If you plan lots of outdoor activities – from sailing to hiking to watching sports – then a set of binoculars is a must. But, choosing the right binoculars can be tricky. Think carefully about when, where and how you plan to use the binoculars in order to select the perfect combination of features, and avoid paying extra for binocular features you don’t need.
Ideally, always try binoculars before you buy, making sure their weight, size and how comfortable they are to use is right for you.
This binocular buying guide should help to guide you through the process to find the binoculars that will suit your purpose.
Binocular types and price
There are two types of binoculars: roof prism and porro prism designs.
Roof prism binoculars create a modern ‘H’ shape binocular, resulting in a more compact, lightweight binocular, although these tend to be more expensive.
Porro prism binoculars are the traditional ‘W’ shape, with the lenses and eyepieces offset. They result in a wider field of view and tend to be less expensive.
If you’re shopping around for binoculars, it pays to know which features will make a difference to you. The following should help guide you through the most useful binocular features.
This relates to how much larger a distant object will appear when viewed through the lens, compared to the naked eye. Magnification is listed as part of two numbers used to describe binoculars, such as 7x40. The first number, 7x, is the magnification and refers to how much closer an object will appear when viewed through the lens – in this case, seven times closer.
The size of the front lens of a set of binoculars, in millimetres. This lens – or objective – is the largest and heaviest part of a binocular’s optics and has a significant impact on their weight and size. It is listed as the second number used to describe binoculars – in this case, 7x40 binoculars would have an objective size of 40mm.
There are two types of prism system used in binoculars, and they are responsible for showing the image the right way up and keeping them binoculars’ length short. Roof prism systems are less bulky as the prisms overlap, allowing the objective lenses to line up directly with the eyes. Porro prism systems are offset rather than overlap, providing a greater field of view and improved depth perception.
Special coatings are used to increase the brightness and contrast of images, reducing eye strain.
Field of view
How wide a view you see when looking through a set of binoculars. It’s measured by how many metres wide the view is at a distance of 1km, and a rule of thumb is the greater the magnification, the lower the field of view.
Useful for spectacle wearers, eye relief refers to how far away your eyes can be positioned from the binoculars and still see the complete field of view. The greater the distance, the further away your eyes can be positioned.
Focus wheel and diopter ring
A central focusing wheel that allows for each "barrel" to be focused independently to better suit individual eye strength.
Fogproof and waterproof
Using a combination of O-ring seals and replacing the atmosphere inside the binoculars with nitrogen, it’s possible to fully waterproof binoculars and prevent their optics from fogging over.
Listed as a number that shows how bright an object will appear in low light conditions. Our pupils enlarge to 7mm, so anything less than 7mm will reduce evening and night-time viewing. Work out the exit pupil by dividing the objective size by the magnification, so a 7x40 set of binoculars would result in 5.7mm exit pupil.
There are lots of binocular brands, and it’s a good idea to avoid little-known binocular brands or non-optical specialist brands.
Brands such as Nikon, Zeiss, Pentax and Leica are good brands to choose from.
See clearly with image stabilised binoculars
Different types of binoculars suit different types of activities, so deciding how you’ll mainly use your binoculars can help you choose the right set for you.
Casual use binoculars
Ideal for watching sports, carrying on hikes or general outdoor use, a general set of binoculars should be compact, easy to carry and store in a jacket pocket and have a wide field of view so you can keep track of the action. Avoid massive magnification – a 10x magnification should be plenty – and look for extras such as a neck strap.
If you’re a bird watcher or want to get closer to nature, binoculars are essential. Look for at least an 8x magnification with a large objective of 42mm (8x42 binoculars). As you step up magnification, you’ll need to increase the objective measurement as well. A 12x50mm is a good choice – anything larger will demand a tripod.
Theatre and show binoculars
While somewhat out of fashion, if you’re a long way from the stage a discreet set of binoculars are useful. Look for roof prism binoculars with the ‘H’ shape and that are small enough to stow in an evening bag. You won’t need more tha`n 5x zoom and a 30mm objective (5x30 binoculars).
If you’re planning on sailing or boating, avoid higher magnifications and ensure double coating and rubber casing. Binoculars should be waterproof. Opt for a large objective lens of at least 42mm, with magnification limited to 7x (7x42 binoculars).
For binoculars that you’ll mainly use on holiday or while touring, choose a lightweight pair that are easy to carry and with rugged rubber armour. Choose a set with around a 8x magnification and as large an objective lens as possible while still being portable. As a bonus, look for an included pouch or carry case, ideally with belt loop.