I’m frequently asked about my recommendations for binoculars. My first recommendation is yes, you should get a pair.
Sure, you can do a lot of birding without binoculars – and 90% or more of the birds I encounter I detect by song and call. But for any bird you have the chance to observe at a distance greater than about 3m, your likelihood of correctly identifying it or of simply enjoying the view will increase dramatically if you can use some visual aid to make the bird appear much closer. That’s what binoculars do: Those numbers printed on the side indicate how much closer an image will appear through the lenses, i.e., 7X closer, 8X, 10X. I recommend 8X binocs. 10X helps when viewing birds quite far away (shorebirds along a mudflat perhaps), but higher magnification narrows the field of view (making it more difficult to find flitting warblers in the canopy), requires more light for a sharper image, and enhances any unsteadiness in your hands (which for me is naturally pretty high). 7X is better for finding and tracking little birds in dense cover, but pretty limiting when you’re out in those wide open spaces. I prefer 8X binoculars as a compromise between the two. I don’t recommend anything less than 7X or greater than 10X.
Next, if you absolutely must abbreviate the word (and you don’t) then binocs serves that role: bins is what some kind of Silicon Valley marketers cooked up as a term to try to make birding more cool. Hey focus groups: Birding is cool enough on its own. We don’t need your fancy lingo. (I might even like the super-retro field glasses, but that’s a bit much even for me.)
Whew! Feels good to get that off this grumpy old man’s chest.
Right. Well then, providing recommendations on binoculars makes me a bit nervous because they can be a big expense and there is a bit of get what you pay for when shopping for birding optics. If you have unlimited resources then sure, buy a fantastic pair of binoculars for $2000 or more. They’ll be lightweight, sturdy, fogproof, crystal clear, and they will last a lifetime. That was a pretty big if, though.
Folks of more modest means like myself have to be more selective. It’s important to realize that you can get a decent pair of binoculars for about 100 bucks. They will work great under most conditions, but they will be inferior to the top of the line. It’s kind of like cars. We loved our 1988 Chevy Nova and went all over the place in that thing, but there are other cars that would’ve outperformed it with respect to pickup, handling, towing capacity, styling, etc.
How will binocular performance compare in the field? When it’s dry and the lighting is good, expensive binoculars won’t necessarily perform any better than cheap ones. Heck, I did the field work for my master’s degree with a pair of these. Performance diverges as conditions deteriorate, however. High-end binocs will provide a bright, sharp image at a distance even under low light, through glare, fog, etc. long after the cheapo specials become useless. So, for a beginning birder, cheap binoculars should serve you well. If you’re more serious that means you’re going to be out there birding under all manner of weather and lighting conditions, and that’s when the good binocs earn their keep. That’s why I advise folks to invest in the best binoculars they can afford.
Weight is a concern of many folks. These Nikon 10x50s clock in at a hefty 31.7 oz (900g or nearly 2 lbs), but these Nikon 7X35s are 24.2 oz. Among full-size binoculars (and I don’t recommend compacts for birding) most will be listed in ounces, and low-20s will be lightweight, high-20s will feel much heavier. Of course that only matters for most folks* if you’re going to be lugging them around your neck all day long. Also, those cheap vinyl straps that dig into your neck have mostly been replaced by far more comfortable broad neoprene straps. Note in my photos that I routinely shorten the straps so that the binocs rest on my sternum. Up high like that, they don’t swing around much while you walk (climb!) and it’s easier to quickly lift them to your eye when you detect some movement in the bushes. A lot of folks opt for shoulder harnesses that take all the strain off your neck; I’ve never tried those.
*Most folks. I certainly can’t speak to the experiences of people who might be a lot smaller and/or more female than I am. So it’s important to recognize specific needs you might have for binoculars. The short strap that I use for mine might be awful for someone else. A heft that is no big deal for me might be a big deal for someone else. Other folks might be able to handle 10X binoculars just fine, but my unsteady hands make them a big challenge for me. So if you can, it’s always a good idea to try out some binoculars in person to see if they just plain fit you.
Shaky hands? Your default grip might be to hold binoculars up to your face (above, left) but if you brace your thumbs against your cheekbones (above, right) you’ll be able to hold them much steadier. This works on porro-prism, roof-prism, and the invisible binoculars I’m modeling in the photos.
Lastly, eyeglasses. If you, like me, wear eyeglasses then you’ll need to pay attention to the eye relief on a pair of binoculars. The link explains the issue quite well but the gist is this: binoculars are designed to provide their full field of view at a prescribed distance from the ocular lens to your eye. Eyeglasses can affect that distance, so you want binoculars that allow you to adjust the distance depending on whether you are wearing your glasses or not. Look for an eye relief of at least 16 mm to give you that wiggle room. The eyecups should be easily folded or twisted up or down to adjust to the proper eye relief for you.
With that preliminary stuff out of the way, you can get down to the business of comparing prices, features, and availability of binoculars to find the best pair for you. There are many great sources of information to do this. I recommend the following:
- National Audubon Society: Audubon Guide to Buying Binoculars.
- Perennial powerhouse, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Finding the Best Binoculars for Birding.
- Head-to-head comparison by Wirecutter.
- Bird Watcher’s Digest.
Ultimately, the best pair of binoculars for you is whatever encourages you to spend more time outside using them. So do that, have fun, and good birding!
As a 2019 addendum to this post, I’ve just learned from a friend about a binocular rental service that she loves and might suit a lot of folks’ needs. She writes:
I rented some scopes & binocs from Optics4rent.com & in order to keep his inventory current, Todd gives amazing deals on lightly used Swarovski optics w/ full warranty! For camera gear I go to KEH – amazing deals on bodies & lenses. 2nd hand is better for the planet & pocketbook 🙂.