Critical Focus on Binoculars!

Critical Focus on Binoculars!



Binoculars have always been a profitable market niche for photo-imaging retailers. Because photo enthusiasts demand fine optics for their cameras, they’re logical candidates for acquiring high-performance mid and upper tier binoculars. By targeting customers that identify themselves as travelers, outdoor buffs, hikers, sports enthusiasts, bird-watchers or hunters that pursue wildlife with a camera or a rifle, you can expand their visual observation horizons while bolstering your bottom line. 

Indeed, many dealers have reported that consumers who purchase high-end binoculars frequently acquire long telephoto and tele-zoom lenses or upgrade their DSLRs shortly thereafter—a double whammy that can definitely be encouraged by strategic product placement, demos and building customer relationships. 

Consumers are laser focused on value, and that’s why they’re gravitating toward high-quality binoculars that they see as long-term investments. That’s why many retailers tell us that selling high-performance binoculars in the $300–$600 class is now a lot easier than selling cheapie units for $100 and under, once the mainstay of the market. Luxury binoculars in the $2,000 class, from companies like Zeiss and Leica, sold so briskly in 2010 that some models were in short supply—factors that clearly motivated Nikon to jump into the top-price-and-quality segment for the first time.

What’s the best strategy for upgrading binocular purchases? Have your customers look though a high-quality binocular and compare it with a glass of middling performance and they’ll unhesitatingly choose the better pair. In this golden age of binoculars, with recent remarkable advances in optical technology, some consumers can actually afford medium-price binoculars that deliver a level of performance and quality construction that rivals premium-priced models of the recent past. 

There’s also a natural brand-identity crossover for photo enthusiasts since so many fine binoculars carry familiar photographic names like Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, ProMaster, Minox, Leica and Zeiss. However, dealers should not overlook other established brands, such as Bushnell, Leupold, Celestron, Carson, Vortex and Swarovski—all mainstays among the camping, hunting and outdoor set.

After talking with industry experts, two overarching trends came into clear focus. The first, already mentioned, is the flight to quality, as consumers perceive binoculars as long-term investments rather than as impulse purchases. The second: straight-line roof prism binoculars continue to dominate the market, outselling porro prism binoculars by a hefty margin. And this points to a few other key factors: style, compactness, ergonomics and lightweight construction are more important than ever to today’s buyers. 

Other upmarket trends include models in camouflage finish as well as true military and military-style binoculars, all of which appeal to those engaged in or attracted by the military lifestyle.

Our annual look at sport optics would not be complete without a brief rundown of cool models from major manufacturers, selected by a longtime binocular aficionado—yours truly. Many of them are genuinely new, and all offer a level of features and performance sure to delight serious photo enthusiasts.

Enticing Binoculars for 2011

Pentax 9×32 DCF BC and 9×42 DCF BR. These new cool-looking, heavy-duty roof prism binoculars feature high-performance optics, waterproof construction that allows freshwater rinsing, and a compact, ergonomic, lightweight open-bridge design optimized for outdoor applications. Other features: shock-resistant nitrogen-filled bodies made of durable glass-fiber-reinforced engineering plastic; full multicoating and phase coating; helicoid-type extendable eyepieces; rain-shielding eyepiece cups; and long eye relief for eyeglass wearers. MSRPs: 9×32 DCF BC, $299; 9×42 DCF BR, $349.

Bushnell Fusion 1600 ARC. The first binoculars with a built-in laser rangefinder to be offered at under $1,000, these ruggedly attractive units feature BaK-4 roof prisms, a built-in battery life indicator, twist-up eyepieces and fully multicoated optics with RainGuard HD coating. They’re also fully waterproof and submersible to IPX7 standards. The laser rangefinder, based on Angle Range Compensating (ARC) technology, can measure distances from 10–1,600 yards, and the display employs Vivid Display technology for improved visibility and contrast in low light. Hunters can use the exclusive VSI mode to select specific sighting distances to suit their shooting styles. 10×42, $899; 12×50, $999.99.

Canon 8×25 IS. This distinctive looking binocular is still (after nearly a decade of success) the smallest image-stabilized unit on the market. Featuring multicoated lead-free Canon glass optics and Canon’s ingenious Tilt Mechanism Image-Stabilization technology to counteract shake and provide clearer viewing without eyestrain, it measures only 4.7×5.4×2.4 inches and weighs 17.3 ounces. $299.99.

Nikon EDG. This new ultra-premium line of binoculars is designed to compete with the top-tier European brands. All five feature extra-low dispersion Nikon ED glass, dielectric high-reflection multilayer prism coatings for optimum light transmission, a field-flattener lens system and waterproof, fogproof construction. The redesigned chassis features a short bridge style for easy handling, protective rubber armor, a unique multifunction central focus/diopter adjustment knob, long eye relief and ergonomically contoured detachable eyecups to block peripheral light. 7×42, $2,099.95; 8×42, $2,199.95; 10×42, $2,299.95; 8×32, $1,999.95; 10×32, $2,099.95.

Leica Geovid HD Rangefinders. These ultra-premium, high-performance binoculars incorporate built-in laser rangefinders that read out in meters or yards. The Geovid HD 10×42 ($2,399) and 15×56 ($2,999) also feature the new HighLux, HLS prism coating system, and HDC multilayered lens coatings for bright, high-resolution viewing, plus AquaDura hydrophobic lens coatings to repel water and grime. All new HD Geovid Rangefinders employ fluorite lenses for perfect color neutrality, and they are submersible to a depth of 16.5 feet.

ProMaster Infinity EL-X ED. Offering an attractive combination of high performance and value, they’re available in 8×42 and 10×42 sizes, both featuring ED glass, BaK-4 phase-coated roof prisms, high-transmission internal multicoatings and RepellaMax external coatings to minimize the effects of dust and moisture. They focus down to 6.56 feet, feature rugged, weatherproof, waterproof, nitrogen-filled construction and carry a no-fault lifetime warranty. 8×42, $599.99; 10×42, $699.99.

Carson 3D Series. Designed for exceptional user comfort with thumb grooves, textured surfaces and excellent ergonomics, these new roof prism binoculars all feature high-definition optical coatings, BaK-4 prisms, full multicoating and phase coating and nitrogen-filled, O-ring sealed construction for high water and fog resistance. All come equipped with a shock-resistant BinoArmor deluxe case wrap. 8×32, $340; 8×42, $350; 10×42, $360; 10×50, $380.

Vortex Razor HD. Flagship of the Vortex brand, this stylish, high-end roof prism line is aimed at sophisticated hunters and bird-watchers. All models feature hand-selected HD (high density) extra-low dispersion glass, full multicoating with Vortex’s proprietary XR process, scratch-resistant Armor Tek on exterior surfaces, O-ring sealed waterproof/fogproof argon-gas-purged construction, phase-corrected prisms, open-hinge lightweight magnesium chassis and rubber armoring. They also provide a wide range of positive eye-relief settings, and a locking center diopter control. 8×42, $1,279; 10×42, $1,299; 8.5×50, $1,379; 10×50, $1,389; 12×50, $1,399.

Leupold BX-3 Mojave 10×42. Like all members of the Leupold BX-3 line this ruggedly armor-coated handsome roof prism unit is waterproof and built to withstand rugged field conditions. It features lightweight open-bridge construction, fully multicoated lenses and cold-mirror-coated BaK-4 prisms for optimal brightness, resolution and low-light performance, plus ample eye relief for eyeglass wearers. $399.99 in black; $419.99 in camouflage finish. Other models: 8×42 to 12×50: $379.99–$439.99.

Minox BV II 10×42 BR. Designed to provide an outstanding price/performance ratio, this sleek, ergonomic, roof prism model features multicoatings on all elements, phase-corrected prisms, a sturdy aluminum body with black rubber (NBR) covering for a sure grip, and nitrogen filling for corrosion resistance and antifogging. It provides extended eye relief, a large exit pupil and a high twilight factor for enhanced low-light capability, and has click-stop, twist-up eyecups. $305. 

Zeiss Victory FL T*. These classically styled Carl Zeiss binoculars feature special fluoride glass with exceptionally low dispersion for superior chromatic correction, multilayer T* and P* phase coatings for ultra-high light transmission, wide-angle eyepieces for an exceptional field of view and special Abbe-Konig or Schmidt Pechan prisms with Zeiss Dialectric coatings to erect the image. Other features: nitrogen-filled construction; click-stopped, lockable screw-out eyecups; magnesium lens barrels; fiber-reinforced polymer housings; and an enclosed bridge design with steel center shaft for rugged durability. 8×32, $1,849.99. 




Binocular Terminology: What Does It All Mean?

Angle of view: The angle between the left- and right-hand edges of the field of view at 1,000 yards, measured from the binoculars’ point of view. 

Apparent angle of view: This is simply the angle of view with the binoculars’ magnification figured in. For a 10x magnification and a 5° angle of view, the apparent angle of view would be 50 degrees.

Brightness index: The square of the exit pupil diameter. A binocular with a 4mm exit pupil has a brightness index of 16. It’s a popular way to measure the comparative brightness of an instrument.

BaK-4 glass: A high-quality, high-density barium crown glass used in prisms to minimize internal light scattering, thereby yielding sharper images. Fine quality binoculars generally use BaK-4 glass instead of lower quality BaK-7.

Center-focus binoculars: Binoculars that use a central focus-control mechanism to allow both eyepieces to be adjusted simultaneously for quick focusing. Virtually all general-purpose binoculars now have this feature.

Close focus: The ability of a binocular to focus closer than the “average” close distance of about 10 feet. A low close-focus number is useful when viewing small objects such as butterflies.

Coatings: All modern binoculars have antireflection coatings on lenses and prisms, but multicoating and other complex coating methods reduce internal reflections and increase light transmission for a brighter view. Many companies claim their proprietary coating systems enhance performance. For more on coatings see: Phase correction.

Diopter adjuster: A separate adjuster on one eyepiece (usually the right) that allows the user to compensate for the difference between eyes. It’s a feature of all better-quality binoculars.

Exit pupil: The point at which all the light rays passing through the binoculars exit through the eyepiece. To calculate the exit pupil, divide the diameter of the objective lens by the magnification. For example with an 8×40 binocular, the exit pupil is 40 over 8, which equals 5mm. A large exit pupil is important for low-light viewing.

Eye relief: The distance behind the ocular lens at which the image is projected to its focal point—it varies from about 5mm to 23mm. The greater the eye relief, the easier it is for eyeglass wearers to see the entire field.

Field of view: The diameter of the circular viewing field seen through a binocular. It’s usually listed on the binocular, either in degrees or feet, measured at 1,000 yards. One degree equals 52.5 feet over 1,000 yards.

Full-size binoculars: These have large objective (front) lenses that provide better light-gathering ability than a compact binocular with the same magnification, e.g., an 8×42 full-size binocular is much brighter than a compact 8×25.

Image stabilization: An advanced feature designed to compensate for shake when holding a binocular, a significant factor with binoculars of 10x or greater magnification, or when they’re used aboard a boat or helicopter.

Interpupillary distance: The distance between the viewer’s pupils, which can be accommodated by adjusting the barrels of the binocular inward or outward. Often listed as a range, e.g., ID 56–72, referring to the minimum and maximum distances available, in millimeters. 

Magnification: Also called power, it’s the first number listed in basic binocular specs, e.g., 8×42. An 8x or 8-power binocular will magnify the image eight times, so an object that’s 800 feet away will appear as if it were only 100 feet away.

Nitrogen purging: The process of replacing the air within a binocular with nitrogen, to prevent mold, mildew or acid etching of lenses. It also helps prevent fogging due to the moisture in atmospheric air.

Objective lens: The lens at the front end of the binocular away from the eye that gathers the light presented to the eye. The diameter of the objective lens is the second number listed in binocular specs; a 10×42 binocular has 42mm–diameter objective lenses.

Ocular lens: The lens in the eyepiece. It’s usually smaller than the objective lens except in the case of some roof prism binoculars.

Porro prism binoculars: These have the classic binocular appearance with body extending wide of the eyepieces due to the offset prisms used for image erecting. Said to provide better 3D viewing.

Phase correction: The application of special coatings to bring the two out-of-phase light beams produced by roof prism binoculars back into phase, thus increasing brightness, contrast, resolution and color fidelity.

Relative brightness: A number indicating the size of the light shaft that reaches the eyes. Brightness factors up to 10 are okay for daylight use; figures from 10–16 are adequate for dusk or cloudy days, 25–50 for nighttime use.

Roof prism binoculars: These are generally more compact, with a slimmer body design, since their image-erecting prisms are lined up. Often more costly, roof prism binoculars are said to provide superior structural rigidity.

Twilight factor: Another factor used in comparing low-light performance, it’s calculated by multiplying the magnification by the objective lens diameter and finding the square root of the result. For example, an 8×58 binocular has a twilight factor of 21.2, very good for low-light viewing, but an 8×30 has a twilight factor of 15.5, less suitable for low-light use.