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Choosing Binoculars: The Basics
  by Jake Gunson [ contact the author ]  [ about the author ]

Most of the following will apply equally well to rifle and spotting scopes, although there are some added variables to consider when purchasing a scope.

Getting Started

First you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you want binoculars for?
  • At what time of day are you most likely to use them?
  • At what distances will you use them?
  • How often will you use them?
  • How important are they for the type of hunting that you do?
  • How much money are you willing to spend?

Don't go shopping until you can answer these questions. Once you know what you want, then you can figure out what you need. There is a huge selection of binoculars to choose from, and the odds of picking up the right pair are fairly slim, unless you know what you're looking for.


The "power" of a set of binoculars is a combination of two independent variables. The variables are described by a set of two numbers such as 8x32 or 10x40. The first number refers to the magnification of the binoculars: the higher magnification, the closer the object of your interest will appear. That is fairly simple. The second number refers to the diameter (in millimeters) of the light-collecting lens (the one you look out of, not into). The larger the lens, the more light it can collect and the brighter the object will appear.

Choosing Binoculars This discussion gets more interesting when you consider how the magnification power and the light collecting power work together. The higher the magnification, the more light that's required to see what you're looking at. It's a fairly simple relationship that can be described as a light to magnification ratio.

Let's start with the 8x32 binoculars. Divide the lens diameter (32) by the magnification level (8), and you get a light to magnification ratio of 4. What the number really tells us is the relative brightness of this particular set of glasses. The higher the number, the brighter the image will appear. If we do the same calculation with different binoculars, we can compare the ratios that we get and see which glasses will be the brightest: 7x42 glasses give us a ratio of 6 (quite bright), 12x24 glasses give us 2 (very dark), and 10x40 gives us 4, which is the same as the 8x32 binoculars. The 12x24 glasses will give you almost twice as much magnification as the 7x42 ones will, but they will also be three times darker. If you plan to use your glasses in the morning or evening, don't buy the 12x24 set.

The "Trade Off"

The trick to finding the binoculars that you need is in finding the right trade off between magnification and brightness. However, another variable, size, will also sneak into the equation here. The larger the lens diameter (i.e., the brighter the glasses) the larger and heavier the glasses will be. This means that if you want lightweight, high magnification binoculars that work well in low light, you might as well stay at home and watch hunting shows on the "tube".

High magnification binoculars will either be dark or large. Small binoculars will be either dark or have low magnification. If you need performance in low light conditions, you will have to give up some magnification, or carry heavier glasses around. This is why I suggest that you decide exactly what you plan to use the glasses for before you think about buying.


So far, I have only told half of the story. The other half revolves around quality. As a general rule, the more you pay for your glasses, the better quality they will be. With high-quality lenses, you can get crisper, clearer, and brighter images compared with low-quality lenses of an identical diameter and magnification. This means that if you spend $1000 on 8x32 glasses (ratio of 4), they could be as bright or brighter than 7x42 (ratio of 6) that would only cost $150. Another point to consider is that with higher quality lenses, the image will be crisper and clearer, and you won't need as much light to see what you are looking at. They will be much easier on the eyes as well. If you plan to spend a lot of hours glassing, spend a little on quality.

However, you still can't buy your way out of the "Trade Off". As soon as you start comparing high-quality glasses, you end up right where we started. In fact, as you consider spending more money, it is even more important to understand the "Trade Off". Unless you plan on buying several pairs of binoculars, you still have to decide what the primary use of the glasses will be, and then what glasses will be best for that purpose.

General Guidelines

As a general rule I have found that any glasses for less that $150 are, for the serious hunter, a waste of money. A lot of hunting is done in low light conditions and will involve some walking. To get glasses that will be useful in low light and that are small enough to carry, you will probably have to spend from $200 to $500. Of course, you can spend much more than that to get tougher, higher quality glasses, and the money won't be wasted (unless you don't use the glasses). Remember too that if you look after your binoculars, they will work just as well in 20 years as they did the day you bought them. If you get one good set that suits most of your needs, they should last for a lifetime.

Jake Gunson owns Gunson Guiding and Outfitting, based in Deloraine, Manitoba. He writes regularly for The Outdoor Lodge, focusing on Dall Sheep, Caribou (he guided the new world record in 1998), Whitetail Deer, and other topics.


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