Choosing and Using Binoculars

Woman with binoculars
© iStockphoto.com/HADYNYAH

Binoculars get you up close and personal with birds, revealing their intricate colors and opening a window on their lives. But with so many kinds of binoculars on the market, how do you find the pair that's right for you? Don't panic. Here's some advice from our experts (and for even more information, don't miss The 2014 Audubon Guide to Binoculars from Audubon magazine).

General requirements: For many beginning birders, the first problem is simply finding the bird with binoculars. So, you want to choose binoculars with a wider field of view, which makes it easier to locate a bird and follow its movements. Additionally, a good pair of binoculars should provide a bright enough image to allow you to distinguish subtle features, particularly in dim light, and should also focus quickly so that you can get a sharp image of a fast-moving bird. If you wear glasses, look for binoculars that have adjustable eyepieces so you can enjoy an unrestricted view.

Specifications: Binoculars are described by two numbers, 8x32, or 10x40, or 8x21, for example. The first number tells you the magnification power, and the second tells you the size of the objective lens in millimeters, which affects how much light can enter the binoculars. The bigger ratio of the two numbers, the sharper and brighter the image. (For example, 8x42 provides a brighter  sharper image than an 8x32 or 10x42.) Most birders agree that 7- or 8-power is about right for most birding. Some recommend against purchasing 10-power binoculars because they have a smaller field of view and a dimmer image. Binoculars with a bright, wide field will also be much easier to hold steady because higher magnification power also magnifies the movement of your hands. You may want to consider purchasing mid-size binoculars, such as 8x32s since they are bright enough and easy to carry and pack.

Price and field testing: You get what you pay for - and binoculars are no exception to this rule. Spend as much as you can afford when buying binoculars; you will not be sorry to have purchased high-quality binoculars if you really want to experience birds. Pay attention to what experienced birders around you are using. Better yet, ask to look through their binoculars, and question them about the pros and cons. Never buy binoculars before trying the actual instrument you plan to purchase. You want to be sure you are comfortable using a particular brand and model, and individual instruments do vary even within a brand and model.

Practice: Before you go birding, make sure you know how to use your binoculars - it takes practice! Don't try to locate the bird with your binoculars. First find the bird with your unaided eye, then keep your eyes on the bird while you raise the binoculars to your eyes. Focus and enjoy. You can practice this skill with other objects like the top of a flagpole or a flower on a shrub.

Involve the kids! Do you have budding birders in your family? Start them off with their own kid-sized binoculars. Birding is a terrific way for children to bond with nature and with you. Help raise a new generation of conservationists.

And a few binocular don'ts ... which we've learned the hard way so you don't have to:

  • Don't rely on compact or pocket-sized binoculars (e.g., 8x21 or 10x21) as your primary binoculars for birding. The size and weight are attractive, but no matter how good the optics, compacts provide a lower quality image than mid- or full-size binoculars. Another drawback is that most compacts have a narrow field of view, which makes it very difficult to locate and follow birds.
  • Don't buy zoom binoculars. Their image quality is typically inferior.
  • Don't ask hikers, hunters, boaters, or other non-birders for their advice on choosing binoculars. Looking at birds is not the same as looking at other wildlife. Pocket binoculars are fine for looking across a savannah at an elephant or a cheetah, but they are not suitable for birding. Marine binoculars provides a sharp, bright image, but are too big and heavy to carry around all day.
  • Don't buy binoculars until you have tried them. Make sure they feel comfortable in your hands. Look through them and be sure you get a clear, unobstructed view. Different models suit different people, and each instrument varies. If ordering by mail or online, make sure that you can exchange them.