Binoculars are versatile tools that are used by people in different professions and for various hobbies. They are probably the most used optical instrument after eyeglasses. From birding and wildlife watching, sports events and concerts to sailing, there is a long list of activities where they are needed. However, buying binoculars is not an easy task, in particular because there are so many different configurations and also because the market is overflowing with choice. Since there are so many options, you must figure out what is best for your specific purpose. If you are new to this topic, this binoculars buying guide is for you. I will share everything you really need to know on choosing the best binoculars on the market while staying within your budget.
Now if you just want a quick recommendation before going into the details, I’ll throw one in for you:
The Trailseeker by Celestron is an excellent general purpose binocular. If you don’t have a very specific purpose in mind for your binoculars, then the 8×42 roof prism configuration is probably what will work best for you (see more on that below). This particular model offers exceptional image quality with sharp outlines and contrasting colors. If you check it on Amazon, you can see that it has also garnered a very high rating among users – few binoculars have that.
One great benefit of the Trailseeker is its close focus ability: you can get items into focus as close as 6.5 feet (about 2 meters). This means that you can observe smaller targets (say birds, animals) at very close range and be able to take in all the detail.
Now, the other notable metric of this Celestron model is the field of view of 426 feet at 1000 yards. You won’t find many competitors being able to offer that. If you don’t know what this means, scroll down and I’ll cover it in detail.
Price-wise these binoculars fall mid-range, or even lower mid-range, I’d say. Given all the characteristics, plus the sturdy quality build and comfort of use, these binocs are some of the best value for money binoculars out there and are quite a bargain. As such, they are widely used by birders, hunters and so on. In reality, they will work well for most applications, except for maybe some less common ones, where a different set of parameters (e.g. higher or lower magnification) is preferred.
In case you don’t know, Celestron is a well-established brand in the optics field, based in the US. In addition to binoculars, they are well known for their telescopes and spotting scopes.
Okay, now that we have one particular buying option covered, let’s dive into all the little things you should take into account when picking the best value binoculars for yourself. This part is lengthy and technical, though immensely useful. If you don’t care about this stuff, go ahead jump over it to the specific product recommendations below.
When shopping for binoculars, you might be overwhelmed by the wide selection of very similar looks and sizes. I mean really, they do look all very similar. That doesn’t mean they are though. This is where a deeper understanding of the parameters involved comes into play.
By convention, binoculars are described by two numbers, such as 7×35 or 10×50. The first number, before the x, indicates the magnification power. If the description says “10×50”, the magnification is 10 times. Thus, an object will appear 10 times larger than it would be using a naked eye. Since the apparent size of an object decreases linearly with distance, this can also be interpreted as saying that with 10x magnification, an object at 400 yards will look as if it’s only 40 yards away.
Now, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the higher the magnification, the better. After all, you’re buying binoculars to see stuff bigger, right? Well, in reality, although higher magnification is better in that it gives you more detail of the object you are looking at, it also increases the shakiness of the image. If you are using your binoculars hand-held, then anything higher than 10x may be too sensitive to your hand’s movement – you simply won’t be able to keep the image steady enough to get a good view. It’s possible to mitigate this by supporting your elbows or your back to get a steadier view, but this may not always be convenient. Ultimately, high powered binoculars that have say 20x or 25x magnification can only be realistically used with a tripod or other rigid support.
Objective Lens Diameter
The second number in the description of the binoculars, the one that comes after the x, stands for the diameter of the lens (at the front) in millimeters. For example, a 7×35 model would have a magnification power of 7 using a 35mm lens. The lens diameter determines the amount of light that enters the binoculars and eventually reaches your eyes. Bigger lens means, first and foremost, a brighter clearer image. Meaning, if you are choosing between two products with the same specs but different lens diameter, the one with wider diameter will provide a brighter view, especially in low-light conditions. Bigger lens also means a bulkier, heavier device. So again, you have a trade-off.
Field of view
Field of view is basically how wide a view you get when looking through the binoculars. When looking through binoculars, you are essentially looking through a tube that magnifies that which you are looking at, so of course you will see only a fraction of the view that you get with the naked eye. Field of view (FOV) is easiest to understand when it’s shown in feet at 1,000 yards. Say you have a pair of binoculars and it says that their FOV is 350 feet at 1,000 yards. This means that at a distance of 1,000 yards, the binoculars will show you an area that is 350 feet wide. For example if you were looking at something like a ship (from the side) from a distance of 1,000 yards and that ship was 350 feet long, it would just about fit into your view. Step any closer and you won’t be able to see entire ship from bow to stern – the entire length of the ship won’t fit into the view anymore.
Field of view is mainly determined by the magnification that the optics provide. This makes sense: the more you “zoom in” on something, the less of an area you see. So this is another reason why high magnification power may not be as good as it sounds: in many cases, you still want to maintain some overview of what you are looking at. Say you’re watching a sports game: you want to be closer to the game, but you don’t want to be some close that you only see one player at a time.
But the FOV is also affected by the lens diameter. A bigger lens lets light in from a wider area. You’re basically looking through a wider tube as opposed to a narrow tube, so that makes sense. Finally, the FOV is determined by the quality of the binoculars and its optics. So you can have two products with the same magnification and objective lens size and yet their field of view can differ by as much as 20%. This difference will be very noticeable when using them in real life.
Exit pupil is a bit of a bit mystical number if you have no experience with optics. It’s not measured directly but rather calculated by dividing the lens diameter by the magnification number. So 10×50 binoculars will have an exit pupil of 5mm.
Well, what does that mean?
This number essentially determines the amount of light that comes out of the eyepiece and into your eye. If you point your binoculars at a brightly lit wall, then the size of the white dot that you can see in the eyepiece is the exit pupil.
The bigger the parameter, the brighter and clearer images you will get when using the optics. This is especially important when using them in minimal light, such as in twilight conditions or when viewing the night sky. A large magnification combined with small lens will mean that the binoculars will yield dull and dim images and will be virtually useless in limited light situations.
You won’t find many binoculars that have exit pupils significantly over 7mm, one of the reasons being that this is about the maximum size that an adult human’s pupils expand to in dim light. Any extra light beyond that diameter would be wasted. In any case if night travel, stargazing or nighttime cruise is your cup of tea, you may want to consider a model with a sizeable exit pupil.
Eye relief is the distance you have to maintain between the eyepiece and your eyes while maintaining a whole view. Longer eye relief is most important to people who wear eyeglasses. If your binoculars have small eye relief and you wear glasses, your eyes will be too far from the eyepiece and as a result you will not enjoy a full field of view. Normally, an eye relief of at least 15 mm is recommended for users with spectacles.
Another consideration is how the eyecups adapt to whether you have glasses or not. Previously, many binocular models had roll down rubber eyecups that would shorten the eyepiece to create the extra space needed for glasses. Nowadays, twist up eyecups are used on most quality products and this is what I recommend. These are usually easy to use and don’t wear out as quickly.
Even if you don’t wear glasses, a good amount of eye relief makes for easier and more comfortable viewing.
In order to see an object in sharp detail, you need to focus on it. Most modern all-around binoculars have what’s called center focus: you have one knob that you can turn situated between the barrels.
There are a few considerations that you should take into account in regards to focusing ability. First, make sure to check a particular models “close focus” parameter. This tells you what’s the closest that an object can be for you to still be able to focus on it. For example, the Celestron Trailseeker above has a close focus of 6.5 feet, which means that if an interesting little bird landed just 6.5 feet away from you, you could still get it into focus and get to see it up close in all its detail. Any closer than that and unfortunately, the image would be blurry. If you plan to use your binocs for any kind of birding, insect watching etc, make sure you get ones with good close focus capabilities.
The term “autofocus binoculars” is a bit of a marketing gimmick
Another common configuration is where both eyepieces have individual diopter adjustment, that is, rings that allow you to adjust focus for each eye separately. Typically this has to be done once. After that, what happens is that everything beyond a certain distance will automatically be in focus by using your eyes’ natural focusing capabilities. This is sometimes called “autofocus“, but this more of a marketing gimmick – this has nothing to do with how digital cameras auto-focus themselves. Nevertheless, the benefit is obvious – no need to turn any knobs, just look at a thing and it’s in focus. The downside is that everything closer than the set distance is blurry – don’t expect any “close focus”. For these reasons, such binoculars are popular in marine and military applications, where the “interesting stuff” tends to be far away.
Okay, so binoculars have these things called prisms in them. These are used to make the image upright, otherwise you’d see everything upside down. They are basically angular bits of glass that bounce the light around before sending it towards the eyepiece. There are two types of binoculars based on the prisms they use:
Porro prism: These are the classical type. See the picture above with the bright orange lenses. You can usually recognize Porro prism binoculars by the “stepped” shape that they have and the usually big lenses that are set wide apart (wider than the eyes). You know, the kind that a captain would be using on the bridge of the ship, wearing his shiny white uniform.
Roof prism: If a binocular consists of two straight tubes joined together in a kind of an H-shape, then that’s probably a roof prism type. See the Celestron Trailseeker above for a typical example.
In the past, Porro prisms had better light transmission, though roof prisms have caught up by now. One other advantage of Porros is that since the lenses are set wide apart, they create a better depth perception, a more of 3D sensation, and hence a better way of judging distance. They are also somewhat cheaper to manufacture and maintain. For all these reasons, they have been historically preferred by sailors and soldiers. They are however big, heavy and rather uncomfortable to hold, especially with one hand.
For general use, I recommend getting a roof prism bino
Roof prisms have drastically improved in light throughput in recent years and there is essentially no difference between the two types anymore. Roof prisms create a more compact and lighter product, which is also more likely to be nitrogen or argon purged (a good thing) and also waterproof. It’s also said that roof prism binoculars are more durable and harder to break, which has possibly to do with more compact and sturdier builds as well as the ease of misaligning a Porro prism, but this will clearly depend on many other factors. In any case, for anyone looking for binoculars for general use, I would definitely recommend getting a roof prism type nowadays.
As light passes through the numerous lens of binoculars, each time it crosses a boundary between air and glass, a small fraction of the light is reflected back and lost. This causes a dimming of the image compared to what it could be. For this reason, higher quality binoculars have their lenses coated with special chemical compounds that reduce the amount of light bouncing back. You will often see labels such as coated lens, multi-coated lens and fully-multi-coated optics (FMC) in descriptions of various products. The last one, fully-multi-coated, means that all optical surfaces are covered in multiple layers of coating – this means that only a tiny part of the light is lost and the image is as bright and clear as it can be.
Resistance to Weather
There are endless possibilities as to where you can use your binoculars. You may want to use them while watching a Formula One race in Monaco or while skiing in Japan during winter. Thus, you need to ensure that you’re buying a product that can withstand some nasty weather. Many models are waterproof and some even float when dropped in water – great for kayaking or boating. However, do note that weather-resistant products are not necessarily waterproof. Meaning, they can resist light rain but not submersion.
How to Choose Binoculars
Now that you are familiar with the parameters and configurations that make up a binocular, let’s have a look at the process of actually choosing one and how one would go about it.
Quality vs Price
Nowadays you can get top-notch binoculars for a fraction of the price
The great thing about technological trends is that the quality of optics products in relation to price has improved immensely in the recent years. A few decades ago, if you wanted a high quality product that would yield superb images, you’d go for something manufactured in the US or Europe or maybe Japan and you would be looking to spend in the 4 digits range. Nowadays, technology and manufacturing processes have improved so much that many binoculars coming out of China and cost a couple hundred dollars have the same quality optics and build. You can get top-notch image quality, field-of-view and everything else for a fraction of the price that you would have paid a little while ago.
High-End vs Mid-Range
Frankly, if you are looking for excellent quality binoculars that are going to be a pleasure to use, and you don’t have some specific purpose that requires super-duper quality optics or other features, go for a mid-range product. That would be something around $200-$300. For the same quality with higher power, maybe go up to $500-$600 or so. But frankly, in this day and age, I don’t see much reason to buy any of those high-end articles that retail for $1,000-$2,500 and beyond. I read and hear as many complaints about super expensive Leica and Zeiss products as about mid-range Vortex, Bushnell and Nikon ones. Certainly, the top-range products have their use, but probably only for limited purposes and professions.
Note that the above price recommendation apply to general use binoculars, in particular 8 x 42 ones. The mid-range for other types will be priced differently. For instance, if you’re looking for a compact bino, then you can get an excellent product for under $200. Products with extra features, such as a compass, floating straps etc can go for well over $300, so it all depends on the case.
Yes, you’ll also find plenty of items selling for $100 and less, but in this case the old adage stands, you get what you pay for. They won’t necessarily be bad and many items in this range can be of reasonable quality, but they won’t compare to good mid-range items. Just about everything about the image: the brightness, the colors, the contrast, the field of view, as well as comfort of use and ruggedness will be taken to a whole new level when you switch from a cheap $50 binocular to high-quality $250 one. It’s unlikely you’ll want to go back, so perhaps there’s no point venturing there in the first place.
Stay Away From These Things
So, there are couple of gimmicks that you’ll see in some models sold, which may look good on paper, but are best to stay clear of.
Built-in camera – Yes, it seems like a perfect idea: look at something and instantly take a picture of it. Don’t fall for it. The digital cameras used in these products are often much worse than the one you probably have on your phone. In addition, it seems that in most cases the camera won’t actually be shooting through the binocular barrel, but rather have an objective of its own: it’s going to be taking a very different picture from what you are actually seeing. They even have a separate LCD screen… Why?.. In addition, the optics on these devices are mostly sub-par, since most of the budget goes into the camera. If you want to take pictures through your binoculars, look into adapters that let you attach a smartphone to one of the barrels: you’ll be taking pictures with a quality camera through quality optics.
Zoom binoculars – these are ones that let you change magnification within a certain range by rotating a knob. Though it may be useful, the problem with these is that the optical quality is usually sacrificed in making the zoom work. The loss in image quality isn’t really justified by any advantages the zoom option offers. Also, even if the top of the zoom range looks astounding (like 100x, whoa), don’t assume that the binoculars are actually usable at this level: the loss in exit pupil (hence brightness) and the shake will make it unlikely that you’ll actually see anything.
Best Configurations by Application
Let’s see if we can come up with some parameters and configurations that you should look for with the intended use in mind.
- General purpose / All-around binoculars: I would say the most useful type that covers most activities, is 8×42 roof prism type. These have adequate power and light capacity and are reasonably small to be taken anywhere. See the Celestron TrailSeeker at the beginning of the article, or the Nikon MONARCH 5.
- Hunting: Hunters can easily go with the same specs as above. You may want a bit more magnification power to better spot animals in the foliage. Some extra lens diameter would be good for hunting in twilight conditions. Something like Vortex Optics Diamondback would be an excellent choice.
- Sports watching: If you’re a football, golf, or baseball fan, taking a pair of binoculars to a game can greatly enhance your experience and bring you closer to the action. You don’t really need big lens here, since these events take place in daytime, and too much magnification isn’t very useful either. You may want to go for a compact type (see below) or something that is dedicated to sports events like the Bushnell Spectator 4×30
- Marine: The most common configuration used in boating, sailing and generally out on the sea is 7×50 with Porro prisms. The somewhat lower magnification is due to the fact that, on a boat, it’s not only hands that shake, but the whole thing that you’re standing on is bobbing up and down on the waves. A bigger lens allows better visibility at dusk and in twilight conditions, plus the widely spaced objectives create a better depth sensation allowing one to estimate distance more precisely. See below for a review of a pair of good marine binoculars.
- Stargazing / shipspotting / whale watching: If you are looking at distant objects and can allow yourself the luxury of mounting the optics on a tripod, you can go way above the normal magnifications and get yourself some high power binoculars, such as the Celestron SkyMaster 25X100
Reviews of Some of the Top Binoculars Models
Now that you’re fully equipped with the basics, let us evaluate the pros and cons of some specific products.
I’m adding this product as an excellent all-round alternative to the TrailSeeker at the beginning of the article. These two models are similar in most parameters. The 8×42 magnification and lens are great for most applications, the optical elements of the Midas are superb and they strongly built. They also have an exceptionally wide field of view. They are priced somewhat above the Celestron product. There isn’t much to go on when choosing between the two models. I personally prefer the simple look of the Celestron to the sporty kind of design of the Athlon Optics model. Otherwise, either of these binoculars will be an excellent companion on any trip or adventure, and either way, these are some of the best binoculars for the money.
Now if you want a general purpose bino, but with more power and bigger lens, I suggest you have a look at the Viper HD from Vortex Optics. The extra oomph of this item comes with a somewhat higher price tag. The 10x magnification can be handled by most people in terms of image stability, and the bigger 50mm lens provides the additional light needed for these binos to work well in dimmer light. An excellent tool for birders and other outdoor enthusiasts, including hunters – great for stalking deer at dusk, for example. This product does come with a lifetime guarantee, which is a great bonus. Keep in mind that at 1.77 lbs, these will be somewhat bigger and heavier than typical 8×42 binoculars.
If you want even more magnification and yet still be able to get a good stable image, I would point you in the direction of image stabilized binoculars. Canon is one of the top manufacturers of these devices. The one above has 12x magnification and there are even more powerful models out there.
Image stabilization works such that the electronics detect the small movements caused by your hands and compensate for them instantly by ever so slightly tilting an optical element inside the binoculars. Note that this does not in any way mean that you are seeing a “digital image” or anything. It’s still the same kind of image produced by normal binoculars, it’s just much less shaky. Users have said that the stabilization is almost like adding a whole lot of magnification, because it’s so much easier to discern detail when the image is stable.
These are perfect for birding, watching dolphins out in the sea, or even if you want to stargaze in the night sky. Most users who get their hands on IS binos never want to go back, they’re so good. You have been warned!
For those of you who need top-notch optics for boating, Steiner is probably the go-to brand. They are a German company which produces a wide range of marine and military binoculars.
The one above is a classical 7×50 Porro design, most commonly used on the open water, and they also have an integrated compass, which is an excellent thing to have, since it makes it so much easier to navigate by distant landmarks while quickly comparing them with charts. If you want to downgrade to a lower price level, check out the model without the compass, it’s much cheaper.
These binoculars have permanent focus. You won’t see anything closer than 20 feet, but from there on everything’s in focus instantly.
This here is a completely different beast from everything above – a most beloved product by butterfly enthusiasts and anyone who want to study insects or other small things up close. These are super close focus binoculars: you can get things in focus at just 18 inches! These are almost like a field microscope of sorts. Although this product is not quite what most people are looking for, I still threw it in, because if you’re an up-close nature enthusiast, it is a treasure to have.
Finally, it may be that what you really want are very small, light binoculars that will fit in your pocket and which still give you an image as good as it can get given their small size. The folding compact binoculars above by Bushnell are probably one of the best options out there. 10x magnification is good most purposes, and although the 25mm lens are quite small, the optics are still top-class. You’ll have a great time using them during daytime, especially since they are so easy to take with you.
Just like in buying anything, it is always a must to do your homework. Meaning, try to learn more about the product you want to purchase. The last thing that you want to happen is spending huge amount of money on a product and later realize that it’s not bad as such, but it’s simply not suited for you. It’s always useful to read a binoculars buying guide, but also, it helps to just sit down and patiently read some real customer reviews in order to know what customers say upon using the product. This is one the best ways to know if the manufacturers can walk their walk. From my own experience I can tell you that once you know what it is you’re buying, you will eventually save time and effort and get the product that you want the first time around.