What to Look for When Buying Binoculars for Birding

what to look for when buying binoculars for birding

Buying the right binoculars is essential for you to get the best bird watching experience. There are many factors which can help you decide which are the best pair including price, size and magnification. If you take the time to get the right binoculars (see our top 10 here), you will be able to see the colors of the birds clearer and be able to identify them easier.

Here we will take a look at the different features of binoculars and explain what they are so that you can get the best pair you. If a bird watcher recommends a pair that they use, try them first before you buy. What suits one person may not be the best for another.

Here are our 10 tips of what to look for when buying binoculars for birding.

1. Binocular types

When buying binoculars for birding, the first thing you need to decide on is the type of binoculars you buy. There are 2 main types: Porro-prism and roof prism.

Porro-prism

Porro-prism binoculars are the ones most people think of. The eyepiece is smaller than the objective lenses.

Advantages

  • These binoculars tend to be towards the lower end of the price scale.
  • For those who prefer bigger binoculars they do tend to be slightly bulkier than roof prism.

Disadvantages

  • Due to their larger size they can be a bit awkward for some people to hold.
  • They are more susceptible to damage.
  • They are more prone to water damage and less weatherproof.

Roof prism

Roof prism binoculars tend to have a straighter shape are often more compact than porro-prism. These tend to be the more popular choice of binoculars.

Advantages

  • The design makes them more compact so they can be easier to handle.
  • They are more weatherproof.
  • Harder to break and damage.

Disadvantages

  • Binoculars at the lower end of the market can create darker images.
  • A high quality pair can prove to be expensive.

2. Specifications

If you’ve never bought binoculars before it can be very confusing when you start looking at all the different numbers and letters. These are actually quite simple to understand once you know what you are looking at.

Most binoculars have two numbers, such as 7 x 32 but just what does this mean.

  • The first of the two figures refers to the actual magnification, so in this case the magnification would be seven times.
  • The second figure is the diameter in millimeters of the objective lens, or the larger of the two lenses. This one is important because the larger the lens, the more light it will allow in.

3. Coatings

The next thing you need to think about is coatings. Antireflective coatings are very important when bird watching as they help more light pass through the surface to improve the overall image. Most binoculars will include an anti-reflective coating but they can be a great variation depending on the price and quality.

For birding the best binoculars are those which have been fully multi-coated. This means that all air to glass surfaces have been coated multiple times to give them the best protection and to allow the best light through.

If you know you’re going to be using your binoculars for birding check to see whether the lenses are also protected against the elements and that they are water repellent.

4. Field of view

The field of view, simply put, is how wide the area is when you look through the binoculars. This can be expressed in one of two ways.

  • In meters as /1000
  • or as an angle such as 6.0°

For birding you need the angle to be as large as possible so that you can cover as much area as possible. If the Field of View is too wide, however, this can also have a negative effect on what you see.

5. Magnification

One classic mistake made by many birdwatchers is to buy the binoculars with the highest magnification. After all, these can give you a very close view of the birds, right? Well this may be true but you may not get the clearest image and you may find that less light gets through. Magnification of 8 times or 10 times is usually the best for birding.

If the magnification is too high it can have the following adverse effect.

  • Too much magnification can actually reduce the brightness of what you see.
  • A high magnification means a reduced depth of field, so much of your image can seem blurred or out of focus.
  • If the magnification is too high it can also reduce your field of view making it much harder for you to follow the bird you are looking at.

If you plan to use binoculars with a magnification of more than 10 times, you will need to use a tripod and this by its very nature makes the binoculars slightly less portable. They are, however, a good choice for estuaries and lagoons where you may need the extra distance to observe the birds.

If you get the right combination of magnification and field of view, you shouldn’t need a zoom lens.

The correct magnification also means that the right amount of light gets through so your images are very clear. This is where you may need to shop around to get the right pair for you. Larger objective lenses may give you a brighter image, but will make the binoculars heavier and harder to handle.

For birding, the optimum objective lens is 42 mm for full-size binoculars, or 32 mm if you’re using a mid-size pair.

6. Eye relief

Eye relief simply means how far away you can hold the binoculars and still get a good view of what you want to see, and this is an important feature for those who wear eyeglasses. Being able to hold the binoculars away from your eyes means you will still see the birds clearly while still wearing your eyeglasses. The minimum eye relief for eyeglasses wearers is 15mm.

The longer the distance of eye relief, the easier it will be to use for everyone, as you won’t need to hold the binoculars right up to your eyes. Unfortunately, the further away you hold then, the more it will reduce the field of view.

7. Size and weight

One of the biggest considerations you need to make is the size and weight of your binoculars. If you are birding all day, remember you will need to carry them around with you at all times and they must be easy for you to handle when looking through them to follow the birds. Unfortunately the higher quality specification of a good pair of binoculars usually makes them heavier.

There are different sizes of binoculars available and it’s a good idea to try and test them before you invest in them.

Small binoculars

Obviously a good choice for those with smaller hands or for people who cannot carry much weight. These lenses normally come with a range between 20 mm and 28 mm but they do have their advantages.

  • They are easier to carry around with you due to their compact size
  • They can be packed in a rucksack when you go travelling so you can partake in your bird watching wherever you go.

On the downside:

  • The smaller lens size will not give you such a bright and clear image as a larger pair.

Standard size binoculars

The lens range for standard size binoculars is usually between 40 mm and 42 mm. Among birdwatchers these are a very popular choice as they provide an excellent image and for the most part are not too heavy to carry.

8. Budget

This is the big deciding factor when we buy anything. When it comes to binoculars, as indeed with most things, it’s wisest to get the best you can afford. Obviously the more you can afford to pay the higher the specification you will get and these will give you the clearest and brightest images of the birds.

A high quality pair of binoculars will also last you longer and will be less susceptible to damage.

9. Weatherproofing

Using binoculars for birding also means they have to be protected against the elements. Waterproof binoculars are obviously the best, but there are some other things to consider.

  • As well as waterproof, look for fog proof binoculars. Even if you don’t think you’ll be out birding in all weathers, you never know when the weather can change.
  • If a pair of binoculars is sealed with O-rings, then they will be waterproof. They will also be dust proof.
  • If you can, look for binoculars which have been Nitrogen or Argon purged. This means they will not fog up on the inside.

10. Some final tips

Binoculars are a long term investment to birders, so before you buy, here are a few simple tips.

  • Check the warranty. You want your binoculars to last, so make sure they have a good warranty. If the warranty seems a little short, then it could be that the binoculars are not of the best quality. A good pair of binoculars will have a warranty of at least 10 years.
  • Try before you buy. If you have bird shows or good optical stores nearby, it’s worth taking the time to go along so that you can try binoculars before you buy. You must feel comfortable using and holding them.
  • Check reviews. With so many places offering online reviews, it’s easy to check the pair you want. Reviews will give you an unbiased opinion by people who have actually used them.
  • Returns policy. If your binoculars are not what you want, or aren’t working as well as they should, you will need to return them. Always check the returns policy of the store before you buy.

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