Outdoors / Buying Guide

Guide to Optics for Kids

         

In the comments for one of my other binocular articles, a reader pointed out that I had neglected to suggest binoculars for children. In response, we’re publishing this piece that is devoted strictly to kids, and will deal with the different types of optics we offer here at B&H: binoculars, spotting scopes, and microscopes. Buying for children presents a complicated set of contradictory ideas. You don’t want to spend too much on them because they tend to have short attention spans and to break things… but if you don’t spend a certain amount, what you get won’t work very well and you run the risk quashing sincere interest.

Binoculars

"If you’re planning on introducing your child to bird watching or hunting, you want to make sure they can hold their binocular steady for some length of time or they’ll probably get frustrated or bored."

I know this first thing will seem fairly obvious, but you have to remember that children have smaller faces than adults, so you’ll want to stay away from larger, full-sized sets of binoculars because they won’t be able to bring the interpupillary distance (IPD) close enough to resolve the images from the two optical tubes into a single image. As a general rule, the main determining factor for the minimum IPD is the size of the objective lenses. With this in mind, and knowing the size of your child’s face, you’ll want to choose binoculars with objectives of no more than 42mm (and that’s the extreme end) and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to limit the size to 30mm, just to be sure.

Another consideration has to be weight. Again—I know this sounds obvious but, until you mention it, this wouldn’t occur to many people. If you’re planning on introducing your child to bird watching or hunting, you want to make sure they can hold their binocular steady for some length of time or they’ll probably get frustrated or bored.

The final consideration is magnification. When you’re looking through a magnified optic for the first time, it tends to be a bit difficult to find your intended subject right off the bat, and the higher the magnification, the smaller your field of view, so it gets harder to not only find your subject to start but to also follow it as you add power. It’s for this reason that you’ll want to stay with lower powers of 6x to 8x. This will bring the subject closer than they might have thought possible, while still giving them a wide field of view to more easily find and track a bird or woodland creature.

So, what does this all mean? With all of these considerations, you’ll want to keep the magnification between 6x and 8x with objectives from 20mm to 30mm. You’d think that this would be a fairly narrow search, but you’d be surprised how many options there are. In fact, B&H offers more than 160 models, with prices ranging from less than $7 all the way past $2,000. You can get a decent starter pair of binocular from well known brands such as Barska, Bushnell, Meade, and Celestron for less than $20.


Meade 8x25 TravelView Binocular (Black)
 

A step-up in price and quality will add features such as water- and fog-proofing, better optical properties, or wider fields of view. For example, the Carson Scout has a wide 62-degree viewing angle, while this Vivitar is waterproof and has an open-bridge design for easier handling. The Pentax U-Series comes in three colors (and we know how much kids love colors) and weighs less than half a pound. Perennial favorite Nikon has a great line of T01 Aculons that come in even more colors and use lead and arsenic-free glass so it’s kinder to the environment—and who doesn’t appreciate that these days?

At the larger end of the spectrum, Celestron offers the weather-sealed 7x30 Cypress binocular that has an in-view analog compass while Kowa’s YF has a bunch of features that set it apart from other models with phase-corrected prisms and nitrogen-filled optical tubes so they are both water and fog-proof.


Kowa YF 8x30 Binocular (Black)
 

For the purposes of this piece, since we’re talking about buying for kids, I’ve kept the recommendations to less than $100, but if your budget is higher, B&H offers great models from heavy-weights like Zeiss, Leica, and Swarovski that run into  hundreds and thousands of dollars.

As a little side note, there are some binoculars that have integrated digital cameras. They range from about $20 and go up to $2,000, so there will probably be one to fit any budget. These make great presents for capturing images, and even video, of what you’re looking at—and again, kids love stuff like that. Bear in mind that the low-end ones won’t have spectacular resolution, but it’s still a pretty neat feature for kids.


Vivitar 12x25 Digital Camera Binocular 
 

Spotting Scopes

Spotting scopes (or spotters) are great for kids because they can be used for a wide assortment of tasks—from nature watching to basic stargazing. For kids, the main down-side to a spotter is that it requires them to keep one eye closed while viewing, so bear this in mind before purchasing. If your child has some muscle-control issues and can’t keep one eye open, this might not be the best choice, and you’ll want to go to a binocular instead. The other thing is that it’s not really practical to hand-hold a spotting scope—even for adults—so lean toward options that come with tripods, or ones that are compatible with a photo tripod, if you have one (for example, make sure the spotter isn’t too heavy for the tripod). Also pay close attention to what’s included with the scope. Some models come without eyepieces, or work with very specific ones, so be mindful when adding it to your cart.

The final consideration is the configuration of the eyepiece in relation to the optical tube. Most spotters are offered with angled or straight-viewing options. Each one has their pros and cons, but it essentially comes down to the two following factors.

Angled (left) and straight optical tubes

Angled

• Pro: With the eyepiece set at 45 degrees to the optical tube, it offers a more comfortable viewing position whether you’re standing, sitting, or lying prone.

• Con: Because the eyepiece is at a different angle from where your subject is located, it takes some practice to be able to find and track things.

Straight

• Pro: The eyepiece is set in-line with the optical tube, so it’s generally easier to find your subject in the field of view and keep it there when it moves.

• Con: Your tripod will need to have a taller maximum height, especially for adults, and unless you’re standing up straight, you’ll probably have to bend your neck, which tends to get uncomfortable after awhile.

Beyond these concerns, spotters offer a viewing experience similar to binoculars, but with higher magnifications and objective lenses, so your views will appear closer and images will be brighter, plus, by having the optic on a tripod, you’ll see a drastic reduction in vibrations.

B&H offers hundreds of options for spotting scopes, and since they need to be tripod-mounted and have only one eyepiece, the concerns discussed with binoculars pretty much go out the window. Perfect beginner spotters are primarily designed for quick and easy setup with simple operation and features.

Barska 15-40x50 Colorado Spotting Scope
 

Barska’s Colorado scope is a nice place to start. With a straight-viewing zoom eyepiece that offers a broad 15-40x magnification range and a respectable 50mm objective, this one sports a simple tabletop tripod that can be set up on the hood of a car, a tailgate, or picnic table. Weighing less than a pound, kids will find it easy to use and it won’t take up a lot of space. Moving up a little, FireField’s 20x50 spotting scope also has a tabletop tripod, but with a fixed magnification, so using it is a bit easier without zoom rings to worry about, and it is water- and fog-proof. If the weather turns, the optic will be fine. In contrast to these two straight-viewing models, Celestron’s LandScout series has an angled view, which might be more comfortable when it’s set up on a table. What I particularly like about this one is that it has a large focusing collar, comfy for small hands. The LandScouts come in two sizes: a 10-30x50 and a larger 12-36x60 version, both for less than $50. Another great option is this Sightmark kit: you get a 15-45x60 spotter with a tabletop tripod, hard and soft cases, plus a filter set, all for less than $100. Looking at offerings with full-sized tripod, Celestron’s LandScout, as discussed above (both the 50mm and 60mm), are offered with adjustable-height aluminum tripods, a three-way head, and a backpack in which everything fits.

Celestron LandScout 60mm Spotting Scope Backpack Kit
 

If you already have a photo tripod, or plan on buying one separately, then your options are incredibly broad. Again, just make sure whatever tripod you plan on using can handle the weight of the scope plus any accessories you might want to put on it, such as digiscoping adapters.

Digiscoping

With the rise of digital cameras and smartphones, many people began adapting their cameras for use on spotting scopes to document what they’d seen—and for birdwatchers nothing is better than photo evidence of that rare bird being seen where it shouldn’t be. There are dozens—teetering on hundreds—of options for digiscoping with cameras and phones. With the digiscoping adapter, not only can you document the day, you’ll be able to share the experience more easily with multiple people, avoid fights over who gets to use it and for how long, and you’ll be able to control the scope’s movement instead of the kids, so focusing and tracking is done with more precision.


Carson HookUpz Binocular Adapter for iPhone 6 and 6S
 

As an aside to digiscoping, many of the options in that link above can be used with one eyepiece of a binocular or a microscope eyepiece—so no matter what optic you end up using, a digiscoping adapter is a nice accessory.

Microscopes

Microscopes are a natural sibling to binoculars and spotting scopes. As a general rule, kids who are interested in the first two things are also interested in microscopy. There are two main types that we can discuss here: conventional and digital.


Celestron LCD Digital Microscope II
 

While conventional microscopes definitely have their place and are important to people of all ages, kids are growing up in a digital society, so I’m going to kick off with a discussion of digital microscopes. Not only has this whole category come down drastically in price, having a digital microscope gives kids the ability to view what they’re looking at on a screen, and save the images to a computer, smartphone, or memory card for later viewing and sharing.

A quick and simple microscope is just a smartphone adapter. Carson’s MicroMax Plus is currently offered in three models to fit Galaxy S4, iPhone 4/4s, and iPhone 5/5s. This optic simply clips over the phone’s camera and has magnifications from 60-100x. A similar optic by Bodelin, the ProScope Micro, comes in a version mostly for various iPhones and iPads, plus one for the Galaxy S4. Other simple handheld microscopes would be veho’s 200x USB model, or this iOptron offering that also has a stand. These plug into a laptop or desktop and come with imaging software to save and edit photos and videos. Another handheld model, again Celestron comes into the mix, is the LCD Handheld. Small and compact, it has a 3MP camera with 3.5-50x optical magnification with an additional 4x digital zoom. An internal card slot allows you to save for later viewing and runs on just two AA batteries.


Carson MM-250 MicroMax Plus for iPhone 4/4S
 

A more conventional-looking Celestron model is the Infiniview. Outfitted with a 5MP camera and a 3.5" color touchscreen, you can get from 2x to 160x optical magnification on top of 4x digital zoom. Not only do you have the option of saving to a microSD card, there’s also a video-out option to view on a TV or projector. A combination of conventional and digital microscopes is the iOptron ST-640 Analog/Digital Microscope with Removable LCD Screen. Once you get passed its awkward name, you’ll see that the scope employs different objectives on a circular turret. Not only can it take photos and videos, it can save them to its onboard memory or the SD card slot. More importantly, its magnification range starts at 40x and goes up to an incredible 1600x.

For more options, you can look at conventional microscopes. The perfect starter set comes from iOptron, with an 84-piece kit that comes with a hard carrying case for most of the gear. Kunuscience has a kit that includes a 100x to 1200x microscope with a projector accessory, blank and prepared slides, and a hard carrying case. Celestron has a model that comes with a 2MP eyepiece camera that sends images to a computer, and Carson has one that comes with a universal smartphone adapter, so you can use them as conventional microscopes while still having the ability to digitally store images, edit them, and share them.


iOptron 84-Piece Microscope Kit
 

Manufactures such as Vivitar and Tasco have combo kits that come with simple microscopes and telescopes at very affordable prices.

The Power of Optics

Whether you’re looking for the portable convenience of a binocular, the power of a spotting scope, or to see beyond the ability of our feeble eyes through microscopy, buying optics for children is fairly easy, as long as you consider their individual abilities and interests and nurture their natural curiosity… and who knows—you may just discover that child inside you who becomes just as interested as your offspring.

Author’s Note: You may be wondering why I didn’t mention obvious optics such as telescopes. Not too long ago, I wrote a piece called Introduction to Stargazing, which has a whole section devoted to introducing children to astronomy. Click the link and check it out if your child is interested in getting a telescope.