When there are so many different types of birding binoculars available, how should you identify a pair to ensure you are getting the best binoculars for your budget?
Not only are there dozens of different binoculars to choose from, but there are a lot of technical-sounding terms describing them all. At first it can seem a bit overwhelming to learn.
First of all we'll just give you a quick comparison of the models that we recommend and why.
It's definitely worth getting more informed on how the different specifications will affect your choice. So we also have a clear and simple guide explaining in more detail exactly what you need to know.
Now let's get an overview of what to consider as you choose birding binoculars.
We recommend a magnification power of 8x or 10x for most bird watchers.
Effective objective lens size
Look for an objective lens diameter that is big enough to give you a bright image in high resolution, without being too large, which would give a shaky, unstable view.
Wide field of view
Select birding binoculars with as wide a field of view as possible.
Eye relief distance measures the gap between your eye and the lens closest to your eye.
People who don't wear glasses will be looking for a eye relief of 9-13mm.
For those people who do wear glasses, choose a measurement between 14-18mm, depending on the thickness and the distance of the glasses from the eye.
Comfortable and compact
Your best pair of birding binoculars will fit your hands well and feel comfortable when viewing, as well as being lightweight enough to be used for longer periods of time.
Waterproof and fog proof
Birding binoculars should be able to cope with all different kinds of climate.
Close focus distance
Hopefully not all of the birds that you see will be really far away, so being able to focus easily on birds nearby is important.
How to choose the best binoculars for bird watching: what should I look for?
How can you select a pair that are easy to use for bird watching and always give you clear images? It may sound obvious, but bird watchers need to look for a good pair of binoculars specifically aimed at bird watching.
This is because birding binoculars meet a different set of needs unique to your primary activity of bird watching rather than for other categories of use, such as star gazing or hunting.
Top binoculars for birding give you the chance to see clear, sharp images of the birds themselves, whether they are stationary or in flight.
Bird watching binoculars: what do the numbers mean?
You'll notice that each pair of binoculars, as well as having a name of its model, also has a pair of numbers in its description, like 7x32 or 10x50.
The first number indicates what power of magnification the binoculars have.
The second number tells us the size of the objective lens (the largest pair of lenses, located at the end of the binocular that is furthest from the viewer). But what is the point of knowing these numbers?
Let's look at how the measurements affect your viewing experience.
Suggested power: what strength binoculars do I need for bird watching?
The whole point of using binoculars in bird watching is to see your feathered friend more closely by magnifying its image.
Binocular magnification can also be known as the zoom, or the 'power' of the lens. You will see this written somewhere on the binocular, often on the focus wheel.
The pair of lenses responsible for the magnification are the ocular lenses - the smaller ones that are closest to your eye. (The pair of lenses at the other end of the binoculars have a different job, which we will cover in the next section.)
How magnification is written
The magnification is indicated in numbers. These are written in a format that shows how many times larger the view of a bird appears through the lens rather than seen only with the naked eye.
So a pair of birding binoculars that magnifies an image seven times would be classified as '7x', ten times = 10x, and so on.
In practical terms, this means if you were using 7x binoculars to look at a bird 70 feet away, you'd be able to view it as if from a distance of 10 feet.
If you were using 10x binoculars to look at the same bird 70 feet away you'd see its detailed markings as if from only 7 feet away.
What magnification is best for bird watching binoculars?
A binocular magnification power of between 7x and 10x will give you an optimal steady image. This power will have a wide enough field of view that is not too adversely affected by the natural shake of your hands.
Both 8x or 10x binoculars are a very popular choice for birders.
Is more magnification better for bird watching binoculars?
Part of the joy of bird watching is observing the intricate details and markings of birds, and witnessing up close their subtle behaviours.
It might at first seem logical to get the biggest magnification you can, to see finer details. Some of those birds can be pretty small, after all.
But before you opt for the most high-powered binoculars you can find, it's important to understand that a larger magnification can actually make seeing a bird more difficult. There are two main reasons for this.
Why field of view is important
Firstly, as you increase the magnification of the binoculars, the field of view decreases. A smaller field of view means, though you see the bird itself in more detail, you have a more limited view of its surroundings.
On many birding occasions a wider field of view is more helpful. For instance, when a small bird takes off unexpectedly, it is easier to follow this quick-moving target or to spot its new location with a wider field of view.
Secondly, the larger the magnification of the binoculars, the more difficult it will be to hold them steady without a tripod. Our upper bodies move a little naturally - breathing, for example! - no matter how hard we are trying to stay still. And with binoculars of a higher magnification, this slight movement translates to a shaky image.
How to choose the best magnification for bird watching: which is better?
6x, 7x, 8x
10x, 12x, 15x, 20x + upwards
Lighter, smaller binoculars
Wider field of view
Greater depth of field
Smaller close focus distance
Larger, heavier binoculars
Narrow field of view
Less light in image
Less depth of field
Require more frequent focusing
Another consideration is that a higher powered lens uses thicker glass. This means less light will enter the binoculars so the quality of the image will be impacted. It's especially true if you choose a pair at the cheaper end of the market.
We have a more in-depth article discussing the pros and cons of 8x and 10x binoculars for birding in this article >>>
Objective lens diameter
The objective lenses are at the fattest, furthest end of the binoculars. Their name is easier to remember if you think of them as being the lenses closest to the object that you are viewing.
(The smaller lenses, on the other end of the binoculars that are closest to the eyes are called the ocular lenses. They are the ones that take care of the magnification.)
The point of the objective lens is to let the light into the binoculars.
Simply put, the bigger they are, the more light comes into the tube. The more light, the clearer the image.
The size of the objective lens is measured in millimeters. This size is denoted by the second number in the specification of the binoculars (though it doesn't specifically mention millimeters).
For example, a pair described as 8x42 has an objective lens diameter measuring 42mm.
What is a good objective lens diameter for bird watching?
In fact, 42 is a really sound choice of objective lens diameter. Binoculars of this size should give you a bright, highly defined image without being too physically taxing to hold.
Knowing the objective lens size also gives us a practical idea of how big overall the binoculars themselves will be.
A larger objective lens diameter adds a little weight too. Many bird watchers find that the size of 42mm is an effective balance between superior performance and optimal portability.
The objective lens diameter is a valuable indicator of how large and heavy the instrument might feel in your hands and to carry around in your bag or - ready for action! - around your neck.
The last thing you want is to be put off using your new pair of binoculars because they feel too cumbersome or heavy to hold up to your eyes for longer periods of time. You don't want to feel that they are weighing on your neck or shoulders when you are not looking through them.
Also, don't forget that the overall dimensions that you have to lug around will be increased further once you stow away the binoculars into a padded case.
Weight and compactness of binoculars
Many birders will be outdoors and on the move when they are bird watching.
One of the main benefits of birding is getting out for some fresh air and exercise. But keeping the weight of the kit that you carry to a minimum will preserve your freshness and focus for appreciating the scenery and birds, rather than making the outing feel like a weight-training session.
Comfort should definitely be a factor, taking into account the size of your hands and the overall ergonomic design of the binoculars and how they balance in your grip. Think about all the accumulated time that you will spend carrying around your binoculars or even holding them up to your eyes while you are standing.
The balance of the binoculars is equally as important, if not more so, than its actual weight. So it’s best to consider the weight in conjunction with how a pair of binoculars feels when you hold them.
With a pair of well balanced binoculars, with good weight distributions, there will be less strain on your hands, wrists and arms.
Lens size affects overall dimensions
The size of the lenses has a bearing on the dimensions and weight of your binoculars.
As a general rule, bird watchers would do well to select from a objective lens size range of 30-50mm. Birdwatching binoculars that have an objective lens size of less than 30mm are usually classified as compact binoculars.
A helpful comparison is that an objective lens more than four times the power of magnification should ensure a sufficiently bright image. This size is termed a full-size binocular.
Binoculars of a ratio smaller than this are seen as compact. In general, a full-size binocular is recommended.
Compact bird binoculars may be more suitable if you are highly restricted on the size that you can carry or pack. Remember, though, that compact binoculars will let in less light than a pair with a larger objective lens.
So as not to compromise on your viewing experience, it might be worth spending more to make sure that you are getting the best components. A premium 30mm lens should actually give a better image quality than a cheap 40mm one.
For more information about our top picks of more portable and light binoculars, click this link:
What is field of view in birding binoculars?
The term 'field of view' refers to the width of the area visible through the binoculars when you are holding them still. Why is a good field of view important in birding?
Try to select birding binoculars with as wide a field of view as possible because you'll be able to scan a larger area of landscape. This will help you to find the bird in the first place.
Plus if it flies away, a wider field of view also allows you to follow it more easily. You'll feel like you are able to take in a whole panorama, not be limited to a small area of sky.
Conversely, while a narrow field of view would give a better image of a stationary bird, it would also make it less easy to track the bird in flight.
Field of view in birding binoculars: what do the numbers mean?
Given that a larger value indicates a wider field of view, exactly what specification are you looking for when determining which field of view is best for your requirements?
Binocular specifications present the field of view in this format:
400ft at 1,000yd
What the numbers actually tell you is the width of the scene that you can see at 1000 yards. This is expressed in feet at 1000 yards.
Binocular specifications may also quote the field of view as an angle, in degrees:
What field of view is best for binoculars for bird watching?
You'll be looking for the field of view to be at least 390ft/1000 yards.
This would mean that the angle seen from your binocular is 7-8 degrees.
While this doesn’t sound like much, remember that the angle widens right out the further it goes away from you.
How do you calculate field of view for birding?
Each additional degree on your field of view adds roughly another 50 feet of width to what you can see a distance of 1000 yards away from you.
It's important to pay attention to the number indicating the field of view because it can vary even between models that otherwise seem to have a very similar spec.
Close focus distance
Like field of view, close focus distance describes how much of the landscape you can see through your binoculars. The measurement tells you how close you can be to an object while still able to focus on it clearly.
You'll be looking for a close focus distance of 10 feet, or less. Some of the top models will even close that gap to three feet.
Typically, as magnification increases, the minimum close focus distance also increases.
What is the best close focus distance?
Though most people purchase binoculars for an enhanced view of distant things, there may be times when you would like a detailed look at something that is only a few meters away. Some binoculars that are not specifically made for birding cannot focus on an object that is nearby.
It helps if your binoculars are able to achieve this. There will be occasions when you are lucky enough to see a bird at really close quarters and it would be great to see them in even greater detail.
While you are out looking for birds, other creatures are sure to cross your path. So, being able to quickly focus on a butterfly or small mammal is a bonus.
It is worth checking what kind of mechanism a pair of binoculars using to focus, and how quickly this can be adjusted.
Some binoculars have a central focusing knob, while others need each eyepiece to be focused separately for close range. A quick and easy method may suit most people.
Eye relief distance refers to the gap between the ocular lens (the glass closest to your eye) and your eye itself. Eye relief is an especially important measurement for people who use glasses.
In this case, you will need a greater eye relief as your eye will be a bit further from the ocular lens of the binoculars. It's important to get this right to preserve the width of your field of view.
If you don't wear eyeglasses, look for a measurement of 9-13mm. This will allow your eye to be at the right distance for a nice wide field of view.
A comfortable measurement for wearers of thinner glasses is an eye relief between 14-15mm.
For those who wear thicker glasses or those that don't fit as closely to the face, choose an eye relief of 16-18mm.
Many models have adjustable eye cups, which will enhance your experience by enabling you to tailor your pair of binoculars to your own eyes, with or without glasses. These eye cups can be twisted out to extend the eye relief for people who do not use glasses.
As well as allowing you to adjust your eye relief, eye cups also help shade your eyes from any extra distance while you are viewing.
Easy to focus
Birds, perhaps more than other animals, can be tricky to view due to their size and speed. Once you spot a bird with your naked eye, you want to be able to easily and immediately find and follow it with your binoculars as it flies.
To do this you need binoculars for bird watching that you are able to focus quickly using a single dial. In this case as in many others, simple is best.
The best binoculars for birding have a focus dial located between the two barrels. Many focus dials turn just one to one-and-a-half times.
This is better than a pair of binoculars where you need to adjust the focus mechanism separately on both barrels. The latter option would slow down your reaction time.
Ideally, less than one full 360-degree turn of the focus wheel will bring your object into sharp focus.
Bird watching in low light conditions
Birds are more active around sunrise and sunset. Consequently, these are the best times of the day for bird watching.
In many cases, if you are bird watching early in the morning or in the evening, you will do better to choose birding binoculars that offer bright images despite low light conditions.
Quality binoculars offer a superior performance despite low light. This means getting an accurate color reproduction and bright images in sharp focus at all times of the day and in different weather conditions.
You want birding binoculars with excellent light transmission to give a consistent image clarity. A sharp image and accuracy of color even in low light increases your enjoyment of the finer details. In some cases it can also be crucial for identifying the bird itself.
Waterproof and fog proof binoculars
Weather, as well as having an impact on your viewing due to the level of light, can also affect the bird watching binoculars themselves.
Fog proof and waterproof, despite sounding like similar features, actually tackle two different issues that birdwatchers might experience when using binoculars.
Fog proof binoculars
You need a pair of binoculars that are fog proof because sudden temperature changes can cause condensation to form on the internal surface of lenses. For example, as you leave your cosy interior to go out into a chillier atmosphere, or as you move from an air-conditioned room into a warmer environment, your binoculars are at risk from some moisture getting inside them.
This internal fogging can be difficult to get rid of. Clearly this has a negative impact on the image clarity. This is because you are looking through a lens covered with tiny water droplets.
The best binoculars for birding have been made fog proof through a specific process. They are totally sealed and filled with a gas that does not condense when subjected to temperature changes.
You might be looking for the best binoculars for a foggy environment or where frequent fog is expected. For example, in early morning, when bird watching by the coast, in mountainous regions or in tropical cloud forests. Then it is worth researching which binoculars will meet your needs in different circumstances.
It's best to look for birding binoculars that are waterproof, even if you live in a climate where rain or mist is less frequent.
A fully sealed interior not only prevents the moisture that is always present in the air from entering but also ensures your instrument is protected from accidental spillages. So even if you intend to be a fair weather birder, look for bird watching binoculars that are waterproof and fog proof.
To discover more about how waterproof and fog proof features benefit your binoculars, please refer to this post >>>
All round image quality
Due to their rounded shape, lenses can suffer from a distortion that affects the image reaching your eyes. The best birding binoculars incorporate extra low dispersion glass (ED glass).
The enhanced way that ED glass directs the wavelength of the light to your eye ensures more brightness and clarity. It also gives a more accurate rendition of the color spectrum.
Your perception of color is also improved by the prevention of chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration is when you see a kind of rainbow effect at the edge of objects.
Sometimes the fact that a pair of binoculars benefits from ED glass leads to it being described as high definition. 'High definition' is, in the case of binoculars, not a defined term. So when you see it used, it is best to clarify exactly what it refers to in that description.
Overall, ED glass elements will minimize aberration and distortion. This has the consequence of improving image sharpness and color quality. There is a lot to learn about extra low dispersion glass, so we clarify what it is and why it's important here >>>
Fully multi coated optics will improve image quality. They do this by reducing reflection and assisting the transmission of light through the objective lens. In short, an anti-reflection multi coated lens is worth paying for. This is because it produces a brighter, clearer image.
The reduction of reflection and improved light transmission by effective lens coatings will even allow a birding binocular of a lower magnification - say a 8x40 with multi coated lenses - to compare favourably with an uncoated pair of binoculars of the same magnification, such as a 8x50.
For more information on the importance of lens coatings and prism coatings in binoculars, we have this post:
Many people will also want to take into account how much the binoculars cost.
Remember that you are buying them to enhance your bird watching experience. A good quality product will definitely do this. They are an investment to last you for years and create many happy memories along the way.
This is not really the situation where it benefits you in the long term to opt for an incredibly low price. To avoid disappointment, it's worth purchasing a pair that really achieves a superior performance.
With many physical stores unable to open during the pandemic, many retailers have relaxed their return policies. This bodes well for consumers.
Once you have narrowed down your choices, a good option is to check the return policies on your top two. If the retailer allows returns, then it is worth buying both so that you can try them out at home.
Once you’ve determined the favorite that you would like to keep, then you can return the other.
Now, move onto the models that we have selected as our top picks for bird-watching binoculars.
- 0.1 Appropriate magnification
- 0.2 Effective objective lens size
- 0.3 Wide field of view
- 0.4 Eye relief
- 0.5 Comfortable and compact
- 0.6 Waterproof and fog proof
- 0.7 Close focus distance
- 1 How to choose the best binoculars for bird watching: what should I look for?
- 2 Bird watching binoculars: what do the numbers mean?
- 3 Suggested power: what strength binoculars do I need for bird watching?
- 4 What magnification is best for bird watching binoculars?
- 5 Is more magnification better for bird watching binoculars?
- 6 How to choose the best magnification for bird watching: which is better?
- 7 Objective lens diameter
- 8 Weight and compactness of binoculars
- 9 What is field of view in birding binoculars?
- 10 What field of view is best for binoculars for bird watching?
- 11 Close focus distance
- 12 Eye relief
- 13 Easy to focus
- 14 Bird watching in low light conditions
- 15 Waterproof and fog proof binoculars
- 16 All round image quality
- 17 Lens coatings
- 18 Happy choosing!