If you are going all the way to Africa to watch its majestic animals roaming around in the wild, then don’t forget to bring a nice pair of binoculars. Making the right choice is not easy since there are so many different brands, models, configurations and price points out there. In this article, I will cover this topic in detail and hopefully help you in making a good decision. By the way, although this article is written mainly with African safaris in mind, everything applies just as much to any kind of overland tour where you get to observe wild animals in their natural habitat.
You might wonder whether you really need binoculars – after all, you’re going on a safari holiday to get up close to the animals. The answer is, quite certainly, yes, you do need them. There are several reasons for this:
- The reality is that you won’t always get very close to every animal out there: this could be to avoid disturbing them or for your own safety. Good binoculars will greatly compensate for that, bringing you up close as if you were standing right next to that lion, wildebeest or gazelle.
- Even when an animal is nearby, you can get a better look at all the details using binos than with the naked eye. For example, individual leopards have different fur patterns and this is used to identify individuals – these kinds of details will be very difficult to spot with the unaided eye.
- There are many more wonderful things to see in the African wilderness other than the “big five game” (which is the elephants, lions, leopards, Cape buffalo and rhinos) – don’t underestimate all the beautiful birds you’ll encounter – they are much more difficult to observe without binoculars. Also, the skies: if you’re going to spend a night under the stars, then you should know that African night skies are some of the most beautiful in the world and a great opportunity to use your optics for a little stargazing.
- In the early morning hours and at dusk, the lighting will be dim and it may be difficult to watch animals even if they’re fairly close. A binocular with sizeable lenses will give you a brighter image than just your eyes.
- There may be one or two shared binoculars in the tour vehicle. Don’t rely on these – they may be low quality and significantly worn. They’ll be changing hands all the time, so their focus won’t be adjusted to your eyesight. Plus, you can never be sure that you’ll actually get to use them when you need them, because there may be other contenders.
If you prefer a quick buying recommendation rather than the technicalities, here’s one. I’ll cover all the little details after that and then do a comparison of some more products on sale in a wide range of prices.
Although it might not be from a big name manufacturer, the Midas model by Athlon Optics is an absolutely amazing product – and it combines pretty much everything you’d want from safari binoculars.
The 8×42 configuration gives you the perfect combination of magnification, image brightness and size (I go into more detail on that below). The fact that they are of roof prism type (notice the straight barrels) means they’re quite compact, light and ergonomic. The optics in this binocular are top-notch, the images are bright and crisp with no aberration or stretching. It also has excellent close-focus capabilities: you can focus on things that are only 6.5 feet (2 meters) away. Another great feature is the massive field of view (426 feet at 1,000 yards) – there are very few models with a greater FOV with the same magnification. The construction is very sturdy and completely waterproof – features that are pretty much necessary for safari tours.
It should be said that this model is not the cheapest item out there. However, it’s solid mid-range and not nearly as expensive as many other models. A $1,000+ product may offer a marginally better view etc, but if you’re an amateur binoculars user, you’d probably only notice this when actually comparing them side by side. The Midas offers an exceptional image quality and ergonomics for its price.
What Features to Look For
Let’s go over some of the things you should know when choosing binoculars for safari trips.
Possibly the most obvious parameter a binocular has: how much bigger does it make the image? You will see two numbers in the description of a binocular, with an ‘x’ between them. The first number is magnification. So, 10×42 binoculars will magnify everything 10 times. Do note that the vast majority of binoculars have fixed magnification. There are “zoom binoculars” which offer variable magnification, but their quality is almost always worse than for equivalent fixed ones.
Although more magnification means more detail, it has two drawbacks. First, with more magnification, you lose field of view. Secondly, it’s hard to hold powerful binoculars steady enough to get a stable image – it’s really not recommended for most people to get binoculars over 10x if they’re planning to use them while standing up without support.
In fact, for safari viewing, I’d recommend getting an 8x model – you’ll get a good field of view and you can easily hold them steady while standing or sitting.
The two big lenses at the front of the binoculars are called objective lenses. Their size determines how much light enters the device and how bright the image that you see will be. The diameter of the lenses in millimeters is the second number in the description, the one after the ‘x’. So if you see some binoculars labeled as 10×42, you will know that these have lenses 42 mm in diameter.
Generally, a larger objective lens is better because it provides a brighter and clearer image. This is particularly important when using the optics is dim conditions, such as before sunrise or after sunset. These times are also when many of the African game animals are active and are good times for watching them roam about, feed etc. With small lens binoculars, such as 25mm, you will get a very dim and rather disappointing image. On the other hand, a 50 mm lens of a good quality binoculars will actually yield a brighter view than you get with your naked eye.
The downside is that big lenses mean generally bigger and heavier binos – more difficult to carry around and to hold to your eyes for long periods.
My general recommendation for a wildlife safari would be around 42mm – a good balance of light capture and size/weight. If you’re going to be traveling only by vehicle and will be out a lot at dusk, or even at night, then go for 50mm.
Field of view – in essence, this is the width of the view that you get when looking through the binocular. It’s easiest to understand when it’s measured in feet at 1,000 yards. The wider the FOV, the better your overview of the scene that you’re looking at. Since you’ll often be looking at groups of animals and entire herds, it’s crucial you have a decent field of view.
Exit pupil – this is the width of the beam that exits the eyepiece and is calculated by dividing the lens diameter by magnification. In general, you don’t need to worry about the specific calculation. Just know that bigger lens means brighter images, but greater magnification means dimmer images, so you need large lens to compensate for powerful magnification.
Eye relief is a metric most important for eyeglass wearers and is the distance you can maintain between the eyepiece and your eye while still getting a full view. If you wear glasses, and that includes sunglasses (an important consideration when out on the savanna), make sure your binoculars provide at least 15 mm of eye relief.
Sturdy waterproof and fog proof construction – rain, mud, dirt, dust – all of these can get into your binocular if it’s not tightly sealed. Definitely look for a waterproof build. Also, riding around the African wilderness can be rough, so make sure your binoculars have a nice sturdy build, preferably with a rubber exterior for protection. Cheap budget models tend to have a flimsier construction and may not be waterproof.
Size and weight – these are pretty self-explanatory. Do consider whether you’re going to be mostly in a vehicle, or you’re going on a walking safari. In the former case, you can afford having bigger and heavier binoculars since you don’t have to carry them around and you can use the vehicle or your knees for support while using them. If you’re walking, you’ll need to gauge how much weight you’re willing to carry around your neck. Consider buying a harness for easier carrying.
With the above in mind, let’s review some of the best safari binoculars options on the market.
The Athlon Optics Midas at the top of the article is an absolute top-notch product, but if you want great quality for less, then have a look at the WideViews model from Wingspan. Wingspan (formerly Polaris) makes high quality optics specifically with birders in mind and they’re wildly popular.
Birding is quite demanding when it comes to binoculars, since you’re trying to watch small animals who are often very fast; you also want to be able to capture entire flocks. Plus you want to see all their little details and the colors of the plumage without any distortion etc. If a binocular is good for watching birds, then it will definitely work for bigger fauna. And that’s the case with the above product.
It’s 8×42, so quite perfect for most safari adventures. The optics are great – fully multi-coated lenses, coated prisms and even ED glass – everything you’d expect from a high-quality binoculars. They also boast quite a wide field of view of 393 feet at 1,000 yards, though not quite as wide as the Midas model. Otherwise, they’re lightweight yet rugged, with a waterproof and fogproof body.
If you want more magnification power, and can deal with a somewhat bulkier and heavier binocular, you may want to check out this product by Nikon. Nikon is well known for manufacturing camera lenses and they have carried this know-how over to their other optical products. This is a 10×50 model, meaning you get more magnification than with the products recommended earlier and also a bigger lens to compensate for the loss of brightness. They are very good for viewing in low light.
Since it’s a bit heavier, at 2.25 lbs (1.02 kg), it may not be the best option if you’re planning on a long walking safari, but it’s perfectly usable from a tour vehicle. The design is rugged and fogproof. You’ll notice that the barrels on this binocular are not straight, but offset with wide spacing between the objective lenses. This is because it’s a Porro prism design. Porro prisms tend to have somewhat better light transmission, though this depends on many other factor.
It’s worth mentioning that unlike most Porro prism designs, this binocular has a center-focus knob which is more convenient than the usual individual focus.
One drawback that you’ll have to contend with is the fairly large close focus value: you won’t be able to focus on anything closer than 23 feet.
It’s possible that you’d prefer a smaller and budget friendlier product than all of the ones mentioned above, so here’s another Wingspan model that you may want to consider. These are compact binoculars with a 8×32 configuration. They are definitely some of the best small binoculars for the price and have excellent optical features, including ED glass and lots of coatings, however do keep in mind that in dimmer conditions you cannot expect the same sort of brightness from a 32 mm lens as from a 42 mm lens.
The main advantages of this sort of a binocular, other than the cheap price, are its small size (longest dimension 5 inches, will fit into a sizeable pocket) and small weight. This means they’re easy to carry around and to hold steady in front of your eyes for a long stretch of time.
A very different option from all of the above is to try out image stabilized (IS) binoculars. The magic of these binos lies in the electronics that monitor the way the binoculars move or shake while you’re using them and automatically correct for it by tilting a special lens inside. This way, you get a much more stable view than you’d get otherwise – and remember, more stability means more detail, so it’s a bit like having more magnification without the extra shakiness or loss of FOV.
In general, users tend to love these and many cannot imagine switching back to normal binoculars after using these. They do come with a hefty price tag though, but they are well worth the money.
There are many more options and sizes available, including from manufacturers other than Canon, you can click here to see more options.
There are so many wonderful destination you may travel to: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia. All in all, your safari is likely going to be an adventure of a lifetime. Missing out on exciting bits because you don’t have binoculars, or have only inferior budget ones, would be rather disappointing. Also, keep in mind that you aren’t buying binoculars just for this one adventure. A good pair will last you a lifetime and will be a companion on many different occasions. You will be able to use them for anything ranging from fishing to sport events and concerts.
Decide on your budget and basic requirements and then look for models that suit you, and definitely read user reviews. Also, have a look at out guide on how to buy binoculars for even more details and advice.