Binoculars and Spotting Telescopes for Birders: An Executive Synopsis
with Some Recommended Models

by Pete Webb


Binoculars come with porro (offset) or roof (straight through) shapes. They also come with various grades of lenses, depending on price.

The porro prism models are bulkier, heavier and more fragile, but optically superior. Roof prism models are more compact and durable, but it takes money to apply "fixes" for the inherent optical flaws in roof prisms. So for models under $80 in price, porro prism models offer a much brighter and more detailed image. For casual or beginning users, I reccomend 7x35 porro prism binoculars. Two recommended models are the Bushnell Falcon and the Tasco Essentials Zip, both about $30, Mar. 2015 prices, including cost of shipping. They are porro prism models and are not waterproof, handle with care, but have by far the most optical quality for the money.

What does "7x35" or "8x42" mean?

The number before the "X" is the magnification. The number after the "X" is the size, in millimeters, of the objective lens. Casual users would find binoculars with higher magnification, and less field of view, frustrating and MUCH harder to use; the 7x35 binoculars would be MUCH better for them to use. Field of view matters, and lower magnifications bring more field of view. You see a bird in a tree, bring up the binoculars and focus, and see an image of branches, twigs and leaves.

But - WHICH branches, twigs and leaves? Which TREE? Where's the BIRD?

It took me years, using 7x35 binoculars with a very good field of view, before I could reliably find my bird on the first try before it flew away.

Experienced "birders", who have used their binoculars at least weekly for years, will usually want to "graduate", if they have the developed skill, to more expensive binoculars with higher magnification. But the higher magnification will leave a smaller field of view and make it much harder to find the bird. Skill is needed to use these higher-powered binoculars.

Ultra-cheap miniature roof prism binoculars are available for sale, at 8x or 10x magnification or more. But they have a problem - they're tiny and weigh next to nothing, and the magnification also magnifies minor movements and tremors in your hand, causing the image to jump around, making it hard to keep up with the details in the image. The Bushnell Powerview 8x21 model, $11 plus shipping at Amazon, can serve as a pocket-sized spare. This model isn't waterproof. Sealed, waterproof models include Tasco Sierra models, TS825D (8x25) $32 Amazon, and a 10x42 model for $44, again Amazon prices as of March, 2015, not including shipping. The sealed models should be more durable and withstand more abuse than porro prism models, or models which aren't waterproof. They could also serve as "starters" for kids, until they become responsible and careful enough to handle more expensive or more fragile binoculars. None of these models will offer the optical quality of the recommended $30 porro prism models, but they'll endure more abuse.

Binocular models that can out-perform the recommended 7x35 models above will cost $80 and up. I recommend sealed roof prism models here. At these prices, they will have the "fixes" to bring the roof prisms up to near-porro performance, and with their durable construction, they will be better for heavy use in the field.

Roof prisms don't bring optically superior performance, but at 8x or higher magnification, better lenses do. The higher the magnification, the more the difference.

Higher-grade lenses can reveal some color on badly backlit birds or on birds hidden in shadows, which can't be seen with the cheaper grades. The higher grades also reveal more tiny details on distant birds and reduce eye strain with prolonged use, especially for users with acute vision (20-20 or better when corrected with glasses). They do also bring a higher price tag.

With spotting telescopes, with their magnifications of 20x and up, lens types become critical for getting tiny details on distant birds, which is what the 'scope is for.

The next major group up for binoculars, priced about $80 to $500, have all 2-element "Achromatic" lenses inside. Notable models in this group include the Eagle Optics Shrike, $100 - $110, the Bushnell Natureview roof prism models, $80 - $120, and the Atlas Optics Radian, $130 - $140, all sold at Eagle Optics, prices as of Mar. 2015. The very best binoculars in this group are the Monarch 5 ED models and the Zeiss Terra ED binoculars, both about $300 - $350.

Image Stabilization

Another interesting option for some is Image-Stabilized models, most notably models by Canon - an 8x25 model for $380, and a 10x30 model for $505. For viewers having trouble holding the binoculars steady enough to get a stable image, this option may really help. Canon also offers a more expensive 10x42 model for $1,300, which is probably in the premium optical class, see below.

There are some models priced between $500 and $850 about which I know very little; they use the same type of lenses but might in some cases still be a bit better.

Premium-level binoculars

But at $900 one enters the premium class group with substantially improved optics, with 3-element objective lenses and 2-element aspheric, "field flattener" eyepiece lenses. Best for under $2,000, and the cheapest in this group, are the Zeiss Conquest models, $900 - $1,000. After using any of the "premium"-class models with these types of lenses for any length of time, you won't want to settle for anything less.

A special elite group uses the same basic lens types but with an expensive fluorine ion formula glass in the lenses, for the very best optics money can buy, and that money would be $1,700 - $2,700, for models by Leitz, Zeiss and Swarovski. A Cornell comparison study review article (fall, 2013) found these models to be tied optically, and that the optical improvement to be quite small over the Conquest models, and questioned whether that small improvement justified spending the extra money, which could be spent instead on a trip to exotic places to see exotic birds.

Spotting Telescopes -- where those lenses REALLY matter

Spotting 'Scopes now come as straight or angled models. The angled 'scopes are slightly harder to aim exactly, but are easier to set up, especially for multiple people of varying heights to look through them - the taller people just bend down slightly more to look down into them. And even for one viewer, it isn't as critical to exactly match the height of your eyes above the ground - just set it up slightly lower than your eyes, and bend down slightly, if you need to, to look through the 'scope.

'Scopes also offer zoom eyepieces, very useful for scanning through a group of birds at a lower magnification, then zooming in on one particular bird for a closer look.

At the higher magnifications used by spotting 'scopes, for looking at small distant details on very distant birds, the lens types become critical.

Spotting 'Scopes can come straight or angled nowadays. The angled 'scopes are slightly harder to aim exactly, but are easier to set up, especially for multiple people of varying heights to look through them - the taller people just bend down slightly more to look down into them. And even for one viewer, it isn't as critical to exactly match the height of your eyes above the ground - just set it up slightly lower, and bend down slightly if you need to, to look through the 'scope.

'Scopes also offer zoom eyepieces, very useful for scanning through a group of birds at a lower magnification, then zooming in on one particular bird for a closer look.

My Alpen 788, $415 (Amazon), and the Nikon Prostaff, $600, both have mid-grade lenses (2 + 2) and are good for viewing birds out to about 50 - 75 yards distance. At that range, they get an image which usually seems as good as the top-grade 'scopes. But for greater distances or for the tiniest details on distant, small birds, a more expensive 'scope is needed. For steps up, a Bird Watchers Digest article in 2009 recommends the Vortex Viper, about $900, and Vortex Razor, about $1,600 at Eagle Optics, and then for still more distant or smaller details, step up to the top-of-the-line models by Swarovski, Leica, Nikon (Fieldscope), Zeiss and Kowa, costing about $2,600 to $4,000 (Eagle Optics, Adorama, These top five are roughly tied in optical quality. Both 65mm and 80mm lens models are popular, but the 80mm models usually come with higher magnification available. Scores suggest there *might* be a tiny optical advantage with the Swarovski and Kowa models, but that's a matter of opinion among the reviewers. And the Zeiss Diascope can zoom up to 75x, while the other 80mm scopes stop at 60x. (60x and 75x - same ratio as 8x and 10x binoculars). The higher-priced scopes can make out smaller details at greater distances, which is what a 'scope is for.

Reprise and Overview

The Book Test

To decide for yourself what type of binoculars are best for you, try this test: get access to a large number of binoculars of differing styles, (porro and roof, various magnifications, and all three major classes, if possible,) set up a book or other source with fairly small print, at about 15 - 20 ft distance, and try each model to see how far away you can move the book and still read the text. No fair propping binoculars on a table or other solid base - you'll be hand-holding them in the field bird watching, and should do the same for this test. Ideally, you should also try putting the book in shadow or backlit against a glaring sky to further test your ability to make out details in difficult lighting. 'Scopes can, of course, be tested on tripod, the way you'll be using them in the field. Doing this, you can see for yourself what models (if any) really help you make out fine details at a distance.

Something a bit like this was tried at a Baltimore Bird Club meeting in September, 2013 with some economy porro models, two mid-grade roof prism models, and one premium-grade roof prism model. One club member felt they were all about the same to his eyes, and he preferred to choose by feel in the hand. Most people trying them out did prefer the mid-grade and premium models, and I did see the improvement going from mid-grade to premium in viewing the clarity of the letters in the text. At home, I similarly compared binoculars with different mirror coatings and lens glass formulas, and could see differences with each comparison in legibility of barely readable text in a distant book. Those differences were more noticable when I looked "against" the light, looking more into (but not directly into) the sun while reading the text.

I've owned and used binoculars at all three major grades, and been satisfied with each. Having experienced them all, I do prefer the clearer, sharper images of the higher-grade models when I can afford them.

Another perspective: expensive optics are a long-term investment. For the price of a used car, one could splurge and get top-of-the-line binoculars and telescope, and have money left over for a trip or two to exotic location(s) for exotic birds. The optical equipment will, with reasonable care, last much longer than a new car will. If you expect to be using your optics a lot over the next 20 years or more, the pleasure they give you over that time should justify the expense of getting the best you can afford.

See my full-length article for a listing of many more models and their field-of-view, eye relief, and close-focus and weight spec's and prices as of March, 2015, along with a full explanation of those fancy lenses and how they work, and the meaning of terms like eye relief, chromatic dispersion, types of prisms - how they differ and how they work, coatings, etc., and for a listing of the comparison studies by Bird Watchers Digest, Birders World, and Cornell, which I used to get an idea of the quality of some of the models in my listings.