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Birding: The Complete Guide to Choosing and Using Binoculars

James' main interests are birding (though he enjoys watching all wildlife) and writing.

Choosing the right binoculars is pivotal for enjoying your birding experience.

Choosing the right binoculars is pivotal for enjoying your birding experience.

Most birders you will encounter in the field are laden with pieces of kit, including myself. In fact, it's a wonder that we either haven't done ourselves an injury or developed the muscles of a bodybuilder. In all seriousness though, you don't need to burden yourself with enough equipment for a Polar expedition, neither do you need to own a lens the size of a naval cannon. The most important piece of kit that you need to get started is a pair of binoculars. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Moreover, they needn't cost you a fortune. Of course, you spend as much or little as you want, but even a fairly decent pair of binoculars can be obtained for under £100.

Understanding Binoculars

How Do Binoculars Work?

A pair of binoculars is every birder's most vital and treasured item of equipment. Needless to say that we birders feel naked without them. So precious are our binoculars, that we often affectionately term them 'bins'. That weight around our necks is like a comfort blanket, it makes us feel alive and ready for anything that might catch our eye.

Binoculars may appear complex to those unfamiliar with them, but they are in fact very simple to use; they basically magnify the image you're looking at to make it seem much closer than it actually is. Until you've looked at a bird through a decent pair of bins, you'll have no idea of what you're missing out on. More than anything, they'll transform you into a fully fledged birder.

A photograph of a typical roof prism binoculars.

A photograph of a typical roof prism binoculars.

Types of Binoculars

Binoculars come in three basic types: Firstly there are conventional or 'Porro-prism' ones. Essentially these are classic shaped binoculars, and the type that I would recommend beginners to start off with. Make sure that you buy a pair with coated lenses, which give a better quality image. They are generally sturdy, if sometimes on the heavy side, and if you buy a good quality pair, they should last for years.

The second type are known as Roof-prism. These are the top of the range bins, and can cost in excess of £1000 for a pair. They are more streamlined in shape than Porro-prism models, and their ability to gather light at one end and transmit it to your eyes at the other is generally better. Another advantage is that they are more compact, and generally lighter in weight, than conventional models.

The third and final type are Compact Bins. There are many different sorts of compacts out there on the market, largely aimed at the more casual birder. Although a few are excellent, unless you pay a high price they tend to suffer from the compromises needed to reduce their size and weight. Compacts have their uses, for example, as a second pair to carry around with you all the time, but are not really recommended as your main pair of binoculars.

An example of the two figures that matter greatly when choosing binoculars. The 7 denotes the magnification, whilst the 50 is the diameter.

An example of the two figures that matter greatly when choosing binoculars. The 7 denotes the magnification, whilst the 50 is the diameter.

The Technical Stuff

Binoculars come in all shapes and sizes- and at prices to match! So how on earth do you tell them apart? On every pair of binoculars there are two figures that look like a multiplication sum-for example 8 x 30 or 10 x 50.

The first of these figures (e.g. 8x or 10x) refers to the power of magnification. So a pair of 8x bins bring whatever you're looking at eight times closer, while 10x brings it ten times closer, and so on.

A word of warning though; don't simply opt for the most powerful pair with the highest magnification. That's because the higher the figure, the narrower the 'field of view' of the binoculars, and the less bright the image. Also, quality varies enormously with price, and sharpness and light gathering ability are more important than power.

The second of the two figures ( e.g. 30, 40 or 50) is also a factor here. This figure refers to the diameter, in millimetres, of the objective lenses- the big ones at the front. The larger the number, the more light the lenses let in. The more light, the brighter the image, and the wider the field of view.

You can do a simple sum to compare the brightness and field of view of different pairs of binoculars. This involves dividing the first number into the second to produce a single figure. So, for example for a pair of 10 x 50s, divide 50 by 10, and you get the figure 5. For 7 x 42s, the figure is 6, for 8 x 30s, it is just under 4, and so on. When comparing the binoculars in the same price range, the higher the figure, the better the light transmission of the binoculars and the wider the field of view.

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Buying binoculars always involves a level of compromise: do you do most of your birding in wide open spaces, where the birds are quite far away? If so, you'll want a higher magnification- say 10x. But if you generally watch birds in woodlands, where you need a wide field of view, or at dawn or dusk, when brightness is important, then choose a pair of 7x or 8x with a wide objective lens (greater than 40mm if possible).

Getting Started

How to Choose Binoculars

So how do you go about choosing your first pair of bins? Well, below I shall outline my top 10 tips (in no particular order) that should set you down the right path.

  1. Don't cut corners by buying a pair from a high street shop outlet. You may end up saving a few quid, but you'll soon regret it. Instead, I would recommend that you go to a specialist optics dealer that can either be found in birding magazines or through searching the Internet.
  2. Buy the best possible binoculars you can afford. A good pair can last for years or even a lifetime, so try to stretch your budget as far as you can- you won't regret it. Consider buying a good second-hand pair, so long as the dealer has serviced them and gives you a guarantee.
  3. Size isn't everything. New birders often make the mistake of choosing the pair with the highest magnification. Sounds logical, after all. But odd as it may seem, a pair of 7x or 8x bins is often better than 10x or 12x. That's because, as explained previously, the higher the magnification, the duller the image, the narrower the field of view, and the heavier they are to carry.
  4. Next up, brightness. Basically the lower the magnification, and the wider the objective lens, the brighter the image. So if you plan to do a lot of your birding at dawn or dusk, choose a pair of 7 x 42 or 8 x 40.
  5. A lower magnification and larger objective lens also bring the benefit of a wider field of view. This is particularly useful when watching woodland birds, which tend to flit around rapidly from twig to twig.
  6. Check close focus. There's nothing more frustrating than watching a bird that has come too close for your binoculars to focus. Most decent bins should focus down to 13 feet or so.
  7. Watch your weight. The binoculars may not seem heavy in the shop, but after a long day in the field, every extra ounce feels like a lead weight around your neck. Heavier bins are also harder to keep steady, especially during prolonged use.
  8. Take a 'test-drive'. All reputable retailers will allow you to test a selection of binoculars. Some hold regular open days at bird reserves, others let you nip outside the shop, so long as you leave behind some kind of deposit. Don't part with your money until you've done a thorough field-test, checking that they are easy to focus and that the image is sharp and clear right to the edge.
  9. Buy what feels right for you. Don't just get the ones your friend likes. Binoculars are a very personal thing, so choose the pair that feels comfortable in your hands and gives you the clearest and brightest image.
  10. Once you've bought a pair of binoculars, look after them. In the right hands, a good pair of bins will last a lifetime. So don't drop them, scratch the lenses, spill food on them, leave them out in the rain, put them on your car roof and drive off, or lend them to anyone- and I mean anyone! Handle them carefully, clean the lenses regularly with a soft brush and lens tissue, and look after them as if they were a new born baby.

Getting the Best out of Your Bins

How to Use Binoculars

So, you've followed the above tips and gone out bought your first real pair of binoculars, and are eager to try them out. But when you do, something doesn't seem right; maybe the birds look fuzzy or worse still, all you can see is a double image. However, before you go rushing back to the shop to complain, try out these 3 simple tests:

  • Are the eyepieces the right distance apart? Most people set them too far apart- the best way to get it right is to focus on something fairly close, then push the eyepieces until the double image becomes a single one.
  • Adjusting the focusing wheel. If the bird you are looking at is still out of focus, then try shutting one eye, and adjusting the central focusing wheel until the image becomes clear. Then repeat the process with the other eye. Once complete, open both eyes, and you should be able to behold a clear image of whatever bird you are looking at.
  • Finally, if you wear spectacles, but your eyesight isn't too bad, take them off while birding. But if this means that you can't actually see any birds, make sure that you buy a pair of bins with either rubber or push-down eyepieces. Folding them down will give you a far wider field of view.

© 2018 James Kenny


James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on December 29, 2018:

Thank you sweetheart xxxx

Paula on December 29, 2018:

Another amazing article ..keep shining ..always proud of you ❤️❤️Xxx

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on December 29, 2018:

Not quite as knowledge about them Liz but I'm practising. Got a couple of trip reports to do plus one on telescopes.

Liz Westwood from UK on December 29, 2018:

This is a really useful guide, based on personal experience and knowledge. Will you be writing an article on cameras next?

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