Virtually every big game hunter uses them. They are arguably our most important piece of equipment. Granting a magnified view of distance subjects, binoculars are invaluable; but not every pair mind you. Like most other gear, they are not all created equal. Each is designed for a specific application. Marketing hype leads us to believe that quality is commensurate with cost, but we all know that's not always the case. Popular brands have been on the market for decades but if you follow industry trends you'll notice an interesting shift. More and more new manufacturers are launching their version into the marketplace each year. Deciding which binocular is best for you and then how to best use them can make or break both your wallet and your hunting.
We've all been there at one time or another. Realizing we can't function without a good set of binoculars, we begin our investigative foray into the complex world of optics. Which one do we choose? A potentially daunting task, we're soon confronted with terminology like magnification, objective lens, focus system, field of view, and more. Then there are always additional considerations like weight, size, finish, and the list goes on! Confusing at best, here are a few of the things I've learned in my ongoing quest for the right optics. As a rule I've learned to acknowledge, but not get caught up in, the high-tech lingo and pay more attention to the basic information that's most relevant to me. Hopefully these things will help make your search a little easier and translate the optical dictionary into everyday language.
Application is the most important consideration. You'll need to determine whether the binoculars will primarily be used for hunting, boating, wildlife viewing, or whatever. For example, sheep hunters are constantly searching for the ideal mix of lightweight, high quality, high-powered, and durable optics. In contrast, waterfowl hunters using their binoculars to scout fields and waterways are typically less concerned with weight and size. If your binocular is going to stay in the vehicle, again size and durability may not be as big a concern. On the other hand, if your field glasses are constantly in and out of your backpack, durability may be more of a consideration. Between my wife and I, we own both compact lightweight 7x21 binoculars and full sized 10x50 as well as 11x45 binoculars. Each has its intended use.
I wish I could offer more academic advice here, but brand choice is really a matter of personal preference. When we think of affordable quality optics, most of us immediately recognize names like Bushnell, Leupold, Nikon, Brunton, and Burris. Mention top-of-the-line optics with a premium price tag and names like Swarovski, Zeiss, Leica, and Steiner come to mind. What many of us don't know is that there are many other brand name options out there. Representing everything from econo-versions right through to high end optics; companies like Vortex, Alpen, Barska, Carson, Celestron, Canon, and Pentax are making binoculars worth a closer look.
Aside from the size, durability, and cost you'll want to look at several other technical aspects. As you begin your search for a suitable binocular, the most obvious decision before you is choosing a desired power or magnification. Embossed on the binoculars are numbers such as 7x21, 8x42, 10x42, 11x45, 15x56, etc. In lay terms, the higher the first number, the greater the magnifying capability of the optic, i.e., 10x is more powerful than 8x and 11x is more powerful that 10x. With a 10x binocular for example, the subject will appear 10 times closer than it would with the naked eye.
It is important to recognize that higher magnifications are more difficult to steady. They also have a narrower field of view and they generally gather less light than lower-powered binoculars. With the growing popularity of higher-powered binoculars such as 10x and 12x, many outdoorsmen are using mounting systems adaptable to a tripod or window mount to stabilize their optics.
Some manufacturers make a zoom lens binocular, for instance the Pentax UCF Zoom II 8-16x21 compact porro prism binocular. Myself, I believe fixed power binoculars are generally better but again, the choice to go with a fixed or variable zoom binocular is a matter of personal preference.
The latter number refers to diameter of the objective lens (the larger lens at the front of the binos) measured in millimeters. As you're choosing which binocular to go with, remember the bigger the objective lens the brighter the image will appear. This is why you'll often see a bigger objective lens with a higher-powered binocular; it increases the light gathering capability. This is an especially important consideration for those of us who use our optics under low light conditions on overcast days or early in the morning and late in the evening.
Porro Prism vs. Roof Prism
Today's binoculars come in to different designs: Porro Prism and Roof Prism. Porro Prism designs are made with an offset objective lens. In principal, this offers better depth perception and a wider field-of-view. One of the drawbacks is that they are generally more bulky. The Roof Prism design lines up the objective lenses directly with the eyepiece. In turn, they are less bulky than comparable models in a porro prism design.
Focus/Field of View
Another factor worth consideration is field of view. As you look through the lens of the binocular, this is the distance in width that can be seen, i.e., the number of feet per 1000 yards (or number of metres/1000 metres). As with cameras, some binoculars are considered wide angle and as such have a greater than average field of view.
Then there's the focus feature. Some binoculars are focus-free. This means they are always in focus. In my opinion these don't allow the user to fine-tune the focus as precisely as do those with a manual focus option. On that note, most have a centre focus wheel. This allows the user to literally dial the lens into the desired position to bring the subject into focus. A typical scenario might be glassing a moose through a narrow opening in the trees. By dialing the focus wheel the user is able to focus on the distant moose while blurring nearby trees and branches. Many top end binoculars have an additional fine-tuning focus dial option that allows the user to initially focus the right eye individually and then bring the left into focus with the primary focus wheel.
The weight of the binocular is another factor related to application. Those of us who spend time in the backcountry often carry everything on our backs or wear our binoculars around our necks. We know that every ounce counts. Alternatively, if our optics stay at our side on the console or dash of our trucks, weight likely isn't a big concern. Small pocket-sized binoculars (e.g., 8x20) can weigh as little as 7 ounces and high-powered binoculars (e.g., 12x50) can weigh as much as 37 ounces. Most of us will decide on something like an 8x42 or 10x42 binocular. These will usually weigh in somewhere between 27 and 30 ounces.
Weather and Shock Proof
In many instances we get what we pay for, but price tag shouldn't be the only consideration. For those of us who use our binoculars in all types of weather conditions and are hard on them, a shockproof and weather resistant finish is critical. Many binoculars are now made with a rubberized armor coating, e.g., Bushnell's RAINGUARD® finish. Constantly bumped and banged around, binoculars are always at risk of being damaged. Thankfully, many manufacturers have taken steps to shockproof their optics. These are often available in a black, green or a camouflage finish.
In my opinion having a waterproof and fog-proof binocular is an absolute must. I use them outdoors in uncontrolled situations all the time. One day it'll be in the fog, the next in the rain, and inevitably in the snow. Sometimes the snow is dry, but every once in a while it's a heavy wet snow. Likewise, if I'm carrying my binoculars close to my torso, body heat inevitably creates perspiration and that can wreak havoc on unprotected lenses. If moisture gets inside, they become useless. Particularly when I'm hunting, the last thing I want is fogged lenses when a big whitetail or bighorn sheep steps out in front of me.
Too often we consider cost before all other factors. Practically speaking most of us just can't afford to pay half a month's wages for the best of the best. While manufacturers commonly make higher and lower end models within their specific line of binoculars, companies like Tasco, Meade, and Carson for example, have a reputation for being much more affordable. Their price tags typically range between $50 and $200. But with that lower price tag comes lesser quality and limited warranties.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are European made optics made by companies like Swarovski, Leica, and Zeiss. Their binoculars can range in price from approximately $700 to around $2,000 but they also come with superior lifetime warranties.
For the average serious hunter companies like Bushnell, Leupold, Brunton, and Nikon, cater well to our needs. They make a variety of middle to higher quality binoculars designed for the average discerning outdoorsman. Price tags on the average to higher end consumer binocular typically range from $50 to $1,000. To sum it up, you can spend under $100 for an economy grade binocular or up to a couple thousand dollars for the best. Most of us can anticipate investing between $300 and $600 for decent binoculars.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.