explain to me about binoculars?
July 2, 2021 3:41 PM   Subscribe

what do I get for $300 that I don't get for $40?

Attempting to use them recently, I realized how old and crappy my binoculars are.

I don't think I've ever shopped for binoculars; and even if I had, I imagine the state of the art would have changed since then. What are "good" binoculars? The use case is maybe bird watching, or like wildlife viewing in a national park where the animals are far away. What do I look for and what differentiates the pricy ones from the <$100 ones?

bonus question: should I be thinking about a "monocular" instead? I always have trouble getting both eyes adjusted and half the time I just close one eye anyway. Or maybe that will be solved with better binoculars?
posted by fingersandtoes to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A previous answer points out the Audubon Society's "how to choose" article and buyer's guide for birdwatching binoculars.

I don't necessarily agree with their picks (their business model means that IME they rarely recommend something they can't get affiliate kickback for) but Wirecutter articles like the one on binoculars usually have pretty good background on what to look for in making choices.
posted by supercres at 3:58 PM on July 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Nice binos really are a pleasure to use. Smooth to operate, and with really great image clarity. Bad binos feel no better than naked eyes, sometimes, but good binos show you the world in a way that's amazingly clear, bright, and natural. It's an experience that doesn't translate well to description, though. Go into your local outdoor store and try out a bunch of pairs at different price points, and you will be able to tell the difference.
The linked article above is good. For the mid-range I like the vanguards, but they are all decent choices.
An extra recommendation, if you are going to take them hiking: save $50-$100 of budget for a really good harness or chest-pack. Not having them rubbing your neck raw and banging against your breastbone makes you much more likely to want to wear them.
posted by agentofselection at 5:02 PM on July 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah bad binoculars have fuzzy or otherwise inexact imagery, will not have a wide area you can see so you have to pan all the time, don't let enough light in, or don't fit right on your face. I'm always of the opinion that getting a "starter" pair first off (assuming your old pair are really old) just so you can see if you're even a binoculars person, is a good idea. It's also really important to have ones that fit your face comfortably, that are easy for your fingers to adjust if needed, and, as agentofselection astutely says, that you can wear for some length of time comfortably (this is usually with some extra gear, but also if you're a smaller person, smaller binocs are really good. I have a pair that is this model and I think I originally went with them because they were good for kayaking/boating but they're good for birdwatching as well. Can't speak to the monocular issue, but my partner has two eyes that have pretty different prescriptions and he's been able to make binoculars work for him.
posted by jessamyn at 5:22 PM on July 2, 2021

Best answer: A good pair of binoculars is brighter, sharper, sharp to the edge of the image. It should reproduce colours accurately and it shouldn’t have colour fringing when you look at i.e. dark branches silhouetted against a white sky. A wide field of view is helpful so you don’t have to search around as much. Close focus is another feature that is especially helpful if you’re likely to use them to look at flowers or insects; different bins are optimised for different things.

Some binoculars are more forgiving than others for how you position them next to your eyes, they have a bigger sweet spot which makes them less fussy to use; especially a long ‘eye relief’ is vital if you plan to use them with glasses or sunglasses, but also a bigger sweet spot means you don’t have to be as precise with the width of the eyepieces.

Some of these qualities correlate more or less with price, mainly because more expensive optics have better quality, more precise, more complicated lenses and more solid construction [and annoyingly, are probably heavier]. But some of it is also down to size; like camera lenses, bigger lenses just pass through more light. Pocket binoculars will struggle to compete optically with full-size ones, although the fanciest pocket bins are pretty remarkable.

But (again, like cameras) there’s no point in buying heavy binoculars if it means you don’t use them. I have a fancy pair of full-size binoculars and a mid-range pair of pocket binoculars, and the big ones are truly a pleasure to use, and optically better in every way, but the pocket ones are light enough to just carry around in case I need them. If you do get heavy binoculars and are going to be carrying them for a long time, try a harness so that the weight is not all on your neck. You can also get straps to hang the bins from the straps of a rucksack, so the weight is on your shoulders.

On the monocular issue: you shouldn’t regularly be adjusting the two eyes separately. Normally binoculars have one knob to adjust the difference between the two eyes, and one that adjusts the focus for both. i.e. there will be a knob that just adjusts the left eye, so you use the main focus to get the right eye dialled in, then use the left eye knob to adjust the focus for the left eye. Then you shouldn’t need to touch the left eye again, just use the main focus knob for both.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:07 AM on July 3, 2021

Best answer: The REI Co-op (Recreational Equipment Inc.) has an excellent guide on How to Choose Binoculars. It doesn't recommend any specific makes or models. I've been a REI member for 50 years. Their advice has never let me down.
posted by Homer42 at 1:09 AM on July 3, 2021

Life-hack: wear binoculars strapped over one shoulder and tucked under the opposite armpit. They carry much easier there and can still be brought up to the face with one sweep.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:54 AM on July 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There can be a huge difference in depth of field - the range of distances where things are in focus. I have a pair of Steiner 6x30 that cost about $200 years ago. If you focus on something 50 ft away, everything is in focus out to infinity. I also have a pair of $70 binoculars which would have to be refocused between 50ft and 100 yds.

Check out the focusing systems as well. Some focus each eye separately, some adjust both eyes with one control (and have an adjustment for differences between eyes).

Some binoculars have eyecups meant to be useable with glasses. I've not had success with those because the rubber leaves Mark's on the lens of the glasses.

Don't get more magnification than you need. The higher it is, the harder it is to get the target in view and the more it is disturbed by unsteadiness in the hands.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:41 AM on July 3, 2021

We're talking lenses! You would expect a difference between a low priced SLR camera and a professional grade photographer's SLR camera, right?
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:01 AM on July 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The optics of modern binoculars has really improved recently, so it is possible to get great lenses without breaking the bank. We recently bought a pair of the $80 Pentax AD 8 x 25 WP binoculars recommended by The Wirecutter (see above) as a secondary pair to our more expensive full sized one, and they are amazing!

The small size and weight has meant that we have them with us whenever we go out, and they are still very well made and water resistant like their bigger brethren. Yes, the field of view is smaller and they are clearly not as bright as full-sized models, but they are pretty sharp and have decent micro-contrast for the size. If you plan to use them during dusk or night a lot, they aren’t the best option.

If we’re going hiking and birding we carry both pairs, but I’m getting tempted to get a second pair for myself! The Pentax is so easy to carry that we bring them even if we are just wandering around the city or going long distance biking.
posted by rambling wanderlust at 6:09 AM on July 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

There's a point at which quality will be good enough for your purposes, and what matters is how a pair of binoculars feels in your hands. Are they too heavy to hold or too bulky? Too light to keep stable? If you spot something interesting, does it feel natural to hoist the binoculars up and get them focused?

When I was looking for binoculars for backyard birding, spending a half hour at a well-stocked store (REI) trying what they had (by comparing how they focused on a clock at the far side of the store) was immensely helpful, both to sort out what I'd be comfortable with, and to find what my "good enough" price range was.
posted by dws at 1:51 PM on July 3, 2021

Nice binos really are a pleasure to use.

Seconding this. I recently bought myself some Vortex binoculars to replace a monocular I'd been using, and I find myself looking forward to going out and just... looking through the binoculars. They're amazing.

bonus question: should I be thinking about a "monocular" instead? I always have trouble getting both eyes adjusted and half the time I just close one eye anyway. Or maybe that will be solved with better binoculars?

Same, with all the random binoculars I have lying around the house. With my new ones I believe I am actually using both eyes. (My dominant eye might be overpowering my lazy one without my noticing, so I can't swear to it.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:33 PM on July 4, 2021

I went through this recently. It's pretty much exactly the same as buying a camera lens. The cheap ones are more than good enough for casual use but if you spend some money the difference is night and day. More money generally equals better glass. Really it's just a function of how good is good enough for your purposes. Go to your local outdoors store and just try some, you'll be able to see the difference pretty clearly.

FWIW I ended up getting Maven binos after seriously considering Vortex. Maven only does direct to consumer so I did their demo program and took them to the local Sportsmans Warehouse to compare. IMO as someone who works with cameras and lenses for a living the $350-ish Maven C1s were just as good as the Vortex/Leupold/Nikon/etc stuff in the $700-800 range. I kept the Mavens and have been happy with them.
posted by bradbane at 11:24 AM on July 5, 2021

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