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Optics on a Budget

By Laura Erickson
battered old binoculars
Photo by Laura Erickson.

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When you can’t afford the very best

During hard economic times, just about everyone pinches pennies. Most experienced birders justifiably recommend buying the best binoculars that we can afford, but what does that mean when our discretionary income is uncomfortably low? If we can’t afford the very best, must we settle for poor views?

Before shopping for new binoculars, decide how much you can realistically afford to spend on birding in the next few years. Ask yourself how much of that you want to allocate to optics compared with other expenses, keeping in mind both that you’re going to have to live with this decision for years and also that the difference between a $1500 pair of binoculars and a $400 pair can be enough to pay for a spotting scope or a trip to a splendid place to see many beautiful birds.

Discipline yourself to never even look at binoculars that cost more than the maximum amount you can comfortably spend. Price is a good measure of craftsmanship and materials, and you might find yourself in a compromising economic situation if you’re tempted to check out some top of the line glasses. Never buy binoculars that you can’t afford to replace if they’re lost or stolen, and never buy from a company that doesn’t have an excellent return policy and warranty. If your binoculars are irreplaceable, you’re going to miss too many splendid birds for the ironic reason that your binoculars are too valuable to risk taking on bike or canoe tips or when visiting unfamiliar places where you don’t know what the crime risk is.

Once you’ve set your budget, how do you know what to get? To keep optical quality even, a binocular model goes up in price as magnification goes up. That means that for a given price, you’ll get a clearer view by going with lower magnification. I was shocked to discover how much more clearly I could see birds through relatively cheap 7x binoculars and even 6x binoculars compared with 10x binoculars that cost the same. I would never consider 10x except in the most high-end models—there are just too many compromises in optical quality. I once watched some resting crows while comparing two pairs of binoculars from the same medium-cost model; one pair was 10x, the other 6x. The birds were bigger through the 10x, but the tiny feathers around the eyes were just as clear and crisp through the 6x, and the image was noticeably brighter. You’ll get more satisfactory views for the same amount of money by buying lower-magnification glasses in a good model than higher-magnification glasses in a lower-end model.

Porroprism binoculars have one fewer glass elements than roof prisms, so at a given price point are optically superior, but to offset that advantage, the porroprism design can allow water and grit to work their way inside. Never consider inexpensive porroprisms unless they are guaranteed waterproof.

Pocket binoculars can be wonderfully cheap, but even high-end models make serious optical compromises to make them so small. I carry a lot of other equipment when birding, so I do like small binoculars. I’ve found that mid- or low-price 6×32 or 7×32 binoculars (not much bigger than pocket binoculars, but considered “standard” size) give me a far superior view for not much more weight or bulk.

Few of us would consider buying high-end binoculars on the Internet from any company that doesn’t have an excellent return policy. Somehow we’re more comfortable buying cheaper things online without scrutinizing the return policy. But in keeping prices down for inexpensive binoculars, manufacturers often have uneven quality control, so before buying even the cheapest binoculars online, make sure you can exchange them at the retailer’s cost if they’re not satisfactory.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of BirdScope.

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