Binoculars have been about in one form or another since the 17th century and while they’ve been honed and refined as lens technology has improved, they have remained more-or-less unaltered for well over three hundred years.
This despite the fact that traditional binoculars have one serious limitation: As the magnification increases it becomes harder and harder to keep the image still in the eyepiece.
So while a pair that magnifies the image by a factor of eight can be handheld relatively easily, anything more powerful will generally need to be supported by a tripod, monopod or braced against a rigid surface to prevent a serious case of the shakes no matter how steady your hands are.
This is fine but it does rather take the spontaneity out of using a pair if you need to lug a tripod along with you every time you take them with you. The reality is that you’ll just leave them at home most of the time.
How to choose the best binoculars
However, there is a solution. By using the same technology as you find in image stabilised camera lenses, manufacturers like Canon, Nikon and Fuji have developed binoculars that can magnify an image up to 15 times yet still be handheld.
This means that bird watchers can sling a pair around their neck on even the shortest walk without having to worry about hauling a tripod along too.
Image stabilisation also helps when you want to use binoculars on the move; whether you are on a boat, train or car, the image remains rock-steady no matter how much you are being jolted around.
And, of course, if your hands aren’t as steady as they used to be, image stabilised binoculars could enable you to continue with a lifetime hobby that might otherwise have to be abandoned.
Could your hands be showing signs of underlying health conditions?
The three mainstream manufacturers are Nikon, Canon, and Fujinon, all of whom offer a range of magnification strengths (the first figure) and lens sizes (the last figure; generally the larger the second number, the more light they let in increasing their usefulness in low-light conditions).
The fantastically named Nikon’s StabilEyes range incorporates three models with magnifications ranging from 12x32, 16x32, and 14x40, with price points starting at around £1,000. The Nikon range is completely waterproof.
Canon’s range comprises six models covering 8x25, 10x30, 10x42, 12x36, 15x50, and 18x50. Only the most expensive Canon binoculars are waterproof (marked WP), while the mid-price ones are merely suitable for use in all weathers (AW) rather than being totally waterproof. The cheapest models aren’t sealed and so aren’t suitable for use when it is raining.
Fujinon’s Techno-Stabi binoculars come in either 12x32 or 14x40 and are remarkably similar to the Nikon equivalents.
Choosing the best binocular features
How do I use them?
All three manufacturers’ binoculars can be used with the image stabilisation turned on or off. With it turned off they function as a standard pair of binoculars and with it on they stabilise the image, making it much clearer than would otherwise be possible.
Some come with a two-position switch that alters the stabilisation depending on whether you are on land or water; all will emit a low whine as the gimbals and gyroscopes do their work.
Do they really work?
Yes. While the technology is relatively old (the basic design and technology is at least a decade old) it is incredibly effective at transforming a shaky, hard-to-read image into something rock-steady and much less tiring to watch.
There are plenty of image stabilised camera lenses and binoculars giving sterling service after ten years or more, so the mechanicals are well proven and tough enough to withstand even the hardest use.
Not for nothing are they popular with servicemen and women serving aboard in some of the harshest conditions on earth.
Is there anything else I need to know?
Replaceable AA batteries power the image stabilisation system, which means that you should be able to source replacements easily no matter where in the world your travels take you.
Some also offer the option of a 12V or 240V external power supply but cheap and readily available batteries will be the best choice for most of us.
Bird watching: how to get started
The Canon 18x50 binoculars are ridiculously powerful and the image stabilisation works well. However, their ability to stabilise an image is more limited than either of the other manufacturers and some users report that the image is slightly ‘soft’ with the image stabilisation turned on.
On a more positive note, there are plenty available both new and secondhand. Prices start at around £650 for a used pair and £1,000 for a new pair.
Fujinon has an excellent reputation but its binoculars are rarer than either Nikon’s or Canon’s so the price is correspondingly higher and secondhand models are almost impossible to find.
Nikon’s 14x40 binoculars enjoy a peerless reputation and are widely held to be sharper than the Canon 15x50 model, its nearest competitor after the Fujinons. They aren’t as common as the Canons, so used models are harder to find but they can be bought new for as little as £800.
For me the Nikon’s waterproofing, slightly sharper image and price make them my choice but the reality is that any of the three would make a great addition to your birding or nature-watching kit.
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