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Birding Binoculars

Part 6

Comparing Binoculars
Choosing a Binocular

How to compare binoculars

Indoors, where you can control lighting conditions, tape a dollar bill to a wall. Then compare how well various binoculars resolve the same details, both at the center and at the edges of the visual field. Test the binoculars without support, hand holding them as you would in normal use. Is one pair more comfortable to hold? Do you prefer looking through it? You can also test binoculars on a tripod or a beanbag support. You may obtain different results from what you find in the hand-held test.

If you get the opportunity, try a binocular you're considering in the field. Consider the weight. After an hour are they still comfortable around your neck? You may want to try using a replacement strap made of neoprene rubber. Wide and stretchy, it helps to absorb shock and protect the neck.

What to avoid in birding binoculars

Zoom binoculars are usually optically inferior to regular binoculars. Avoid fixed focus binoculars. They won't focus up close. And don't get binoculars that focus each eyepiece separately. Individual focus is appropriate for marine binoculars, which require complete waterproofing, but it's too slow on the draw for birding.

What are the best birding binoculars?

It's really a matter of your personal use. Different models are best for different purposes and different birders. The 10 power that's tops for distant shorebirds may be outperformed by a 7 power with a wider field of view when searching for warblers in dim light.

How to choose binoculars

Buy the best. Superior optics really pay off for birders in the quality of experience they provide. They will stand up to heavy use and keep their resale value. It's a false economy to buy less.

Try before you buy. Binoculars that are perfect for somebody else may not be the right binoculars for you. See if you can borrow a model you are interested in from a friend and bird with it for a day. Or ask the dealer if you can take two or more models into the field for comparison. If you haven't pretested a particular binocular, don't buy it without the assurance that you can trade it in for a different one.

The human eye has a great ability to compensate temporarily for slight misalignment or focus problems. For the few minutes spent evaluating models in a store, a pair of binoculars may look fine. But after an hour in the field you may begin to experience eye fatigue or even a headache. Subtle differences between binoculars may take some time to show up.

The best binoculars will disappear from your awareness while you're using them, so that your attention is on the bird, not the binoculars. The mark of good binoculars is that they make you feel as if you are simply seeing through your own eyes, only closer. You can look through good optics all day long with no sense of strain. With inferior optics, you feel a subtle sense of relief when you stop looking through them.

It pays to invest in the instrument you really want. You will never be sorry you bought the best binoculars.

—Michael and Diane Porter

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Need Specific

If you're about to get some new binoculars but don't quite know where to start, check out the Binoculars Advisor for specific, name-naming recommendations.

Michael and Diane Porter, who have been reviewing binoculars for Bird Watcher's Digest for over a decade, suggest binoculars for particular needs and price ranges.