Three Things to Consider Before Buying Birdwatching Binoculars

Having the right pair of binoculars in the field will help you get an up close and personal view of avian species you’ve never seen before.

Bird in a tree
Birdwatching is quickly becoming one of the most popular hobbies in the U.S.Tina Nord

Birdwatching, or “birding,” isn’t a complicated activity for a newcomer to enjoy. You’ll need a birding book to help you identify different birds you might see. You’ll need a way to record what birds you saw, which can be on paper, or a smartphone or tablet. You’ll also need some good outdoor clothing, including some hiking boots for going off the beaten path, and a good pair of binoculars so you can see birds up close and personal. Hint: A good pair of birdwatching binoculars can also be used for many other activities that require a closer look at faraway objects. Here are a few things to think about as you peruse the countless binoculars available today.

Magnification

Vortex Optics Crossfire HD Binoculars
This set of binoculars is available in magnifications ranging from 8x to 12x.Vortex

Magnification, or power, is one of the most important considerations in choosing a pair of birding binoculars but shouldn’t be the only factor you use to make your purchase decision. To understand magnification, note that it is the first number in a binocular description, such as 10x40. In this case, it has a magnification power of 10, meaning that an object you are looking at will appear 10 times closer than it would to your naked eye. So, a bird in a tree 100 yards away will appear 10 yards away through your 10x binoculars. It might seem logical to think the highest power binoculars are the best, but typically the higher the power, the more sensitive binoculars are to small movements. 8x and 10x are generally the most versatile for birding.

Objective Lenses and Coatings

Vortex Optics Diamondback HD 12x50 Binoculars
These binoculars feature fully multi-coated lenses for increased light transmission, resulting in better vision in low light.Vortex

The objective lenses are the large lenses on the front of a pair of binoculars, measured in millimeters. The objective lens is the second number in the description, for example the 42 in a set of 8x42 binos. Typical sizes for objective lenses are 25-28mm for compacts, about 30mm for mid-sized units, 40 to 42mm for full-sized binos, and 50 mm and higher for very long-range models. The importance of objective lens size is mostly related to the amount of light a lens will gather. With larger lenses allowing more light, they are typically more effective in low-light conditions. Lens coatings reduce light reflection off the glass surfaces to further enhance the image. With uncoated lenses, light transmission from objective to ocular lenses might be less than 70 percent, but good lens coatings can raise that to 95 percent transmission. Levels of coating include coated, fully coated, multi-coated and fully multi-coated, with binoculars that have fully multi-coated lenses yielding the best visibility. However, they’re also generally most expensive.

Compact vs. Full-sized

Vortex Optics Diamondback HD 10x28 Binoculars
These compact binoculars are easy to carry in a jacket pocket when not in use.Vortex

Compact versus full-sized binoculars often comes down to a matter of personal preference. Full-sized binoculars typically have larger objective lenses, which transmit more light. However, they’re also heavier, harder to carry, and can be cumbersome when hiking. Compact binoculars are lighter, easier to carry and handy to drop in a jacket pocket when you’re not using them at the moment. However, they have smaller objective lenses, which don’t transmit as much light to your eyes. Consequently, they’re not going to be as easy to clearly see a small bird at a long distance, especially in low-light conditions. In the end, the better view you’ll get of your avian quarry makes full-sized binoculars the best choice for most, but not all, birdwatchers. If you have a friend with both full-sized and compact binoculars, ask if you can borrow them to determine which you prefer before making a purchase.

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