Types of Binoculars
Even if you're not an avid birdwatcher, binoculars designed for birding offer great all-around performance for any pursuit. They prioritize clear, sharp images with a wide enough field of view to track a bird on the wing, in a package that's small and light enough to carry easily. Weatherproofing, fog-proofing and rubberized armor are all features that make it easy to hold and use your binoculars in any conditions you might encounter outdoors.
Many birding binoculars work well for hunting, too; the sharp, accurate images they relay are just the trick for spotting a deer, turkey or other quarry hidden in the grass or bushes, or scanning distant hillsides for quarry. But determined hunters often find themselves traveling in rugged conditions that can destroy most binoculars, so in this category we place a premium on the ability to withstand repeated jostling, prolonged exposure to bad weather, and even full-on impacts.
Although you won't get perfection in the sub-$200 price range, nowadays a couple of hundred dollars can buy you features like fully multicoated optics and dielectric coated roof prisms (which are lighter and more packable than porro prism binoculars). That said, when you're shopping in this price range you'll sacrifice some high-end aspects like low-light performance, ultra-wide fields of view, and crispness around the edges of the image. Build quality also suffers somewhat, although it's improved notably in recent years, and with careful treatment even inexpensive binoculars will last for years.
binocular magnification and lens size
basic performance is decided by three factors: Magnification, the size of the
objective lenses (the lenses furthest from your eyes, on the "front"
of the binoculars), and lens quality. Every pair of binoculars is labeled with
numbers that show the magnification and lens size, with magnification coming
first. A set of 8x42 binoculars, for example, makes objects or animals appear
eight times closer -- the first number -- and has an objective lens size of
42mm. If you're shopping for binoculars in person, "8x42" is
pronounced "eight by forty-two."
sizes typically run from 6x to 12x, although you'll sometimes find binoculars
with magnification powers of 20x or more. The sweet spot for most uses is 8x
magnification; it gives good detail, but doesn't magnify things so much that
the normal movement of your hand produces a shaky image. Birders or hunters who
have very steady hands or routinely use a tripod will sometimes go as high as
10x or 12x magnification to better spot soaring raptors or count points on a
distant buck, but rarely more.
objective lens size tells you a lot about the size of the binoculars
themselves. Full-size models usually have an objective lens size of around 40mm
or 45mm, although some astronomers' sky-gazing binoculars come with whopping
56mm lenses. (These are the binoculars that often come in 16x or 20x
magnification.) Higher magnifications and larger lenses make for more expensive
binoculars, even within the same product line.
with an objective lens size of 25 mm or less are typically compact enough to
fit in your pocket or a small pack; lenses of 30 mm to 35 mm are midsize, a
good choice for someone who wants a space-saving model or for kids who can't
handle a full-size set yet.
lenses usually make for a better field of view, which means you can see a wider
part of the terrain without having to scan your binoculars back and forth.
However, some of the best compact binoculars offer a field of view that's
almost comparable to full-size models. The wider your field of view, the easier
it'll be to spot -- and keep your eye on -- flying birds or fast-moving game.
Manufacturers usually list field of view in the binoculars' specifications; the
number they give represents the diameter of the area you can see (without
scanning) from 1,000 yards out. Sometimes the manufacturer will list angle of
view instead; in that case, multiply the angle by 52.5 to get the field of
and objective lens diameter don't exist in a vacuum; the way they relate to
each other tells you a lot about how your binoculars will perform, too. The
exit pupil measurement, which you get by dividing objective lens size by
magnification, gives you a pretty good gauge for how the binoculars will perform
in low-light conditions. So, for our best-reviewed birding binoculars, the (Est. $500), for example, you would
divide 42 mm by 8 to get an exit pupil of 5.25 mm, which is typically rounded
up to 5.3.
the exit pupil number, the better the binoculars will do in low-light
conditions. Experts say that binoculars with an exit pupil of 5 mm or more are
good for use in low-light conditions like dawn, dusk, fog, or in shadow. If you
know you'll only be using your binoculars for daylight viewing, any exit pupil
of 2 mm or better is just fine. That's because your own pupils constrict to
about 2 mm diameter in bright light so, regardless of how much light your
binoculars gather, you won't be able to see any more than that until the light
dims and your pupils dilate again.
relief, optics quality and pricing
If you wear
glasses in everyday life, you should wear them when you use your binoculars,
too. However, your glasses move your eyes further away from the eyepiece of the
binoculars, which can shrink your field of vision quite a bit. The solution is
eye relief, a measurement of how far away the binoculars can be from your eyes
before your field of vision starts to narrow. Experts say that if you wear
eyeglasses or sunglasses, you should look for eye relief of at least 11 mm --
for many users, 15 mm or more is more comfortable. Ideally, the binoculars
should also have adjustable eye cups that can be retracted (for use with
glasses) or extended (for use with bare eyes). Users with deep-set eyes will
usually prefer binoculars with greater eye relief, even if they don't wear
quality is a little harder to gauge, although the clarity and precision of your
binoculars' lenses really is the ultimate arbiter of their performance. Price
is typically a good indicator, and advances in optic technology mean you can
now get top-notch performance -- or very close to it -- for less than $1,000.
Key features that indicate good optics include fully multicoated lenses (which
help the binoculars gather more light), ED or HD glass to do the same, and
either dielectric coated roof prisms or high-quality porro prisms (which do not
need to be coated). The best binoculars in all price ranges are also fully
waterproof and nitrogen- or argon-purged (that is, filled with nitrogen or
argon instead of air) to keep the lenses from fogging up.
have your binoculars, don't forget the other essentials you'll need to stay
comfortable and safe while out on the trail. Protect your feet with a solid
pair of hiking shoes, light up the night
with the best and brightest headlamps, and
use insect repellent to keep pests away.
Finding The Best Binoculars
"Best Binoculars for Birding and Hiking of 2018"
"The Best Binoculars for Birds, Nature and the Outdoors"
"The 10 Best Binoculars of 2017"
The best binoculars offer clear, crisp images with enough
magnification to be useful, plus waterproofing, anti-fogging technology,
rubberized armor to protect against shocks, and a wide field of view. We
consulted expert reviews from the Audubon Society, OutdoorGearLab.com, Field &
Stream, TheWirecutter.com, OutdoorLife.com, Birdwatching.com and
AllAboutBirds.com (the Cornell Lab for Ornithology) to help us gauge the
objective merits of their performance, features, and especially their optics.
However, even the best binoculars can have variable
performance out in the field, so we also relied heavily on user feedback to
discover which binoculars really represent the best value on the dollar, and
how they perform when in the hands of someone who doesn't necessarily spend the
majority of their life dealing with high-end optics.