What Is New In Binoculars For 2003 And 2004
Trends In Getting Up Close And Personal

Whenever outdoor photographers discuss their favorite gear, one significant item is frequently overlooked--binoculars. Available in many different styles and powers, binoculars are invaluable for scanning or scouting an area and also for searching out potential subjects. Especially in bird and wildlife photography, binoculars can increase your odds of a successful outing. Naturally, binoculars are useful for viewing other types of subjects, too: butterflies, stars, boats, sports and motor racing action, and so on. For anyone who has tried them, binoculars soon become a valuable accessory, as I first discovered many years ago.

If you don't own binoculars yet--or if you're in the market for a pair with improved design--read on for our brief buyer's guide to the latest in double-barreled optics. Because the new models vary considerably in price, size, and features, you should be able to find exactly what you need. And if you're not fully up-to-date on binocular features, review the information and recommendations provided in our "Buying Points."

Rugged And Weatherproof
Each year, more and more new binoculars include a waterproof rating, and many of the models are also shockproof: coated with rubber body "armor." This type is useful for water sports and for use at the beach but also great for skiing or hiking in inclement weather. At one time, such binoculars were heavy and expensive, but some of the latest models are very portable and affordable. The latest Olympus Magellan WP I series for example, includes an affordable 8x25x model ($150) and a 10x25x model ($170). Both are compact and lightweight (12 oz) but rugged and employ BaK-4 prisms that are multi-coated and designed to reduce UV-ray transmission.

If you're on a really tight budget, but still want waterproof binoculars, check out the five new Celestron Outland models (8x25 to 12x50; $49-$99) with BaK-4 roof prisms and multi-coating or the Oceana 7x50 CF porro prism model ($99) that's also nitrogen filled. Minolta's Classic Sport series is also affordable ($115-$145) for nitrogen filled 8x42WP, 10x50WP, and 12x50WP models (from 27-31 oz) with BaK-4 porro prisms,
multi-coated optics, a wide angle of view, and high brightness. Want binoculars that will actually float? Then check out the new Swift Sea Gull 7x50 ($150; 27.5 oz) with bright yellow rubber coating that should also be easy to spot as it's floating down a river.

Moving up a notch in price, you'll find the new Pentax 8x42 and 10x42 DCF HR II series ($280 and $300, respectively) with waterproof and fogproof construction in a body made of fiber-reinforced polycarbonate with a rubber housing. The new premium-grade Pentax DCF SP (roof prism) line consists of four waterproof nitrogen filled binoculars encased in a magnesium-alloy body: the 8x43, 10x43, 10x50, and 12.5x50 models ($599-$799). Features include inner-focus, aspherical eyepiece lenses, high-resolution phase-coated roof prisms, and multi-coated optical elements.

If those models are above your budget, check out the redesigned Nikon Monarch ATB 8x42 or 10x42 ($290 and $329, respectively; 21 oz). These binoculars are waterproof and fogproof with phase-corrected roof prisms for high edge-to-edge sharpness. For maximum light transmission, they feature a wide objective lens and exit pupil plus lenses with full multi-coating. Both are also shockproof, thanks to a durable metal-alloy housing while the rubber armor provides a firm grip, wet or dry. 

Wide Angle Design
While maximum magnification may be important for some uses, high-powered binoculars have a very narrow field of view. Many outdoor and sports enthusiasts prefer a model with a wider field of view, great for scanning a large area or for following action subjects. Hence, we're seeing more wide angle models, such as the new Minox 7x42 BR A.L.T. ($450; 785 g) from Leica. Featuring a field of view of 403 ft at 1000 meters, the Minox binoculars offer other benefits, including a large exit pupil (6mm) for a bright view, aspherical elements for great edge sharpness, M* lens coating to minimize reflections, and phase-corrected prisms for exceptionally high light transmission. Like all Minox binoculars, this one boasts a body of rubber-armored aluminum, high precision mechanical and optical systems plus waterproofing and nitrogen filling to prevent internal fogging.

Zooming Feature
Convenient especially for viewing sports action that occurs at various distances, "variable power" binoculars offer great versatility. Many models provide extremely high magnification, up to 30x, so plan to use a tripod, or brace your elbows on something solid. Frankly, even a 7-16x model, like the Celestron Traveler Zoom ($80) provides plenty of power. Zoom binoculars are not ideal in low light, because the exit pupil gets smaller as you zoom to higher magnification levels. Relative brightness reduces substantially: from 12.8 at 7x to 2.8 at 15x, with the Olympus 7-15x25 Tracker Zoom PC ($80), for example. The best zoom binoculars--such as the Nikon 8-16x40 Zoom XL ($600; 1.88 lbs) are quite large and heavy--but many of the affordable models are surprisingly compact and lightweight.

You can find many porro prism zoom models that tip the scales at 13 oz or less and cost around $140. These include the Minolta Activa Compact Zoom 8-22x27 FM, with BaK-4 prisms and an aspherical element, and two Nikon models: the Eagle View Zoom II 8-24x25, with BaK-4 prisms and multi-coated optics, and the Travelite V Zoom 8-24x25 ($159) with the same features plus aspherical eyepiece lenses for a flat field of view and strain-free viewing. If you're considering zoom binoculars, review the specifications of several models and try them while shopping. Select the one that provides the best viewing comfort as well as acceptable brightness at various zoom settings.

Leica uses a different approach, with dual magnification in their Duovid 8 + 12x42 model ($1500; 37 oz). Use the 8x magnification for general viewing and switch to the 12x power for a closer look after finding your subject. These waterproof and fogproof Leica binoculars, in a cast aluminum body, offer an ultra-bright view and superb optical and mechanical components protected by a lifetime guarantee.

Internal Stabilizer
It's difficult to use binoculars with over 8x power handheld, because of image blur from hand and body shake. A tripod can be useful on solid ground but it's not suitable when you're on an unstable platform like a boat or a vehicle. A few manufacturers have made binoculars of military grade (and price) with a stabilizer to counteract shake and vibration but Canon offers a more affordable alternative.

Their line of IS binoculars employs an internal electronic Image Stabilizer that continually makes adjustments to maintain a steady image. Because of the success of the original three IS models, Canon has expanded the line and their latest 8x25 IS model ($349; powered by two AA batteries) is substantially smaller and lighter (4.7x5.4"; 16.9 oz) than the earlier 10x30 IS model. This one incorporates a new Tilt Mechanism Image Stabilizer system that works by "tilting" a single lens element in the left and right lens barrels to counteract shake.

The newest model in the Nikon StabilEyes series, the VR 12x32 ($799; 38.8 oz; powered by two AA batteries) employs gimbaled digital servos for vibration reduction, great for steady images when hand holding these high-powered binoculars. An exclusive VR Pause feature disengages vibration reduction when desired, useful while panning with fast moving subjects. This is a waterproof and fogproof model with fully multi-coated lenses and phase-coated prisms for high brightness and resolution.

Outdoor photographers carry binoculars for scouting and observing distant subjects, whether nature or sports. These days, binoculars tend to be more versatile and include more convenience features than ever before.
© 2003, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Close Focusing
Because binoculars are generally used for distant subject matter, few models offer extremely close focusing (15-30 ft is common for 10x binoculars). However, for certain subject matter such as butterflies and large birds, you'll want a pair that will close focus down to about 6 ft. I found several such models, including the Swift 7x36 Eaglet (6 ft; $299), the Eagle Ranger 8x42 Platinum Class (5.2 ft; $379), and the Bausch & Lomb Elite PC 10x42 (5 ft; $800). Two new models from Steiner Optics are worth noting, too. The Peregrine 8x42 and 10x42 ($795 and $850, respectively) are compact, roof-prism binoculars that focus from 5.5 ft to infinity; they're also waterproof, armored, fully multi-coated and phase corrected for sharp, distortion-free images.

Maximum Light Transmission
Like photographic lenses, some of today's binoculars feature superior multilayered coatings in addition to wide objective lenses for maximum light transmission. If you're frequently out in early morning or late afternoon, you'll appreciate the extra bright view of binoculars with a twilight factor of 15 or higher. Some models have an even higher rating. The new Minox BD 12x52 BR A.L.T. ($700; 950 g) with an exit pupil of 4.3mm boasts a twilight factor of 25 which allows you to view fine details even in low-light conditions. This premium-grade model includes rubber-armored aluminum construction, aspherical elements, phase corrected prisms, M* coatings, and high precision mechanical and optical mechanisms. Other models with ultrahigh twilight factors include the Leica Trinovid 12x50 BA (24.5 factor; $1200), the Zeiss Victory 10x56 BT (23.7; $1349), and the Victory B-T* 12x56 (25.92; $1500).

If you're interested in star gazing, check out the very bright Celestron astrobinocular series with huge objective lenses and wide (4+mm) exit pupils. The new SkyMaster 15x70, 20x80, and 25x100 porro prism models ($100-$499) are large, heavy binoculars with incredibly high power. For viewing nearby subjects in darkness, you'll need night vision binoculars that employ a photocathode tube. This device amplifies ambient light by accelerating electrons and using a phosphorescent screen for easy viewing. Night Owl makes several such models, but their new CB-4 ($399; powered by one 123-A 3v lithium battery) is the most compact and lightweight (6.2x6.2"; 2 lbs), and features 4x image magnification; with an optional adapter, that can be increased to 6.5x.

Digital Imaging
Do you want to take photos while viewing a distant subject through your binoculars? If so, you might appreciate one of the binoculars with a built-in digital camera, such as the Pentax DigiBino DB 100 ($250; 9 oz; powered by two AA batteries); a 7x17 (roof-prism) model with a 1.6" LCD monitor, 0.8-megapixel CCD image sensor, and built-in memory for image storage. While resolution is certainly not high (1024x768 pixels), it's adequate for making 3x5" prints or for sharing your JPEG images with friends by e-mail or on a television monitor. The fully automatic DigiBino DB 100 includes TTL light metering and a 5 frame per second continuous shooting mode; as with most binoculars, focus control is manual.

Much larger and offering higher resolution, the new Bushnell Instant Replay 8x32 (roof-prism) binoculars ($499; 26 oz; powered by two AA batteries) can record 2-megapixel images, adequate for making 5x7" or larger prints. This model can also record 30 second movie clips with .35-megapixel resolution. In addition to 16MB of internal memory, the Instant Replay accepts CompactFlash cards with high storage capacity. View the videos and still images on the LCD monitor or download them to your computer with the USB cable that's included.

Buy The Right Binoculars
Before deciding on specific binoculars, conduct some research on several brands and models within your price range. Review the Specifications and Features charts on manufacturer or retailer web sites, using the guidance provided in our "Buying Points."

After narrowing the field to several models that should meet your needs, visit a retail store to try them out. Viewing comfort, and factors such as clarity, contrast, color rendition, and sharpness, call for a personal "test drive" for a full evaluation. You'll probably find that the most desirable binoculars cost more than you had originally planned to spend. Unless you will need them only occasionally, buy the best model that you can afford. As with photographic lenses, you get what you pay for. A poor optical instrument will not reproduce the image clearly and with frequent use may cause eye strain, headaches, and fatigue. By investing in high quality binoculars, you will benefit with years of comfortable and enjoyable viewing.

Binocular Buying Points
Although most photographers are familiar with lenses, some have difficulty appreciating the finer points of binocular technology. Indeed, some of the terminology and concepts do differ when dealing with these double-barreled optics. Before you begin shopping, consider the following information and recommendations:
Prisms: Used to fold the light path for a shorter barrel--and to invert the image as in an SLR camera--prisms are standard on all binoculars. The traditional "porro" prism models are a bit bulky but provide great contrast, good depth perception, and often, a wide field of view. "Roof" prisms (denoted by a straight tube) are light and slim, fairly rugged but more costly to manufacture. Either type can be excellent but avoid bargain-priced roof-prism models. Many prisms are made with BK-7 glass but for higher edge sharpness and greater brightness, look for a model made with high density BaK-4 glass.

The Numbers: All binoculars are designated with a formula such as 8x25. The first number refers to magnification or power. With 8x binocs, for example, the subject will appear eight times larger than with the unaided eye. The second number refers to the diameter of the "objective" lens, or front element, so here, the 25 refers to 25mm. The wider the objective lens, the greater the light gathering power and the brighter the image. As noted below, light transmission is affected by other factors, too, but the following rule of thumb is worth noting. When comparing binoculars of identical design, the view through an 8x50 model is twice as bright as through 8x35 binoculars and four times as bright as through 8x25 binoculars.

Exit Pupil: This is the size of the circle of light that reaches your eye. The larger the exit pupil, the brighter the view and the more effective a model will be in very low light. It can be calculated by dividing the size of the objective lens by the magnification of the binoculars. (For example, a 7x50 pair has an exit pupil of 7.1mm.)
Image Brightness Ratings: In order to determine the actual light gathering ability of any model, check the specs for "Relative Brightness Index." An index around 10 is fine for daytime, but for frequent viewing in low light, you'll want a model with an index of 25 or higher. Some manufacturers provide data on the "Twilight Factor" instead. An 8x25 model may have a twilight factor of 14.14 while the factor for 7x50 binoculars may be 18.71. Binoculars with a factor of 16 or higher are particularly useful in low light.

Chemical Coatings: Like photographic lenses, many binoculars' elements are coated with chemical films to maximize light transmission while reducing flare. Note the following definitions. Coated: a single layer on at least one element. Fully coated: a single layer on all elements. Multi-coated: multiple layers on at least one element. Fully multi-coated: multiple layers on all air-to-glass surfaces for light loss of 5 percent or less. Superior coatings are also more effective in reducing glare for higher contrast and clarity. The prisms in better roof-prism binoculars are also coated, with "phase coating" that prevents scattering of incoming light for higher resolution and contrast.

Optical Quality: Like photographic lenses, some binoculars include aspherical lenses for a clear, sharp view with little distortion. Some premium-grade models ($400 and up) from Canon, Swift, Minox, Olympus, and others include a "low dispersion" glass element useful especially in high-powered binoculars for excellent contrast, clarity, and color fidelity. When reviewing the optical features, also look for devices such as a "field flattener" used by Canon and others (in some models) to produce higher sharpness at the edges of the viewing area.

Field Of View (FOV): This is a side to side measurement of the actual area visible through a pair of binoculars, when focused at a distance of 1000 yards or meters. The higher the power, the narrower the FOV, of course. The 8x binoculars intended for general viewing often have a FOV of 300-375 ft. Some manufacturers provide the angle of view, or "angular field," instead, with 5-6Þ being common. Multiply that by 52.5 to get the FOV in feet. Models with an FOV of over 400 ft are particularly useful for scanning a large area or following a moving subject.

Eye Relief: Measured in millimeters, eye relief refers to the maximum distance from the eyepiece that will make the entire field of view visible. With some binoculars, you must hold the eyepiece very close to your eye in order to see the entire field of view. Other models include "long eye relief"--at least 15mm--useful for comfortable observation for anyone who must wear glasses while viewing. In that case, you'll also want fold-down rubber eyecups for excluding stray light. Of course, you may not need to wear glasses if you select binoculars with individual diopter adjustment controls for each tube; this feature works well for many near-sighted individuals, though not for those with astigmatism.

Bushnell Corporation
(Bausch & Lomb)
(800) 423-3537

Canon U.S.A., Inc.
(800) 652-2666

Carl Zeiss Sports Optics
(800) 441-3005

(310) 328-9560

Eagle Optics
(800) 289-1132

Leica Camera Inc. (Minox)
(800) 222-0118

Minolta Corporation
(800) 808-4888

Night Owl Optics
(212) 229-0297

Nikon Inc.
(800) 645-6687

Olympus America Inc.
(800) 622-6372

Pentax U.S.A. Inc.
(800) 877-0155

Pioneer Research (Steiner)
(800) 257-7742

Swift Instruments, Inc.
(800) 446-1116