Making the best binocular choice


Now that spring migration is over, many birders can be broken into two groups — those who love their binoculars and those who don’t. If you are in the latter group, here are some tips to keep in mind as you shop for new optics.

First, remember that binoculars are also an essential tool for hunters, hikers, and all outdoor enthusiasts. And I never go to a musical, play, concert or sporting event without my bins, so this advice is good for anyone who uses binoculars.

One consideration that often does not become obvious until after a purchase is made: binoculars must “fit.”

Even expensive binoculars will frustrate users if they are too big or small for their hands or if they can’t be adjusted to fit the distance between their eyes. Larger outdoor stores usually have a nice selection of optics to try on.

Find the deals

Then shop around for the best price, which will likely be found online. Expect to pay $250 to $400 for waterproof binoculars that come with a lifetime warranty. Yes, the very best binoculars can cost more than $1,000, but most of us don’t need the very best.

Every pair of binoculars is described by two numbers, which are usually found on the center focus wheel. Among the most popular sizes are 8×42 and 10×42. The first number indicates the magnifying ability of the lenses. Eight power makes things appear eight times closer; ten power lenses bring things ten times closer.

Higher magnification requires steadier hands. I have both eight and ten power binoculars, and I use the eights most of the time. Avoid anything stronger than 10x because they are just too difficult to hold without shaking.

The second number is the diameter of the objective lenses (the ones farther from your eyes) in millimeters. The larger this number, the more light the lenses transmit and the brighter the image will be. Brighter is better, especially for early morning birding, but bigger objective lenses mean more glass.

Lots to consider

And that means more weight. Choosing the right binocular means balancing magnification, brightness, and weight. I prefer 8x42s for birding, but my favorite all purpose binoculars are 8x32s. One solution to heavy binoculars is to wear them on a harness rather than a neck strap.

For all-day comfort, a harness, which costs about $20, distributes the weight of the binoculars across your back and shoulders rather than around your neck. Also, I recommend that your binoculars be waterproof.

If you spend time outdoors, eventually you’ll be caught in heavy rain far from cover. And if you plan a trip to the tropics, where it rains almost every day, waterproof binoculars are essential.

Binoculars that are not waterproof are expensive to repair and sometimes can be permanently damaged. I learned that lesson the hard way a few years ago when I got caught in a heavy rain storm a mile from my car. My very expensive binoculars, which I had purchased 10 years earlier, were not waterproof, and they were ruined.

Different functions

Close focusing ability is also important. Though most birding is done at a distance, sometimes birds are surprisingly bold, and the ability to focus closely enables incredible details to be observed. Plus, if binoculars can focus down to five or six feet, they are perfect for studying butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers and snakes.

And before making a purchase, be sure the binoculars are guaranteed for life. A good warranty repairs or replaces damaged binoculars at no cost. Finally, if you’re considering buying a spotting scope, think hard. Good ones are expensive. Most spotting scopes are heavy and bulky.

They require a heavy tripod. And some one has to carry it. Spotting scopes are basically telescopes designed for birders. They are essential for professional bird guides and ornithologists who study birds most often seen at long distances — waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors.

So understand that a spotting scope is a major investment that requires a tripod and the ability to carry it. For more information about optics, visit Eagle Optics is also a good source for many brands of optics at discounted prices.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my web site,


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

Previous articleA roundup of 4-H news for the week of June 23, 2011:
Next articleDairy Excel: Managing stress is vital for farmers
Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


  1. My husband has a sheep hunt coming up. What is the best pair of binos for that. Weight will be a big factor cuz of climbing the mountain. Pls help it will be a birthday gift so I would like to surprise him.


We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.