Nature’s Way: Choosing the Right Binoculars for Birding

Jim Hoagland

On our monthly bird surveys on the SaddleBrooke Ranch nature trail, I am often asked, “What binoculars should I get for birding?” Binoculars are the go-to optical tool for most serious birders. Compared to spotting scopes or long-lens cameras, binoculars are more portable and convenient.

To answer the question, let’s start by understanding the different binocular terms. Binoculars are described by using a pair of numbers, such as 8×30 or 10×42. The first number, including the x, represents magnification or the degree to which the object observed is enlarged. For example, 8x makes an object eight times closer than when viewed by the naked eye. The second number is the aperture. A 10×42 binocular would have objective lenses (the lenses furthest from your eye) of 42mm in diameter. The larger the objective lens, the more light-gathering power it has. You would think as a birder you would want the most magnification and largest objective lens you could get, but there are drawbacks. Higher magnification means more image shake, the small movements and vibration translates into your image. It also narrows your field of view. The larger the objective lens, the heavier the binocular.

Because of those factors, most birders prefer binoculars in the 8x to 10x range. I have both 8x and 10x binoculars and prefer the 8x for “landbirding” and the 10x for hawk watching and sea watching.

Where does one start when immediately confronted with several purchasing decisions of numerous brands of binoculars on the market in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and feature options?

First decide on your price range. Binoculars range from a few hundred dollars to two to three thousand dollars. Yes, binoculars can be expensive, but they are a long-term investment. I suggest you stretch your budget to buy the best pair you can afford. You are not likely to buy a new pair often, so choose wisely, try a variety, and pick the one that will deliver great views of the birds you seek out.

Next, pick a magnification. Deciding between 8x and 10x is a personal choice. Go test a few models at our local Tucson Audubon shop or one of the many sports stores. Test a lot of models. No two birders look through the binoculars in the same way. Size of your hands, shape of your face, if you wear glasses or no glasses, how you focus, and how you carry the bins when you’re not using them all matter. So, pick one that you feel suits you. Another great place to try out binoculars is at a Birding Festival. All major brands have a booth displaying the latest models of their binoculars.

Check the eye relief. Most binoculars have eyecups that retract to accommodate eyeglass wearers.

Finally, check out the durability, waterproofing, and warranty. My Swarovski came with a lifetime warranty.

Once you select your binoculars, invest in a chest strap or holster. Your neck will thank you. Happy birding!