Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Gross Anatomy of Binoculars

Birdwatching is one-third knowledge, one-third patience, and one-third having the right equipment. Carpenters have all the right tools for their line of work, woodcarvers have the sharpest tools, and doctors, well they BETTER have the right tools! All said, they need these instruments to get a job done. In a similar way, birdwatching, whether it be from your home, car, or the trail, should be no different. You want the right equipment to see the best and clearest image. So I’m going to walk you through the specifics of binoculars and what features might be best suited for you. Hmmm, is Santa’s list still growing?

Once during a Christmas bird count along Lake Champlain we had to identify some ducks bobbing in between the waves way offshore. Binoculars of a lesser quality struggled w/the identification. A steady hand helped but it was clearly some top-notch binoculars that saved the day. My point here being the better quality binoculars showed us a clearer image and allowed us to figure out what we were looking at.

So lesson one-if you can afford better optics, then do so. But what are better optics? I can list all the brands that charge over $1,000 for binoculars(from here on known as “bins” or “binos”) but we don’t need to go that far. There’s plenty of good stuff on the market under $600.

First let’s look at some details. A most-common question asked is what are the numbers on bins(7×35, 8×42, 10×50)? The #7(or 8 or 10) refer to the magnification of the image you see w/the bins. My pair of 8’s magnify what I see 8 fold. Good but a 10x will be stronger(but will it be better remains to be seen).

The number after the “x” refers to the size(in mm) of the objective lens(that large lens at the end of the binos, opposite where you look through). So my 8×50’s have an objective lens size of 50mm. This is bigger than a 35 or 42 objective lens and it helps in allowing more light to come into the bins. It can also give me a much wider view of a tree, a line of ducks, or a group of hawks circling overhead.

Certain disadvantages come with owning a pair of bins with higher magnification. One factor is weight. More glass lenses in a binocular can really add up in weight. That’s OK if you want to weightlift and bird at the same time. Most of us don’t. So manufacturers came up w/lighter materials. This helps those of us w/coffee addiction and the inevitable “shakes”.

But one thing to consider is more is not always better. A 10x bino will magnify 10 times but if you’re a shaky hand, that shaky image is magnified! Many birders enjoy a middle-of-the-road size of 7x or 8x.

With advancing technology there are a number of things that bins manufacturers have put into their products. Many lenses are now “multi-” or “fully-coated” which means they are covered with something that decreases the amount of reflection inside the tubes holding the lenses. This in turn gives you a clearer and sharper image.

Waterproofing binos has also come a long way. Many companies have “nitrogen-purged” or “nitrogen-filled” products which prevent water from collecting inside the lenses. It also helps prevent that internal condensation on lenses that appears when you bring cold binos inside a warm car!

Looking at prices. I mentioned earlier if you can pay for more then do it. A very good pair of bins can run from $200-$500. Some lesser-priced bins can offer good quality but their life may not last as along as a $300 pair. They may also not have all the good features you should look for in binos.

Some names to consider(there are many out there) are Bushnell, Nikon, Vortex, Eagle Optics, Pentax, and Kowa. Higher priced bins are Swarovski, Leica, and Zeiss. Many birders have found the Nikon “Monarchs” model to suit their needs. You can find this brand priced around $275-$300, depending on the magnification. But if that’s too high I would look over all the Bushnell models out there. Some are very good at just over $100. Check out B and H Photo & Video

Finally I’ll mention the difference between a standard size pair of bins with that of a compact pair. Just like cars there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Standards are larger as well as heavier(but becoming quite light w/all the new tech advances). Compacts(great for hiking, canoeing, kayaking) are light and small and fit anywhere, but some lack in quality what they made up for in decreased size. Don’t buy the compact bins that have a 9x or 10x magnification. They loose quality as that number goes up. To have good magnification/clear image you need lots of glass which many compacts can’t offer you.

Well, by now you’ve taken your Fathers WWII binos out of the case and as you look through them you suddenly feel dizzy or drunk! Chances are the big chunk of glass(called a prism) in those monsters has cracked or shifted and giving a blurred double-image view. That can be remedied by replacing the prism, but at that cost you may as well invest in a new pair!

So, invest in what you can afford; look for fully-coated lenses; make sure the bins are waterproof; and find a magnification to your liking. But the best advice to you is to handle the binos before purchasing. Shopping online may be cheaper but your hands are not wrapped around the bins, weighing them, feeling them, and your eyes are not looking at a crystal-clear image. Stop over to Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs and handle some binos there!

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the ducks, referred to earlier bobbing on Lake Champlain, where lesser scaup. Catching the differences between greater and lesser scaup can be tricky. Greater scaup is slightly larger and seems to show brighter white on their sides as opposed to a duller gray on the sides of the lesser. In flight look for more white in the wings of the greater.

Photo: Brian McAllister. Those compacts are great for kayaking/canoeing!

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Community news stories come from press releases and other notices from organizations, businesses, state agencies and other groups. Submit your contributions to Almanack Editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com.




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