No 12 X 50's, Please

(This post assumes a basic familiarity with the concepts of magnification and objective lens diameter as depicted by the common mathematical formula associated with all binoculars—8 X 42, 7 X 35, etc. If you need a refresher see “The Optics Formula: An Introduction” elsewhere on this site.)

Recently on a well-known and well-respected optics information website someone asked the following question (edited for clarity): “I have about $100 to spend, and I’ve been looking at both an 8 X 40 and 12 X 50. Which one should I buy?”

Where to begin.

OK. Ever the scrupulously-fair optics information provider, the website answered the question by laying out in meticulous detail the pros and cons of both the 8X and 12X so that the questioner could make an informed purchase decision. 

Here’s the deal, though: there are no “pros” to a 12X binocular. None. (“50” is problematic as well, but that’s for another post).

Yes, the 12X makes whatever it is you’re looking at appear 12 times bigger or closer, but at way too steep a price in terms of image quality and viewer experience. Brightness, field of view, depth of field and image clarity all suffer. 

Buy a 12X binocular and pretty soon you’ll stop using it. Guaranteed.

Bear in mind that while you’re multiplying the image that you’re looking at by 12 times, you’re also multiplying your hand tremor (yes, Nerves-of-Steel Guy, you have hand tremor) and any other bodily movement (heartbeat, breath, robust yodeling, etc) by 12 times as well. So not only can you NOT steady the image enough to get a good look, you’re blurring that image as well, making it extremely unlikely you’ll be able to discern important detail.

And the ability to discern detail is one of the major reasons we buy a binocular.

Hang a standard eye chart on the other side of a large room and you can probably read farther down that chart with a 10X, and maybe even with an 8 or 7X, because of this blurring effect.

The unfortunate truth is this: Mankind has accomplished a lot but we can’t change the fundamental realities of optics. We can, for example, dispense fresh, tasty cupcakes to people from ATM-like machines, but we can’t turn those same people into stable platforms for high-magnification optical viewing devices once they’ve finished their cupcakes. Or ever.

Because. They. Breathe.

Sure, you can mount a 12X on a tripod, but if you’re going to mount an optical instrument on a tripod and then lug it around, you may as well get an even higher magnification spotting scope—not only will it be a much more fulfilling experience, but it’ll look way cool and increase the tripod’s ROI.

Fact is, the very existence of 12X and, god help us all, 15X, binoculars have almost certainly hurt the sales and widespread adoption of binoculars by the general public. The common misconception that “more is better” when it comes to magnification often leads the “unfledged” optics consumer to purchase a glass with too high a magnification for her/his experience level and intended use. 

The result? An unsatisfactory or unpleasant viewing experience—completely devoid of the fun and Wow! factor that a quality full-sized 7X or 8X routinely delivers to its users. 

Which often means one less regular binocular user, one less potential birder, and one less future high-end binocular customer. Oh, and one more spurned plaything gathering dust in a closet.

I’ll make this simple (that’s what I’m here for): For your first and/or primary binocular, stick with 7’s or 8’s, and run away, run far away, from 12’s and anyone who suggests that you buy one. And you can thank me when you see me.

Now, about those “50’s”….