I was recently given the opportunity to take a pair of Canon image stabilized binoculars out for a test drive—and I was allowed to choose the model I wanted out of the nine Canon offers (click here to see the sizes). Since I was heading out onto a sailboat with three other B&H writers and we were bringing a bunch of gear to test and review besides my Canons, I knew space was going to be limited, so I decided to go with a high-power model with mid-size objectives—the 12x36. This configuration is comfortably compact and relatively lightweight (for an IS optic), and it also ensured good image quality on a bright day.
Another reason I chose it was that a 12x36 binocular produces a narrow 3mm exit pupil (EP)—which would really test stabilization on rough or rolling water. As a rule, boaters look for wide EPs, because on rough and rolling water, a wide EP gives your eyes room to move around and keep the whole scene in view. This not only helps maintain your concentration while navigating, it also helps to minimize the apparent movement of the horizon line, which can cause even the most hardened sailor to get a little queasy. Purposefully using a binocular with a small exit pupil virtually ensured difficult viewing on the water without the stabilization activated… and it would also have highlighted flaws or deficiencies in the IS system if it wasn’t able to keep my eye centered in the exit pupil.
Having seemingly set the binocular up for failure, let’s see how it did.
On the boat, the water was rolling but not rough or overly choppy, which my landlubber companions, Shawn and Brett, really appreciated.
I found the narrow exit pupil a definite distraction when we were underway, but I expected that to be the case, as I mentioned above. The form factor felt secure in the hand and the 23-ounce weight helped settle minor hand shake when the binocular was held up to my eyes. Optically speaking, Canon really boosted the performance right off the top by utilizing a field-flattener lens system, which pulls out the curvature in the lens edge so views remain sharp all the way across the wide 60-degree field of view. When combined with its broadband anti-reflection multi-coated optics, I was treated to an immersive observational experience with accurate color representation across the entire visible spectrum and improved contrast and clarity. Deep fold-down eyecups really got into my eye sockets, in a good way, and helped to block out the bright sunlight, further improving contrast and image brightness. At one point I was looking almost directly into the sun, and I needed to wear my sunglasses while using the binocular. Folding the eyecups down was a simple matter, and allowed me to maintain the proper eye relief for easy viewing without the discomfort of a too-bright view.
As you can see from the video above, taken through the binocular with the Snapzoom digiscoping adapter, image stabilization drastically improved the views. When the video was shot, the wind had really kicked up, so not only was the boat pitching a bit, I was also being buffeted—which caused additional vibrations. When the IS was activated, there was a little initial latency until the prisms settled, but there was virtually zero appreciable lag after that. I’ve used some IS binoculars where the latency was so bad that even though the image was steady, there was a weird disorientation caused by competing input from my inner-ear balance center and what my eyes were seeing with the lag. The Canon’s near-instant stabilization eliminated that disorientation, so I could really concentrate on the view. The 12x got me up and onto the beach that was about 150 yards or so from our boat, and in the bright sunlight, the view was bright and clear, despite the somewhat smaller 36mm objectives.
The user interface is also something that must be called out. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve used a fair number of stabilized optics. I often see on/off switches that remain on when activated until you either turn them off manually or a pre-set time lapse puts the IS into standby mode. The first kind ensures dead batteries, and the second shorter battery life, since any time that the IS is running without being used is wasted run time. The Canon has a perfectly placed push button right in the middle of the bridge (directly in front of the focus wheel) that can be reached with either hand. The IS only stays active if the button is depressed—maximizing the run time. Speaking of batteries, Canon opted to go with the ubiquitous AA size, instead of CR123 or other not-so-common sizes, so you’ll always be able to pick up a couple wherever you are (or just pull them out of your TV’s remote control in a pinch).
There are a few misses to note, however. Just as the high power results in a narrow exit pupil, it also produces a short eye relief—meaning you have to really get into the eyecups. Granted, in bright light having your eyes up in there does help to improve views, but I can see how, after an extended amount of time, being that close might cause a little discomfort. Also, the included eyepiece caps aren’t tethered. I would have preferred a one-piece eye guard instead, that could be attached to the neck strap, plus objective caps would’ve been nice, as well. It should also be noted that this model isn’t waterproof in any way. If we had been in really rough seas, I would have needed to leave them down in the cabin in my dry bag to keep them safe. This isn’t necessarily a negative, just something I needed to be aware of while moving around the boat.
After spending a day with the Canon 12x36 IS III Image Stabilized binocular, I can honestly say that it’s one of the best stabilized optics I’ve come across. Its broad 8-degree stabilization freedom really allows it to compensate for a lot of movement, and the combination of microprocessor and gyro sensors used to adjust the angle of stabilization were fast and virtually seamless under normal boat movement and hand shake. The size was perfect to pack while traveling and to stow onboard when space was at a premium in the cabin. Even the interpupillary adjustment range was wide for an IS binocular at 55-75mm (I’m comfortably in the middle at 63mm, so they were very easy for me to use). At this point, my major regret is that I have to return them.
Do you have a Canon IS binocular and want to share your experience? Maybe you have a question or comment… drop them below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.