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Choosing Perfect Binoculars & Scopes for Birding

March 24, 2023

For birders, having the right optics can make all the difference when it comes to spotting and identifying birds. Binoculars and spotting scopes are essential tools for birdwatching, providing enhanced magnification, improved image quality, and increased field of view. This extensive guide will help you understand the key factors to consider when choosing the right binoculars and spotting scopes, ensuring you have the best possible equipment for your birding adventures.

1. Binocular Basics

Binoculars are the most common optical device used by birdwatchers. They offer a portable, easy-to-use solution for magnifying and observing birds in the field. Before you can choose the right pair of binoculars, it's essential to understand the basics of how binoculars work and the key specifications to consider.

(a) Magnification and Objective Lens Diameter

Binoculars are typically described using two numbers, such as 8x42 or 10x50. The first number represents the magnification power, while the second number indicates the objective lens diameter in millimeters. For example, 8x42 binoculars provide 8x magnification and have 42mm objective lenses (source).

(b) Field of View

The field of view (FOV) is a measure of the width of the area you can see through the binoculars at a specific distance, usually expressed in feet at 1,000 yards or meters at 1,000 meters. A wider field of view makes it easier to locate and follow birds, particularly those that are moving quickly or flying (source).

(c) Exit Pupil and Eye Relief

The exit pupil is the diameter of the beam of light that exits the eyepiece and enters your eye. A larger exit pupil provides a brighter image, particularly in low light conditions. To calculate the exit pupil, divide the objective lens diameter by the magnification power (source). Eye relief, on the other hand, is the distance from the eyepiece to the point where the entire field of view is visible. Adequate eye relief is essential for eyeglass wearers, as it allows them to use binoculars without removing their glasses.

2. Choosing the Right Binoculars for Birding

When selecting binoculars for birdwatching, there are several factors to consider, including magnification, objective lens diameter, field of view, and other features that can enhance your birding experience.

(a) Magnification: 8x vs. 10x

The choice between 8x and 10x magnification binoculars largely depends on personal preference and the type of birdwatching you plan to do. 8x binoculars generally offer a wider field of view and are more stable, making it easier to follow birds in motion. They also tend to have a larger exit pupil, providing better performance in low light conditions (source). In contrast, 10x binoculars offer greater magnification, which can be useful for observing distant birds or small details. However, they may be more challenging to hold steady and have a narrower field of view.

(b) Objective Lens Diameter: 42mm vs. 50mm

Larger objective lenses, such as 50mm lenses, provide more light-gathering capacity, resulting in brighter images, particularly in low light conditions. However, they also tend to be heavier and bulkier than binoculars with smaller objective lenses, such as 42mm lenses. Smaller objective lenses provide a more compact and lightweight option, making them easier to carry and handle during extended birdwatching sessions (source). The choice between 42mm and 50mm objective lenses will depend on your priorities for image brightness and portability.

(c) Other Binocular Features

Additional features to consider when choosing binoculars for birdwatching include:

  • Waterproofing and fog proofing: Look for binoculars with waterproof and fog proof construction to protect your optics from moisture and temperature changes (source).
  • Lens coatings: High-quality lens coatings can improve light transmission, reduce glare, and enhance image contrast and sharpness (source).
  • Close focus distance: A shorter close focus distance allows you to observe birds at closer range, which can be useful for backyard birdwatching or observing small birds in dense vegetation.
  • Ergonomics and build quality: Comfortable and well-built binoculars will provide a more enjoyable birdwatching experience, particularly during extended use.

3. Spotting Scopes for Birders

In addition to binoculars, spotting scopes can be a valuable tool for birdwatching. Spotting scopes are high-powered, single-eye optical devices that provide greater magnification than binoculars, making them ideal for observing distant birds or studying fine details. They are often used in conjunction with a tripod for stability.

(a) Magnification and Objective Lens Diameter

Like binoculars, spotting scopes are described using two numbers, such as 20-60x80. The first number represents the magnification range, while the second number indicates the objective lens diameter in millimeters. Spotting scopes typically offer variable magnification, allowing you to adjust the power depending on your needs and viewing conditions (source).

(b) Straight vs. Angled Eyepiece

Spotting scopes are available with either straight or angled eyepieces. Straight eyepieces are more intuitive to use, making it easier to locate and follow birds. Angled eyepieces offer greater comfort during extended viewing sessions, particularly when observing birds at higher angles or when sharing the scope with multiple users of different heights (source).

(c) Lens Coatings and Waterproofing

As with binoculars, high-quality lens coatings and waterproofing are essential features to consider when choosing a spotting scope for birdwatching. Look for scopes with fully multi-coated lenses to ensure optimal light transmission, contrast, and image sharpness. Waterproof and fog proof construction will protect your scope from moisture and temperature changes, ensuring reliable performance in a variety of conditions.

4. Choosing the Right Spotting Scope for Birding

When selecting a spotting scope for birdwatching, it's essential to consider the following factors:

(a) Magnification and Objective Lens Diameter

Choose a spotting scope with a suitable magnification range and objective lens diameter based on your birdwatching needs and preferences. Higher magnification and larger objective lenses will provide greater detail and brightness but may also result in a larger, heavier scope.

(b) Eyepiece Style: Straight vs. Angled

Consider your viewing preferences and the situations in which you'll be using your spotting scope when deciding between straight and angled eyepieces. Straight eyepieces may be more intuitive for locating birds, while angled eyepieces offer improved comfort and versatility, particularly when sharing the scope with others or observing birds at high angles.

(c) Budget and Quality

Spotting scopes are available at a wide range of price points, with varying levels of quality and performance. Consider your budget and the importance of image quality, build quality, and features when selecting a scope. Keep in mind that investing in a higher-quality scope can provide a better birdwatching experience and may be more durable over time.

5. Accessories for Optics

To get the most out of your binoculars or spotting scope, consider investing in some essential accessories:

(a) Tripods and Mounts

A sturdy tripod is essential for stabilizing a spotting scope, ensuring a steady, shake-free image for comfortable and accurate birdwatching. Tripods can also be useful for binocular users, particularly those with high-magnification models, as they can help reduce image shake and improve overall stability. Be sure to choose a tripod with a compatible mount for your spotting scope or binoculars (source).

(b) Optics Cleaning Supplies

Keeping your optics clean is crucial for maintaining optimal image quality and protecting your investment. Invest in a high-quality lens cleaning kit, including a lens brush, cleaning solution, and microfiber cloth, to safely and effectively clean your binoculars or spotting scope (source).

(c) Protective Cases and Covers

Protective cases and covers can help safeguard your optics from damage, dust, and moisture when not in use or during transportation. Look for a case or cover designed to fit your specific binocular or spotting scope model for the best protection.

6. Trying Out Optics Before Buying

Before committing to a specific pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, it's a good idea to try out several models to determine which one best suits your needs and preferences. Visit a local optics retailer, birdwatching club, or optics demonstration event to test out different options and get hands-on experience with various models.

(a) Testing Optics in Different Conditions

When trying out optics, test them in various lighting conditions and at different distances to get a sense of their performance and image quality. This will help you make a more informed decision when selecting the right binoculars or spotting scope for your birdwatching needs.

(b) Evaluating Comfort and Ergonomics

As you try out different optics, pay attention to their comfort and ergonomics. Consider factors such as weight, balance, and the feel of the focus wheel, as well as eye relief if you wear glasses. A comfortable, well-designed optical device will provide a more enjoyable birdwatching experience, particularly during extended use.


Choosing the right binoculars and spotting scopes for birdwatching involves a careful consideration of factors such as magnification, objective lens diameter, field of view, eyepiece style, and additional features. By understanding the basics of optics and taking the time to try out different models, you can select the best equipment for your birdwatching needs and enhance your overall birding experience. Don't forget to invest in essential accessories and maintain your optics properly to ensure optimal performance and longevity.