A good pair of binoculars is the ideal way to bring yourself closer to the things that pique your curiosity. Of course, this doesn't mean you can simply buy the first set you see and hope for great results. There are many flavors, features and styles to pick from, and your choice determines how much you'll ultimately enjoy the viewing experience.
You could spend years learning about the differences between binoculars and the physics behind them. Fortunately, you don't have to because we've gathered a few essential facts that might simplify your research. Ask yourself the following basic questions before you buy.
Different binocular models are designed for unique viewing activities. For instance, the general-use options you'll find in widespread use at sporting events and on hiking trips are made to be a bit more compact yet still provide average magnification in the neighborhood of 7x to 10x. Those used in boating and marine activities are generally around the same range, but they may include additional waterproofing, armor and other rugged features.
There's a huge range of special-use models on the market, and their prices are just as varied as their intended purposes. Fortunately, you don't have to trust some manufacturer's word that their product is the best option. Looking at the technical performance specs makes it easier to choose correctly.
Binoculars are generally classified in terms of their magnification and their objective diameter. Magnification, or the ratio of how large objects look inside the view to how they'd appear to the naked eye, depends on the arrangement of prisms and reflective surfaces inside the binoculars. Objective diameters, or the diameter of the main lens, determine how much light can enter the binoculars to produce sharp, bright images.
When checking out different models, you'll see these numbers written together with magnification listed first. For instance, a device classified as 8x42, a common configuration for bird watching, has a magnification of 8x and an objective diameter of 42 millimeters. Compact theater, opera or stadium binoculars may employ extremely low magnification with relatively wide lenses to improve image quality in darkened venues and minimize user fatigue.
Qualities like magnification and objective diameters impact how easy it is to use your binoculars in other ways. For instance, large 10x42 and higher field glasses used out in the bush can get fairly heavy over time, which prompts some users to pair them with tripods. Binoculars with roof prisms that bend the path of light to create smaller form factors are often easier to grasp. Still, they may lack the optical qualities of Porro prism binoculars that feature longer tubes and a more noticeable sense of depth. These factors play a big role in pricing.
Modern binoculars commonly incorporate other optical performance characteristics, and high-end models come loaded with viewing features. Here are a few that could make a difference:
• Field of view, or FOV: The FOV tells you how wide of an area you'll be able to view at a certain distance. For example, a specific model may offer an FOV of 372 feet at 1,000 yards.
• Close focus distance: This is the closest distance your binoculars will be able to focus on.
• Eye relief: This distance determines how far away your eyes need to be from the rear eyepiece to view undistorted images. If you wear glasses or use heavy binoculars in situations where grip stability is an issue, you may need a longer eye relief distance.
• Exit pupil: This is the diameter of the beam of light the binoculars reflect into your eyes. Wider exit pupils make it easier to see without distortion, and some people say they're more comfortable because you don't have to hold the binoculars quite as precisely to get a nice view.
• Focus Type: Binocular focus is generally independent or central. Independent focus lets you adjust the focus of each side separately, while central focus uses a single wheel to focus both tubes in unison.
• Adjustability: Many binoculars include a sort of hinged center between the tubes that lets you spread them apart or bring them closer to match the distance between your eyes.
• Image Stabilization: Some action-ready field glasses come with gyroscopes or even electric mechanisms that cancel out tiny motions from shaky hands. These devices are pretty cool, but they're often heavier and costlier.
• Optical Coatings: The prisms, lenses and other optical surfaces used in binoculars are commonly manufactured with special coatings. These treatments do everything from reduce reflections to create sharper images and minimize fog build up.
A successful binocular purchase begins with research. In addition to comparing what different manufacturers and sellers have to offer, it's wise to check reviews left by previous users. For instance, you may find a pair of field glasses that seems serviceable based on its features and price point only to discover that multiple people complained about its lack of durable casing or poor focusing ability.
Look for reviews that mention the kinds of viewing activities you plan on enjoying. You may also wish to research the manufacturers and sellers you buy from to ensure you're receiving authentic devices with warranties, service plans and other protections.
Finally, don't forget to budget for accessories. Your binoculars will probably come with some kind of minimal case and lens caps, but tripods, cleaning gear, straps and other handy add-ons might not be included. Binoculars are complex, expensive devices, but a bit of proactive maintenance can go a long way towards protecting your investment.
Have you bought a new pair of binoculars recently? Share your experience in the comments, or tell us how you fared on social media.