How to Buy Binoculars for Bird Watching

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How to Buy Binoculars for Bird Watching

Binoculars for bird watchers are widely referred to as “bins”, and apart from the birds, there is nothing more important for good bird watching. However, deciding which binoculars to buy is not as straightforward as it may appear on the surface. There are lots of different binoculars< on the market, and while some may be ideal for one task, they may not be suitable for another, and bird-watching binoculars have to comply with certain criteria to be considered satisfactory. Generally speaking, comfort is the most important factor. The binoculars must feel right in the hands with regard to both shape and weight. In addition, observation through the binoculars should not involve any straining of the eyes.

Types of Binoculars for Bird Watching

There are two main types of body. Porro-prisms< feature a more traditional stepped shape, with an angled light-path, while roof-prisms allow the light to go straight through, with no angles. A lot of people prefer them as they are the more compact of the two types and more comfortable to use.

Lens Power of Binoculars for Bird Watching

All binoculars carry two numbers that have a cross between them; for example, 8x30. The first number indicates the magnification of the lenses, while the second number refers to the width of the largest lens, also known as the objective lens, in millimetres. That means that the pair of binoculars quoted in the example will magnify everything eight times, or make birds appear to be eight times closer than they would be with the naked eye, and have an objective lens with a 30 millimetre diameter.
The uninitiated may think that the bigger the numbers, the better, but that is not necessarily the case. Anything above 10x is very difficult to hold steady, particularly if it is windy, because they are heavier. The best magnification for bird-watching binoculars is 7x or 8x. They give a brighter image than ones with a higher magnification, a greater depth of field, and a wider field of view. It is also possible to buy zoom binoculars, which can vary the magnification as required. However, they are not recommended for bird watching because they do not let in sufficient light.
As for the objective lens size, the wider the diameter the more light is let in, allowing the birdwatcher to view more of the scene in question.
What these figures mean to the bird watcher is that a pair of 8x30 binoculars is better in dull, overcast conditions or at night than a pair of 8x21s, and they make it easier to find and follow individual birds. However, they are heavier, which might not be a problem if they are to be used for a short time, but if they are to be carried around all day, they could be less comfortable for the user. 7x35s or 8x42s are generally accepted as being fine for general bird watching, although anything more specialised may require something different.

Focus of Binoculars for Bird Watching

Birds are not always observed from a distance and may appear just metres away from the watcher. That is when the focusing ability of the binoculars is important. How well a pair can focus depends on how they are made rather than lens power. The central focusing wheel should not require much turning to bring an object into sharp focus at different distances because it needs to be easy and quick in order to find and follow birds.

Other Considerations when Buying Binoculars for Bird Watching

Bad weather

Waterproof models are available if a lot of bird watching is done in the rain.

Miniature binoculars

These are available for those who cannot handle the weight and size of regular models. They are easy to hold, but their field of view is reduced, and they let in less light.

Lens coatings

They give a clearer image as they improve the amount of light that reaches the eye through the objective lens. Good coatings mean that smaller objective lenses can be used to allow the same amount of light to enter as larger, non-coated lenses, allowing a smaller and lighter pair of binoculars to be used. Coatings also reduce glare and improve contrast. However, not all coatings are the same. In order to be referred to as coated, a pair of binoculars only has to have a layer of magnesium fluoride on one lens. To qualify as fully coated, all the lenses must have at least one layer. Many lenses have more than one coating, and are called multicoated. The more coatings the better the effect, with the top of the range having 25.

Prism glass

Prisms are made of barium crown (BAK4) or borosilicate (BK7). The former is more expensive because it gives sharper, brighter images.

Eye relief

Spectacle wearers should pay particular attention to this. It refers to the distance between the eye and the lens, the standard measure being between 9 and 13 millimetres. If the problem is either long- or short-sightedness, it may not be necessary to wear the spectacles, as the focusing mechanism may be able to make a suitable adjustment. However, if spectacles have to be worn, look for a distance of between 15 and 20 millimetres. Binoculars with fold-down eye-cups can help.

Try Before Buying

Not everyone likes the same kind of binoculars, so do not blindly follow a friend’s recommendation. What suits one person may not suit another, no matter what the binocular’s specifications.
Be sure that when the binoculars are looked through with both eyes at once, no dark shapes appear around the sides of the field of vision. A sharp, black circle, free of any colouring around the edges, should be seen, with an image that is clear to the edges. If the binoculars fail to produce this, it could be that the binoculars do not fold close enough to suit the user’s features, and they should be rejected. Also, check any movable parts, such as the central focusing wheel, and be satisfied that the binoculars feel nicely balanced when held in the hands and not too heavy. Many people also prefer rubber-coated binoculars, as they are easier to grip and feel warmer in cold weather.

Care and Maintenance of Binoculars for Bird Watching

Binoculars are quite robust, but are liable to get broken if dropped. Always keep them dry. If it rains, a rainguard fitted over the eyepieces should shield them. Before wiping the lenses, blow on them to remove any dust and microscopic debris, as these could scratch the lenses and render them useless. Use a camera lens cloth and lens cleaner or alcohol for the cleaning, and when not in use, keep the binoculars in their protective carrying case in a cool, dry place.


While the choice of a pair of binoculars for bird watching is very much a matter of personal preference, there are some important criteria to which the purchaser should pay attention. Comfort is the most important because binoculars are often used for long periods. The selection of a suitable pair also depends on the bird-watching agenda of the user. While 7x35s or 8x42s are considered to be more than adequate for general birding, those with more specialist aims may require different lens power. On top of that, attention needs to be paid to such things as the type of binoculars, their ease of focusing, the type of prism glass, the number of coatings and, if the user wears spectacles, the eye relief. No doubt a trade-off will have to be made between all the variables and the purchaser’s budget, but with careful consideration, a pair can be found that will give long-lasting pleasure and satisfaction.