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Binoculars buying guide

How to choose the best binoculars for birdwatching, stargazing, and more

S

hopping for binoculars can be overwhelming. There are lots of numbers and a lot of choices. And the best binoculars for birdwatching will be very different from the best binoculars for stargazing.

Modern technology has also changed the game a bit. Did you know that you can get binoculars that can tell you how far away you are from that peak across the valley? Or that some binoculars even have built-in GPS and onboard ballistics calculations for hunters?

How to choose the right binoculars for you

What makes one pair of binoculars better than another is mostly the quality of the glass in the lenses and prisms. But where do you start?

You're halfway there if you know how you'll be using them. Maybe you just want a grab-and-go pair of binoculars to throw in your pocket or daypack for a weekend hike, concert, or sporting event. In that case, sometimes less is more.

The lightweight, compact binoculars I keep on a shelf by our back window didn't cost much new. They're not super-powerful. But they're perfect for when a bald eagle glides past or a fox sprints across the cow pasture on the other side of the river.

Higher-end binoculars use antireflective glass coatings for brighter, sharper images. Nicer binoculars might also have high-performance construction like magnesium frames, waterproofing, and fogproofing. Some binoculars incorporate technology like rangefinding, weather sensors, and image stabilization.

While you can tell a lot about binoculars by looking at their specs, it's great if you can find a way to try out different pairs in person. Like with headphones, some fit you better than others. Meanwhile, it definitely helps to understand some key features.

How do binoculars work?

At their core, binoculars haven’t really changed much since the early 20th century. They use two magnifying lenses in each barrel — a large “objective” closest to the object you’re looking at and a smaller eyepiece or “ocular” lens.

The light path of binoculars.

Time-tested binocular design: the lenses magnify the image and the prisms make sure you see it right-side up.

That magnification process flips the image upside-down. Try looking through a magnifying glass held about a foot away from your eyes and you’ll see what I mean. Binoculars use internal prisms to deliver right-side-up images to your eyes. That’s binoculars in a nutshell.

What do the numbers mean?

Most binoculars have two numbers front and center, like the old Nikon 7x35 pair I’m holding in my hand right now. The first number tells you the magnification — these will magnify whatever you’re looking at seven times bigger than they look the naked eye. Sometimes people call this binocular "power" instead of magnification.

The second number — 35 in this case — gives you the size of the front “objective” lenses in millimeters. The bigger the objective lens, the better its light-gathering ability. That means you’ll get brighter images with a 7x42 pair of binoculars than 7x35 — other factors being equal. That’s worth considering if you like to explore in low-light settings like dawn or dusk on the salt marsh.

You'll also get a wider field of view with larger objective lenses — more on field of view in a bit.

7x42 means 7x magnification and a 42mm objective lens diameter

The first number tells you how many times bigger — 7x — and the second number is the objective lens diameter in millimeters — the higher the number, the brighter the image.

How much magnification do you need?

Good question. For looking at nature and wildlife in my back yard, I like to stick to 7x or 8x, because with higher magnifications the slightest little hand movement can shake things up. Also, as the magnification strength goes up, the brightness and field of view go down.

Illustration of magnification

With 10x binoculars, the short stop 100 yards away looks like he's just 10 yards away.

More powerful binoculars are also generally bigger, heavier, and harder to hold steady. If you get into stargazing, for example, 10x50 binoculars that weigh north of two pounds can start to feel uncomfortable to hold after a while.

If you want even higher than 10x or 12x binocular power, you’ll probably need a tripod. (In fact, some binoculars are so unwieldy they actually require a tripod.) Or you could get binoculars with image stabilization like what’s found in some high-end camera lenses.

Field of view

When you look through binoculars, the image you see is in a circular frame. Imagine you’re looking at a dartboard. With a narrow field of view, you can only see the bullseye. With a wide field of view, you can see the whole target.

Illustration of field of view

A wider field of view helps when you're spotting things from a distance and when you're tracking movement.

The advantage of a wide field of view is that it's easier to spot and track things. That’s helpful if you’re watching birds or following an athlete on a playing field. As I mentioned before, higher magnification power reduces field of view and larger objective lenses increase it.

Field of view is usually given as the diameter of your binocular view in linear feet at 1,000 yards. A 300-foot field of view at 1,000 yards isn’t bad. So-called “wide-field” binoculars give you as much as 450-foot or more field of view.

Another way some manufacturers give the spec is as “real” and “apparent” "angular of field of view." In the angular field of view, your eyes are at the vertex or point of the angle in question. The cone expanding away from you encompasses your view. It’s like your flashlight beam of vision.

Real and apparent field of view

The round, cropped image you see when you look through binoculars appears to have a much wider, or "apparent," angle of view than its "real" angle of view from your vantage point.

Your apparent angular field of view is always several times wider than the real angular field of view. To get a rough idea of the apparent angular field of view, multiply the real angular field of view by the magnification power. With most binoculars, the "real angular field of view" is between 6° and 7.5°.

The "apparent angular field of view" is what you get when you look through the binoculars. Say you’re using some wide-field Nikon Monarch M7 8x30 binoculars with a real angular field of view of 8.3°. The apparent angular field of view is what it looks like through your binoculars: as if you were eight times (8x) closer to the object. That’s 60.3° — a nice, wide angle that gives you a 435-foot field of view at 1,000 yards.

I realize that this is kind of techy. And despite the specific numbers and formulas, you don’t need to crunch numbers to look through binoculars. You rarely know exactly how far away you are from your subject — unless you’re using rangefinding binoculars, which I’ll talk about more below.

Eye relief

Most high-quality binoculars list a spec for “eye relief.” That’s the maximum distance you can have between your eyes and the eyepiece lenses before your field of view starts to shrink. Basically, as you move binoculars farther away from you, you see a smaller and smaller portion of the image, like looking through a tunnel.

If you wear glasses, you'll be holding the binoculars a little farther away than someone who doesn't. With good eye relief, say 14mm or more, you don't miss out on the full image, even when you’re holding the binoculars' eyepiece against your glasses.

Eye relief

Your field of view starts shrinking when you get further away than the eye-relief spec, so if you wear glasses, make sure to get at least 14mm or longer.

To adjust eye relief — and also for comfort — some binoculars have rubber eyecups you can fold down to get your eyes closer to the eyepiece lenses. Some even have a turn-and-slide mechanism that smoothly extends or retracts the eyecups.

Exit pupil diameter

Exit pupil is not the foremost spec when you’re shopping for binoculars, but it’s worth understanding how it works, especially if you think you’ll use your binoculars in low light.

The first thing worth knowing here is that the human pupil has an approximate diameter range of 2mm in bright light to 7mm in low light.

Binoculars transmit a beam of light through each barrel to your eyes. You can see it when you hold the binoculars about a foot away — as long as you’re pointing them at something light, you’ll see a bright dot in the center of each lens. The exit pupil diameter measures this dot or beam.

Pupils

You want your binoculars' exit pupil to match or be bigger than your own pupils, which have a 2mm-7mm diameter range.

You want an exit pupil as big or bigger than your own pupils. On a bright sunny day when your pupils are fully dilated to around 2mm, any exit pupil diameter 2mm or larger will give you images as bright as they appear to the naked eye. If you’re stargazing and your pupils are wide open to around 7mm, you need at least a 7mm exit pupil diameter to get equal brightness.

You can find the exit pupil diameter for yourself by dividing the binoculars' objective lens diameter by their magnification. My Nikon 7x35 binoculars have a 5mm exit pupil and they deliver nice bright images even at dusk.

You’ll sometimes see a spec for “relative brightness.” This number is the square of the exit pupil — 25 for these Nikon 7x35 binoculars — and the higher the number, the brighter the image.

Diopter adjustment

Your eyes are probably not equal. One of them is likely a bit stronger than the other. To compensate for that imbalance, a lot of binoculars have what’s called a diopter adjustment on one of the eyepieces. You turn the adjustment to move the ocular lens a bit closer or further away from one of your eyes. Most diopter adjustments are +/-3 or 4 increments.

diopter on old Nikons

One of your eyes is likely a bit stronger than the other, so many binoculars have a diopter you adjust by focusing for the non-adjustable eye, then rotating the diopter to fine tune for the other eye.

Start with the diopter in the middle of its range. Put a lens cap on the barrel you’re making the adjustment for and get a clear focus from the binoculars on the image in your view for the other barrel (the non-adjustable side). Then switch the lens cap to the other barrel. If the image is blurry, adjust the diopter this way or that until the image is in focus. Then you’ll have a balanced view with both eyes open.

You can also do this by closing one eye and then the other instead of using a lens cap. But squeezing your eye shut can make it focus differently. It’s better if you can let both eyes relax equally while you’re adjusting the diopter.

Prism Type

Without prisms — a pair in each barrel — binoculars would show you magnified images upside-down. You can usually tell with a look which type of prisms are in a pair of binoculars: the ocular and objective lenses are offset in Porro prism binos, while those with roof prisms are in a straight line.

Roof versus porro binoculars

Porro prism binoculars, easy to recognize by their offset lens barrels, deliver brighter images than similarly spec'd roof prism binoculars, but you can get fantastic binoculars in either design.

This is because Porro prisms need to be oriented at right angles to each other in the barrel in order to flip the image to its correct orientation in your view. Roof prisms can be oriented in a straight line.

There’s a lot of science to it, but the main differences are that Porro prisms deliver brighter images and cost less to make. Roof prisms are more expensive, but can make binoculars more streamlined and comfortable to hold, especially as you go up in magnification power and objective size.

You can get great binoculars with either prism type. You’ll just have to pay a little more to get the same brightness from roof prism binoculars as you will from those with Porro prisms when all the other specs are the same.

Waterproof/fogproof design

If you’re planning to use binoculars while you’re hunting, birdwatching, boating, or some other wet pursuit — which if you think about it can include most situations — you'll want weatherproofing.

Some binoculars can stand a little rain, and some are actually submersible (but not for actual underwater use).

These binoculars can stand a little water.

Waterproof binoculars let you stick it out in the field, because there's often interesting stuff to see when weather thins the human crowd.

Fogproof binoculars are purged of air that might have any moisture in it and filled with sealed-in nitrogen or another dry, inert gas to keep the interior glass from fogging up.

Quick temperature changes — like taking your binoculars out of an air-conditioned car into the hot and humid Everglades to look at flamingoes — can make your binoculars fog up on the outside. Coatings like Leica’s AquaDura® make it easier to wipe water or oil off the lenses — just be sure to use a lint-free microfiber cloth.

Binoculars with rangefinder and GPS/ballistics calculation technology

Rangefinder binoculars let you figure out your distance from whatever you’re looking at. It’s a popular and useful feature for golfing, hunting, and forestry. Just focus on the flag, animal, or tree, press a button, and you’ll see your distance on the internal display. You can even get the slope-adjusted distance when the object is up- or down-hill from you.

If rangefinding is your main need — maybe you just want it for golfing — you might consider a more compact rangefinder.

Leica rangefinder

Leica makes rangefinding app-connected binoculars with GPS and ballistics calculation.

Leica Geovid Pro binoculars use onboard or outboard app-connected Kestrel weather sensors and ballistics curves to help hunters to calculate the best ammo for the situation. They also have built-in GPS that works with your favorite map program (Garmin, Google Maps, BaseMaps) via Bluetooth connection to your phone to give you the best route to anything you rangefind. Yes, there's a binocular app for that.

Other features/specs to consider

Size and weight — Heavy binoculars weigh you down. If you’re hiking and want to keep them around your neck, lighter — in the 1-1.5-pound range — is better. You might consider a comfortable neck strap as well. If you’re really traveling light — biking or going to a concert, say — you should take a look at an ultra-compact monocular that can fit in your pocket.

Glass quality — The best glass is the clearest glass. Inferior glass can cause edge distortion and color inconsistencies. It might have microscopic bubbles or other impurities that muddy the view. You’ll get exceptionally clear images with binoculars that have super-refined glass in their lenses and prisms — like the high-transmission SCHOTT HT™ glass you’ll find in the Leica Ultravid 10x42 HD-Plus binoculars.

Coated lenses — Coatings maximize light transmission by reducing reflection off the lenses and prisms. Single coatings usually only provide this kind of “antireflection” for one part of the spectrum. Multiple coatings do it across most or all of the spectrum. If you spend more to get binoculars that are fully multi-coated — meaning all the lenses and all the prisms have multiple coatings — you’ll get brighter, clearer images.

Close focus distance — This tells you how close you can get to what you're looking at. If you're any closer than that distance, you won’t be able to focus. In midsummer on our back deck, if you sit very still the hummingbirds will come really close to get at our feeders. A relatively short close focus distance of around six feet would be great for getting clear close-up looks at them.

Interpupillary adjustment — Not every manufacturer gives this spec — the distance between the ocular lenses from center to center. But look around: it’s easy to see that not everyone’s eyes are the same distance apart. That’s why most binoculars are center-hinged to let you adjust that distance.

Image stabilization This is a feature worth considering if you want more powerful magnification without the inherent shaking that happens at 10x, 12x, and higher. The technology inside these means they tend to be heavy. But it can be really helpful if you're looking from a moving off-road vehicle, or from the deck of a boat bouncing over the waves.

Accessories for binoculars

A padded neck-strap or even a binocular harness that holds them close to your chest when you’re not using them can be really helpful if you’re hiking, biking, or out on the water. Pro tip: most camera straps also work for binoculars. For higher powered or otherwise heavier binoculars, a tripod can be crucial.

No matter what, you’ll want to keep a microfiber polishing cloth handy for lens-cleaning. Blow any dust or dirt off the lenses with air (using a lens puffer or compressed air) or distilled water (if your binoculars are waterproof) before you polish them though. The tiniest hard grit can easily scratch your lens if you rub it in.

Which binoculars are the best?

That depends on what you’ll be using your binoculars for. I’ve never bought binoculars in my life, but I have two pairs that were my father’s: Porro prism Nikon 7x35s and roof prism Pentax 10x42s.

For looking at birds and other wildlife outside my windows during the day, I find myself reaching for the Nikons. Their wider field of view is also brighter, steadier, and sharper — due in part to the lower magnification and the Porro prisms. The Pentax binoculars are lighter though.

Night sky with moon through binoculars

The best binoculars for stargazing have higher magnification power and large objective lenses to make the most of moon- and star-light.

Neither of these would be that great for stargazing. For that you’ll want at least 10x50 binoculars to get the magnification and brightness you need. And if you went up to 20x50 astronomy binoculars, you'd definitely need a tripod.

And, of course, if rangefinding, GPS, and ballistics calculation are in your priorities, you’ve really narrowed down your choices.

The binoculars I inherited from my dad are not top-of-the-line; they’re not cheap either. But they still work the way they’re supposed to. The point is that if you don’t abuse them, a decent pair of binoculars should last longer than a lifetime. A good quality pair of binoculars should also have a solid warranty that reflects that.

Here's a binocular magnification chart that can help you choose the right binoculars for some typical uses. These are basic recommendations, not hard-and-fast rules. And remember: trying a variety of binoculars in person can really help you decide.

"I'm using binoculars for..." Minimum magnification Minimum objective diameter Minimum field of view at 1,000 yards
General use 7x 25mm 300 feet
Theater/concert 7x 25mm 300 feet
Spectator sport 7x 25mm 325 feet
Marine 7x 25mm 350 feet
Birdwatching 8x 30mm 350 feet
Hunting 8x 30mm 350 feet
Stargazing 10x 40mm 325 feet

More questions?

Looking for more guidance on choosing binoculars? Contact us! One of our advisors can help you figure out the best choice for scoping out the places you like to explore.

A woman happily enjoying her binoculars.

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Last updated 5/17/2022
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