Reviewing Binoculars

Posted on

What I have found after handling many binoculars of the same general type — like in my reviews of 8x32s — is that the ergonomics makes a huge difference.  By ergonomics, I mean how it fits in your and and how it fits in your face.  In this post, I’ll share some thoughts on what this means for reviewing and what it means for someone reading binocular reviews.   The net effect is that one can use reviews to help eliminate some choices with known, objectively verifiable conditions, but no review can tell you how a particular pair will fit in your hand or fit on your face.

How a binocular fits in your hand will come down to a few factors.  One is weight and balance, one is lens barrel diameter, and one is the grip especially related to where the lens strap eyelets are. 

A well-balanced binocular will not feel heavy in the objective (front) lens.  It will sit evenly in your grip and not tire you out with a heavy front torque. 

The barrel diameter is largely determined by the objective size (e.g. x20, x32, x42), but even for the same size two models can vary by a substantial amount based on the frame and armoring.  Even a small difference can make one model feel more compact.

A binocular influences grip in the armoring material, contouring, and the hinge design.  Some binoculars are slick metal or composite, some are leather, some are rubber, some are sticky rubber.  You will need to try them and see what works for you — just remember that one brand’s rubber might feel very different than brand’s.  Some binoculars have contouring, especially for the thumb placement.  This will, again, be particular to your hand so you need to feel it.  I have larger hands and find open-hinge designs work best for me.  It can be either a single smaller hinge or a split hinge.  Even in 8×32, I find a split-hinge works best for me because a single hinge usually forces my thumb saddle up into the strap eyelet.  

Some aspects of the optics can be measured objectively and will usually be true for everyone who looks through it.  Sharpness and center-weighted sweet spots are two examples.  Chromatic aberrations (CA) is another example, though some people’s eyes are more sensitive to it and what one person sees another might not. 

Glare, flare, and blackouts are, to different degrees, subjective.  Some lens designs just have more glare and flare — where looking at something near a light source causes ghosts or artifacts or a haze.  Those are properties that most everyone would see.  Some ergonomic factors can also influence them. If you need to hold the eye cups a bit away from your eyes or twiddle often with the inter-pupil distance (IPD), I find that can increase the appearance of flare and blackouts.  Blackouts are when the view in one or both eyes blackouts with a dark circle.  Sometimes it is causes by the eye relief (ER) being too long or too short.  Sometimes it is due to an incorrect IPD.  Sometimes it is because your pupil does not align well with the center axis of a lens.  Blackouts can be highly subjective, where one person will get them badly and another person will not have much of a problem with it.

There are a few other things to look at: does the focuser turn the way you expect, and is there play in the focuser.  Some focusers turn clockwise to go out and some turn the other way.  I find it frustrating when one of my binoculars goes the “wrong” way.  Some focusers will be sloppy and difficult to achieve sharp focus, while others might have a little “play” when reversing focus direction.  A high-quality pair of binoculars should not have either of those.  

The takeaway is that you can read reviews all day, but you will never know if one works for you.    Everyone’s face and hands are different.  Here is what I recommend you do.  Pick your price point, then make a list of all the makes and models that fit into it.  Include things like field of view (FoV) and weight, then exclude any that do not meet your criteria, such as too heavy or too narrow a view.  You could also throw out models that trusted reviews say have poor sharpness or high CA.  With what is left, order them all from one or more online retailers that have a good return policy and try them out side-by-side (remember to be careful, do not unwrap things like the straps, keep the packaging straight between the models and so forth).  Online retailers make money by not having a storefront in your town, and the cost is they take returns.  Use that to your advantage!

Use them in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening.  Look at very close things (if you use them for flowers and insects), mid-distance, and far-distance.  Try to track some birds.  Look at things near light sources (but not at the sun!).  Give yourself a few days with them, then make your decision.  You will probably surprise yourself and pick a brand you were not originally thinking of.