A Guide to Birding with Binoculars

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When it is time to see a rare bird up close, the binocular is the go-to optical tool for almost every serious birder. Unmatched portability and convenience make the binocular one of the best devices available for spotting and indentifying birds in their natural habitats.

In this first segment of a four-part series, we will discuss what to look for if you are looking for binoculars for birding, or some things to consider if you are already a birder and looking to upgrade your optics. 

Looking with Both Eyes

Call it a hobby. Call it a pastime. Call it a sport. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in 2011, more than 47,000,000 Americans are “birders.” Birding ranks as the 15th most popular outdoor recreational activity in the US. Chances are that you either know a “birder” or you see one when you look in the mirror. B&H Photo is a great place for stocking up on the best birding optics available, or for shopping for your favorite birder.

Binoculars are almost de rigueur for anyone looking to observe birds in the wild. Some birders use spotting scopes and others use cameras with telephoto lenses, but you may be hard-pressed to find a serious birder without a pair of binoculars at the ready.

There are multiple advantages of binoculars for birders over the other optical options. Binoculars are much more portable and lighter than spotting scopes and large telephoto camera lenses. Also, binoculars afford you a more natural “3D view” of the bird, since you are looking through two optical tubes and, therefore, viewing the birds with both eyes. Human vision is stereoscopic and sighting through two optical devices gives a birder the most natural view. Last, many spotting scopes and telephoto lenses require the use of a tripod or alternative support to ensure a steady view. This requires the birder to carry more gear into the field on expeditions.

Lots of Options

Binocular buyers are immediately confronted with several purchasing decisions. Not only are there numerous brands of binoculars on the market, they come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and feature options. B&H Photo writer Christopher Witt recently published an in-depth Binoculars Buying Guide that dives deep into what you will find on the shelves of the B&H optics department and on the SuperStore website when searching for a pair of binoculars. Luckily, if your mission is viewing birds, purchasing options can be narrowed a bit. For this article, we will focus here on what specifications birders should consider when binocular shopping, and not reproduce everything from Chris’s excellent article.

The Power Debate

The first decision a birder needs to make when buying binoculars is what magnification binoculars to get. When looking at binoculars on the Web (and on the box and the binoculars themselves) you will usually see two prominent numbers. These refer to the magnification and objective diameter. An example is: 8x42. This indicates the magnification of the binoculars is 8x power and the objective (front) lens is 42mm in diameter.

The natural tendency for most people new to binoculars is to get the most powerful binoculars they can find. After all, the idea is that you want to get a view as close to the bird as possible. However, there is a drawback to high-powered viewing: image shake. The higher the magnification, the more small movements and vibrations will be translated into your image. Also, high magnification usually has an impact on minimum focus distance (more on why that is important later) and it also narrows your field of view.

Because of this, most birders prefer binoculars that are between 7x and 10x. In the past, 8x was the standard median power between 7x and 10x. Today, some manufacturers offer 8.5x and even 9x as a compromise between the power of the 10x and the steadiness of the 8x. In general, when 8x is mentioned, the term embodies these other pairs as well.

What power is best for your birding adventures? To help quell the debate on what power to use, B&H spoke to some top birders around the country for their thoughts on the topic.

Brian Sullivan, Project Leader from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program, shares his thoughts: “7x42 binoculars are ideal for 'landbirding;' for example, watching spring warblers in dense tangles or trees where magnification is less a factor, but quickly finding birds and staying on them is key. If you have steady hands, or do the kind of birding that requires long-distance viewing (e.g., hawk watching, sea watching), then 10x might be best for you. 8x is a nice compromise! Many binocular manufacturers have settled on 8x as the standard for general birding. This gives you a good field of view with sufficient magnification power for all birding use cases, and, in general, the 8x binoculars are easy to hold steady.”

Eric Lind, Center Director of the Audubon Constitution Marsh Center & Sanctuary, in Garrison, New York, prefers 8x binoculars and says, “8-power gives you a little bit more than 7-power. I’ve tried 10x, but they were difficult to hold steady.” Eric uses an older pair of Zeiss 8x42 binoculars. “10x,” he says, “might be more appropriate for shore bird viewing from the beach.”

Bill Stewart, Director of Conservation and Community at the American Birding Association, and a 40-year birder, agrees. He owns a pair of Leica Ultravid 8x42 binoculars that he “uses every day.” He finds that the field of view is often too narrow on the 10x binoculars for his liking, but admits, “I would also like a pair of 7x and a pair of 10x.”

Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation at the Audubon Society’s Connecticut office and President of the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, recommends 8x for beginning birders, but owns a 10x for shore bird viewing.

Birding photographer Glenn Bartley told us, “I really like seeing the birds up close—hence my choice for 10x over 8x.” He carries a pair of Swarovski 10x42 binoculars for sighting birds when he is not photographing them with his Canon EF 600mm lens.

Olaf Soltau, a member of the New York Chapter of the Audubon Society, shared his experiences and opinion: “I use Swarovski EL 10x42s. But it took years before I felt ready to move up from 8x to 10x. For beginners, I always suggest 8x40. Think Goldilocks: not too strong, not too weak, not too heavy, not too flimsy. It's simply the best compromise. Higher magnification makes the image too shaky and the birds too hard to find, especially for beginning birders. Lower magnification simply doesn't bring the birds close enough. There are, of course, exceptions. 10x40s are OK if most birding takes place in wide open spaces like grasslands and coastlines, where the birds are often far away. I used 8x40s for years until my hand had gotten steady enough and my bird-finding-through-binos skills had become good enough for 10x40s. Another exception: People who don't have the physical strength to carry 8x40s around all day long can opt for 8x30s, but that means sacrificing image quality.”

Bucking the trend, Walker Golder, Deputy Director of Audubon North Carolina, is a shore-bird specialist who uses an old pair of Leica 8x32 binoculars. For closer views, he switches to a spotting scope, but the 8x32s are, according to him, “small enough for me to put around my neck and they don’t get in the way as I move and get in and out of boats.” He generally recommends 10x for shorebird viewing for others.

For a final word on this quandary, eBird’s Brian Sullivan says, “If you're the kind of birder who can only have one pair of binoculars (and that includes many of us), 8x is a good choice. If you start there, you can always move up or down with a next pair in order to better suit the kind of birder you are.”

Some binoculars have variable magnification. At first, this seems like the best of all worlds, but, in reality, you lose a lot of optical quality for the price point with zoom lens binoculars. If you ask around, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who endorses zoom binoculars for birding. In fact, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says succinctly, “Avoid ‘zoom’ binoculars.”

Objective Diameter

The larger the objective lens, the more light gathering power the binoculars have. The downside is that larger lenses are heavier. A difference of a few ounces on a specifications sheet might not look like much until you are several hours into your hike and the weight of the binoculars is starting to make an impression on your neck and shoulders.

Birders tend to gravitate toward the 40mm range for their binoculars. Binoculars with 40mm, 42mm, or 44mm objectives serve as a good medium compromise between low-light capability and portability. Objectives smaller than 35mm will lead to a more portable package at the expense of light gathering, and a 50mm or larger objective will give you a very bright image along with, potentially, the aforementioned sore neck and shoulders.

Eric Lind has seen birders in the field with small travel or opera-type binoculars. They may feel great to the hand, but out in the field, they usually leave their user wanting. Smaller objectives are not good for a lot of birding, says Patrick Comins, “unless it is a bright, sunny day.”

Another advantage of the larger objective diameter is a larger exit pupil at the rear element of the binoculars, where your eyes are focused. With two binoculars of the same magnification, the circle of light hitting your eye is larger, with a larger objective. Therefore, an 8x42 binocular will have a larger exit pupil than an 8x35 binocular. A larger exit pupil generally means a more comfortable viewing experience.

Binocular Configuration

Binoculars come in two basic configurations: Porro prism or roof prism. The Porro prism gives that type of binoculars the traditional binocular shape. The roof prism binocular features a narrower and compact, straight design. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but, in general, the Porro prism design is less expensive to manufacture and, therefore, gives you more bang for your buck as far as optical quality and features. The relative compact size of roof prism binoculars makes them generally more popular for birders, as optically similar Porros will be larger.

When looking at spec sheets on binoculars, birders may notice that they have two standard types of prisms. Chris’s article gets deeper into this, but we will discuss it briefly here. The BAK4 prism provides a more circular field of view and is considered superior to the BK7 prism’s rectangular field of view, as the BK7 may cause vignetting of the image. There are wonderful binoculars with the BK7 prisms, so do not discount the variation; it is just something to be conscious of when comparing binoculars.

What style and prism is best for you? According to the experts we spoke with, that depends entirely on what you like and what ergonomics you prefer.

Minimum Focus Distance

One aspect of binoculars often overlooked by birders is minimum focusing distance (or close focus). The binocular brings the distant bird visually closer to the birder for observation and analysis, but the Audubon Society’s Eric Lind is quick to point out that birding can easily involve looking closely at birds and insects that are relatively close to the observer. Having a close minimum focusing distance might give you an amazing close-up view of that feeding hummingbird or majestic butterfly. Binoculars with higher magnification will, in general, have longer minimum focus distances.

Optical Quality

Birding can be a casual activity or it can be exacting scientific field work. Because of this, optical quality in binoculars should be of great importance to you. Premium optics will allow you to discern subtle color patterns on the breast and mantle and examine plumage on the wing bars. If accurate identification is your mission, you will want the best view you possible.

Most importantly, regardless of your approach to birding, better optics means better viewing and that means an overall improved birding experience. There is an intangible, subtle pleasure that you experience when looking through crisp, bright optics.

Features

Not all birding is done on sunny days. You will definitely want a pair of binoculars that is waterproof, as even fair-weather birders might get stuck in a passing rain shower from time to time. Fogproof is also a good feature to look for, as this will keep your binoculars from fogging up when transitioning to the outdoors on a cold day from a warm living room, where you were just perusing the latest Audubon magazine or Sibley guide.

Another area of binocular features that changes from brand to brand and through a manufacturer’s product line is lens and prism coatings. Multi-coated lenses have an advantage over coated and non-coated, but for an in-depth discussion about coatings, revisit Witt’s Binocular Buying Guide.

Monoculars

A quick word on monoculars: There is certainly a market for these devices. Basically, the monocular is half of a binocular; one of two optical tubes that are connected to form a binocular. The monocular gives you half the binocular, less than half the weight (there is no bridge), and often a proportional cost savings. The disadvantage is that one-eye viewing is more tiring than viewing with both eyes, and you lose the stereoscopic advantage of the binoculars. However, if your vision is poor in one eye, or nonexistent, the monocular makes a ton of sense.

Test Drive

Once you determine what magnification binocular you need, you can then try out the different objective sizes and styles. For birders, binoculars need to be comfortable for both your eyes and hands. The best way to figure out what binoculars fit you best is to try them out. The wrong style, magnification, or feel of a binocular can have negative effects on your overall birding experience. You’ll want to avoid that.

Olaf Soltau reminds us, “Remember that we spend a lot of time holding our binos, more time than we actually look through them.” How they feel in your hands is a critical part of the viewing experience. You will find that different bridge designs (the part that holds the tubes together) will give you a different feel, as well as the obvious Porro versus roof configuration. Arthur Morris, bird photographer and blogger, says, “Always try before you buy.” Many other birding experts echoed that very sentiment.

The way you carry your binoculars is going to have a big impact on your birding experience. You can carry them in your hand all day, or wear them around your neck with the included strap. However, there are more than a few ways to carry your binos. Chest straps, holsters, and quick releases all change the way you handle your glass in the field. Also, many binoculars have threaded sockets that permit attachments for mounting on a tripod or other fixed support.

Binoculars are not required for birding, of course. Audubon’s Eric Lind recommends going out with a group of birders and trying their binoculars before you make a purchasing decision. The social aspects of birding, the sharing a sense of wonder and discovery, and the life-long learning experience is what makes birding so popular. There is no better way to cultivate that aspect of birding than through sharing the view of a bird through a friend’s binoculars or by handing your favorite pair to a family member to let them share in the experience.

One of the best ways to test a wide selection of binoculars is by visiting the Optics Department at the B&H Photo SuperStore in New York City. The store has a huge number of binoculars on display for you to look through and hold while you talk to optics experts at the counter. The B&H Used Department also has a constantly changing selection of great binoculars available at discounted prices.

The Best Binoculars

“Binoculars are an investment,” says Eric Lind.

Without exception, every birding expert we spoke to said the same thing: “Get the best pair of binoculars you can afford.”

Bill Stewart says that he has seen many beginning birders make the mistake of buying binoculars based on a brand or recommendation and then finding themselves disappointed with the feel or view they experience in the field. He also has seen birders “buy down instead of up” to save some money initially. They often end up spending more the second time around when they feel that they need to upgrade to a better pair, he says.

In conclusion, the best binoculars are the ones you fall in love with and the ones that keep you excited about birding. To find that pair, do your homework, evaluate the options, try before you buy, and get the best pair your budget allows. Once you get your pair, we look forward to seeing you smiling beneath your binoculars out in the marsh, woods, or local nature walk!

Want to read more? Check out Part II of our birding series,  Guide to Birding with Spotting Scopes.

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