Nature, stargazing & more: Which binoculars are best for the job?

Jeff Harper

Which binoculars are right for you?

While most aspiring astronomers believe a telescope is an absolute must for stargazing, a high-quality pair of binoculars can be a suitable substitute. Binoculars are less cumbersome to move, simple to use and easy to maintain.

While binoculars are wonderful for stargazing, they certainly prove to be a sound investment when also used for other activities. For example, you can purchase tickets for the cheap seats at a large sports venue, but with a great set of binoculars, still have a better view than the fans who paid for the expensive seats.

Common uses for binoculars

Binoculars are used for various activities, and different models are specifically designed to provide the right magnification for the application. Think about how you will use a pair of binoculars while shopping, and select a pair suitable for that activity. 

The most common binocular activities 

Bird watching: This activity is still considered one of the most popular binocular-based hobbies. Spotting birds does not require a magnification factor greater than 8x, but light conditions are important. Birding at night under low light is best when using binoculars with a high twilight factor.

Sporting events, outdoor concerts and theater: Lightweight, compact binoculars with a magnification of 8x to 10x are ideal for viewing faces close up. However, if an overview is all that is needed, 4x magnification is sufficient.

Hunting: Binoculars with a magnification of 10x or higher make finding small details from a far distance easy. Select binoculars with a twilight factor of 15 or higher to identify nocturnal animals in the dark. A durable pair that is dustproof and waterproof will stand the test of time out in the wild.

On a boat: While land-based binocular use is mainly dictated by the distance and the target object or animal size, viewing items out on the water requires a lower magnification. The rocking motion of the boat, even when gentle, makes focusing difficult. A slightly less powerful pair of marine binoculars (7x) works best. Nitrogen-filled binoculars will prevent condensation from forming on the lenses.

Night vision: To see subjects in the dark at a far distance, the opening (exit pupil) through which the light passes to reach your pupil must be at least 5 millimeters in diameter. Infrared or image-intensifying binoculars also help the viewer to see subjects better at night.

Unusual binocular activities

Bait spying: When your fishing trip yields nothing for the evening meal and every other boat crew in the vicinity can’t reel fish in fast enough, a sneak peek with a good pair of binoculars can reveal the bait or lures other anglers are using. 

Small print magnifying: An inverted pair of binoculars can be used as an awkward yet effective microscope. They can help locate tiny splinters or magnify small print often found on food product labels.

Types of binoculars

Roof prism binoculars: Internal prisms closely overlap, which allows the objective lenses to align directly with the eyepieces. The result is a compact H-shape that is focused by moving the lenses instead of the eyepiece. The design prevents air from entering the device and makes it more resistant to water and dust. The streamlined shape is lighter, less bulky and often a bit more rugged than Porro prism designs. However, the interior of roof prism binoculars is complex and more expensive to manufacture than the interior of Porro prism models.

Porro prism binoculars: The lens and the eyepiece are not aligned, resulting in a zig-zag form and an N-shaped housing that is wider than the roof prism design. As a result, Porro prism binoculars provide better depth perception with a slightly clearer, more three-dimensional image and a wider field of view. However, the focus is achieved by moving the eyepiece, making it susceptible to dust and water penetration.

Monocular: A monocular with a single eyepiece and lens is more compact and lighter than other types of binoculars. Subjects are viewed by looking through the lens with one eye and watching the environment with the other eye. Viewers see less depth with the monocular design.

Best binoculars

Best birdwatching binoculars

Vortex Optics Razor HD Roof Prism Binoculars: available at Amazon

Our take: Ideal for birdwatching, the Razor HD binoculars are constructed with an Abbe-Koenig prism, which gives them a long optical path that delivers a sharp resolution. The high-definition optics reduce chromatic aberration and enhance light transmission, providing excellent clarity and performance even in low-light conditions.

What we like: The argon gas filling and O-ring seal prevent moisture and dirt from entering, making the binoculars waterproof and fog proof.

What we dislike: These binoculars are among the most expensive available.

Best binoculars for stargazing

Celestron Skymaster 25X100 binoculars: available at Amazon

Our take: Designed for astronomers and backyard stargazers, the premium-built Celestron SkyMaster 25x100 boasts a sturdy construction and superior optical design to provide a clear and sharp stereoscopic view of the night sky.

What we like: The exquisite 25x magnification, multi-coated optics and 100-millimeter lens diameter work in harmony to provide the viewer with bright images and stunning contrast.

What we dislike: A tripod is required to keep the optics steady.

Best value binoculars

Nikon Prostaff 3S 10x42: available at Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods

Our take: These binoculars are affordable with a build quality usually found only on high-end models. The 10x magnification brings distant objects close, while the 42-millimeter diameter objective lenses provide visual clarity even in low light.

What we like: The robust construction features non-slip rubber armor, an O-ring sealed to prevent moisture penetration and nitrogen filling to prevent fogging.

What we dislike: There is no strap connecting the lens caps to the binoculars.

Best lightweight binoculars

Steiner Safari UltraSharp 10×26 Binoculars: available at Amazon

Our take: Weighing less than most of the competition at only 0.66 pounds, these binoculars are ideal for carrying anywhere. The 10x magnification combined with a UV-coated lens produces high contrast for viewing subjects at a far distance.

What we like: The rugged armor body protects them from abuse, and the waterproof construction prevents damage from rain or an accidental fall into a lake.

What we dislike: This pair has a narrower field of vision than some of its competitors.

Most powerful binoculars

Nikon Aculon A211 10-22×50 Zoom Binoculars: available at Amazon

Our take: The 22x magnification and 50-millimeter objective lens diameter make these Nikon binoculars one of the most powerful in the recreational optics industry.

What we like: Multicoated eco glass lenses deliver a bright and clear image in most lighting conditions and a durable rubber-armored coating provides non-slip grip in the wettest of conditions.

What we dislike: High-powered binoculars require extra-steady hands or a tripod.

Jeff Harper is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

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