Anatomy of an Optic: Binocular Buyers Guide
Why Carry Binoculars?
Binoculars enhance your vision. Obviously, this makes it easier to see distant objects, transforming that mountain goat you’re looking at from a white dot to a living, breathing critter with sad black eyes and a beard blowing in the wind. The other benefit of binoculars is that they allow you to see closer subjects in greater detail, so you’ll never wonder whether that was a downy or hairy woodpecker you saw on you hike again.
What’s With All the Numbers?
First time binocular buyers are often perplexed by the number of options available and the confusing numbers attached to them. Luckily, binocular lingo is not as hard to decipher as it seems.
A pair of binoculars might be labeled as 10x42s. The first number indicates the level of magnification the binoculars offer, in this case making objects appear ten times larger than they do to the naked eye.
The second number refers to the size of the objective lens (the one facing away from you when your using the binoculars.) The higher the number, the larger and heavier the binoculars, but a larger objective lens lets in more light which results in a sharper, clearer image, especially in low light conditions.
Roof Prism vs. Porro Prism
One of the first decisions you should make when choosing your binoculars is whether roof prism or porro prism binoculars are right for you. The prism on both models are simply mirrored pieces of glass inside the binocular’s housing that help align the image seen through the ocular lens (the one pushed up against your eye.)
Porro prism binoculars are heavier and take up more room due to the sharp jog in the housing. These are what most people would think of as old-fashioned binoculars, but if weight isn’t an issue, they can still be effective. The biggest advantage of porro prism binoculars is the price, which is typically much lower than that of roof prism designs.
Roof prism binoculars can be distinguished by the pair of straight “barrels” leading from the ocular lens to the objective lens. If weight is an issue, roof prisms are the choice. Also, most high end manufacturers have switched to making only roof prism models.
Which Magnification is Right for You?
Whatever binoculars you choose, there are trade-offs to be made. Higher magnification makes images bigger, but these models tend to be heavier and hand shake can cause headaches during extended sessions of unsupported viewing. Conversely, “pocket sized” binoculars are lightweight and easily packable, but their poor image quality may make you question whether they were worth toting at all.
If you are mainly interested in viewing wildlife from a stationary position and will typically have a tripod or tree handy to steady your hands, a pair of 10x42s will work great. If you’re planning on watching your kid’s soccer games or using your binoculars aboard a boat, something in the 6×32 range might better fit your needs. Ask yourself how you’ll use your binoculars, then go from there.
They Cost How Much?!
With binoculars, you get what you pay for and high end optics don’t come cheap. A decent pair of mid-level optics will suit most casual users and cost in the $200-$500 range. If you have to have the best, expect to shell out somewhere between one and two thousand bucks.
Carrying binoculars in the outdoors will make all your adventures more rewarding. If you don’t already, tote a pair on your next outing and see what you’ve been missing. You’ll likely never leave home without them again.
Own a piece of gear that you're dying to review? Read our submissions page and let's get it up on the interwebz!