Gear Report: How to Choose the Best Binoculars

Which binoculars are the best?  That depends.  We guide you through the process and let you know what we decided.

Every so often, we take a break from profiling a travel destination to share with our readers a piece of gear we have come across that, in our opinion, is the best one for the job.   We receive no compensation from the manufacturers, and we tell it like it is.

This time, our recent safari to Africa provided us with a need to acquire binoculars.  And by need, we mean that every safari goer really needs his or her own pair of binoculars.  No sharing!  There are just too many sights, many of which last only seconds, that you do not want to miss while waiting for your companion to hand them over.  Or maybe you are not planning a safari but would like to participate in another activity such as bird watching, etc.  If so, read on.

The features to look for in a pair of binoculars include size, magnification, brightness, field of view, eye relief, and durability.

Size:  We don’t recommend compact binoculars for any serious use – – they are just too uncomfortable to hold for long periods.  Get the full size model; an additional advantage of full size is the brightness as discussed below.

Magnification:  8x or 10x is all you need for most recreational uses.  Any more than that, and hand unsteadiness results in a shaky image for the average person.

Brightness:  The brightness of the image you see is important, and becomes a factor mainly in low-light situations like viewing at dawn or dusk.  The size of the front (objective) lens correlates with how much light is captured.  42mm diameter is in the sweet spot between too big and heavy, and too small to capture enough light.  The prism type determines how much light is lost, and how much is transmitted through to the image you see.  Avoid binoculars with porro prism configurations, and spend a bit more on ones with roof prism design.  Optical coatings on the lenses also limit light loss, and are a desirable feature.

Field of view:  The width of the image you see, typically reported at 1000 yards.  More is better, especially for fast-moving subjects.

Eye relief:  This is the distance from the back lens to your eye.  Most binoculars have adjustable cups for use with or without glasses.  If you are going to be using your binoculars while wearing glasses (don’t forget sunglasses count too) look for at least 11-12mm of eye relief.  More is better.

Durability:  Dust and water resistance are good features to have.  Waterproof is even better.  Yes, we know that you have the best intentions to protect your binoculars, but life happens.  Especially out in nature or out on the lake.

So, now to pick the best pair of binoculars for wildlife viewing and general use.  Our choice is………………..drumroll please………………..

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The Nikon Monarch 5  8 x 42.  With a magnification factor of 8x, and a front lens diameter of 42mm, this is right in the sweet spot.  Brightness is good, field of view is 330 ft., and eye relief is 19.5mm.  These binoculars are waterproof, and Nikon has a great warranty/repair policy.  We appreciated the integrated lens covers, which can’t be lost. See more details about this piece of equipment at Nikon’s website.  The list price is $299.95, but we found a deal at Bass Pro Shop for $249.95.

In the field, the Nikon Monarch 5 proved to be easy to use and sturdy.  Both pairs that we used worked perfectly and held up to the dust clouds typical of game drives in the Serengeti.  We recommend them highly.

So what are you waiting for?  Get your binoculars and get out there!  This could be you!

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Next week we return to the traveling circuit with a look at Amsterdam, Netherlands.


2 thoughts on “Gear Report: How to Choose the Best Binoculars

  1. Great article! We were just talking about needing binoculars for our safari next year and your post answered a lot of questions for us. Did you find yourself frequently alternating between binoculars and camera?

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    1. Good question, Dave. We spent most of our time looking through the binoculars, taking in the action and sharing observations with each other. Real photographers, in our experience, didn’t even have binoculars. They spent their time framing multiple shots through their telephoto lenses to get the one they wanted to keep. There is a happy medium, of course. Our attitude was memories before image quality. By the way, we were traveling light and didn’t even take a “real” camera along; all the photos posted on our website were taken with an iPhone 6 with an add-on 60mm telephoto lens. We will review that in a future gear report. Have a great day!

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