Binoculate me.
July 25, 2011 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Binoculars. I would like to buy a decent pair of binoculars for a certain someone's upcoming birthday. I don't know much about binoculars, and neither does the recipient. Usage details inside...

We're into general outdoor activities including hiking and canoeing, so accidental bird watching happens on occasion. A pair that is somewhat rugged and can be stuffed into a backpack or get wet in a canoe is a definite plus. Can binoculars be used for star/planet viewing, or do you need two separate pairs for birds/whatever and one for stars? Recipient already has a telescope, but the portability of binoculars is appealing, especially since we regularly go on overnight and multi-day canoe trips.

Budget of <$200, but I'll happily peruse your more expensive recommendations for features that you really enjoy.

posted by sararah to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You can read through the various options at Eagle Optics - they explain things in very clear language.

I'm a birder and my binos are the Eagle Optics house brand Ranger 10x42. With optics, you do sort of get what you pay for, but that doesn't mean you have to spend a ton to get good binos. The main issue you'll face when choosing a pair that you want to work for both random birding-type use and astronomy is the field of view. If you call up the nice folks at EO, they can talk to you about what might work best for what you want at what price point.

* I really don't work for EO! But their prices are competitive, their service is awesome, and their people are really nice.
posted by rtha at 8:46 AM on July 25, 2011

I bought a very cheap (£15) pair online, they are 7x50, comfortable to hold and decent magnification, I used them at an airshow last weekend.

The bigger the first number the greater the magnification, greater than about 10 and you need a tripod because it is difficult to hold them steady. The bigger the second the greater the light gathering ability, again too big and you'll need a tripod because of the weight.
posted by epo at 8:49 AM on July 25, 2011

I bought the Nikon Monarchs after reading this review and I couldn't be happier with them, I use them almost every day.
posted by InkaLomax at 8:52 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

For stargazing, you want a porro-prism rather than roof prism design. Nikon makes a very nice set of waterproof compact binoculars, suitable for stargazing and birdwatching. I've seen them as cheap as $110.

In any event, in your budget, I would stick with the major brand Camera names - Nikon, Pentax, Canon, and avoid Bushnell or house-brands. You can definitely see the difference between the cheap stuff and the name-brand stuff, and something with "Nikon" or "Pentax" on it will be well made, as they generally honor their warranties.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:52 AM on July 25, 2011

Seconding the Nikon Monarchs – excellent optics for the price.
posted by nicwolff at 9:12 AM on July 25, 2011

I have a pair of steiners I use for everything from hunting to stargazing. They are tough, waterproof and not too heavy. The optics are pretty good quality, and you usually get what you pay for in terms of quality here. The difference between a $50 pair of tascos and $200 steiners or such is really dramatic. It seems like more than the difference from the $200 dollars up to a nice set of zeiss or similair. The best part of the steiners is the focusing mechanism. Each eye piece focuses indepentedly and is much easier to use if you wear glasses or have some other eye problem were your eyes are not the same power. The large objective lense (the big one on the front of the binoculars) are also big so they will work better in the dark than the smaller, lighter ones. This shape indicates it is the porro prism design that slap happy mentioned above. The distance between them also helps deliver better defination and 'stereo' view than a narrow pair. For the money I don't think you are going to do any better than these.

The two numbers you see listed for binoculars are the magnification (in this case 8) and the objective lens diameter (35 mm). The bigger the lens diameter the more light it lets in and the better it will work in low light conditions and also across lighting differences like into a shady tree canopy. For handheld use 8 magnification is really the most you want. Any more and it is hard to hold steady enough to see clearly and you start losing a wide field of view. A bigger lens diameter is also good but much bigger than 35 (say 50) they start to get heavy and this also makes them harder to hold steady. Good luck and about 200 dollars is really the cheapest you can get a good pair of binoculars of decent quality.
posted by bartonlong at 11:09 AM on July 25, 2011

Until you look through a pair of Zeiss or Leica binoculars, you don't know what good binoculars are. Like bartonlong said, $200 is the bottom of the barrel.
I suggest you go to an sporting goods store like Bass Pro Shops or Cabela's and look through what they have in stock. Most of those stores are big enough you can see for a distance. Cheap binoculars feel like they're sucking your eyes out of your head after a couple of minutes. I can look through my Zeiss 10 x 40's all day long without problem.
Good luck.
posted by JohnE at 11:46 AM on July 25, 2011

$50 binos are the bottom of the barrel. But if they're really only going to be used occasionally, and not for hours on end, $200 Monarchs or similar are perfectly good. I use my house-brand binos for 6 hours at a stretch, and they are groovy. At some point, someone I volunteer with will upgrade and I'll consider acquiring their used Zeiss or Swarovski binos for ~$1000, but for what sounds like your purposes, you really don't need to drop $1700 on a set of Zeiss.

Go to a brick and mortar place if at all possible and spend time holding binos and looking through them. If you wear glasses, some kinds will fit you better than others, and some will feel more comfortable to hold than others (I know this is a gift, but it's still good to get a sense of what they're like in the hand).
posted by rtha at 1:22 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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