Binoculars, often referred to as binocs/ bins/ nocs are the birders best ally in the field helping them spot, identify, and fully appreciate the beauty of the birds. Like a superior tool enhances the craft of an artisan, so does a good pair of binocs enhance the ability and overall experience of the birder.
Binoculars come in all shapes, sizes and more importantly prices, which can get shockingly high. So the ability to pick the right pair for oneself is very crucial. While the more expensive binocs tend to have higher image quality and durability, we cannot use this as the only yardstick as there are cheaper models with decent quality that are durable.
The amount of technical specifications wrapped in jargon one has to sift through when reading the manufacturers' marketing spiel is astounding for what one would have considered simple devices. So a little education would go a long way in helping you in making an informed decision to pick a piece most suitable for you.
Before you start the hunt for your perfect bins, you need to fix your budget. While you should not get pushed to spend more, put aside as much as you can afford. Trust me, you will thank yourself countless times for this in the field. Next, you need to figure out how much weight you can carry comfortably, especially if you are birding in the field for long.
Remember, you tend to leave it behind if the weight crosses your threshold or worse still; you end up with literally a pain in the neck. These two steps would now have given you a manageable set of viable options. Now to separate the chaff from the grain.
Photo Credit: The Nikon Monarch M5 comes in 8x42, 10x42, and 12x42 models
Let's dive into the specifications. You would notice all bins come with numbers like 8x32 or 10x42. The first number signifies the magnification, obviously the greater the magnification the better, but it comes at a price. The higher the magnification, the heavier the bins and more difficult it is to hold steady for reasonable amounts of time.
Also, the higher magnification would make the shakes more apparent. The second number is the size of the objective lens (the one away from you) the bigger it is the more light it gathers and the brighter is your view.
Again, the bigger the number, the heavier the bins. Normally 8x42 or the 10x42 is considered a sweet spot for birding bins with good magnification, brightness and field of view. While both these models from the same manufacturer would look, weigh and even be priced very close to each other, there are nuanced differences between the two.
The 8x32 would generally feel brighter than its 10x42 stablemate in low light conditions and offer a wider field of view at the obvious cost of magnification. So if you are looking for a bird in forests in the late evening, where you can't see too far anyway, an 8x42 might feel advantageous while in situations with a distant bird you might crave for the magnification of the 10x42.
The glass used in construction is a major factor in the quality of the view. BK7, Bak4, HD and ED would be the types you would read, with each successive cipher denoting a higher quality. The coatings used on the glass have another set of acronyms. 'C'- denoting single coating on some glass, 'FC' - all lens surfaces coated, 'MC' — some lens surfaces have multilayer coatings, 'FMC' - all lenses have multiple layers of coatings. As you would expect, as you move up on the scale of coatings, so do you move up the price ladder.
Then there is the form factor to consider, with the traditional bulkier Porro prisms where the objective lens is offset from the eyepiece, while in the newer roof prisms the barrels of the binoculars are straight making them more compact. Porro prism bins nowadays are cheaper, but also bunched in the lower end of the scale.
How different types of prisms in binoculars are arranged
Photo Credit: Nikon.com/ Composited screenshots
Another specification you need to watch out for is eye relief. For proper viewing, the eyepiece of the bins needs to be at a comfortable distance from your eyes. So always look out for bins with eyecups that extend so that the bins seat comfortably over your eye and if you use glasses, you can retract the eyecups so they rest over your glasses while maintaining eye relief.
Then there are boxes you should ensure are ticked if you want your investment to serve you for a long time. They should be rugged and durable. Many come with a rubberised coating to protect them from bumps and also give a good grip. They should be waterproof so that a little inclement weather does not put a spoke in your plans and finally they should be fog proof so that your viewing is unhindered.
Now that you have arrived at your final list of candidates, the concluding step is beyond specifications. Get to a store and pick up the pair of bins and ask yourself; How do they feel in your hand, how well do they seat on your eyes, which produces the image that you find most pleasing?
All these will be answered only when you try them. If you don't have a store close by, you could check your birding buddy's bins on a birding trip. Birders are more than eager to show off their optics. This will give you real world answers to pick the winner.
Buying guide for the ‘value for money' binoculars listed by price. We selected these from models easily available in India. 8x42 and 10x42 are listed alternately and usually we can find a corresponding model for the same brand.
The entry level birding bins. Most birders would have started with this.
- Pros - Price (cheapest, most affordable usable bins), field of view (by the virtue of being an 8x)
- Cons - Size, weight, lack of waterproofing, oldest model in the list
Nikon's entry level model, suitable for birding, is very popular.
- Pros - Price, Brand
- Cons - Size, weight (heaviest of the lot), lack of waterproofing
Good performer with no major flaws
- Pros - Weight (lightest), Waterproof
- Cons - Field of View
Its specifications match or exceed all in this list while not being expensive. The most value proposition purchase
- Pros - Weight, size, Waterproof, eye-relief (best), Min. focus distance
- Cons - None at this price point
Balanced performer, a value for money model if you consider the brand
- Pros - Weight, Waterproof, eye-relief, Brand
- Cons - Field of View
This is the entry level model for Carl Zeiss. It has a very good FoV and exceedingly short min. focusing distance which makes it great to view butterflies and insects.
- Pros - Brand, Min. focus distance, Waterproof, Field of view
- Cons - Weight, Price
Rajneesh Suvarna has been a compulsive birder since his younger days, more likely to forget packing this toothbrush than his pair of binoculars for a trip. Among other things he currently runs a birding tour company, Wayfarer, that runs birding trips around the world. A well published photographer you can find some of his work on NatureChronicles.com. You can follow him in Insta, Facebook twitter
This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), under their programme 'Nature Communications' to encourage nature content in all Indian languages. To know more about birds and nature, Join The Flock.
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