Bird Watcher's General Store
Bird Watcher's General Store

Christmas Binoculars A Great Idea
But Not Zoom

Dear Bird Folks,

I borrowed a pair of my friendís 8X42 binoculars and really liked them. I thought Iíd get the same kind for myself, but my husband thinks buying a set of binoculars with a zoom feature is a better idea. What do you think I should do?

Ė Lizzie, Falmouth, MA

Get a new husband, Lizzie,

Thatís what I think you should do. Your husband might be great at choosing a life partner, but heís way off when it comes to buying binoculars. I put zoom binoculars in the gimmick category, just like all the other stuff found on the back pages of magazines or featured as ďclickbaitĒ on the internet. These ads try to entice us to buy supplements that will miraculously improve our memories or purchase devices promising to help shrink certain body parts (or make other parts grow larger). They invariably offer things ďthe experts donít want you to know about.Ē (FYI: The experts donít care what we know. They just donít.) Somewhere on this ever-growing list of sketchy items youíll find zoom binoculars. Donít buy them.

Traditional binoculars, such as your friendís 8X42 model, make an object (a bird, hopefully) eight times larger. Zoom binoculars, with just a flip of a lever, lets you increase the size of the object from eight times larger to perhaps twenty times. This sounds like a good idea. Itís not. When magnification is increased, the viewed image becomes darker, which isnít ideal. In addition, because these binoculars are made for people who donít know any better (sorry, hubby), zoom binoculars tend to be optically inferior, which also isnít ideal. But the biggest problem on this list of problems is stability. Humans, even when we are stone-cold sober, arenít very steady. Just the act of breathing alone creates movement. This is why high-powered telescopes, spotting scopes and fancy cameras are set on tripods. A zoom feature on binoculars increases the power, but it also magnifies our hand shaking, which creates a blurry image. I know a higher power is important to some folks, but it shouldnít be in this case.

Another issue with zoom binoculars is they tend to be fragile, even more fragile than binos already are. I remember reading a story in the Boston Globe about an optical repair company. The quote that sticks in my mind was from a technician who told the reporter, ďWe donít sell zoom binoculars, but we sure do fix a lot of them.Ē Enough said.

The last piece of evidence on why zoom binoculars arenít a good idea is the most damning of all: birders donít use them. Gimmicky binoculars might be okay for sports fans, foreign spies and peeping Toms, but birders have no use for anything that isnít first-rate. This is why birders dress like they do; all their money is spent on pricey optics and not fashion. Enough said. While Iím on the topic of gimmicks, occasionally someone will ask for ďfocus-free binoculars,Ē an item that somehow still exists. Focus-free binoculars donít have a focus wheel, but instead have a huge depth of field; thus, everything you look at is in focusÖor so they claim. Without an adjustment to help sharpen the image, it becomes like looking through somebody elseís eyeglasses (a bad idea). Focusing a pair of binoculars is one of the least strenuous activities in the world. If youíre too tired to use a finger to turn a focus wheel, then maybe itís not your day to go for a bird walk.

The binos your friend let you borrow, the ones you said were 8X42, are a good choice. The ď8Ē means everything you look at will be eight times larger, which is the magnification most folks can handhold without requiring help from a tripod. The other number, ď42,Ē simply refers to the size (in millimeters) of the two big lenses in the front. Many people think this number is related to the field of view, meaning the larger that number is the more theyíll see. Nope. Larger lenses help with light gathering, especially when thereís limited sunshine. When the sun is shining brightly, however, the larger lenses, which can be bulky and heavy, are less beneficial, and the reason why some folks prefer smaller, compact binoculars.

In the old days, I would tell folks to find a camera shop or a sporting goods store in order to try out various styles of binoculars. Much like selecting an easy chair, the best way to find out if binoculars fit you (your hands and face, not the body part that goes onto the chair) is to try them firsthand. Unfortunately, online shopping has made these stores obsolete; very few places stock optics anymore. Now I tell people to do what you did: borrow or at least try a friendís pair of binoculars in order to determine what size and shape work best for you. The final thing to consider when choosing binoculars is the price, and here is where it gets tricky.

Some folks will tell you to buy the best binoculars you can afford, Lizzie, but Iím not totally sold on that advice. If the only things you hope to see with binoculars are birds on your feeder, or perhaps whales just offshore, then donít spend a lot of money. However, if you eventually want to try and sort out all of the Capeís different sparrows and generic-looking sandpipers, then absolutely break the bank. In this case, top quality optics will make a difference. Donít worry if it cuts into your fashion budget. No matter how you dress while you are out birding, other birders will never noticeÖunless youíre using zoom binoculars. Then theyíll notice for sure.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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