A vital piece of birding equipment, choosing the right binoculars is not just a matter of biggest is best. There are many other considerations.
For bird watchers, the most important piece of birding equipment to invest in is a good quality pair of binoculars. While many species can, of course, be seen by the naked eye, using binoculars is the only way to achieve close up sightings and subsequent identification.
It's important to note, however, that not all binoculars are created equal, and features that may be suitable for other purposes may not be so good if they're specifically being used as birding equipment. Selecting the right pair can be a fairly intimidating process, with a vast range from which to choose, but the following information will help.
Magnification and Lens Size
Magnification and lens size are the two most important aspects to consider. Binoculars always have two numbers on them: the first refers to the amount of zoom (magnification) and the second refers to the lens size (which also governs the overall size). So, for example, 8 x 28 means 8x magnification and 28mm lenses, and 10 x 42 means 10x magnification and 42mm lenses.
The obvious thing would be to imagine that the more magnification the better, but in fact, for birding this is not necessarily the case. There are several reasons the most powerful zoom is not always best: the field of view is narrower; image stabilisation is harder (when handheld); and the view of the subject is not as bright.
It's generally accepted that the optimal binoculars size for bird watching is 8 x 42 or 10 x 42, although 10 x 42 may require a tripod for optimal results. The wider field of view of the 42mm lenses is preferable because less time is wasted when looking for subjects within one 'frame' of vision, rather than constantly needing to reframe and refocus. With an 8x or 10x magnification the image will be much more stable than with longer lenses like 12x or 16x, which can cause considerable shake.
Ergonomics is an important consideration if you're going to be spending hours with the binoculars pressed up against your eye sockets. It's useful to try out as many models as possible to get a feel for their weight, size and ease of balance. It's also important to road test them to check for face friendliness – especially if you wear spectacles.
The distance that's required between your eye and the eyepiece to establish optimal focus is called the 'relief'. The lower the magnification, the better the relief, so 8x offers more relief than 10x. Therefore, in theory (although it all comes down to personal preference), the lower magnification is better for those who wear spectacles, as the eye doesn't need to be as close to the eyepiece.
As a general rule of thumb, you get what you pay for when it comes to binoculars, so if you're serious it's worth spending as much as you can afford on your most vital piece of birding equipment. However, with such a large range from which to choose, it's possible to purchase mid-priced models which still offer excellent features and durability. Some of the most renowned, high-quality brand names to look out for include Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss.
Choose With Care
Binoculars are the one piece of birding equipment that you'll rely on the most, so it's definitely worth taking the time to make a considered choice. Serious birdwatchers may have several favourite pairs to take them into different situations, but for those just starting out, one good quality pair should suffice.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in bird watching. As a passionate lover of birds, Marissa chooses the expert-led bird holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
By Lisa Jeeves