A pair of binoculars is a must for overlanders and anyone spending time in the bush. They can enhance your overall outdoor experience but choosing the right pair can be a daunting task. ANTON WILLEMSE JNR offers a few suggestions.
Full-size binoculars such as 8×42 and 10×50 are the best choice for serious wildlife viewing, including birdwatching. Perfect for safaris and searching for game in the brush, the wide lenses give you a wider field of view, making it easier to spot animals and birds as you take in a broad, magnified landscape. However, not all binoculars are created equal, and being able to choose the right pair for heading into the bush makes a big difference in the long run. By knowing what to look for in a pair of binoculars and how to evaluate them, you’ll be able to ensure you get the correct type for your needs.
The magnification of a pair of binoculars is its ability to bring the object closer to you. The number before the ‘x’ when describing binoculars refers to this magnification factor, or how much closer objects will appear. Binoculars with 8x to 10x magnification are best for game viewing and birdwatching. These will give you adequate magnification for most activities and won’t be destabilised if your hands shake slightly. Binoculars are referred to with two numbers, such as 8×42 or 10×50. The second number is the diameter of the main (objective) lenses in millimetres; 7×42 lenses are 42mm in diameter, while 10×50 lenses are 50mm in diameter.
Prioritise larger lens diameters for birdwatching or low-light activities. Binoculars with larger objective lenses have wider fields of view, which are better for finding and following subjects. They can also gather more light, which is important in low-light activities such as hunting at dawn or dusk.
Beat the budget blues
Determine ahead of time what your price range will be. It’s generally true that the more expensive, top-of-the-line binoculars have higher image quality and are also more durable. However, there are also a lot of more affordable binoculars that are adequately durable and have decent optical quality. Thus, pick a price range where you feel comfortable buying binoculars and don’t feel compelled to go beyond it.
Most optics are made by the world’s leading players in photography, which means that you classify and bracket binoculars similarly to camera equipment. These segments are entry level, enthusiast, high end and professional. Each of these segments has massive differences in quality, versatility and price. As a result, each segment is aimed at a different type of customer.
Binoculars are a costly investment and for a decent entry-level pair, I’d say the budget should be roughly R1 300. Optics in this price range are perfect for people who are starting out and are usually mass-produced, with some critical differences to more expensive products. However, this doesn’t make them completely inferior, especially when you’re looking to buy your first set.
Two key brands that operate within this segment are Bushnell and Malkin. With Bushnell, you can get the Pacifica 10×50, a larger-class, higher magnification entry in Bushnell’s Porro Prism Collection. One major issue with entry-level optics is the need for more treatment on the glass of the binoculars to protect it from the elements, but in the case of the Pacifica, the lenses are fully coated. Overall, the Bushnell Pacifica feels more high-end than the price of R1 199 suggests.
For the same price, Malkin offers a combo of two binoculars: a 10×50 and a 10×25. This is a great deal, especially if you have a little one who shares your growing passion for safari. However, it is important to note that Malkin is a far more generic brand than Bushnell. As a result, the optics might need more refinement. It also won’t have features that are model specific, as is the case with the Pacifica. However, you will still have a great product with similar performance, with the bonus of an additional pair.
Growing that passion
Once you’ve been using your entry-level optics on regular trips into nature, you might decide that it’s time to upgrade. You will now move into the enthusiast bracket for people who use their binoculars fairly regularly and are developing an interest in birding, but are still on the fence. In this segment your budget should be between R2 500 and R3 900. Two of the top options in this price range are personal favourites: the Nikon Aculon 12×50 and the Nikon Prostaff P3 8×42.
The Nikon Aculon was the first set of optics I owned 9handme- downs from dad!). Today it is priced around R2 299 and is a great choice for enthusiasts. Key differences between the Aculon and something like the entry-level Bushnell Pacifica become apparent once you start using the Aculon. For starters, this pair of 12x50s offers great performance at a very attractive price. In addition, the multi-layer coated lenses and a choice of large objective lens diameters provide extremely bright images and a wide field of view. The Aculon also offers crisp images thanks to aspherical eyepiece lenses and is made from better materials. Apart from some additional features that can make overall usage much more comfortable, the Aculon has rubber armouring that should extend its lifespan.
Another player within this segment is the Nikon Prostaff P3, which is similar to the Aculon, but with more features and a price of R3 899. Our family used a Nikon Prostaff for about five years and have found it to be the perfect choice for avid overlanders. The body is waterproof and features rugged rubber armouring to protect it from the occasional bump or drop. It also features anti-fog technology, which is a major thing for me. The Prostaff P3 also feels sturdy and well-built whilst still being compact and lightweight. This type of versatility makes it a great set of optics.
Turning passion into a hobby
The aforementioned Nikons are great for enthusiasts, but if birding becomes a serious hobby and you spend a lot of time in the bush, you will require a high-end pair of optics. Within this segment, you should aim to budget between R8 000 to R10 000. It is a lot of money, but at this point, the optics are of superior build quality in terms of both the frame and lenses.
A great example of a high-end product is the Nikon Monarch M7 10×30. These binoculars have an excellent field of view at 106m, and feature Nikon’s special Extra-Low Dispersion glass and eco-friendly multi-layer lens and prism coatings, which produce incredible low-light possibilities, life-like colours and outstanding resolution no matter the distance. The coatings are also non-stick, oil, and water-repellent, which keeps the lenses crisp and clean. As for the body, the Monarch M7 is both water- and fog-proof and the lens housing is nitrogen-filled, and O-ring sealed to keep the optics clear. In short, the Monarch offers both performance and build quality and comes with a price tag of R8 799.
Another great high-end example is the Vortex 12×50 Diamond-back HD. These optics are priced at R7 295 and offer a generous objective lens, which means they perform exceptionally well in low light conditions. The Diamondback HD can render great views with sharpness, exceptional colour fidelity and minimal chromatic aberration thanks to the ultra-high-definition glass. The glass is also coated to protect the lens.
These binoculars have a robust rubber armoured frame which is filled with argon to keep the lenses from fogging, thus ensuring a superb rendering in every situation. All and all, this is a great example of a high-end optic, and its great build quality should ensure longevity.
It’s an obsession
Optics within the professional segment are usually made by companies that are at the forefront of the market. They are typically hand-made with features that feel precise and deliberate.
An excellent example is the Zeiss Conquest HD 8×42. It is designed for all-around use, from early dawn to late dusk, and features an HD lens system and multi-layer coating to deliver the highest optical standards. The lens housing is made from aluminium to keep it lightweight and extremely robust and is designed to sit comfortably in your hands whilst hugging your eye sockets. It works equally well with or without glasses and the body is nitrogen filled to prevent fogging. This is genuinely one of the best optics money can buy, and because of that, the price sits at a rather hefty R19 919.
If you’re the type of person who loves going on international birding expeditions or if you have around R20k lying around for a set of exceptional binoculars, it’s almost a no-brainer really. It will last you a lifetime and you’ll have to search to find anything better.
As mentioned, selecting the right pair of binoculars can be daunting, and we have only scratched the surface of what’s on offer. Still, the most important thing is to get the right pair for you… a product that fulfils your needs but also falls within your budget and allows you to get a whole new perspective on the wonders of nature.