It’s always fun to watch birds and animals in the wild. Binoculars can enhance this experience greatly by bringing you closer to the animals you’re observing and letting you see fine detail without scaring them away (or putting yourself in danger, for that matter). There’s nature to observe everywhere, whether it’s Costa Rican jungle or your backyard.
Choosing the best binoculars can be a bit of a pain. There’s too many models available and they all look similar in many ways but have widely varying pricing. I wrote this review article to help you identify what is best for your particular purposes and buy a product that you won’t regret.
Maybe you don’t want all the little details and just want a quick product recommendation, so here’s one excellent binocular that will be perfect for observing wildlife:
This product by Vortex is a really good mid-range binocular which will work well for most purposes, including spending time in nature and watching animals. It has a nice ergonomic design, which makes it easy to hold. They are of roof prism type and as such they are quite lightweight and compact.
Now of course, the most important part of any binocular are the optics and the optics on this model are superb (this goes for pretty much anything Vortex produces) – you’ll get clear and bright images in daytime and they also make for very good viewing in low light, due to their top-notch light transmission characteristics. They also have a very wide field of view: this means you get to cover a large area despite the magnification. This is excellent for tracking moving targets, such as a running rabbit or a bird in flight, and for observing multiple objects at the same time.
There’s pretty much nothing bad to say about these binos. They look slick too. And you get a lifetime warranty on them, so even if something goes wrong, you’ll get them repaired or replaced for free.
I’ll review a few more specific products at the end of the article. Now let’s go over some of the things you should know when choosing binoculars.
This is probably the most obvious of the parameters: this is how much bigger an object will look through the binoculars than with the naked eye. Magnification is usually written as the first number in the description of the product. So if a particular model says that it’s 10×50, it means that the magnification is 10x.
Although it may seem like a great thing, beware of too much magnification. For most handheld use, 7x, 8x, 10x binoculars are the most common and easy to use. If you go above that, there’s risk that you won’t be able to hold the binos steady enough to get a stable image and you may need some sort of support, like a tripod. In addition, the higher the magnification, the smaller the field of view: that is, the more you zoom into something, the less of an area you see. So there are several trade-offs here.
Objective Lens Diameter
This is the size of the lens that’s at the front of the binoculars. The size of this lens determines how much light enters the objective and how bright the resulting image will be. Binoculars with small objective lens, such as 25 mm will not perform in dim light as well as ones with larger lens, e.g. 42 mm.
This diameter is marked by the second number in the description, it’s in millimeters. So, 10×50 means that the lens diameter is 50 mm.
In general, the greater the magnification, the more lens diameter you want to have to compensate. This is called exit pupil, which is objective lens diameter divided by magnification. In case of 10×50, that would be 5mm. Greater exit pupil means brighter images. When watching animals and other wildlife, having dull images is pretty unsatisfying. I’d recommend getting optics with an exit pupil of at least 4mm, preferably higher. This means sizes such as 8×42, 10×42, 10×50.
Weight, Size and Ergonomics
If you’re going to be carrying them around a lot, you’re probably going to prefer binoculars that are reasonably light, so that’s a consideration. The same goes for size – a moderately sized bino will be easier to hold for extended periods of time.
One of the important factors here is whether the binoculars are of Porro prism type or a roof prism type. Porro prism designs are recognizable by their classical shape: the barrels are not straight, with objectives spaced apart much wider than the eyepieces. Roof prism designs, on the other hand, have straight barrels.
Nowadays, it makes sense to buy roof prism binoculars, like the Vortex model recommended above. In the past, their light transmission qualities lagged behind the Porro prism designs, but that’s not the case anymore. Roof prism binoculars are lighter, smaller and sturdier. They are also easier to hold to your eyes because of a more ergonomic shape.
Eye relief – particularly important if you wear glasses, eye relief is the distance your eyes can maintain from the eyepiece while still getting a full FOV. If you have eyeglasses, try to get a model with at least 15mm eye relief.
Coated lenses – to reduce the amount of light that is lost (reflected back), it is common for higher quality binoculars to have their objective lenses coated with special chemicals. Look for fully multi-coated optics – this has immense effect on image quality and brightness.
Which Binoculars to Buy for Watching Wildlife and Nature?
With the above points in mind, here are some other recommendations that might suit your taste and budget.
My recommendation for the Vortex model at the top of the article stands. But for a somewhat budget friendlier option than the above, here’s another great binocular to consider. The SkyView model from Wingspan Optics is also an 8×42, which is probably the ideal combination for exploring nature and also for most other activities. It’s got the same big field of view and excellent optics, including ED glass lens and BAK-4 prisms. They have fully multi-coated lens, which is standard among good mid-range binoculars nowadays.
The close-focus capability is very good on this model: about 6.5 feet or 2 meters. This means that you can get objects into sharp focus even at this short range – great for watching small animals and birds, and even insects, at close range.
Now if you want some extra power in terms of magnification and lens size, this 10×50 bino here is a beast. It is one of the most highly rated binoculars on Amazon. You can expect it to deliver stunning images even when there’s not much light, such as at dusk or before dawn – a prime time to watch many species of animals during their height of activity. The extra magnification will bring you in closer to what’s happening without sacrificing any light. Some people consider this model a good choice even after having used compact binoculars for a long time. Consider that this is one of the few 10×50 binoculars out there that is roof prism based – most other products of this configuration are bulkier Porro prism types. It should be said that the quality of this product does come at a price – they are upper mid-range in terms of cost, or even lower high-end.
If the cost of the Viper HD above is beyond your budget but you still want a powerful 10×50 configuration, have a look at the Nikon Action EX. It’s a Porro prism setup, which you can see from its shape.
This binocular is much cheaper, and the optics are pretty good. Do be aware that the close focus capability is not very good at all if you want to watch some wildlife up close – it’s 23 feet. Anything closer than that will be blurry. Also, they are heavier and larger than a roof prism setup. Holding them up may be tiring for the arms if you do it for long stretches of time.
I know I said that you shouldn’t go above 10x in terms of magnification if you want to have stable images.
Not with this beast. This is an image stabilization (IS) binocular – it uses electronics to fix the image and correct for any shaking instantly, producing a nice stable image even at a whopping 14x magnification. Yes, it’s very pricey, but on the other hand, people who use IS binoculars tend to not want to go back to using normal ones. Despite being “hi-tech”, these binoculars are waterproof, like all the models above, making them fit for rainy conditions or a trip to Alaska or Yellowstone park.
The Fujinon model is great, but it is not the only image stabilized bino on the market. Canon is another major producer in this field. If you are interested in this technology, I suggest you do a search on Amazon or click here.
All of the binoculars above are excellent in terms of the value they provide for the money, but as you can see they’re still very different. Once you have set your priorities, it’ll be easier for you to make a choice. Decide what sort of magnification you want and how light and small you need the device to be and it will be easier to narrow down your choice.