Holiday 2012: Astronomy, Adventure and Birding Optics

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Gifting Optics

Help the outdoor enthusiast or stargazer in your life see the light better this holiday season with a new set of optics. Whether the subject of their interest is off among the stars or atop an outlying ridgeline, an optic is a thoughtful and original gift idea that can serve its recipient for years. A new set of glass says “I know you” more than a sweater or gift card ever could, but you should be careful to choose an optic that matches their activities and your budget.

Astronomy, adventure and birding optics are available with a wide range of features, in a variety of shapes and sizes, and span an astronomical range of prices as well. But you need not break the bank to get a quality set of birding glasses or a user-friendly telescope into their hands. Fortunately, B&H sells binoculars, spotting scopes and telescopes that will meet the glassing needs of novices, demanding professionals and everyone in between.

Before you buy, it is important to consider the user’s level of experience and their optical needs. A hunter does not need an oversized spotting scope that transmits astounding detail if it is too unwieldy to carry during a day-long solo hunt. Similarly, compact binoculars that fit a in shirt pocket may be convenient for general purposes, but will not transmit enough light to be useful to bird watchers during twilight hours when birds surface to sing their evening song. When choosing the right tool for the job, form must complement function.

The spirit of optics has remained the same for centuries—bringing an image into focus. Telescopes, spotting scopes and binoculars all use lenses to magnify a distant field of view and transmit an image to the observer’s eye. Modern technology has turned the optics market into a whirlwind of tech speak, but the same factors matter today that did when early glassmakers began making optical instruments: image quality, reliability and functionality. The composition and coating of lens elements and prisms are major variables in the optical equation, but the nuances of those variables are beyond the scope of this article. In the sections below, we will leave most of the optics jargon behind and focus on the features that will help you find the best optic for your loved one this holiday season.

Birding Optics

The holiday season is also the end of migration season for birds in North America. As you read this sentence, birds of song and birds of prey are following the warm weather toward their wintering grounds. For those living in temperate or tropical climates, this is a great time of year to spend a day among the trees, observing the feathered nomads as they forage and compose their tweets.

When that heart-stopping hawk or technicolored warbler is within sight, a lightweight set of binoculars with a wide viewing angle and ample low-light performance is what a bird watcher needs hanging from their neck. Since most birders prefer to stay mobile and tend not to carry a tripod or monopod, moderate magnification power (8x or 10x) will provide a consistent balance of performance and portability. Magnification strength exceeding 10x will pronounce the hand tremor common when handholding any magnified optic—stronger magnification equals more visible hand tremor. That seasoned nature observer on your gift list already knows that tired arms translate into shaky views.

The Trailblazer 8x25 Binocular from Nikon has 8x magnification and 25mm objectives (front lenses). Multiple layers of anti-reflective coatings (multicoated) help this set gather enough light to deliver image brightness and contrast that surpass those of larger-objective bargain binoculars. Thanks to a waterproof and fogproof housing and compact design, these glasses will work well for a novice bird watcher or someone who needs a convenient multi-purpose set. In addition to the multicoated glass and streamlined form factor, the Trailblazer binocular features an immersive 59.7 degree apparent viewing angle (observed field of view).

For more demanding birding applications, Vanguard’s Endeavor ED 8x42 Binocular has fully multicoated (multicoated on all lenses) extra-low dispersion (ED) lenses that transmit light more efficiently than most glass types. ED glass is standard in top-shelf optics, but the Endeavor ED offers premium lenses at a less-than-premium price point. Other standout attributes include a 56 degree apparent viewing angle, lightweight waterproof and fogproof housing, and an 8' minimum focus distance. That close focusing distance is going to come in handy when the mythical technicolored warbler touches down on the branch several yards away.

If the serious birder on your list has an eye for subtle details and spends dawn to dusk on the trail or at the park, then they deserve the optical superiority of the EL 8.5x42 SwaroVision Binocular from Swarovski. Swarovski produces more than just world-class crystal; they are also among the most respected names in sporting optics. One look through the eyepieces of the Austrian-made SwaroVision binocular shows how Swarovski’s reputation was earned.

The imaging glory starts with the glass, state-of-the-art, high-definition elements and field-flattener lenses, each fully multicoated with Swarovski’s proprietary SWAROTOP and SWARODUR anti-reflective coatings that enhance image brightness and contrast. Exposed lens surfaces are then finished with a SWAROCLEAN non-stick protective coating that helps prevent moisture and dirt from adhering to the lenses. Across the entire 60 degree apparent viewing angle, images are contrast-rich and tack-sharp with astonishing brightness and lifelike colors. At dusk and dawn is when SwaroVision optics truly shine.

The EL 8.5x42 is also engineered for extremes. This nitrogen-filled, fogproof binocular will maintain its seal in subzero temperatures and even when submerged to a depth of 13 feet. Just as impressive, this set weighs only 29 ounces and has a fine-tuned center focusing wheel that can focus the binocular to within 5 feet. As multicoating on the cake, these glasses include Swarovski’s Snap Shot digiscoping adapter and a lifetime warranty.

For a clearer picture of how binoculars function, please see our B&H InDepth Binoculars Buying Guide.

Adventure Optics

If you have someone on your holiday shopping list who goes on an expedition instead of a vacation, then you know a person with a thirst for outdoor adventure. If this wanderluster has spent hours in a tree stand, hunkered down for days in a blind or ever set foot on the Arctic tundra, then they need a rugged set of optics at their side for the next journey into the wild.

Weatherproofing is paramount for a reliable adventure binocular or spotting scope. It would be a major disappointment to be in prime position to range a trophy buck grazing at the tree line only to discover that your glass has completely fogged. To outlast those adventures that promise extreme temperatures, suffocating humidity, or unrelenting rain, a weatherproof optic with an armored housing is recommended.

Not all weatherproofing is created equal, though.

Waterproof binoculars include o-ring seals that prevent light rain and humidity from entering the optical housing. Some waterproof bargain optics will stand up to rain in most conditions, but they are likely to fail in cold weather when their sub-standard rubber o-rings become stiff and cannot maintain their seal. Fogproof optics also have a waterproof seal but their housing is filled with an inert dry gas like argon or nitrogen to provide internal pressure against the seal. The internal pressure holds the o-rings into seams and actively prevents moisture ingress, making all fogproof optics ready to withstand driving rain and snow. Simply, all fogproof optics are also waterproof, but not all waterproof optics are fogproof.

On the imaging-performance front, a binocular with 10x magnification and at least 42mm objectives or a variable magnification (zoom) spotting scope with at least a 50mm objective, should cover the majority of an adventurer’s glassing needs. The 10x42 set will usually gather enough light to display a bright face-to-face view of a subject at a 25-yard distance. Variable magnification can increase the function of the optics and awareness of the observer by allowing them to survey a wider field of view and then zoom in, but zoom optics generally transmit light less efficiently than fixed-magnification optics. The “better” option, fixed or zoom, depends entirely on personal preference.

For weekend warriors on the hunt or on the trail, the Nikon Monarch 3 10x42 Binocular delivers reliability without excess weight or cost. Nikon has been manufacturing their Monarch line of binoculars for almost a decade, each new series built on the foundation of high-resolution optics and all-terrain performance. Dollar for dollar, it is difficult to find more quality in the binocular market than the Monarch 3.

The 10x42 configuration of the Monarch 3 features a wide 52.9 degree apparent viewing angle and comfortable 17mm eye relief. They also weigh less than 25 ounces, making this binocular suited for both quick glassing and extended-duration observations. Fully multicoated lenses and prisms are housed within a fogproof rubber-armored polycarbonate body. Rubber armoring will not provide extra protection against the elements, but it does improve the observer’s grip, while wearing gloves or when conditions get wet.

When the adventurer in your life steps away from stable ground, a set of stabilized binoculars may be the only solution to the problem of glassing from a moving platform. The same electronic image stabilization technology used in today’s popular camera lenses is available to assist observation from an unstable location in the air, on land or at sea.

Canon’s IS (Image Stabilized) binocular series includes configurations for both recreational and professional users. The 10x42 IS L WP Binocular feature Canon’s fully multicoated premium L lenses, a 65 degree apparent viewing angle and a waterproof housing, making this optic ready for low-light performance outdoors. If wet or low-light conditions are not part of the adventure, then the 10x30 IS Binocular model is a lightweight cost-effective alternative ready to get the shake out of view.

A career-making photo safari is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Months of planning and weeks in the field can easily be spent in vain if the photographer does not have an optic that is engineered to perform when it counts. When a snow leopard begins stalking a mountain goat at dusk in subzero temperatures, the wildlife photographer needs a high-magnification optic that withstands the cold and sees through the twilight to expose the leopard blending with the outcrop.

To see the details that make or break the photo of a lifetime, Swarovski’s latest SwaroVision spotting scope system is right for the task. The ATX/STX 95mm Spotting Scope Kit with ATX Modular Zoom Eyepiece is the caliber of adventure optic required to reveal the texture of the leopard’s fur as it carefully creeps over rocks before pouncing. The objective-eyepiece combination has a 30-70x magnification range and boasts a 57-71 degree apparent viewing angle that is remarkable for a high-powered spotting scope.

There is little to be said about SwaroVision technology that has not already been shouted from the mountaintops (or mentioned earlier). The ATX/STX spotting scope delivers the same distortion-free and razor-sharp image quality as other SwaroVision binoculars and scopes. This new system also includes the lightweight yet rugged construction and functionality that Swarovski loyalists have come to depend on. But only the ATX/STX series features the versatility endowed by the modular eyepiece design and specially-designed digiscoping adapters.

Each objective in the ATX/STX series is interchangeable with the ATX (angled) and STX (straight) modular zoom eyepieces. This innovative design permits in-line and 45-degree viewing with the same objective lens. Both eyepieces are compatible with the 65mm, 85mm, 95mm objective lenses, as well as Swarovski’s point-and-shoot and SLR camera adapters. For premium image quality and rugged design in a high-powered zoom optic, look no further than the ATX/STX spotting scope.

Astronomy Optics

You have decided to buy a telescope for a family member or friend. Congratulations on taking a step toward providing your loved one with breathtaking views of our universe. Below, you will find three options that can show them the lunar craters, star clusters and nebulae that will take their breath away.

All telescopes have four main components in common: the optical tube, eyepiece, mount and tripod. Each of those components has several variations and specifications that can be confusing to the uninitiated. However, knowing the experience level of the telescope user eliminates several variables from the purchasing equation. An advanced amateur or research astronomer will usually appreciate a catadioptric design optical tube with at least a 6-inch aperture and coma-free apochromatic optics, as well as a computerized heavy-duty mount with pre-loaded hand controller (more on this below). Those features greatly enhance the image quality and functionality of the telescope, but are unnecessary for the majority of us, who want to occasionally space out with planets and other relatively nearby objects in the night sky.

For such recreational observations, the 80LCM Computerized Refractor Telescope from Celestron delivers great value and is a perfect option for those interested in viewing the next lunar eclipse or seeking an illuminating family activity.

The 80LCM uses the same refracting optical design originally used by 17th-Century astronomers to study our solar system. Refractor telescopes are relatively cost effective, easy to transport and well-suited for observing planets and moons. This telescope kit includes the 80mm aperture optical tube, two eyepieces, computerized mount, aluminum tripod and an attached StarPointer finderscope that makes telescope alignment and object location quick and easy. The 80LCM kit also includes a hand-controller pre-loaded with 4,000 celestial objects that the telescope can align with at the touch of a button. Spend more time stargazing and less time setting up with this budget-friendly, intro-level telescope kit.

For the junior astronomer looking to expand their celestial horizon and take their astrophotography to new heights, the Tele Vue 85mm Refractor Telescope is just right. Tele Vue is renowned in star-gazing circles for manufacturing “reference standard” eyepieces, and the same level of attention to image quality and build quality is obvious in their line of refractor telescopes. Each Tele Vue 85mm refractor is completely assembled by a single technician in their Chester, New York factory. The precise construction is evident in each machined metal component of the focusing assembly, telescope fitting and diagonal. A Tele Vue refractor is built for a lifetime of stargazing.

Tele Vue’s 85mm refractor includes one of their 20mm Plössl 1.25" eyepieces to complement the optical tube’s fully multicoated apochromatic doublet elements. Views through the eyepiece are clear, crisp, saturated with color and rich with contrast. The 225x magnification (600mm focal length) f/7 lens system make this optic flexible enough to capture deep sky astrophotographs and wide-field images of nearby celestial objects—just make sure the astronomer/astrophotographer already has a mount and tripod. This telescope kit is packaged with a soft carrying case and other useful accessories, but mount and tripod are sold separately.

When it comes to a sophisticated telescope, the LX200 10” ACF Telescope Kit from Meade is an all-in-one system possessing the image quality, durability and functionality to satisfy astronomy enthusiasts, researchers and serious astrophotographers. The LX200 kit includes the 10-inch optical tube, Series 4000 26mm Plössl 1.25” eyepiece, computerized heavy-duty fork mount, AutoStar II hand controller, adjustable field tripod and more. This setup will provide the majority of advanced stargazers with years of backyard celestial exploration.

The LX200 10-inch catadioptric, or reflector, optical tube uses mirrors and lenses to produce 500x magnification using a shorter tube than refractor designs. The result is a 2500mm focal length f/10 lens system in a tube less than 2 feet long. Distortions of color and field geometry are common with catadioptric devices, and they become more problematic at high magnification. That just won’t do for anyone serious about studying or photographing deep sky objects. Meade optical engineers devised an Advanced Coma-Free (ACF) catadioptric design for the LX200 series that is similar to that of the Hubble Space Telescope. The result is a flat field of view with accurate transmission of all colors and pinpoint detail.

When pairing a digital camera with a telescope for astrophotography, the mount is as essential to creating a sharp image as the optics. The LX200 uses a computerized heavy-duty altazimuth Smart Mount that integrates Meade’s automatic alignment technology, a GPS receiver and two metal-geared servo motors to constantly refine the pointing and guiding of the telescope. Smooth and precise guiding keeps the celestial object centered in the telescope’s field of view and helps deliver razor-sharp photographs. The Smart Mount is controlled by the AutoStar II hand controller, which drives the telescope’s go-to capability and enables automatic alignment with celestial bodies pre-loaded into the controller’s 145,000 object library.

Specialty Optics

Here they are, The Best of The Rest, the optics that nobody absolutely needs but most glassy guys and gals secretly crave. In addition to the complete spectrum of recreational and professional binoculars and scopes, B&H also stocks an impressive selection of specialty optics that represent recent advances in optics technology and high standards of manufacturing quality. Without further ado, we are pleased to present B&H's top optical indulgences for this gift-giving season:

Leica’s Ultravid 8x20 and Ultravid 10x25 compact binoculars have a new look. These limited edition ostrich-embossed sets are as elegantly crafted as they are functional. The optics and construction features are identical to their less-stylish Ultravid cousins, but only these Ultravid binoculars are wrapped in supple chestnut-brown calfskin leather and include a matching case. These handsome binoculars will match the elegance of the opera house or the concert hall.

Why digiscope when you can photoscope? The PhotoScope 85 T* FL from Zeiss is a Red Dot Design Award-winning observation and photography device that seamlessly combines a 7-megapixel digital camera with a Victory T* series 85mm spotting scope. The PhotoScope enables you to capture photos or record video while continuing to view the image through the eyepiece. Victory T* optics feature a high-transmission, distortion-free optical path that delivers exceptional brightness, clarity, color fidelity, and contrast—yes, all of that and more—the optics and electronics are housed within a rubber-armored waterproof body.

The PhotoScope has a fold-out, 2.75-inch OLED color screen that displays the transmitted image and provides access to a range of manual camera settings that allow broad creative latitude. The lens system boasts an f/2.4 maximum aperture that rivals the speed of today’s finest extreme telephoto lenses. This scope is bundled with a wireless shutter release and a Zeiss 3-section aluminum tripod. For the amateur wildlife photographers and gear-heads—take the PhotoScope, leave the extreme telephoto lens and DSLR at home.

Another masterwork of electrical-optical fusion from Zeiss is their Victory 10x56 T* RF Binocular. These glasses are overflowing with the same fully multicoated premium optical brilliance as all Victory T* binoculars, but with the added functionality of a laser rangefinder and pre-programmed ballistics information system (BIS). The advantage provided by this refined optical instrument is the illuminated range and ballistic calculations overlaid onto the 63 degree apparent visual scene. Once the rifle load is programmed into the ballistic information system, touching the BIS button will display the holdover distance needed to reach the target. No more guess work, tedious calculation, or missed opportunities—hit the gift-giving bulls eye this holiday season using the Victory 10x56 T* rangefinder binocular.

For more information, please contact a B&H Sales Professional via live chat, over the phone or in the B&H SuperStore. From all of us at B&H, we wish you Happy Holidays and Happy Glassing!

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Very informative , very well written . This is the work of a professional. Not only does the writer know his stuff but he makes the subject interesting . This article gives me a reason to buy .

thanks
B and H