The 2014 Audubon Guide to Binoculars

The 2014 Audubon Guide to Binoculars

When it comes to birdwatching, what you choose to look through makes all the difference.

Wayne Mones
Published: 11/18/2013

Binoculars come in too many configurations to list. Models close to the following sizes are all suitable for birding: 6x32, 8x32, 7x35, 8x40, 7x42, 8x42, or 8.5x44.

Buy binoculars that have a single focusing knob located between the two barrels that turns one to one-and-a-half times. Don't buy a pair with separate focus adjustments on the two barrels--they're too slow to be useful for birding. If you pay more than $200 for your binoculars, they should be waterproof and nitrogen purged, so they don't get "fogged" in humid conditions.

You will be using your binoculars for many hours at a time, so make sure you buy the right pair. Do they feel good in your hands? Can you comfortably reach the focus knob? Can you see the entire field of view with your eyeglasses? All binoculars have a hinge to allow you to adjust the barrels to match the distance between your eyes. Be sure you can adjust the barrels so you can see a single image. All binoculars can be adjusted to allow you to compensate for differences in your eyes. To adjust yours, close your right eye and focus on an object 50 to 100 feet away using the center focus knob. Then, while keeping the same object in view, close your left eye and use the separate eyepiece adjustment to bring the object into sharp focus for your right eye. Your binoculars are now matched to your vision.

Don't buy zoom or image-stabilized binoculars. They are heavy, give up a lot of brightness, and have a much-reduced field of view. Don't ask for advice from non-birders. Hunters, boaters, and hikers may know a lot about optics, but they have different needs than birders.

Taking Care

Don't touch the lenses with your fingers. Never clean the lenses with tissue, toilet paper, paper napkins or towels, or newspaper--all contain wood fibers that will scratch and eventually destroy the lens coatings essential to your binoculars' optical performance (and can't be repaired or replaced). Never use commercial glass cleaners. They may contain ammonia or other chemicals that will destroy the coatings.

Clean your binoculars only with good-quality lens tissue or a micro-fiber lens cloth from an optics or camera store. Also buy a can of compressed air and lens-cleaning fluid whose label states clearly that it's safe to use with lens coatings. First use compressed air to blow away loose dust. Next spray the lens cleaner on the cloth and gently clean the lenses. Then gently wipe them with a dry part of the cloth. If you eat while you are birding, use the lens covers that came with your binoculars. Coffee, orange juice, goat cheese, and hummus are not good for your binoculars.

Do You Wear Glasses?

It's pretty simple: If you see better with eyeglasses, you should wear them while birding. Remember, however, that your eyes will be farther away from the binocular eyepiece than they are for non-eyeglass wearers. Unless your binoculars are designed to compensate for this, you will see a much-reduced field of view. Optics engineers design binoculars to project the image a few millimeters beyond the eyepiece; this distance is called "eye relief." Eye relief tells you the distance your eye can be from the eyepiece and still see the entire field of view. Binoculars designed for birders offer eye relief of 15 millimeters to 20 millimeters and eyecups that extend and retract so you can adjust the distance between your eyes and the eyepiece. Use the eyecups in the fully retracted position with your eyeglasses and in the fully extended position without glasses. Before you buy a pair of binoculars, make sure you can see the full field of view while wearing your glasses. Some people, because of their face shape and vision, can experience image blackout if their eye is too far from the eyepiece. They should position the eyecup between full up and full down; this will give them a good compromise between field of view and ease of use.

A Few Recommendations

There are other bird-worthy binoculars for sale, but all of these meet our standards for "bird worthiness." With reasonable care, all will give you years of birding enjoyment. I favor seven-power binoculars, because they are very bright and tend to have panoramic fields of view, but I also like eight-power models. The price ranges shown below are based on commonly published prices from Internet retailers.

ALPHA CLASS ($1,300 - $2,500)

These are the best that modern technology and engineering can offer. Yes they are expensive, but there can be no great art without suffering.

Leica Ultravid HD: (7x42, 8x42, or 8x32)

Nikon EDG (8x42, or 8x32)

Swarovski EL Swarovision: (8.5x42, or 8x32)

Zeiss Victory T*: (8x42, or 8x32)

ALMOST ALPHA CLASS (Less than $1,300)

All are better than anything that was available just a few years ago and cost a lot less than today's top models.

Steiner Peregrine XP 8x44

Swarovski CL Companion 8x30

Vortex Razor HD 8x42

Zeiss Conquest HD (8x42, or 8x32)

BEST VALUE CLASS (Less than $600)

Bright images, accurate color, and very good resolution. Buy one of these and put the cash you save toward a once-in-a-lifetime birding trip.

Kowa BD 8x42

Minox BL 8x44

Nikon Monarch 7 ATB,8x42 or 8x30

Pentax DCF SP 8x43

Vortex Viper HD (8x42 or 8x32)

Zeiss Terra HD 8x42

GET IN THE GAME CLASS (less than $200)

Bright, satisfying images and wide fields of view at a very modest price.

Nikon Monarch 3 ATB 8x42

Pentax Papillo 6.5 x 21 (Although designed for butterflies, these are acceptably bird worthy, weigh almost nothing, and are fun to use.)

Vortex Raptor 6.5x32

Leupold Yosemite 6x30

Author Profile

Wayne Mones

Wayne Mones has been an avid birder since childhood, and leads bird walks. He has written about birding optics for Better View Desired, Bird Watcher's Digest, and on The Perchthe Audubonmagazine blog.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


I do occasional optics

I do occasional optics workshops for our local audubon chapter. 2 years ago, the Alpen 8x42 ED was the favorite (beating out the newer Monarch's which back then may have been 5 or 7, I don't recall). Still a tad under $400 today, very worth looking into.

If you want reliable eyecup pieces on children's binoc's, I currently use both Leupold and Eagle Optics (one is 6x, the other 6.5x), and they seem to hold up well. The EO's actually twist, which on the one hand is nice, but on the other, very young kids like to twist anything they can but don't understand what's going on, so I don't allow the under 7 to use those anymore.

Why should I get the top end

Why should I get the top end optics? Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of optics is the reduction of chromatic aberration. Also known as color fringing, chromatic aberration (CA) is caused by light passing through the edges of the objective lens, which acts like a triangular prism and disperses white light into the spectrum. As a result, red light exits the eyepiece with the shortest focal point, and violet with the longest. The farther apart the focal points, the more CA there is. Our eyes and brains try to resolve CA by constantly shifting where our eyes focus in an effort to merge the colors back into white light. The effect is fairly easy to see. Look at any high-contrast edge. The numbers on a speed limit sign or black trim on a white car are common examples. You will see some fluorescing colors, often magenta or yellow-green along the edges. This extra work done by your eyes and brain cause fatigue, so the less CA in the binoculars, the less tired you'll feel at the end of a birding day. Optics manufacturers combat CA by using extra-low dispersion glass (ED). There are many levels of quality in ED glass (look it up in Wikipedia), and of course, the better the glass, the more the binocular will cost.

A wonderfully written guide

A wonderfully written guide to something that can be very confusing to the average person. Having gone through the entry, mid-grade and high grade levels, the only thing I would add is, if you're entry level budget is around $200, I would not advise buying any roof prism binocular, such as the Nikon Monarch 3. Porro Prism type binocs (similar in shape to the Vortex listed - look at the shape and compare with the Monarch) are a much better value, offering intrinsically higher optics performance per dollar, although at the expense of weight and compactness. Once you move from novice birder to totally addicted, hard core, you'll want to move to the porro prism binoc design, and the "great value", entry level price point for those is around the $400 range. I actually tested models in this range this year at the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival and the Nikon Monarch 7 I thought was truly an exceptional value - amazing optics and overall package for the money (and I'm used to my Zeiss Victory T, but still have my $400 mid range pair of back up binocs which I use for owling). Bird festivals are usually a great place to find optics concession stands to try, side by side, the great binocs listed in this article and select the one that fits best for you. Happy birding!

As always the further

As always the further comments by Steve Sosensky are figuratively and literally...illuminating. I own variojus pairs from 8 x 20 Nikon up to 18 x 50 Canon IS, BUT for someone purchasing their first pair of binoculars for BIRDING I almost always recommend 8 x 26 to 8 x 32, i.e., Vortex Vanquish 8 x 26 $119 "inverted porroprism" standard field, up to an $1899 pair of Swarovski Swarovision 8 x 32 or Leica HD 8 x 32, with many variants in between, instruments that are smaller, lighter and more travel compatible than 8 x 42 or 10 x 42, yet coordinate nicely with the spotting scope that becomes the NEXT tool of a field birder.

Image Stabilized Binocs for

Image Stabilized Binocs for Parkinson's

When my Parkinson's tremor made holding binoculars steady impossible, I thought I was going to have to give up birding. But then I tried the Canon 10x30 image stabilized binoculars. I bought them from Amazon ( and it's brought joy back into my life. Best optics in the world? No, but darn good for the price. Uses easy-to-find AA batteries. Visit the Amazon site ( and read the reviews. If shakiness is your problem, these may be your answer. They sure were for me!

I agree with using Eagle

I agree with using Eagle Optics Rangers. For $300.00-$400.00 , you could get the ranger 8x42 or the ranger 10x42. I see a lot of Rangers being used by other birders. Eagle Optics also fixes them for free, Very good optics 5 foot close range well worth the investment. Also light and compact enough to carry all day.

Wayne, this is a great and

Wayne, this is a great and useful synopsis. Thank you. I have one comment about the 6.5 x32 Vortex Raptor binoculars you mention at the end: They are the best pair of binoculars I have found to use with children since they are wide-field, and easy to use. However, I have had numerous problems with the eyecups either coming off or otherwise being substandard in terms of "unravelling" or unevenely situated on the binocular itself. We bought 24 of them for Audubon children's programs and the eyecup thing is a frequent nuisance. So not sure what to say. When they work for kids, they work very well! I have a pair of Zeiss 8x42 TFL and they are superb!

Kahles no longer makes

Kahles no longer makes binoculars - only rifle scopes.

8x vs. 10x: The first thing

8x vs. 10x: The first thing to consider is how steady you can hold the binoculars. Given models in the same series, the amount of shake will be the same for 8x and 10x, but the 10x will magnify the shake more. If you have trouble keeping the binoculars steady, get the 8x. Other than that, fit the binocular to the task. More eastern birders get 8x binos and more western birders get 10x. This is largely due to the differences in habitat. If you do a lot of pelagic birding, 8x is the obvious choice. Even if you're steady, the sea isn't. Are you studying individual birds (10x) or doing censusing work (8x)? This is definitely a personal choice, and I can't fault either decision. BTW, hardly anyone makes a 7x these days.

Field of View: Depending on

Field of View: Depending on the type of birding you're doing, field of view (FOV) can be either very important or the most over-rated spec of all. If you're counting migrating raptors or waterfowl, the wider the field of view, the better. If you're trying to study warblers from 30 feet, it's hardly significant. Let's take two binoculars, one with an FOV of 390' at 1,000 yards, the other with 340' at 1,000 yards. If you're looking at that 1,000 yard distance, the difference in FOV is 50 feet, or 25 feet more from the center of the view in all directions. That's a lot of space in which to hide birds. If you're looking at warblers or vireos in a tree at 10 yards (1/100 of the distance), the difference is only half a foot, or 3 inches more in all directions from the center of view. Hummingbirds and kinglets are bigger than that.

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