Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Economizing on Optics

These binoculars have seen a LOT of birds!
Chandler Robbins's binoculars. I took this photo in Guatemala in 2007. He's been using the same inexpensive binoculars for decades, putting his money toward conservation rather than optics. Excellent optics are wonderful—don't get me wrong. But prioritizing how we spend our money is getting more and more critical for the 90 percent of Americans who aren't wealthy.

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

This week people got into a testy exchange of ideas on the national birding listserv regarding what kind of binoculars to recommend to people. Most serious birders tell people to buy the very best binoculars they can afford, and in this discussion, one person said it was reasonable to spend about what you pay for a month’s rent or mortgage payment. I went to bed hungry as a little girl enough that I’m very aware that a hundred dollars is a lot of money for a lot of people. I’ve been lucky enough to have used some of the best binoculars in the world, and high-end binoculars costing over a thousand dollars really are the best, but it feels rude and presumptuous for me to tell someone that they need high-end binoculars when they can’t afford health care. Now that I haven’t worked for an optics company for four years, I’m completely out of touch with current binocular models. One that I recommended for years as the best binoculars for less than $100, the Leupold Yosemites, has new specifications and according to people I’ve talked to who have checked them out, the quality has plummeted dramatically. So I don’t even know what brands or models to recommend anymore.

But a few guidelines can help people on a serious budget to make a wise purchase. First, inexpensive pocket binoculars are virtually always a waste of money. Any objective lenses smaller than 30 or 32 millimeters, which is the second number in the normal description of binoculars, like 10x20, is not going to be able to gather enough light to give you a clear image—I’ve tested a lot of them, and they really show birds worse than using two toilet paper tubes, and I am not making this up. I was very disturbed several years ago when Audubon started sending particularly cheap binoculars out as a premium for joining—they were plastic with plastic lenses, you couldn’t adjust them for how far apart your eyes were, and looking through them actually hurt my eyes. It seemed ironic for a conservation organization to manufacture such worthless items and ship them to America from China in a container ship burning toxic bunker fuel.

Especially as more and more products, even from higher end companies, are being manufactured in China, you really can’t count on quality when you purchase anything but the most expensive binoculars. For a given amount of money, you’ll get a much better view with lower power glasses. I strongly recommend that if you’re spending less than $300 or so that you get seven power, not 10 x—for the same size binoculars, you’ll always get a brighter image and virtually always get a clearer image. And any compromises in glass grinding, alignment, or coatings will be less noticeable in lower power glasses. I usually leave my binoculars home now that I bring my camera birding, but the binoculars I do use are 6x32—they’re small, focus incredibly close for butterflies or birds at the window feeder, and have a great field of view.

Laura's new binoculars!

My first pair of binoculars was a reasonably inexpensive pair of 7x50 Bushnell Instafocuses. They were huge, but I was young and didn’t mind lugging them around—those glasses gave me the first 357 species I saw on my lifelist. I’d recommend saving up to get binoculars in the $300 range or higher if you really want the added magnification of 10-power glasses. Also, make sure the eyecups push or twist in rather than being made of cheap rubber that rolls down. I don’t make commercial endorsements, but I know several people who work at Eagle Optics outside Madison, Wisconsin, and know they are birders who really understand optics and the best choices at each price point. If you’re on a serious budget, they’re going to be very helpful in steering you toward the best affordable pair. As I learned when I began, even a fairly inexpensive pair of binoculars can bring you years of satisfaction. After you open the box and make sure they’re aligned and working, forget about second guessing yourself and get out and start using them.