Gimmick Free Binoculars Part 2

In the previous post I laid out the case for simplicity with your optics purchase—avoiding dubious “add-ons” that more often than not get in the way of your viewing experience. Now let’s take a closer look at a few of the more popular “features” that you would do well to avoid:

Zoom (or continuous variable magnification)

You would assume that the ability to zoom in (from 8x to 24x, for example), to get an even closer look at your subject, would be a handy addition to an optical instrument—and manufacturers have responded to that logical assumption by providing numerous zoom binocular models which you’ll see on any visit to an online optics emporium. What you won’t see is a zoom model from any of the Big 3 high-end guys—Zeiss, Leica or Swarovski—and that should tell you something. Zoom binoculars are rife with optical downsides caused by the mechanical requirements of zooming, rendering them unacceptable to manufacturers with impeccable optical standards. With a zoom the field of view is invariably narrow even at the lower end of its magnification range, and by definition gets narrower still as you zoom in (making it likely you’ll use the binocular mostly on the lower setting). Overall the optical quality suffers by the additional glass elements required for zooming (more glass surfaces for light to pass through) and so does the all-important weight. Zoom all the way in and yes, you’ll see an apparently larger and closer…something, but it’ll be blurry, dark, and not very satisfying. Trust me, skip the zoom.

Image Stabilization

Image-stabilized (IS) binoculars are bafflingly popular and will likely remain so regardless of any efforts to discourage their use. I’ll admit the idea is appealing: make a binocular with a higher magnification than a pair of hands can reasonably keep steady, push a button and presto! The inescapably shaky image caused by the high-magnification of hand tremor is now locked and…stabilized! What could be wrong with that?

Plenty, unfortunately. While there have been some improvements over the years, IS binoculars tend to be bulky, unwieldy and heavier than compatible non-IS models—not the kind of thing you’d want to take with you for a day in the field. Plus the IS feature runs with the help of batteries (usually 2 AA) and is a real battery hog and thus a significant additional expense over the life of the optic. So not only do you have to carry a heavier binocular, you have to also bring some spare batteries.

Again, when image stabilization is added to a binocular something has to be taken away to keep it affordable—meaning that manufacturers spend money on IS and NOT on quality optical glass. The result is that the image stabilization works like a charm, but the image being stabilized is inferior to comparable binoculars. This may be acceptable for marine and astronomical applications but for birding and other nature observation where getting a bright, sharp image is critical you’re better off being your own (battery-free!) image stabilizer.

Digital Camera Binocular

I love binoculars and I love digital cameras (I’m not much of a photographer—the camera in my iPhone 6 is good enough for me!) I love espresso too, but I wouldn’t recommend a bino-espresso maker combo, and as far as I’m concerned a digital camera binocular makes just as much sense. 

Which is not to say you can’t find bino/camera combos—there are plenty of them out there, a response to ongoing consumer demand because it seems like it would be a good idea to shoot a photo of what you’re looking at through a binocular.

Oh, but that’s not what you’re doing with the current crop of digital camera binoculars. Each component of this ill-advised optical hybrid uses its own lens, so what you see is not what you get. In addition, from what I’ve seen you’re getting the worst of both worlds—an inferior camera awkwardly straddling a substandard binocular, giving you a dreary view and mediocre photos. Can you tell I’m not a fan?

Obviously the better way to go is to buy the binocular and camera separately, allowing you to upgrade either one individually as your circumstances and finances warrant. If you still insist on combining the two, there are devices on the market that enable you to attach a smartphone-with-camera to a binocular—though why you would want to I have no idea.