Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, July 3, 2014

My Evolving Relationship with Binoculars

Laura with Common NIghthawks at Hawk RIdge
Here I am, counting raptors at Hawk Ridge sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, with my beloved Zeisses. I had an assistant for my counts, my licensed education bird, Fred the Nighthawk (in the carrier). Annie, the young nighthawk on my lap, was being rehabbed for release. She wasn't able to fly yet but kept getting into mischief, so this was the first and the last day she was allowed to tag along when I was counting.

When I got my Zeiss Dialyt 10x40 B GAT* binoculars in 1988, they were every bit as wonderful as I thought they’d be. They were way heavier than my tiny Minolta pockets, but I hardly even noticed—they had a nice wide neck strap compared to the skinny string on the pocket binoculars, which despite the lightness cut into my neck, and they felt wonderful in the hand. (Why don't I ever use a harness? I often lead field trips or bump into other birders who want to try my binoculars, making a harness impractical. And now that I almost always have my camera with heavy zoom lens on a shoulder strap, a harness would be even trickier to manage. But most people who do use harnesses swear by them.) The bigger size of my new binoculars added enough light for spectacular viewing.

Everything seemed more beautiful through them. I started a Zeiss list, marking off every species I saw through them with a Z. I reached my most yearned-for birding milestones with them, reaching both 500 and 600 on my North American lifelist and 1000 on my world lifelist through them. I thought they’d be my last pair of binoculars for the rest of my life. And they would have been, except for a strange development in 2005 that changed my relationship with optics forever.

That year, I got a full-time job writing a blog for a local optics retailer. (I quit the job in 2007 when the local owner sold the company to a huge conglomerate in Omaha.) On my blog, I mostly wrote posts about my fun birding experiences, profiles of birds, and updates on important conservation issues, but I found myself evaluating lots of binoculars, too.

My eyes aren’t as discerning as some people’s, but while making direct comparisons between dozens of binoculars, I couldn’t help but start recognizing and being able to evaluate important features such as field of view, depth of field, clarity, close focus, ease of focus, and light transmission. Some of my friends could see color shifts with one brand or another that I couldn’t discern at all, and some didn't understand the weird dizzy feeling I got when panning with some models, but I became fairly proficient at judging a lot of things.

My trusty Zeisses stood up easily against all mid-price binoculars, even though mid-price binoculars were starting to cost as much as I’d paid for the Zeisses 17 years before. The optics on my Zeisses matched even the best of the newer premium binoculars in at least some features. But overall, the optics on premium binoculars had clearly improved in recent decades, even to my eyes. (Tragically, one company gave me a free pair of premium glasses that I was supposed to test for a while right when a local birding friend was trying to crank up his guiding business. I made the mistake of loaning my Zeisses to him, and he never gave them back, even after I reminded him several times. That’s the kind of thing that damages friendships forever. I still miss them.)

Looking through model after model of the newest Zeisses, Swarovskis, Leicas, and premium Nikons, it seemed like in many ways the best premium binoculars were fairly even overall, one model outstripping another in one visual arena but not in others, and the fierce competition seemed to be raising the quality of all models, including mid-range models and even inexpensive ones, to a higher level. I could appreciate that each feature came with definite tradeoffs—you had to give up quick focusing to get really close focusing binoculars, etc. Nevertheless, it was relatively easy to help people make buying choices. A customer could look through lots of binoculars in his or her price range, maybe eliminating at the outset pairs that had been poorly reviewed by someone they respected. Of the ones the buyer tested, the best decisions were based on both the optics and the ergonomics. If someone spent a lot of time looking at butterflies or dragonflies, they might want really close focusing. If someone wore thick eyeglasses, they’d want longer eye relief than someone who wore close-fitting eyeglasses. That was when adjustable eyecups started being standard for that very reason.

Each company’s binoculars felt different in the hand, which was an important consideration. I bought a pair of Leicas on a big discount on the strong recommendation of a few people I trusted, to replace my tragically vanished Zeisses. The Leicas felt heavy and bulky from the start. I figured I'd adapt, the way I’d so easily adapted to my large Zeisses after my tiny pocket binoculars, but the Leicas were simply the wrong binoculars for my hands, and the problem seemed to get worse rather than easing up, so I finally gave up and gave them to a friend. Of the other premium models being sold in the mid-2000s, Nikon’s had an awful smell, like burning tires, that gave me a headache. Swarovskis felt brittle and cold to the touch. The binoculars that seemed most perfect for my purposes were the Zeiss Victory FLs. I couldn’t afford them, even at discount, but got by with the smelly pair of Nikon Premiers I’d been given for free—with time, the smell dissipated, and the optics were definitely premium quality. Meanwhile, I also got a pair of Leupold 6x32s, enjoying the brilliance and tiny size, especially as I started taking my spotting scope everywhere for digiscoping.

Meanwhile, I was starting to see a side of optics marketing that I’d never thought about before. At birding festivals, I’d already visited displays for optics manufacturers. All their representatives were very nice and personable. But some were more into hard sells than others, and I simply do not respond well to that. One company's representative told me that ANYONE can afford premium binoculars if they set their priorities right, something I knew from personal experience is not true. I knew full well that the best binoculars are really wonderful, but also that they're beyond the reach of plenty of deserving people. The bad feeling his hard sell gave me probably influenced my recommendations.

I met representatives of only two manufacturers while I was at work for the retailer. A guy from Nikon wined and dined the whole staff, taking us to one of Duluth's most expensive restaurants and then playing a lame version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to get everyone to call out the company name. He gave every one of us, our spouses included, a minimum of $100 in cash prizes, as well as a lot of swag, some expensive, with the company’s logo. The optical quality of Nikon products was of similar quality to that of other companies’ products at similar price points, and we didn’t learn anything special about Nikon that would make it a better choice for customers than any other brand—this was just their way of getting an edge with salespeople so the Nikon name would pop into their heads when customers weren’t sure what brand to buy. I didn’t like that at all.

Zeiss’s representative, Stephen Ingraham, also came to Duluth to visit with the company owner once. I got to spend a day birding with him, taking him up to the bog, where we had great looks at a Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owl. Not once did he bring up business with me, nor did he play games trying to influence our sales staff—he seemed to realize that Zeiss products stood on their merits. That soft-sell almost certainly influenced my feelings about the Zeiss brand.

I no longer work for an optics company and don't get any sponsorship from optics manufacturers or retailers. But because I often give talks and lead field trips at birding festivals, I’ve run into Steve Ingraham many times since, and always enjoy spending time with him. The Zeiss and Swarovski booths are always my favorites. Steve from Zeiss and Clay Taylor from Swarovski both show great photos and videos they’ve digiscoped using their companies’ optics. There is perhaps no better test of spotting scope quality than the images you can capture with a camera through them, and no better way to attract birders than with splendid pictures of wonderful birds. Once birders are lured in to one of these booths, they can try out their binoculars and scopes with no sales pitch at all—just honest answers to their questions.

This year Clay and my friend Sharon Stiteler created a series of fun videos showing how they digiscope with their Swarovski products. This series epitomizes the kind of soft sale only possible and successful when the product really does deliver on the kinds of splendid bird images and videos this series highlights. And the educational value of the videos, presented in a creative and fun way, is an indication of Swarovski’s commitment to birders. Last year, Zeiss had a great promotion adding a Duck Stamp to every purchase of Conquest HD binoculars, showing their commitment to the birds we love as well as to us birders. And last year Zeiss released a whole new line of binoculars—their Terras—that retail for about $400, making Zeiss the only company of the top three to offer a mid-range line of binoculars featuring premium, German-made glass. Zeiss apparently realizes that even birders who can’t afford the best models still deserve excellent optics. At this point, it seems from my vantage point and limited experience that Zeiss and Swarovski have been the companies most committed to the birding community.

Those two years working for an optics retailer caused a sea change in my attitude toward optics. For the first time, I realized that there really was no “best” binocular—there are too many variables, some of which are at cross-purposes. The balancing of these variables to select a pair is a personal decision, and in virtually all cases, even then there is virtually always more than one “best” choice. For the past decade or so, the consensus among birders with especially discerning eyes or a keen understanding of technical specifications was that the Swarovski ELs were the best binoculars optically. They were developed by a design team headed by an internationally-known birder named Gerold Dobler. I could see that my view through them was at least as good in every way as through the corresponding Zeisses, but they still felt cold and brittle to my hand. I liked the feel of the Zeiss Victory FLs much more, and to my eyes, the view was pretty much equal. Of course, it was all academic—I couldn’t afford to buy either. When customers asked which was better, I told them what the general assessment of experts was as well as my personal impressions. When I left the company in 2007, I had my Nikon Premieres—they were 8-power—and a pair of little 6x32 Leupold Katmais. I wasn't in love with either of them, but I was like a person who's become jaded. What's love got to do with it?

In December 2012, just in time for my Conservation Big Year, one of my treasured friends gave me his used pair of 8x32 Zeiss Victory FLs, which have great optics and are wonderfully small and light for wearing around my neck with my camera. I brought them everywhere, and they’ve been pretty much ideal. I saw almost every one of the 593 "countable" species on my Conservation Big Year through them.

California Condor

But last fall one of my friends and I attended at the Monterey Birding Festival in California. The day before our field trip to Big Sur to see California Condors—a trip where spotting scopes would have been unwieldy—I started worrying about getting good looks if the condors were flying as high as the ones I saw in the Grand Canyon. So on an impulse I bought a 10-power pair of the new Zeiss Terras from one of the festival vendors. Ironically, the condors were mostly perched or flying so close that even 6 power bins would have given spectacular views. But as it turns out, I actually still prefer 10-power glasses for most birding. The only time I wished I hadn't brought them was on a boat trip to Santa Cruz Island. The higher magnification made them harder to hold steady on the boat, and the smaller field of view made it even harder to get them on birds.

So now I have my nice wonderfully portable 8x Zeiss Victory FLs and my bulkier but higher-powered 10x Zeiss Terras. My son has my old Nikon Premiers, and I keep my Leupolds and a pair of 6x Vortex binoculars by windows downstairs. I find myself grabbing whichever pair is closest when looking at backyard birds. I usually take my 8x Zeisses when I head out for a day of birding, but sometimes take the 10x ones instead. Ever since working for that optics retailer, I’ve not felt the kind of monogamous love for my binoculars that I felt for my very first pair—my Bushnell Insta-Focuses—nor for my beloved Zeiss Dialyts. It was sad and disillusioning to realize that as useful as binoculars are, the bottom line is that they’re commodities.

But something happened this June that was a game changer, and I suddenly found myself in love with a pair of binoculars once again. But that’s a story for another blog entry.