With our annual Optics Fair coming up next weekend, I thought that this would be a good time to repeat my tutorial on the basics of binoculars and spotting scopes:
Binoculars have come a long way in recent years. Today’s optics are lighter, brighter, and sharper than the clunkers that your grandfather had You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you pretty much get what you pay for with binoculars. There are some fine lower priced binoculars, and you can always graduate to better optics as your need or interest grows. Or, as most experts advise, you can invest a little more money now and buy the best binoculars that you can afford and they will bring you many years of enjoyment.
Most binoculars are labeled with their “size.” The 8-x-42mm or 10-x-42mm are the most popular for birding. Binoculars with magnification of 8 or 10 power, the first number that you see printed on the binocular, will bring birds (or any object) 8 or 10 times closer. Higher power may sound better, and it can be, but the higher the magnification, the harder it is to hold steady. If you can’t hold it steady, the blurred image is not an improvement. A lower power usually gives you a little more light, and a wider field of view. The wider the field of view, the easier it is to find a bird in a tree — because you are seeing more of the tree. Ten power does bring birds closer, but it the practical limit that experienced birders can hold steady without the aid of a tripod.
The second number (42 in the example above) is the diameter of the objective lens, the lens that is furthest away from you, in millimeters. The larger that lens, the more light that enters the binoculars. This matter most when light is less available, such as in the shade, on cloudy days, or at dawn or dusk. My first pair of binoculars were 7-x-50 — a little less power, but a larger objective lens that let in a lot of light. But the added weight of the 50 millimeter glass in the binoculars sure made my arms tired while watching those warblers in the tops of trees! Be careful of going to the other extreme with small compact binoculars, such as 8-x-20 or 10-x-25.
Compacts are great for hiking or for a second pair to throw in your glove compartment, but I don’t find them very useful for general field use. The small objective lens limits both the field of view and the brightness of the image. Other factors to consider are the close focus (how near you can focus to see birds and butterflies 6 to 8 feet away), waterproof capability (for birding in the rain, in the tropics, or in a kayak), and eye relief (important for eyeglass wearers to be able to have the full field of view of the binoculars). Binoculars vary greatly and these factors, as well as how they feel to you, are important.
Binoculars come in all price ranges, from $25 to $2,500. It is best to try them out before you buy them, not only to match the binoculars to your needs, but also to get the one that feels good to you ergonomically, while staying within your budget. Binoculars are versatile for other uses, such as at sporting events, concerts, and while boating.
If you want to see more detail on distant objects, such as a snowy owl in the marsh, or an eagle perched across the river, you may need to invest in a spotting scope. While binoculars magnify 8 or 10 times and will allow you to spot a distant bird, a spotting scope will bring birds 15 to 60 times closer — important for seeing color and detail at far distances.
Such high magnification is impossible to hold steady without the use of a tripod, so scopes are much less portable. But they are necessary for long distance viewing, and they are great to take photos, with using a camera or smart phone, as well. Like binoculars, with scopes you get what you pay for. You can get a decent spotting scope for $300 to $400, or you can pay as much as $3,000 to $4,000. Again you’ll want to look through different makes and models to see which works best for you.
If you would like the opportunity to look at and compare various binoculars or scopes, drop by the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center next Saturday, Oct. 12 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for our free Optics Fair. Representatives from many of the major sport optics manufacturers will be there to show the latest optics, and to answer questions. There will be discounts and specials on all binoculars, scopes and accessories.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.