Binoculars 101: Sample the goods, spend the money
(published 3-2-06)

I’m no expert on binoculars, but I can offer this advice: Get some good ones. You’ll never regret it.

That’s certainly been my experience. The first few years I was birding, seriously birding, I used a pair of inexpensive Bushnells that seemed just fine. I was seeing a lot of new birds and never gave much thought to my optics. Then something happened. On a visit to Indiana Dunes State Park, a fellow birder allowed me to peak through his “high end” binos. Wow! At that moment I knew the game had changed. I had to trade up.

I was tempted to go buy the same binoculars that I’d been so impressed with in Indiana. Then came sticker shock—they would cost about $1,000. So I started shopping around and ultimately acquired a Pentax 8x42 roof-prism model for less than half that amount—“free,” actually, because they were a 40th birthday present from my parents! They are wonderful binoculars that I think perform on par with costlier brands like Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss.

I knew the Pentax were right for me because I’d sampled a pair in a camera store. They felt good in my hands, delivered a bright image and, best of all, I could use them without taking my glasses off. That was quite a revelation. With the Bushnells, I’d been accustomed to whipping off my glasses before putting them to my eyes. It was a nuisance, and I’m sure I missed a few birds because of it. If you wear glasses, look for binoculars with good “eye relief”—18mm or more.

Eye relief, like roof prism, is one of the technical terms you’ll encounter when shopping for binoculars. A little basic knowledge is helpful, and a great source is Eagle Optics, a retailer that caters to birders, primarily via mail order. The company’s catalog features a buying guide (also posted online) with everything you need to know. Call 1-800-289-1132 or visit You can also learn a lot by studying the many binocular ads in birding magazines. Some even include pricing.

For good quality binos, plan on spending at least $200. If you can go a bit higher, a nice model to consider is the Audubon Equinox HP. I picked up a pair last summer at Eagle’s store in Middleton, Wis. (It was on our way to Minnesota—I couldn’t just drive by!)

Binoculars are very personal. Everyone has their preferences. I mentioned good eye relief, and for me another key feature is twist-up or pop-up eyecups, which are superior to the rubber fold-down kind. More generally, I like a full-size, 8-power binocular that isn’t too heavy—26 oz. or less. And I wouldn’t buy anything that isn’t waterproof and fogproof.

Birding is a pretty cheap hobby when you think about it. Binoculars and a field guide are the only “required” equipment. So if your budget allows, consider investing in some better optics. The birds will look even more amazing.

Jeff Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at

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