How to Buy Binoculars for Birdwatching

Five Methods:Choosing a Set of BinocularsSearching for BinocularsBuying Binoculars OnlineBuying Binoculars at a StoreBuying Used Binoculars

As one of the safest, easiest, and most environmentally friendly hobbies in existence, birdwatching brings together people of all age groups through a common love of wildlife. Birdwatching can be done practically anywhere, though avid hobbyists won’t hesitate to travel the world in search of the rarest species of birds. A good set of binoculars is the most important piece of equipment involved in birding, and buying the perfect pair is worth an investment in time.

Method 1
Choosing a Set of Binoculars

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    Decide what you want your binoculars to do. Buyers need to consider several variables when choosing the right pair of birdwatching binoculars:
    • How often will you use them? A casual birdwatcher likely won’t want to invest several hundred dollars in a top-of-the-line set of binoculars. Conversely, someone planning to dive into the hobby will probably be better off making a bigger financial commitment in order to ensure quality and durability.
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    • Where will you be using them? Watching from your window, front deck or patio is a low-impact exercise that makes heavier binoculars with the option of using a tripod a better choice. If you plan to be more mobile while watching birds, you’ll want a pair of binoculars that are lighter and easier to carry.
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    • What is the geography like in your area? Different landscapes demand different styles of binoculars. If visibility is a concern—somewhere near the ocean, for example—you may want to invest in fog-proof binoculars. Not everyone will need to worry about this variable, but those who do should look into minimizing visibility issues.
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    • What time of day will you be most active? Binoculars that excel in daytime watching may not be suitable for nighttime viewing. Determining when your typical birding time will be should make finding suitable binoculars easier.
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    Choose the features you would prefer. Once you’ve decided on the basics, it’s time to personalize things. Here are the factors to consider:
    • Shape: Binoculars generally come in two shapes: roof prism and porro prism. Roof-prism binoculars feature two straight sight barrels and are usually the smaller of the two types. Porro-prism binoculars have dogleg-shaped barrels with offset eyepieces, and are usually more affordable because they aren’t as compact.
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    • Magnification: This determines the extent to which you can make faraway objects appear closer. Experts suggest that most people find a happy medium—enough magnification to identify birds from a distance, but not so much that unsteady hands become more noticeable and the viewing area becomes too small. Higher magnification is also less than ideal when you’re tracking a moving target, which will probably be the case when you’re birding.
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    • Objective lens size: This refers to the size of the front lens, which determines how much light gets in. A larger objective lens will make it easier to see greater distances, as well as improve visibility at dawn or dusk. They cost more, but most birders agree that larger objective lenses are a must. (Note: Most binoculars are identified using magnification and objective lens size paired together, like 8x32 or 7x42. As a general rule, the wider the ratio, the larger the image. For instance, an 8x42 pair of binoculars produces a larger image than a 8x32 combination.)
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    • Prisms: Most binoculars feature either BK7 or BAK4 prisms. BAK4 prisms are higher quality, with finer grounded edges that improve clarity and focus. BK7 prisms are also good, but aren’t as finely ground and therefore don’t provide the same quality image.
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    • Coatings: These are layers applied to lenses to reduce the glare that washes out images. Coated lenses range in quality from "coated", which has moderate glare reduction, to "multi-coated" with near complete glare reduction.
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    • Zoom: This option changes the effective magnification of the lens and allows the user to view a bird in a scene or close up, even from a great distance. Zoom lenses are effective when viewing birds standing still, but may make it difficult to follow moving subjects. They tend to be larger and heavier than fixed lens units. Birders pay a premium for excellent zoom lens optics. Less pricey models often have fuzzy or distorted images and a smaller field of view.
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Method 2
Searching for Binoculars

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    Search for brick-and-mortar binocular retailers, online vendors, or private sellers. Use the Yellow Pages. Check weekly flyers. Enlist the help of a search engine. The more searching you do, the more options you’ll find. Each has benefits and drawbacks, depending on what type of binoculars you want and how much you’re willing to spend.
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    Read product and user reviews on the brands you favor. The Internet features plenty of reviews on birding binoculars, from both expert and amateur birdwatchers. Consulting as many different reviews as possible will often result in the recognition of themes or patterns. Perhaps one brand is consistently more durable than another, or one style is overpriced compared to other models.
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    Seek out fellow birdwatchers and ask their thoughts. Birding clubs are all over the Internet—and they take their hobby seriously. Find a club or message board devoted to birding, and load up on questions to ask. You may get varied opinions on different products, but the insight should provide you with an expanded knowledge base when it comes time to make your selection.

Method 3
Buying Binoculars Online

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    Find a reputable site you favor and look for the type of binoculars you want. Whether it’s an online retailer or a third-party site, you need to make sure the binoculars you’re looking to buy fit the specifications you decided upon earlier. Be willing to sacrifice one of your wants if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, but don’t settle for something subpar just to save a dollar.
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    Email or phone with any questions you have. Not being able to try the binoculars out first is a major disadvantage, but you can mitigate some of the drawbacks by getting in touch with the seller and sharing any concerns or inquiries. While a quick reply is always appreciated, you’ll occasionally find yourself waiting. A major purchase like this is worth the wait, so be patient and thank the seller for responding when the time comes.
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    Proceed to checkout. If there are any other birding supplies you need while you’re completing your purchase, now is the time to get them. Otherwise, select the binoculars you want and prepare to pay.
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    Complete payment. Most sites list credit cards as the primary form of payment. Some will accept alternate forms of payment, including debit card, check, or other online payment service.

Method 4
Buying Binoculars at a Store

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    Enlist the help of a store employee. Having an experienced person by your side is the best way to ensure that you make the right decision. An employee can help you decide between two or more options if you haven’t quite narrowed down your list. If you already know which binoculars you want, he or she can point you right to them.
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    Test out every feature. Binoculars are multi-functional devices, and any good inspection should be as thorough as possible. Test the magnification on something far away. Fiddle with the zoom feature. Try different barrel spacing. Make sure nothing is left to chance before taking the binoculars home.
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    Complete the purchase. Retain the receipt in case you have a problem with the binoculars.

Method 5
Buying Used Binoculars

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    Establish a time to see the item. Be willing to work around the seller’s schedule. Leave a contact number or email address in case the seller needs to get in touch with you prior to the visit.
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    Inspect the item. Look for anything that might have a negative impact on the quality of the binoculars. Lens quality is probably the most important factor here. If there are scratches of any kind, you should politely decline and consider a different option. Test out every feature before ultimately deciding whether or not you’re going to buy them.
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    Work out a payment arrangement. If you’re satisfied with what you see, you should either agree to pay the listed price or take your chances at negotiating for a lower one. Some sellers are firm in their valuation (and will often say so in their ads), but many are willing to at least entertain an offer. It is ultimately the seller’s decision.
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    Complete the transaction. Congratulations! You are the newest member of the birding fraternity.


  • You can keep your binoculars clean by using a special camera lens cloth and lens cleaner for the lens surfaces. A regular all-purpose cleaner should suffice for the rest of the binoculars.
  • Carefully weigh the camera option to binoculars. Depending on your needs, having pictures of birds you've sighted can be a real benefit. Though unlikely to be as good as a dedicated high end camera, binocular cameras are becoming more robust and offer more features as time and technology advances.
  • Be willing to return binoculars you buy online if they are not what you are looking for. You should never have to settle for a set of inferior or unsatisfactory binoculars, and most online retailers are reasonable with their return/exchange policy provided that you have a receipt handy.


  • Beware any mention of “ruby coating night vision” as a selling point. Ruby coatings are trumpeted as helping birders see better at night, but there is no proof that these coatings actually assist in that regard. If you want something that works well at night, stick to brands that advertise authentic night-vision optics.

Sources and Citations

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Categories: Birdwatching