How and where to buy affordable binoculars
Ten questions to ask when shopping for binoculars that are right for birdwatching and won't break the bank
Published: February 1, 2006
|Read five experts' recommendations for birding binoculars costing under $750.|
See a listing of more birding binoculars for under $750.
From the moment on March 2, 1975, when I saw the very first bird on my life list through my very first binocular, I've been in love with optics. That first binocular had been a Christmas gift, a stocking stuffer from my mother-in-law, and it served me well, showing me the first 356 species of my life list.
Sure, it was what optics aficionados might sniff at as lacking in cost and quality, but how could I not love the glass that showed me Blackburnian Warblers, Roseate Spoonbills, and Whooping Cranes, to say nothing of that first little chickadee?
I used the binocular so much, and shared it with my elementary and junior high school students so often, that eventually it was knocked out of alignment. So four years later, I bought a new pair - not top-of-the-line, but a step up in quality. That binocular lasted 10 years (until our cat knocked it off the piano) and helped me get my life list up to 496. In 1989 I bought a pair of top-gun binoculars.
Were they better? You bet! After you have an opportunity to look at birds through top-of-the-line binoculars, you can't help but prefer them over less expensive models. But the jump in quality from decent glasses available at mid-range prices to top-of-the-line binoculars often isn't as great as the jump in price -- especially today, when more and more mid-range binoculars are being made with innovations that make them far superior to the binoculars available 10 or 20 years ago.
And I'm sure we all can name friends and loved ones who are just starting to watch birds. They want binoculars to help them see well but aren't ready to invest in the top of the line. At least not yet. And they don't have to. Binoculars don't need to break their family budget or your gift-giving budget to welcome another newcomer into the world of birdwatching.
|It's true that choosing a mid-range or less inexpensive binocular means you might have to go without fancy extra-low dispersion (ED) lenses available in top-of-the-line models, but even so, mid-range binoculars can serve pretty darned well. |
They deliver images of birds that are wide, bright, and sharp, and they accommodate eyeglass wearers. They are lightweight, comfortable to hold, and easy to point and focus. They make it just as much fun to study nearby butterflies as far-off raptors. Many will shrug off an unexpected drenching downpour. And the difference in cost could pay for a spotting scope, digital camera, or birding trip.
But there are so many brands and models to choose from, with lots of new features. How can you figure out which binocular will work for you and your budget?
If you look in the Yellow Pages under "binoculars," you'll find entries from camera stores, outdoor specialty stores, department stores, and big-box chains. You can also buy binoculars over the phone or on the Internet. (I know people who've even bought optics and camera equipment from eBay or other Internet auction or trade groups, with mixed results.) And, of course, you can shop at birding specialty stores, nature centers, and birding festivals.
Where should you do your shopping? Most non-specialty brick-and-mortar stores carry only a few models, and the binoculars they sell may or may not be suitable for birding. Worse, the salespeople may be unfamiliar with the special optical needs of birders.
Your best bet for finding helpful salespeople who are knowledgeable, even enthusiastic, about birdwatching and its requirements -- the type of people who were an enormous help to me when I was buying my binoculars over the years -- are birding-specialty stores, birding festivals, nature centers, some camera stores, and selected mail-order companies.
Regardless of where you seek assistance, though, keep in mind that when you come right down to it, yours is the only opinion that really matters. The binocular that's right for a birding buddy may not be right for you. And vice versa.
10 questions to ask before you buy
Best results -- the best possible welcomes to the wonderful world of birdwatching - come from binoculars that suit not only the budget but also the hands and face and eyes of the birder who will look through them. So don't buy until you've given thought to these 10 questions:
1. How comfortable is the binocular in your hands?
2. Can you comfortably adjust it for the distance between your eyes?
3. If you wear eyeglasses, do the eyecups work well with them?
4. Focus on the floor to see how close the binocular focuses. Then switch to something on the farthest wall and count how many times your finger must push the focus adjustment. Is it easy to go from near to far?
5. Look at items of different colors. How crisp are the edges?
6. How crisp are images at the far edges of the viewing field?
7. How easy is it to keep a moving object or person in view?
8. Is the binocular waterproof?
9. Can you return or exchange the binocular easily if you're disappointed with it for any reason?
10. Does the manufacturer offer a solid long-term warranty?
It's a lot to think about - almost (but not quite) enough to make you forget the reason we birders invest in binoculars in the first place: to get lovely views of as many birds as we can.
But just think. Once you finally settle on a binocular, you'll be free to stop worrying about choices and set your focus back where it belongs: on finding and enjoying birds.
|Fun to try: Image-stabilization and night-vision binoculars|
I have to admit I have reservations about image-stabilization binoculars.
They run on batteries, and the batteries generally last only two to four hours of image-stabilizing use, so you should be in the habit of carrying spares. And the technology is expensive - from about $275 for a heavily discounted lower-end 8x model to $3,500 for a top-of-the-line 20x binocular.
What's more, image-stabilized binoculars are heavier than comparable binoculars - so much so that many pairs are designed to attach to a tripod. Moreover, in order to stabilize an image, you have to hold down a button, and ¬image-stabilized binoculars are bulky. I found some models to be unwieldy, and my hands aren't particularly small.
Having said all that, though, image stabilization is amazing. It makes your view surprisingly steady even when you're shivering, your hands are shaking, or you're in a rocking boat or moving car, and it does so even at magnifications as great as 20x. The technology is a godsend for birders with Parkinson's or other conditions causing tremors, and I know people who have used image-stabilized binoculars to watch sea eagles in flight, to follow cheetahs running at full speed, even to study stars winking high overhead. All of these users swear by their IS binocs.
Night vision is another mystifying and amazing technology. It was developed by the military to enable soldiers to see in the dark.
The more affordable products are "Generation 0" or "Generation 1," but both have been far surpassed in quality and, unfortunately, in price by generations 2, 3, and 4. Devices now run from under $200 for heavily discounted lower-generation models to several thousand dollars for better technology.
Many night-vision products are good at helping you see infrared light, making warm objects such as birds and people conspicuous, but most do not magnify at all. Those that do typically barely reach 3x, so you'd have more luck spotting Clarice Starling than any avian variety.
Researchers studying sleeping birds may have excellent uses for night vision, but most birdwatchers would probably be able to detect and identify far more night-flying species using their ears alone.
Laura Erickson is staff ornithologist for Binoculars.com and a frequent contributor to Birder's World magazine. She wrote the species profile "The Uncommon Common Nighthawk" that ran in our August 2005 issue (page 44). Her book 101 Ways to Help Birds will be published by Stackpole.