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Binoculars Q & A: Mike Freiberg

by Bryony Angell

Many fans of Seattle Audubon are also serious birders (or bird-watchers), and with birding comes binoculars and other optics that enhance the experience and discovery of birds in the field. But what optics are best for you?

To answer this, the Seattle Audubon Nature Shop recently hosted Nikon sales rep Mike Freiberg for an optics workshop to share how-tos for choosing the best pair of binoculars or scope for birding, whether you are a backyard or world traveling birder.

While he spoke specifically to the Nikon line of optics, the information he shared could be used for any brand of optics carried in the Nature Shop. In addition to Nikon, The Shop carries Pentax, Swarovski, Vortex, Zeiss and Kowa optics. Nature Shop volunteers are trained by Shop staff to advise customers about optics the shops carries, and how to select what is best for you and your budget.

The below Q&A is a gathering of the information Mike shared, and focuses on binoculars, the most affordable entry level optic accessory for birding.


I notice there are two designs for binoculars. Which is better for birding?

Freiberg:  The old style of binocular--called a porro prism--uses a lot of glass and is therefore heavier. It’s the more old fashioned-looking binocular with the offset barrel. Nowadays, manufacturers are putting out straight barrel binoculars--or roof prism--which are lighter weight, more durable and compact than the porro prism. The market simply demanded it.

The Nature Shop only carries the roof prism binoculars; they don’t even sell the porro prism style, even though it is available on the market. Straight barrel are ideal for birding because they are lightweight, easy to hold for focusing, and compact for travel.


Are straight barrel binoculars more expensive?

Freiberg: No, prices range widely among binoculars, in fact. Nikon’s straight barrels start at under $100 (the shop also carries Vortex Solo, which are $49.95).


What do the numbers mean on a pair of binocs?

Freiberg: The numbers on the center dial of a pair of binocs tell you three things.

The first number--usually an 8, 10 --tells you the magnification of the objects in your field of view. If the number is an 8, for instance, the object will appear eight times closer or larger in your frame. Most Nikons have a close focus starting at 5 feet.

The second number--30 or 42, for instance--is the amount of light that the binoculars let in. The larger the number, the more light is being let in. You want to remember that the natural rule in magnification is to lose light the closer you zoom in. So if you want to maintain maximal light while having larger magnification, you will need a larger number for light.

The third number--5 to 6.5--is the percentage out of 365 degrees field of view. Each degree is worth a foot in your field of view, and anything over 6 is considered a wide field of view. Why is it important for birders to have a wide angle? For flight--you want to keep the bird in your frame as it flies.

So what should a customer look for when buying a pair of optics? What are your top three tips?

Freiberg: Quality glass, fit, and trying out the binoculars on a typical day for your region that allows you to get a feel for what using them in the field will be like.

Quality glass: Look for “ED” glass in a pair of binoculars. “ED” means extra-low dispersion. ED glass corrects for chromatic aberration, so you don’t see one color dominate over another. ED glass provides images of superior contrast and sharp resolution. It can even correct for backlighting in some situations.

Fit: Eye relief and reducing vignetting (the black edges around the field of view) with the binocs' center hinge are the two things you want to focus on when trying out binoculars.

Eye relief is the distance of your eye in millimeters from the lens glass which still allows the full field of view. You want at least 14 mm of eye relief from the lens glass. The eye cups (the rubber surrounds along the lenses) allow you to get that distance. If you wear eyeglasses, you want to have the eye cups down, as your glasses will provide the needed distance.

You can reduce vignetting and get the clearest field of view by adjusting the interpupillary distance (the distance apart of your eyes) on the binoculars by swinging the bridge in and out. Vignetting is a common complaint and 90 percent of the time it can be played around with functions not yet matched to your eyes. Find your own eye relief on a pair of binoculars--it will be personalized to you.

Best test scenario: Try out a pair of binoculars in an environment that is similar to where you will use them, if you can. The light in the PNW is flat and gray most of the year. Larger binocs will create more contrast and let in more light. When looking through a test pair, look for high contrast outdoor features, like the veins on leaves, or details on bark or treetops in the distance. If you can pick out the details, that is ideal.


Once you have decided on a pair, what’s the best way to make the most out of them? 

Freiberg: Practice with your binocs, and hold them correctly. Once you’ve found the right setting for your eye cups, use your index finger to focus with the center wheel. Keep your elbows in for stability, using your dominant hand to hold the binocs, and your fingertips for focusing.

Also, when purchasing, see if your binocs come with a warranty. Nikon offers a lifetime, no fault warranty. You can send any pair back to Nikon for repair (you only pay shipping to Nikon [The Nature Shop will facilitate the process and provide loaner binoculars as needed – ED]), and we repair and ship back for no additional cost. Having this safeguard protects your investment, because not every optic manufacturer offers this service.

Visit The Nature Shop for a curated selection of the best binoculars for birding, chosen with key criteria in mind for birders: eye relief, field-of-view, close focus, and optical quality per dollar.  Purchase a pair of Nikon Monarch 5s or 7s (best-sellers and recommended by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), and get a free Nikon backpack. Hurry, while supplies last!


This post has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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