Bird Watcher's General Store

Cape Codder Article - 05/24/02 - Choosing Binoculars


Dear Bird Folks,

I want to buy my dad a pair of binoculars for Father's Day, but I don't know anything about them. Do you have any suggestions? I need you guidance.
- Sal, Centerville

Whoa Sal,

You need my guidance? That's a scary thought. But I agree with you, binoculars make a wonderful gift. A good pair of binoculars make a wonderful gift. A good pair of binoculars will let you see that a duck out in the ocean is really a loon or what appears to be a crow sitting in a tree is actually a hawk. Binoculars also make it easy for you to check out the parties that your neighbors keep "forgetting" to invite you to.

The first thing you need to decide is how much you want to spend. For around $100 you should be able to find a pretty good pair of binoculars. If your dad is into nature big time, then he may appreciate a more expensive pair. However, for the sake of not filling up this entire paper with bino chat, I'm going to assume that an average pair of binoculars will suit his needs.

The next thing is size. With binoculars, like many things in life, size can be an issue. To make things simple, let's just say that binoculars come in two sizes, full size and compact models. Most men seem to like full-size binoculars. It's not a macho thing; anyone, man or woman, with large hands could have trouble comfortably working small binoculars. Compact binoculars are wonderful, but not if you have large hands.

The next thing is magnification. Here is where macho does become an issue. Many men think that the more magnification, the better. They think that because they are stupid. Unlike telescopes and spotting scopes that are placed on steady tripods, binoculars are hand held. No matter how steady we think we are, we all shake a little, even if we are totally sober. If your binos are too strong, the image that you are looking at will be large, but blurry. We find that most folks can comfortably hand hold eight power (8x) binoculars. They bring things eight times closer. A few folks can hold a 10 power (10x) but I don't know how they do it. And no matter what you do, don't buy zoom binoculars. Zoom binoculars have a secret lever that lets you "zoom" up to 16x or more. These kinds of binoculars are mostly gimmicks and are made for the people who watch infomercials.

Also, avoid perma-focus binoculars. Perma-focus binos don't have that little focusing wheel and are preset in the factory to focus on average distance. that may sound like a great idea, but everyone's eyes are different and if you don't make some adjustment, you'll get eye strain. Soon your perma-focus binoculars will give you a perma-headache. And besides, even if you are the world's laziest slug, you still should be able to turn that little focusing wheel without totally exhausting yourself.

Find yourself a shop that carries a large selection of binoculars. Camera, sporting good stores, and, of course, birding shops are good places to start. Forget shopping online this time. The internet is great for finding hotels or peeking at pictures of swim suit models, but choosing binos is a hands-on experience. Buying binoculars without trying them is like sending away for false teeth; they may not fit. Some kinds of binoculars work better for people with narrow faces, while other styles are best for fathers.

To sum it up, Sal, a safe choice for new binoculars for you dad would be to spend around $100 for a full-size eight power. It should say 8 x 40 on the box (I'll explain the "40" some other day). Try to find a well-stocked shop with knowledgeable sales clerks. Look for the clerks witht he best tan, at least you know they go outside once in a while.

Artwork by Catherine Clark





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