What Makes a Good Pair of Binoculars?

I’m going to take a break from photography for a day (it’s hard to stay away). I’ve been evaluating binoculars to use for bird watching and general use when I’m hiking. Initially, I wanted some binoculars to replace a small pair I have that are very low end; the kind you buy at a discount store for around $20 (maybe less). I’m not saying binoculars you buy at a discount store are always bad, but these have some pretty glaring issues, that I’d like to resolve with a new pair.

The issues with my old pair are (Bushnell 16×32 compact):

  • Optically, not very good. What I mean is, they are difficult to focus, and even when focused, the image is not equally clear at the center and edges.
  • Diopter adjustment isn’t very good. What I mean is, when trying to adjust the diopter, it’s difficult to get it in focus. Probably the same problem I’m having with general focusing.
  • Images appear too dark with these binoculars. The 32mm lens is just not good enough for me. For some people this might be ok, or if you need the smallest possible size you can get – for backpacking or long hiking, where every ounce matters.

My thought is that these are just very low-end binoculars, and I’m hoping to find a couple new pairs that will meet my needs for quality, but not be too expensive. So I’m focusing on lower or mid level binoculars here – nothing over $200. I’m going to compare 3 pairs, and let you know what I think are their benefits and disadvantages, in case you (like me) are interested in a better pair of binoculars to complement your photography.

First Selection: Celestron Nature DX 8×42. List Price: 125.95, but can easily be found for under $100.

Both Celestron binoculars I’m evaluating are very good, and I like them a lot. This particular model is light, and relatively small, even though it’s a 42mm lens diameter. This 8x model provides a good, bright image – like what I’d expect from a 42mm lens (compared to the 32), plus it includes adjustable eye cups, so if you don’t wear glasses (like me) you can adjust the eye cups up a bit so your eyeball isn’t too close to the lens. All the models I tested here have a similar feature. I like this one because the eye cups feel solid when you adjust them. The diopter adjustment is easy to adjust, but I’d like the adjustment dial a bit looser. Being tight will keep it from changing, but for someone with smaller fingers, like my wife, it may take quite a bit of effort to adjust. Thankfully, once it’s adjusted, you shouldn’t have to move it again.

Second Selection: Celestron Nature DX ED 12×50. List Price: $229.95, but can be found under $200.

Mechanically, these binoculars feel much like the Nature DX 8×42, except for a little more length and weight. I like the feel of these in my hand, but someone with a smaller hand may prefer the 8×32 instead of this 12×50. In it’s favor, the ED glass does (in my opinion) enhance the clarity and brightness of the image. And sharpness in the pair I’m testing is the same from edge to edge. Very nice to look through. These binoculars are very solid and feel good to hold. Even though their 12x magnification, they are relatively easy to hold steady, but at 12x it is difficult sometimes. Increasing the magnification can decrease the brightness of the image, but the ED glass causes these to be about the same as the non-ED 8×42 tested above. Diopter adjustment is easy with these even though the diopter ring is fairly stiff. One thing I don’t like about the eye piece on these is how loose they feel. When you turn to adjust for eye glasses, they are very loose feeling. They swivel and adjust very easily, but I don’t like the looseness. They seem to stay in place pretty well when adjusted, but the looseness just doesn’t feel good to me.

Third Selection: Bushnell Legend M-Series 10×42. List Price: Unknown since these are discontinued by Bushnell. They are still obtainable, both new and used, for under $200 on both Amazon and eBay as of the time I’m writing this post.

I will say straight off, these are my favorites. I’ve just grown attached to them already – even though I wonder why Bushnell has discontinued them. It may be that they are a little larger than comparable binoculars. These are 10×42 and they are a quarter inch taller than the 12×50 Celestrons in previous paragraph. So they are a bit hefty, but I love the image quality and brightness. They are not only ED glass, but they also have Die-Electric prism coatings that supposedly transmit more light and brighter, more accurate colors. Either I’m brainwashed, or they really do what they claim. Another high-end feature these binoculars have is a locking diopter adjustment. If you slide the adjustment ring up, you can turn it. Slide it back down, and it locks. It’s still a little tight to turn, but when you lock it, it can’t be accidentally moved. Images with these binoculars appear brighter and clearer than the Celestron Nature DX ED 12×50 (which is still very good). They feel about the same, or maybe slightly lighter than the Celestrons too. And, they really look and feel good when I’m holding them. I’ll have to see how they are to carry (when I’m carrying my camera too).

My Conclusions and recommendation:

This is a very tough decision. All come with a tri-pod mount, lens caps, case, and strap. Which one is best? Well, for me, I like the Bushnell. It is a little large, so that may eliminate the two larger binoculars all together. If size and weight isn’t a huge factor, I’d definitely consider either the Bushnell Legend M-Series 10×42, or the Celestron Nature DX ED 12×50. If you need something a little smaller, I recommend the Celestron Nature DX 8×42. It’s light, while still providing a bright, clear image. If you need to go smaller, to a 32mm lens, I think you’ll probably have to look at ED glass and/or Die-Electric prism coatings to get a bright enough image.

I didn’t even look at, or evaluate some of the higher end Leica or Nikon offerings – there are plenty out there to choose from. In the price range I had (under $200) these were the ones I liked.

Do you have a favorite pair of binoculars? Leave me a comment and let me know which ones you like. I’d love to hear and learn about some of the many brands out there.

You’ll notice, it’s only me (my hand) and the binoculars in the photos. No other people. No chance of contracting or spreading any virus in the making of this blog – I hope. Stay safe, wherever you are!