
For those who don’t always wear sunglasses and don’t have 20/20 diopter or have different diopter on each eye, it is possible to adjust the diopter on the binoculars. This option is called fine focus adjustment and usually gives the possibility of adjusting one lens with different diopter.
Field of view is the measurement of the circular view field or measurement from site to site in regard of the subject of observation. It is defined by the width in feet or meter of the area viewable in 1000 yards or meters. Wide viewing angle means that the binoculars have a wide field of view. The field of view is determined by two parameters. The first is the power of magnification, so if the magnification is high, the field of view gets lower. For example, a magnification of 10x will give more detail that a magnification of 8x, but will not show the object as a large part of the field. The second parameter is the design of the lens. Wide angle design are lenses with high optical quality, but are more pricey. Cheap binoculars with wide angle lenses are usually not as sharp as standard binoculars.
Most of the binoculars have a button and specification will give you a ‘minimum’ focus or ‘close focus’. This is the smallest distance to which the binoculars can focus the object, meaning they will not be able to focus on objects placed closer than this distance. This is an important characteristic for some uses, such as bird watching.
Yet another number in the specifications is the distance between the lenses, or Inter pupillary distance (IPL). This number represents the distance between the eyes, which differs from person to person. Adjustment for this difference can be achieved by opening or closing the movable part of the binoculars so the lenses would be closer or further apart.
Binoculars can come in one of two different prism systems: Roof Prism and Porro Prism. In the Porro prism, the front lens is located further away from the eyepiece. These prisms provide a greater depth of field and in general provide a wider field of view.
In Roof prisms, the prisms overlap closely next to each other, allowing the lens to be in line with the eyepiece, and resulting in a thin, flat coated shape in which the lenses and the prisms are in a straight line. This makes the Roof design more appealing, but the Porro prism provides images with better contrast and overall better value for money. Most of the optical prisms are made of right angle prisms (BAK-4) or high density glass (BK 7). The former gives higher glass quality, provides a bright image and high edge sharpness.
An important thing to keep in mind when choosing binoculars is their size and weight. Most high power binoculars weigh somewhere between 1-2 kg but can go up to 5 kg. This means that the bigger the weight, the more extensive the need to use a tripod. And as mentioned before, a tripod is recommended for binoculars with more than 10x magnification power, as the steadiness is crucial for a good image. Another option to stabilize the image without using a tripod is using image stabilization technology which ensures instant stabilization of the image caused by motion. Keep in mind that this might make the binoculars heavier thus more prone to shaking.
A different issue with high powered binoculars is the field of view. When the field of view is smaller, the width of the image gets narrower, meaning it is more difficult to follow a moving object. This can be an issue in bird watching as they move fast, or even trying to spot the object, which will take less time when the field of view is wider.
A good substitute for binoculars are spotting scopes. They can basically be considered as half a binocular, as they only have one lens. Considered as telescopes designed for terrestrial observation, they provide higher magnification power than any binocular and are with higher objective size. While the one lens design of spotting scopes means smaller weight and size, binoculars provide greater comfort of usage during extended periods and give better viewing experience.
Review of additional products
Carson VP 12×50
The first thing to notice with this binoculars is their No Fault, No Hassle warranty. This means that if you receive damaged binoculars or you somehow manage to damage them, regardless of the cause, Carson manufacturer will repair them or replace them with new ones. There is no higher indicator of quality and durability than this warranty policy. The features of these binoculars include:
- Right angle prism BAK-4
- Fully multi coated – typical for high end designs
- Waterproof and fog proof
- Weight – from 0.5-1 kg
- Eye relief ranges from 14-18mm
Most of the users consider the 8x magnification as superior to 10x magnification of this model. The model is good for carrying and lightweight so it’s the perfect choice for concerts or biking trips.
Shortcomings of this product include the comfort of the eyecups,
Vortex Optics Diamondback 12×50
Considered as the ‘workhorse’ of the Vortex lineup, they are known for the premium optical quality and durability. Their multicoated lenses provide clear and bright images. The field of view is wider than any in its class giving you an efficient tool for easily spotting moving and/or small objects. The eye relief is achieved by the multi position eyecups twist option and the right eye diopter adaptation gratifies focal differences in the eyes. Argon purged lenses provide a unique experience as they are adjusted for different weather conditions and temperatures. The outer rubber layer and ergonomic design provide for easier and non-slip grip.
What makes this pair superior to others is the ergonomic feel and fit to hand compared to the price range it belongs to, which is relatively cheap. This makes it the perfect starter pack for newbies. Another great feature is the ability to see objects in low brightness circumstances. Moreover, the detail which can be seen via the lens is incredible.
One of the biggest flaw according to users is the difficulty to focus and get a clear image compared to the marketed features. Users feel the price is higher than previous models but the features are not that different.
Canon 15×50 Image Stabilization
What makes this model unique among the high powered binoculars is the incorporated Optical image stabilizer. This technology compensates for handshaking and even longer vibrations just by clicking a button. As the power of magnification is high (x15) this technology is essential to receive a clear image without using a tripod. The 50mm diameter of the lens provides extra bright and wide field of view. The contrast, color fidelity and clarity of image is ensured by the multi coated lenses who also have ultra-low dispersion index. The 15mm eye relief ensures comfort for glasses wearers. The outer shell is made of waterproof slip free rubber material making it perfect for different weather conditions, whether the sun is shining or in foggy or rainy days.
What makes it superior to other models is the image stabilization technology which provides a clear image viewing experience at all times, just at a click of a button. Good magnification with a steady image, so great for sky gazing and bird watching. There is no need to use UV filters or lens caps, as there is no glare when used in sunny weather conditions.
What can be considered as a drawback for this model is the weight. It weighs around 1.5 kg which is a bit much for a pair of binoculars which are marketed as not needing a tripod. So even though there is an image stabilizer, one might still need a tripod for longer viewing. Another thing on the cons list is the higher price, relative to other similar models with the same features. Of course, this is because of the stabilization technology, but using a tripod to stabilize the image is way cheaper. The image stabilization is good on land, but when using the binoculars at sea, users don’t get a very clear image as expected.
Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15×70
As the name implies, this pair comes with a tripod adapter which is quite convenient if you want to use a tripod, which is most probably the best way to go, considering the power of magnification. This model comes with multi coated optics and a large aperture which are features that provide good image quality in low brightness conditions as well as while stargazing. The diopter adaptation is ranging from -4 to +8 while the eye relief is 18 mm. They provide center focusing and are equipped with BAK-4 prism material. What is considered the biggest advantage of this model is the number of features it provides for the low price and compared to other models in the same price range. It is light enough to be hand held, but can be used on a tripod as well by easy attachment via the tripod adapter. The large 70mm lens provides maximum image brightness in low light conditions and big range objects, making it an ideal pair for star gazing.
What is considered as a disadvantage is the fact that the outer 25% of the view field is soft and blurry. As it is not very lightweight, extended usage will require using a tripod, which can be a nuisance if they are used while hiking or biking.
Celestron 52252 100mm Ultima Zoom Spotting Scope
This spotting scope provides magnification starting from 22x up to 66x. Features prism material BAK-4 and multicoated lens. The eyecup is folding and the eye relief is 18mm. The outer material is waterproof and slip free.
What distinguishes this model is the Built-In T-Mount Threading for SLR Shooting which provides the user to take photos of the object, allowing the scope to act as an ultra-photo lens upon an SLR camera by simply using specific camera adapter. The large lens provides a bright and clear image with high color fidelity. The price is relatively low compared to other scopes in the same feature range.
The biggest disadvantage is the weight of the spotting scope, which comes up to 3kg. This means that it can be used in the wilderness only when with a vehicle, but not suitable when walking or hiking. Another disadvantage is the need to purchase a pricey tripod in addition, because of the power of zoom that is recommended, amounting to a higher overall cost.
Choosing a good set of binoculars really depends on the features you are looking for and the ways you plan to use it. For occasions which require movement, like hiking, one of the most important things would be the weight and compactness of the binoculars. When birdwatching, the weight might not be a deal breaker, as for this viewing experience the binoculars can be attached to a tripod. What might be more important for this occasion is the power of magnification, as this can affect the possibility to follow the bird movement and the readiness to spot even the smallest birds from afar. Wearing glasses or being bifocal will evoke the need for binoculars which allow setting different diopters on each lens and provide good eye relief. The budget is another important point when making a choice. As seen in the products above, it is possible to find a good value for the money binoculars, without spending a fortune. And last but not least, the quality of image. Always keep in mind the conditions under which you will be viewing the object. You don’t want your experience to be a dark image with fogged lenses. Good luck in binocular hunting!
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