The Far View
Whats New In Binoculars

Although binoculars don't qualify as photo equipment, most serious outdoor photographers do carry them for scouting and observing subjects, whether nature or sports. These days, binoculars tend to be more versatile and include more convenience features than ever before.
© 1994, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Although we cover new equipment announced at trade shows, binoculars are often overlooked because they're not used for photography. Still, most outdoor shooters do carry binocs as they can be invaluable for scanning or scouting an area to search out potential subjects. Especially in bird and other wildlife photography, binocs can increase your odds of a successful outing. Naturally, this accessory is useful for other types of photography too: sports, boating, butterflies, and travel.

At the PMA show in February --and while conducting research later--I found many new binoculars. One fact quickly became apparent while reviewing their specs and trying some of them out. Today's binoculars are generally superior to those made five or more years ago. Thanks to developments in optical glass and anti-reflective coatings, many of the latest models offer a brighter, sharper view and many convenience features. While it's impossible to survey all recent binoculars, let's take a look at recent trends in this field. Discounted prices range from under $100 to "budget" (up to $150) to "mid-priced" (up to $250) to "expensive" (up to $500) to "premium" (from $500 to $3000).

Zoom Binoculars
Five years ago, I would not have considered a zoom model due to the poor image quality. Since then, several manufacturers have made a serious effort to develop superior models. As you would expect, image brightness does diminish as you zoom because the exit pupil gets smaller: from 5mm at 10x to 2.3mm at 22x with the Nikon Action Zoom 10-22x50, for example. Zoom models are often heavy, too.

Nikon Action Zoom

This Nikon (with BaK-4 porro prism) weighs 33.5 oz, but part of that is related to the rubber armor and oversized objective lens. Weight may be less of a factor with such high power zooms because you'll generally use them on a tripod for a sharp, blur-free image. (All Nikon zooms are budget-priced or slightly above.)

If you don't need that much power, the affordable Nikon Action Zoom 7-15x35 (27 oz) should be adequate. Minolta's new ACTIVA binocs (mid-priced; with BaK-4 porro prisms) feature an aspherical element for a compact size while providing sharp images and minimal distortion. The zoom in this series is the 8-22x27FM and it weighs a mere 13 oz, only 3.5 oz more than the conventional ACTIVA 12x25FM. In a middleweight, check out the new Tasco 8-20x26 (porro prism) zoom model at 16.3 oz.

Image Stabilizer (IS)
It's difficult to use binocs with over 10x power handheld because of image blur from hand and body shake. A tripod can be useful on solid ground, but not when you're on an unstable platform like a boat or moving vehicle. A few manufacturers have made binoculars of pro or military grade (and price!) with a stabilizer, but Canon offers a more affordable solution. Their IS binocs incorporate an optical image stabilizer that continually makes adjustments to maintain a steady image. Because of the success of the original IS models, Canon has expanded the line with new 18x50 IS and 15x50 IS (porro prism) models (premium-plus priced); both are also shock and water-resistant.

Minolta Activa 8-22x27FM

The image stabilizer, activated with the touch of a button, immediately compensates for hand shake. In the low light of the PMA trade show where I looked through them, the view was amazingly bright. Even the high powered 18x50 model offers a Relative Brightness of 7.8. The image is also very sharp, contrasty, and distortion-free, thanks to the use of an aspherical element, a doublet field flattener, and multi-coated Ultra-Low Dispersion objective elements. Though not inexpensive or compact, these IS binocs offer a unique advantage that will certainly be appreciated by some photographers.

Water And Shock Resistance
Waterproof binoculars with body armor have been available for decades, but some new models are smaller, lighter, and not always overly expensive. Celestron makes many binocs of all types, but their 8x32 Noble (with BaK-4 porro prism) is noteworthy (expensive). It's not only waterproof and nitrogen filled, but also focuses to a mere 4 ft. For extreme conditions, the premium-grade Leica Trinovid BN series (with roof prisms) includes a nitrogen filled die-cast aluminum body, O-rings for immersability to 5 meters, plus armoring and extra-durable multi-layer coating (premium-priced).

Even less expensive models are often adequately rugged for most field use. One perfect example is the new Pentax 10x50DCF WP (roof prism) series: 8x32, 8x42, 10x42 (mid-priced to expensive), and, the most recent, the (premium-priced) 10x50, all waterproof models. The nitrogen filled, fully water-shielded construction meets JIS Class 6 standards so it can be submerged to 1 meter; the body is also rubber-coated for protection.

Canon 15x50 IS

The new (expensive) Olympus Magellan line (with BaK-4 roof prisms) includes the 8x42 and 10x42 EXWP I models. They're waterproof and hydrogen filled to eliminate internal condensation. At 23 oz, they're also lightweight for waterproof binocs with such a wide objective lens. Some other waterproof models are mentioned in other sections of this survey. Even in the $100 range you can find some waterproof, nitrogen filled, and rubber-clad binocs, such as the Phoenix 10x25 IR (roof prism) model with ruby-colored "infrared" coating.

Close Focusing
Because binocs are normally used for distant subjects, few models offer extremely close focusing (15-30 ft is common for 10x models). However, for certain subject matter such as butterflies and large birds, you will appreciate closer focusing. Aside from the Celestron mentioned earlier, I found several new (roof prism) models--all higher priced and waterproof/armored--that will focus to less than 7 ft. These include the pro-grade Leica Trin-ovid 10x32 BN (premium-priced; 6.9 ft), Swift's (expensive) Eaglet 7x36 (5.9 ft), and the (premium-priced) Bushnell/Bausch & Lomb 8x42 and 10x42 Elite (5 ft), great for nature observation.

Maximum Light Transmission
Like photographic lenses, some of today's binocs feature improved multi-layer coatings in addition to wide objective lenses. If you're frequently out in early morning or late afternoon, you'll appreciate the extra bright view. Some models can transmit 90 percent or more of the light, an impressive achievement. For example, Fujinon's new SX series (premium-priced) with EBC coating boasts "a brightness factor of 95 percent, 15 percent brighter than most high quality binoculars." The 7x50 to 16x70 line is also waterproof and features wide objectives for a bright view. Swift recently added the (premium-priced) UltraLite 9x63 model to their range with a BaK-4 prism; full multi-coating and an extremely wide objective (with exit pupil of 7mm) that allows for an incredibly bright view.

Phoenix 10x25 IR

The Steiner Nighthunter series--(expensive to premium-priced); ranging from an 8x30 to a 12x56 pair--boasts "more than 95 percent light transmission." According to the tech notes, the German engineers achieved this impressive level with HD lens coating, an inner light absorbing baffle to nearly eliminate internal reflection, and an improved porro prism design.

The "new generation" waterproof Carl Zeiss Victory (roof prism) series also boasts light transmission of "over 90 percent" thanks to the use of special prisms with Carl Zeiss T* multi-coating. This (premium-priced) series includes an 8x40 and 10x40 B T* model plus two with an extremely wide diameter objective lens: the 8x56 and 10x56 B T* for observation before sunrise or after sunset. The latter two weigh over 40 oz and offer an extremely bright view, but the 10x40 B T* (25.7 oz) should meet most low-light needs.

Wide Angle Design
Whenever you want to scan an area, or follow action subjects, you'll appreciate binocs with a wide field of view. For this reason, we're seeing more wide angle models, such as the new Nikon Sportstar III in 8x25 and 10x25 (roof prism) models (under $100). The 8x binocs cover a full 429 ft at 1000 yards, while the 10x model has a 340 ft field of view, impressive for such high power. This is far wider than the specs for Nikon's 8x and 10x Travelite models: 294 ft and 261 ft, respectively. If 7x binocs will meet your needs, check out the Tasco 7x26 (porro prism) Eyemax Super Wide Angle (budget-priced) with a field of view of an amazing 602 ft.

Pentax 10x50DCF

Reduced Size/Weight
Like telephoto lenses, binocs of 8x and higher power can be large and heavy. For hiking and backpacking, you might prefer a compact model that tips the scale at 10 oz or less. Thankfully, several manufacturers have recently made a more serious effort to design smaller/ lighter multi-purpose models. Consider Minolta's (budget-priced) 8x25 and 10x25U COMPACT II (porro prism) binocs; only 4.2x2 x4.2" in size, they weigh less than 9 oz. Celestron's 8x21 (with BaK-4 porro prism) pocket-sized model is a featherweight at 6 oz (under $100).

Water-resistant binocs can be heavy, but Nikon's new Sportstar III (8x25 and 10x25) models weigh only 10.4 oz and are only 4" long (under $100). At the other end of the price spectrum (expensive), Swarovski's watertight Pocket 8x20B and 10x25B (with roof prisms) are in the premium-priced category but weigh only 7.6 oz and 8.1 oz respectively; they fold to a width of 2.2". The lightest of the affordable waterproof, nitrogen filled and armor coated 10x binocs that I found are the (expensive) Brunton 10x25 Eterna (roof prism) at 12.5 oz.

The Overview
These are only a handful of the recently released models, and I have mentioned only the most significant features of each. If you're considering new binoculars, do take some time to research all the specifications of models in the brands that interest you. Look too for special features, such Steiner's greenish-colored objective lens in their new Predator 8x32 (expensive). Designed to filter out green light and to maximize the transmission of red colors, these are said to help animals and birds "pop out of the green background foliage." And if you generally wear eyeglasses or sunglasses, do look for binocs designed with "eye-relief," such as the (waterproof) Carson Optical Even With Glasses models (about $150). These really increase convenience and comfort when viewing. Finally, visit a retail store to try out those within your budget; put them to your eyes and buy the pair that best meet your own needs.

Swift Eaglet 7x36

Binocular Glossary
Although photographers are familiar with lenses, some have difficulty appreciating the finer points of binocular technology. Indeed, some of the terminology and concepts do differ when dealing with these double-barreled optics. Before you begin shopping, consider the following information and recommendations. They can be useful when reviewing the specifications for several models, or the jargon in manufacturers' brochures.

The Numbers: All binocs are designated with a formula such as 8x25. The first number refers to magnification. An 8x25 binocular magnifies the subject eight times. The second number refers to the diameter of the "objective" lens, or front element, so here, the 25 refers to 25mm. The wider the diameter, the greater the light gathering power and the brighter the image. The view through a "fast" 8x50 model is nearly twice as bright as through an 8x35 model and four times as bright as through 8x25 binoculars.

Prisms: Used to fold the light path for a shorter barrel--and to invert the image as in an SLR camera--prisms are standard on all binoculars. The traditional "porro" prism models are a bit bulky but provide good depth perception and a wide field of view. "Roof" prisms (denoted by a straight tube) are light and slim, fairly rugged but more costly to manufacture because of special techniques required to achieve high image quality. Either type can be excellent. Many prisms are made with BK-7 glass but the best (for higher edge sharpness and greater brightness) are usually made with BaK-4 glass.

Carl Zeiss 10x40BT P Victory

Exit Pupil: This is the size of the circle of light that reaches your eye. The larger the exit pupil, the brighter the view and the more effective a model will be in very low light. It can be calculated by dividing the size of the objective lens by the magnification of the binocs (e.g., a 7x50 pair has an exit pupil of 7.1mm). The wider the exit pupil, the more useful the instrument is in low light.

Image Brightness: Manufacturers employ two distinct methods to denote light gathering ability. First is the "Relative Brightness Index." Some full size binocs have higher brightness indexes in the 16 to 18 range while a 7x50 model may have an Index of 51 for an incredibly bright image. Other manufacturers provide data on the "Twilight Factor." An 8x25 model may have a twilight factor of 14.14 while the factor for 7x50 binoculars is 18.71. The higher the factor, the more suitable a model will be in low-light conditions.

Coatings: Like photographic lenses, many binocs' elements are coated with chemical films to maximize light transmission while reducing flare. Note the following definitions. Coated: a single layer on at least one element. Fully coated: a single layer on all elements. Multi-coated: multiple layers on at least one element. Fully multi-coated: multiple layers on all air-to-glass surfaces. The better the coating, the better it will reduce glare and reflection for higher contrast and clarity, plus enhanced light transmission.

Olympus Magellan 8x42 and 10x42 EXWP I

Field Of View (FOV): This is a side-to-side measurement of the actual area visible through a pair of binoculars, when focused at a distance of 1000 yards or meters. The higher the power, the narrower the FOV, of course. The 8x binocs intended for general viewing often have an FOV of 300-375 ft. Some manufacturers provide only the angle of view, with 5-6 being common. Multiply that by 52.5 to get the FOV in feet. Models with an FOV of over 400 ft (or an angle of view of about 8) are particularly useful for scanning a large area or following action subjects.


Fujinon 7x50 SX series

Steiner Nighthunter 8x30

Swarovski Pocket 8x20B

Nikon Sportstar III

Minolta Compact II 8x25, 10x25U

Steiner Predator 8x32


The Brunton Co.
(800) 443-4871
(307) 856-6559
fax: (307) 856-1840

Bushnell/Bausch & Lomb
(800) 423-3537
(913) 752-3400
fax: (913) 752-3539

Canon USA Inc.
(800) 652-2666
(516) 328-5000

Carl Zeiss, Inc.
(804) 530-8300
fax: (804) 530-8311

Carson Optical
(631) 427-6570
fax: (631) 427-6749

Celestron International
(310) 328-9560
(310) 212-5835

Fujinon Optical
(973) 633-5600
fax: (973) 633-5216

Leica Camera Inc.
(201) 767-7500
fax: (201) 767-8666

Minolta Corp.
(800) 808-4888
(201) 825-4000
fax: (201) 423-0590

Nikon Sports Optics
(800) 645-6687
(631) 547-8500
fax: (631) 547-8518

Olympus America Inc.
(631) 844-5321
fax: (631) 844-5262

Pentax Corp.
(800) 877-0155
(303) 728-0212
fax: (303) 790-1131

Phoenix Corp. of America
(516) 764-5890
fax: (516) 764-5970

Pioneer Research (Steiner)
(800) 257-7742
fax: (856) 866-8615

Swarovski Optik
(401) 734-1800

Swift Instruments Inc.
(800) 446-1116
(617) 436-2960
fax: (617) 436-3232

Tasco Worldwide
(954) 252-3600
fax: (954) 252-3705