The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
Sometimes we need a little help when we venture out into the natural world. No, I’m not talking about holding hands like crossing the street. I’m saying, of the five senses, the one we rely on most to gain information is our sense of sight. Precious as it may be, we humans are pretty low on the ladder when it comes to how well we see. Take eagles for instance. They have about 8 times better vision than we do. So we have compensated and invented binoculars.
I don’t know how many people I have known over the years who have a very nice pair of binoculars that sit in its box on top of a closet shelf hardly used at all. Many of these people tell me they don’t know how to use them, or they are too heavy, or some other reason – when I really suspect they can’t see a thing through them.
Binoculars can be confusing but need not be. There are two numbers on each pair somewhere, usually the center focus knob, that states the power. This first number is how many times more magnification it produces compared with your naked eye. Most binoculars are the 7x, 8x or 10x powers. Navy binocs can be 12x or more, but holding this much power causes the image to shake. It’s best to start out with 8x or even 7x optics before investing in a more powerful set that you might not be able to hold steady.
The next number on the binocular is the exit tube’s size in millimeters. So if you have an 8×42, you can see eight times better than your naked eye, and fairly well in low light since the bigger the exit number, the more light it draws in. This gives better clarity and easier viewing in lower light conditions, say dusk and dawn. A pair rated as 12×60 would seem the ultimate binocular, but the weight of such an apparatus would be the equivalent of the “grindstone around the neck.”
The two tubes of a binocular can be focused independently, and they should. This is where a lot of observers get lost in the binocular users guide. If you look into the left tube while closing your right eye, then turn the knurled focus nob until the object is in focus, you have started on a successful focusing sequence. Next close the left eye, open the right eye, and use the diopter ring on the right tube. This is a ring usually near the eye piece on the right tube. Do not focus with the center knob, but turn the diopter ring until the right eye is looking clearly at the same object.
Now (drum roll please), if you have followed these instructions correctly, you should open both eyes and have the object clearly in focus. If not, try the same procedure again. Also, not all eyes are made the same, and most are different distances apart. Not to worry. Just push or pull the tubes together to align them with your eyes. When the field of view is as wide as possible without the annoying circular tube’s outlines showing up, you have them set to your specifications.
Some binoculars have a central knob that does the focusing, but others have a rocker like a teeter-totter. In selecting a pair of optics, choose the one that can be easily focused, and will stay focused without drifting out. If the focus apparatus is too stiff, it will be difficult to quickly focus on that flitting bird, or that touchdown pass. And close-focus is another distance determination that tells the buyer the minimum distance the optic will focus.
All this aside, if you are in the market for a pair of quality binoculars, the old adage holds true here: “Get the best that you can afford.” Be prepared for sticker shock as the best of the best can run over $3000. Yep, that’s some serious bird-watching. But my first pair cost only $45 and was one of the best I’ve ever used. Darned if I didn’t fall into that trap of thinking a higher price might be better. I have had as many pairs of binoculars as work boots – well, almost. Ask my wife about which I have purchased more.
I now have a nice medium-priced pair of binoculars retailed at $450, but I got a steal of a deal at $150. Mine are 10×42 (remember: 10 times the naked eye power and 42 millimeters wide to let in ample light). I can hold these steady on a bird at 100 yards, but as I get older, I may revert back to 8 power. They are fairly light, but I have a harness instead of a neck strap since I wear mine almost all the time I’m outdoors. You never know when that rare bird will show up. I’ve even been known to wear them to church once since I was scooting out after the service to catch up with the birding group that day!
Don’t be that person who shelves a perfectly good pair of binoculars because they just don’t work. Try these tips to set your optics to serve your purpose, and enjoy the enhanced sense of sight they can provide.
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.