Group Test: Binoculars

During our recent visit to the RSPB nature reserve at Arne for our Lowepro Field Station review we took the time to group test some binoculars. Keeping with the Spring Watch theme we wanted to find out how much you really had to spend to get a top quality pair of bino’s.

Overview:

What do you need to look for in a pair of binoculars? To answer this seemingly innocent question is quite the task. In short, it all depends on what you want to do. For our test we were looking for a pair suitable for bird watching in evening light. The most widely regarded bino’s for this task are a good pair of 8×42’s.

All binoculars will have 2 numbers somewhere in their title; 8×42, 7×32, 15×50’s are all available from a variety of manufacturers. The first digital is our magnification, or how much closer our subject will apear to us. For our purpose we chose 3 8x magnifiction binoculars, meaning a bird will appear 1/8th of it’s distance away from us. Much more and we run the risk of not being able to hold the binoculars steady (try hand-holding an 800mm lens and getting blur free photographs!), likewise much less and we’re not going to be able to see what’s there. The second figure denotes the diameter of lens opening. The bigger the brighter. 15-20mm lenses work fine in brilliant sunlight and create a nice compact pair of binoculars, for shaded and woodland areas, or conditions less fair, then bigger lenses are required. Bring on the 42’s then!

There is a couple of other technical bits you can consider when choosing binoculars. If you think you might want a higher magnification you have to be prepared for a much shallower depth of field. Working in the same way as telephoto lenses do; the higher the magnification the more critical focus will be and the more time you will spend on the focus dial. Smaller lenses will provide a thinner field of view, meaning you’re going to be loosing some of the peripheral vision you rely on to locate subjects.

We’ve chosen to test 3 similar pairs of binoculars ranging from 8×32 – 8×42. We’ve also chosen 3 different price points, the £100-ish, £200-ish and over £300.00 range. Here’s what we took;

Opticron Trailfinder II 8×42 (£119.00 in stock at Castle Cameras)

RSPB 8×32 WDG (£189.00 in stock at Castle Cameras)

Steiner Skyhawk Pro 8×42 (£349.00 in stock at Castle Cameras)

Real world test:

3 pairs of binoculars. 3 distinct price ranges. 3 people who are by no means top birdwatchers. 1 beautiful summer evening in Dorset. So we were lucky with the weather, and with the variety of wildlife out and about on this particular evening. First up; the RSPB 8×32 WPG’s.

Th RSPB binoculars boasted the smallest lenses therefore the smallest field of view and let the least light in. With this in mind the binoculars still performed admirably. The depth of field is remarkably good on these, we found no trouble located birds and even snapped a quick glimpse of a Woodpecker hammering away before it took flight. We did find out however that whilst these binoculars were the smallest on test they couldn’t quite close up enough for our petite friend. This is one of the biggest factors when choosing binoculars; try a pair and make sure they FIT.

Despite being the middle of the range, just sub £200.00, binocular we took there was the general consensus that a bigger lens would have been good and that they weren’t holding up to the other 2 pairs.

Moving on to the Steiner Skyhawk 8×42 Pro’s. These are a whopping £349.00 but bring with them heaps of German ingenuity and some rather technical bits of glass. The Steiners pride themselves on their ruggedness, their handling and their ability to focus nice and close. This all turned out to be true. The binoculars handle brilliantly, the eye cups shield your peripheral vision and keep you focused through the lenses. There are 2 thumb shaped cutouts that keep your hands in one place and the binoculars feel perfectly balanced with the focus knob quick and easy to find.

So what are you paying the extra for? Steiner use eco-glass in their wildlife bin’s, ensuring the refining process takes place without using arsenic or other heavy metals. They utilise a 2 way Nitrogen pressure system to prevent fogging and eliminate condensation. Steiner also use high-contrast-optics in their Skyhawk Pro range that make use of all the latest in lens coating technology. All of this and a 10 year warranty.

Before you go leaping for your wallet though there are a few drawbacks; if, like me, you wear glasses then you can’t make use of the enhanced eyecups, they simply become annoying after a while.

The Opticron Trailfinder II 8×42 as recommended by Dave Lindo; The Urban Birder. We were surprised when we first picked these binoculars up, they carry the weight and features of many binoculars that are priced higher, and they feel very reassured. The binoculars are fairly light weight, we won’t need to hit the gym to use them, whilst still offering a firm and rubberised coating that sits neatly in the hand. Focusing was remarkably quick and very accurate with their excellent depth of field and wide viewing angle.

Optical quality was brilliant. The image was bright in the eye and we had no problem with the falling sun. Contrast was brilliant, possibly night quite as high as the Steiners but certainly a step above the RSPB. Some chromatic aberration was apparent when viewing into sunlight but this didn’t distract from what we were doing.

Summary:

Overall the victory belongs to the Opticron Trailfinder’s. Turns out that David Lindo knows his stuff. The list of good things is just too long to quarrel with.

The quality and feel of the Steiners is brilliant and if you can justify the price then the level of comfort and enhance technical features could easily sway you.

RSPB have put out a really good little pair of binoculars. Unfortunately though, lacking some of the quality found in the other 2 pairs in favour of a compact body. Perfect for the lady in your life or getting a young family member into birding as well as providing that feel good factor of supporting the RSPB.

If you’re going in for a new pair of binoculars this Spring then you should really pop in and  check out the Opticron Trailfinder’s. They are so good I plan on getting my Dad a pair for fathers day.

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