The Best Binoculars for Birding: A Buyers Guide

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One of the most important purchases for a birder is a set of top-tier binoculars. However, if you’ve never purchased a pair before, that can be intimidating. All the brands, all the numbers, all the wildly different price points? Where should you start?

Product Name
Best Water Proof and Fogproof
Nikon Prostaff 3S
Best Withstands Recoil and Impact
Vortex Optics Crossfire HD 8x42
Best Budget
Celestron Nature DX 8X42
Image
Nikon PROSTAFF 3S 8x42
Vortex Optics Crossfire HD 8x42 Binoculars
Celestron – Nature DX 8x42 Binoculars – Outdoor and Birding Binocular – Fully Multi-coated with BaK-4 Prisms – Rubber Armored – Fog & Waterproof Binoculars – Top Pick Optics
Customer Rating
Material
Plastic
Aluminum
Synthetic
Magnification Maximum
Magnification Maximum: 8x
Magnification Maximum: 8x
Magnification Maximum: 8x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 42 Millimeters
Objective Lens Diameter: 42 Millimeters
Objective Lens Diameter: 42 Millimeters
Color
Black
Green
Army Green
Weight
Weight: ‎0.3 Pounds
Weight: ‎23.8 Ounces
Weight: 1.75 pounds
Size
‎7 x 6.5 x 3.5 inches
‎9.1 x 9.1 x 9.1 inches
5.3 x 2 x 4.9 inches
Best Water Proof and Fogproof
Product Name
Nikon Prostaff 3S
Image
Nikon PROSTAFF 3S 8x42
Customer Rating
Material
Plastic
Magnification Maximum
Magnification Maximum: 8x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 42 Millimeters
Color
Black
Weight
Weight: ‎0.3 Pounds
Size
‎7 x 6.5 x 3.5 inches
Best Withstands Recoil and Impact
Product Name
Vortex Optics Crossfire HD 8x42
Image
Vortex Optics Crossfire HD 8x42 Binoculars
Customer Rating
Material
Aluminum
Magnification Maximum
Magnification Maximum: 8x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 42 Millimeters
Color
Green
Weight
Weight: ‎23.8 Ounces
Size
‎9.1 x 9.1 x 9.1 inches
Best Budget
Product Name
Celestron Nature DX 8X42
Image
Celestron – Nature DX 8x42 Binoculars – Outdoor and Birding Binocular – Fully Multi-coated with BaK-4 Prisms – Rubber Armored – Fog & Waterproof Binoculars – Top Pick Optics
Customer Rating
Material
Synthetic
Magnification Maximum
Magnification Maximum: 8x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 42 Millimeters
Color
Army Green
Weight
Weight: 1.75 pounds
Size
5.3 x 2 x 4.9 inches

Last update on 2022-12-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

First, start with your price range. If you know how much you’re able to pay for a set of binoculars, start there.

Binoculars can go for thousands of dollars, and if you’re willing and able to pay for one of the top names, there are some great binoculars available for a good chunk of change.

However, a really good set doesn’t have to cost you but a fraction of that price. 

Take Nikon, for example. One of the most popular brands of camera and binoculars, the Nikon WX 7X50 IF Binocular, toted by the company as “the binocular of the century,” sells for $6,000, but the average birder doesn’t need that kind of binocular to enjoy the birds.

You can get a solid pair of binoculars from a good brand for closer to $100, and even a less expensive pair can be plenty to start off with. Don’t feel like you can’t get into birding because you can only afford cheap binoculars.

So, What Do All These Numbers Mean?

The first and most important number you’re likely to see when you go to purchase binoculars is usually in the name, displayed as __X__.

In the case of the WX 7X50 mentioned earlier, that would mean the binoculars have a magnification power of seven and objective lenses of 50 millimeters.

The higher the magnification power and optical quality, the more magnified items looked at through the binoculars will be, while a lower magnification power will give you a wider field of view.

The second number impacts the light transmission of the lens. A larger lens allows more light transmission but can be heavier and bulkier, so many bird watchers try to find a balance between the two.

The other slightly less common number you may see displayed on a pair of birding binoculars is expressed in degrees.

This is the angle of view, describing the width of the area you’ll be able to view through the binoculars. Most of the time, this will be between six and eight degrees. 

What Is the Best Magnification Power for Me?

Magnification power is how many times larger objects through the binoculars will look than they would to the naked eye.

For example, a cardinal viewed through 10X binoculars would look 10 times bigger, a cardinal viewed through 8X binoculars would look eight times bigger, and so on.

The question that often comes to mind is: “what is my field of view with a good set of binoculars?

Binoculars manufacturer Tract Optics provides a great breakdown of why it’s not a matter of how far you can see, but rather how much larger objects will appear than with the naked eye.

Tract Optics uses the following example: If you’re standing in a 100-yard clearing looking at a treeline, those trees will look like you’re only 10 yards away when looking through 10X binoculars. Through 8X binoculars, it would be as if you were 12.5 yards away.

In the grand scheme of things, that 2.5 yards probably won’t make a ton of difference in your field of view to the average bird watcher.

10X magnification power (or more) might seem better for viewing small birds across a field or through the forest.

However, you also might find that 8X magnification helps you pick up birds in flight, and a magnification power of eight will probably be enough for the average bird watcher to get a good glimpse of wildlife, even from far away.

The most common combination of magnification power and lens diameter among birders is 8×42, but that doesn’t mean that’s what you have to do.

Consider what you want out of a pair of binoculars for bird watching and find what’s right for you.

For example, if you want to look up at the stars and moon in addition to birds, you may want to consider a larger magnification power. But for those that are simply looking to view wildlife like birds in their binoculars, a magnification power of eight might be ideal.

What’s the Best Lens Diameter?

If you want a more compact set of binoculars for bird watching that you can store very easily, binoculars with a lens diameter of between 25 and 30 millimeters are available.

Also, those that want a large set can find what they’re looking for with lenses of closer to 50.

When it comes to binoculars, everything is a tradeoff, so you have to find what fits your needs best.

Using larger binoculars for bird watching often means better lighting and crisper viewing, but it could also mean more weight and worse storage capabilities.

Small, compact binoculars might fit in your jacket pocket, but you’ll be sacrificing a little bit on the specifications in some cases.

With all the variations in size and weight, you might want to go to a retail store to try out binoculars before purchasing.

See what they feel like in your hands, how comfortable they are to hold up to your face, and whether you think they’ll be able to magnify objects as much as you’d like.

You may think you want a heavier, more powerful set of quality binoculars, but when you get a set in your hands, you may find you’re more comfortable with something more compact. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually trying them out.

Binocular Shape: Roof Prism vs. Porro Prism

Binoculars come in two main shapes that you will need to choose from – Porro prism vs. roof prism binoculars.

Roof prism binoculars are your standard set of straight-lensed binoculars.

Sparing you the extra details about how each of them works, roof prisms are typically lightweight binoculars that are more compact and durable. The roof prism is also a waterproof binocular.

Porro prism binoculars, named after Italian inventor Ignazio Porro, are bulkier and heavier, but they are often cheaper. 

If dropping your binoculars in the water is a possibility, buying a pair of roof prism optics might be worth the extra cost.

Weigh your budget and needs against what each style of binoculars offers. If it’s within your budget to purchase a more durable, lightweight, waterproof pair of binoculars, then you may want to consider roof prism binoculars.

If it’s your first set and you’re not worried about waterproofing, Porro prism binoculars are a great choice as well. 

This isn’t to say that Porro prism binoculars can’t be very good, either. Before you decide to purchase, it’s a good idea to go and try out a few pairs at a retail store near you to see how well each pair works and feels.

What Does Coating Mean for Binoculars?

Green Binoculars in Hand with Landscape

When researching pairs of binoculars, you may see the words uncoated, coated, multi-coated, or some variation of those terms.

Lens coatings or the glass element of binoculars allow more light through the lens, reducing glare and light reflection. This leads to a brighter and sharp image for the user.

Generally, more coating is better. According to Nikon, a pair of binoculars with no coatings transmits about 66 percent of light compared to 86 percent of light on a single-layer coated set, and finally 95 percent from a multilayer-coated pair of binoculars. 

Why Are Binoculars So Different in Price With the Same Specifications?

As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. But if two pairs of binoculars are both 8×42, why is one $100 and the other $3,000? Is there really that big of a gap between a cheaper pair and the nicest pair on the market?

This often comes down to the materials used. From the level of quality optics to the materials used in the grips and coating, you can often feel the difference.

However, that may not be a good enough reason for most people to splurge and buy a really expensive set of binoculars for bird watching.

Ultimately, when it comes to outdoor gear, names also do sell, so some people with more disposable income may choose to buy from one of the top-name brands on that alone. 

What Are Some Brands To Look Into?

Each binocular manufacturer makes a range of models, with more expensive options than others. For each Nikon WX 7×50 IF model that costs $6,000, there’s a Nikon Prostaff 3S, an excellent choice that costs less than $200.

This is not a complete list, but rather a starting point of some of the most popular brands that may come up during your binoculars search. Here are a few brands to look at as you consider a future binoculars purchase:

Vortex Optics:

Wisconsin-based Vortex Optics makes a range of binoculars, from the Crossfire and Vanquish models that sell between $100 and $200 up to top-tier binoculars that cost thousands of dollars.

The popular Diamondback 8×42 model (MSRP $289.99) has a solid 4.8-star rating over thousands of Google reviews.

Nikon:

Perhaps best known for cameras and camera accessories, the Nikon brand has been in the binoculars world since 1921 (then called Nippon Kogaku). It’s a reputable, reliable company that’s sold many binoculars over the years.

Canon:

Like Nikon, Canon is probably most widely known for being one of the top-selling camera companies in the world, but they make binoculars as well.

They don’t fit the budget category that most people will be looking at, with their cheap binoculars being $399, but they are quite well-reviewed. 

Celestron:

Celestron, founded by astronomer Tom Johnson, sells a wide range of binoculars from $24.95 on up the line in addition to a number of different astronomy tools.

Swarovski Optics:

With prices mostly in the thousands, Swarovski won’t make its way onto any budget list, but if you want to spend a bit more, this is another company for consideration. 

Zeiss:

German manufacturer Zeiss has been around for a long time. Carl Zeiss launched the company in 1846. The company describes its 8X42 model as its most versatile, and the website gives customers an interesting look at what’s on the inside of their binoculars.

Leica:

Leica is a German company known for its cameras, but it also makes highly-rated binoculars. 

Bushnell:

Bushnell is a budget option for those looking to save a bit of money compared to some of the other binoculars on this list.

Their cheapest pair, the Powerview 8×21 Compact Binoculars, sells for $15.99, but they have a wide variety of more durable binoculars with up to 20X50 specs.

Leupold:

Leupold was started by a pair of brothers-in-law in 1907 and is based in Oregon. The company sells rifle scopes, spotting scopes, rangefinders, and more.

What Is the Best Budget Set of Bird-watching Binoculars?

Some of the brands above make great binocular sets that won’t break the bank. Below are some top suggestions in the middle ground. There are options made by these companies for as low as $15.99 and for north of $5,000. These binoculars all sell for between $65 and $200. 

Nikon Prostaff 3S

Nikon PROSTAFF 3S 8x42
  • Multilayer-coated kenses for brighter images
  • High-reflectivity silver-alloy mirror coatings for a bright and clear view
  • Turn-and-slide rubber multi-click eyecups

Last update on 2022-12-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

As mentioned earlier, this is an excellent entry-level roof prism binoculars choice.

This set is compact, durable, and waterproof, and it retails directly from the manufacturer or numerous retail stores at $129.95 for the 8X42 version and $139.95 for the 10X42 version. The Nikon Prostaff 3S comes with a slew of five-star reviews from across the birdwatching world.

Bushnell Powerview 2 8X42

Sale
Bushnell Powerview 2 8x42mm Binoculars, Compact High-Power Hunting Binocular in Black PWV842
  • [LONG LASTING DURABILITY] Aluminum alloy chassis provides durability without adding unnecessary weight and bulk.
  • [EASY TO USE AND CONFIDENT GRIP] Updated ergonomics with soft touch rubber and easy grip texture along the sides of the binocular,...
  • [GREAT IMAGE QUALITY WITH SHARP FOCUS] Multi-coated optics draw an incredible amount of light for clear vibrant images, even in...

Last update on 2022-12-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Bushnell has 71 different binoculars choices on its website for as little as $15.99 and as much as $699.99, but the Powerview 8X42 is one happy medium at $69.99.

If you’re looking to save even more money while sticking to a solid brand, Bushnell is a company worth checking out for decent binoculars.

Vortex Optics Crossfire HD 8×42

Vortex Optics Crossfire HD 8x42 Binoculars
  • 8x magnification & 42mm objective lenses, these Crossfire HD binos are optimized with select glass elements to deliver exceptional...
  • Fully multi-coated lenses increase light transmission with multiple anti-reflective coatings on all air-to-glass surfaces. Roof...
  • Fully multi-coated lenses increase light transmission with multiple anti-reflective coatings on all air-to-glass surfaces. Roof...

Last update on 2022-12-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Regularly retailing for $189.99 for the 8X42 version, the Crossfire also comes with 10X42, 10X50, or 12X50 specs depending on your needs.

This is another solid all-around binocular from another well-known, well-respected company in the optics world.

Celestron Nature DX 8X42

Sale
Celestron – Nature DX 8x42 Binoculars – Outdoor and Birding Binocular – Fully Multi-coated with BaK-4 Prisms – Rubber Armored – Fog & Waterproof Binoculars – Top Pick Optics
  • THE PERFECT BINOCULARS FOR EVERY ADVENTURE: The views through Nature DX rival those of more expensive binoculars, at a price to...
  • TOP-RATED GLASS OPTICS WITH IMPRESSIVE SPECS: Fully multi-coated lenses boost contrast and resolution while phase-coated BaK-4...
  • DURABLE, WATERPROOF BODY: A rubber-armored, polycarbonate housing protects your binoculars from damage and stands up to the...

Last update on 2022-12-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

If you haven’t noticed by now, all of the top listed binoculars on this list are 8X42 models, as that’s a common middle ground for birdwatchers looking to balance magnification with wide views.

Like the others on this list, the Celestron model is well-reviewed, with an average review of 4.7 stars on Google.

Leupold BX-1 McKenzie HD 8X42

Sale
Leupold BX-1 McKenzie HD 10x42mm Binoculars
  • Model #181173 - BX-1 McKenzie HD 10x42mm Binoculars in Shadow Gray
  • 100% Waterproof, fogproof, and shockproof
  • Fully multi-coated lens system ensures maximum brightness for clarity, contrast, and color fidelity

Last update on 2022-12-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Leupold’s 8X42 is similar to others on this list, with a wide field of view offered by an eight-times magnification and its compact roof prism structure. This model retails for $184.99.

What About Monoculars?

Monoculars are basically half a set of binoculars. They have their advantages, but most birders are likely better off searching for binoculars instead.

The main advantage of a monocular, as opposed to a set of binoculars, is its portability and ease of storage. If you don’t like carrying around binoculars, regardless of how small they are, monoculars are a smaller, lighter option that can fit in a pocket.

The magnification power is usually similar, but they offer a smaller field of view compared to binoculars. Binoculars are typically more comfortable for continued usage as well, as they don’t require closing one eye and looking through the other. For birdwatchers, this is very important.

If you’re out looking for owls or other birds at night and aren’t worried about significant usage, monoculars do gain another advantage, as they have better night vision capabilities on average.

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Jacob Swanson

Jacob Swanson is a writer and wildlife photographer born and raised in Wisconsin and currently based in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his work has appeared in over a dozen different web and print outlets. In his free time, he’s on a personal quest to visit every U.S. national park and see as many wildlife species as possible. His favorite birds are whooping and sandhill cranes.