How to choose binoculars for birdwatching.

how to choose binoculars for birdwatching or birding

Birdwatching (or birding) is one main reason people are buying binoculars alongside sports and astronomy. Many nature and wildlife lovers are spending their time observing wildlife and birds through binoculars but for you, I want to help y’all choose the right binoculars for birdwatching. What can be more beautiful than to see the flying wonders of the nature up-close?

How to choose the right binoculars for birdwatching? Take into consideration the magnification to be about 8-10x and the objective lens diameter above 42mm for better low-light performance. Binoculars with multi-coated glass and ED (extra-low dispersion) elements improve clarity, colours and contrast for a better experience while birdwatching.

In general, this is what you should be looking for. But not always the above-recommended values should apply, therefore, I would recommend you keep reading for an in-depth understanding about how to choose the right binoculars for birdwatching.

how to choose binoculars for birdwatching

For a better structure, I am going to section this topic down into a few main categories. Please use the table of content to get to the required section if required.

How to choose the right binoculars for birdwatching?

Birdwatching can be almost everywhere around the world and as normal you may not need to choose binoculars or a spotting scope to be able to do that, but a pair of binoculars will overperform and often will offer you the right experience you may be looking for.

Not all the binoculars are good or the right ones for birdwatching. One first advice is that you should avoid at all to invest in cheap binoculars. They are cheap for a reason, and that reason is the quality of the glass.

When you choose cheap binoculars for birdwatching, you will lose resolution, image quality, you will have chromatic aberration and much more. All these flaws are ruining people experience to birdwatch.

In reality, there are very few binoculars cheap and good. More about the recommended binoculars for birdwatching will follow in the post.

The optimum magnification

The standard magnification you may need for birdwatching is 8x to 10x. You don’t need more, nor less. With less magnification, you may have a very wide field of view and not able to properly see the birds as it should be. They will be far away unless you get really close, but I doubt that. With magnifications above 10x, you may find it very hard to carry on steady handheld observations, due to the shake induced. More the magnification = more image shake you observe. And for a tripod for birdwatching? We’ll speak about that in the following sections.

What you actually need is 8x magnification or 10x magnification. It is difficult to find anything in-between like a binocular with 9x magnification unless is a zoom binocular.

With 8x magnification is very optimum as you may have a wider field of view, more light can be captured (with the same aperture as on a 10x magnification), larger exit pupils etc. It is great to observe in general flock of birds as the field of view may be wide enough to allow that.

With a 10x magnification, you have another 2x to add. Now you can watch the birds more closely and in detail than with the 8x. More details are shown, and this is on the limit of watching with the binoculars handheld. Anything above 10x you may need a tripod. But the disadvantage is that the image may look a bit darker than with the 8x but not always the case, as long as you have an optimum objective lens diameter to allow your binoculars capture enough amount of light.

Follow the table of differences between birdwatching with 8x and 10x magnification:

8x Magnification:

  • Wider field of view, brighter image, more stability when carrying observations handheld.
  • Good for watching a flock of birds or good enough if you are approaching the birds.

10x Magnification

  • Narrower field of view, less stability but you may able to see much more details than on the 8x magnification
  • Good for observing and studying single birds/nests and may not need to get that close as on the 8x

Fixed magnification or zoom binoculars for birdwatching?

Now you may be asking yourself, why not to choose a pair of binoculars with zoom for birdwatching, to cover 8x and 10x and maybe even other magnifications? It does look tempting, doesn’t it?

In reality, you may be able to do that and as you may think there is no reason why you shouldn’t do it, but there is one:

Zoom binoculars have more glass inside to perform the zoom function. Much more glass inside. With more glass, the image quality decreases a lot compared to fixed magnification, moreover, the production price increases.

Therefore, expect that two binoculars under the same price, one with fixed magnification and the other one with zoom, the zoom one to have cheaper glass inside as more was needed for basic production.

My recommendation? do not choose binoculars with zoom for birdwatching, unless you are willing to invest a lot into a good pair with amazing optics behind.

Binoculars with fixed magnificationBinoculars with zoom
AdvantagesCheaper price for the same quality, better performance, better quality overall, brighter images and offers overall a better birdwatching experienceYou may be able to perform zoom function to cover everything from flocks of bird to detailed birds or nests.
DisadvantagesHave a fixed magnification. Sometimes, you may need two binoculars to perform such observations as one binocular with zoom may do the job.Worse performance and quality than fixed magnification due to more glass, more expensive, darker images, the exit pupils may underperform on maximum zoom.

With zoom binoculars at their maximum magnification, the exit pupils may underperform and the image can look very dark and observing through binoculars for a long period of time may become irritable. Giving as an example 8-24×40. At 8x you have the exit pupils of 5mm, were at 24x of 1.66mm. That is very bad. Not to mention the need for a tripod for stability at 24x magnification.

More information about exit pupils will follow in the article.

The binoculars aperture or objective lens diameter

The objective lens diameter is the size (diameter) of the main glass element. In reality, this has high importance for the fact that it controls the amount of light captured and the field of view. This is identified as being the second number which characterizes a binocular (e.g. 8×42 = 8x magnification and 42x objective lens diameter)

I am going to share with you a table with the recommended apertures of binoculars (not minimum) required for the best experience per observation.

Observation TypeObjective Lens Diameter
General daylight observations (sunny)25mm+ (does not matter)
General daylight observation (cloudly)42mm+
Nature & Wildlife observation42mm+
Concerts, events & sports30-50mm
Moon observations25mm+ (does not matter)
Stargazing (deep sky objects)50mm+, 70mm+ recommended.

Some other people may have different input but from my personal experience with binoculars carried over the years of testing and owning, I found that the above objective lens diameters are the recommended ones for the type of observation.

Now highlighting the point where I mentioned the nature and wildlife observations, here it comes birdwatching. Why do you need 42mm+, which is relatively large if you think about it?

To observe birds in their natural habitat may mean that the observations can be done at dawn, dusk, inside of a forest, in a cloudly day and so on. TO ENSURE that you won’t have problem with observations where the lighting can be difficult for other small aperture binoculars, I strongly recommend you anything (well, not anything) with an aperture or objective lens diameter of 42mm+.

You also may have noticed the “+” sign after the aperture size. Anything above that aperture will work just fine, but beware, that the larger the aperture = more weight it adds to the binoculars.

As an instance with my Skymaster 25×100 astrobinoculars. They are massive, about 6-8 time the size of my Nikon 10×42, and the weight just over 5 kilograms. It is a bit dumb if I am going to choose these binoculars for birdwatching, isn’t it? not really! Please follow the post into “the few exceptions” category for more information.

ED glass for birdwatching?

ED or Extra-low dispersion glass is special glass found in some binoculars models (and other optic devices too such as lenses) with their main role is to reduce chromatic aberration (external link for more info about chromatic aberration)

Although in the past couple of years the ED glass was found only in the high-end binoculars with astronomic prices, the costs decreased in time and now this particular glass can be found on mid-priced binoculars

If you were to ask me a couple of years back if it does worth to invest in binoculars with ED glass, I would say no due to the price. But now I can definitely say YES. The binoculars with ED glass are indeed a bit more expensive than the normal ones but definitely worth the price difference.

As an instance, with a real example, I am talking about the Nikon binoculars Prostaff 10×42 and Monarch 10×42 (check the differences on Amazon – Affiliate Links). Approximately to say there is about $100 difference between the same binoculars models made by the same company but one without ED elements (Prostaff) while the other one has ED glass (Monarch)

Now that we talked about the price differences and we observed that indeed the ED binoculars are more expensive, does this worth in the end to choose them for birdwatching?

Well, if you do not have a lot of money to invest and birdwatching is just a small passion or you want to try for the first time, the non-ED binoculars will do just fine (as I own one pair of Prostaff 10×42 and I can tell from my experience) but if you are interested to get the best from binoculars and have the greatest experience while birdwatching, I would definitely recommend you to focus on binoculars with ED elements.

The importance of the exit pupils

I had mentioned before the term of exit pupils but now I want to largely talk about why exit pupils are important in birdwatching and in general, in any binoculars observation.

The exit pupils in binoculars are the size or diameter of the light beam going through the ocular lens directly into your pupils. The exit pupils have a direct impact on the field of view and low-light performance. This is calculated in “mm”, and the formula is dividing the objective lens diameter to the magnification.

Example a pair of binoculars 8×40, which means the binoculars have 8x magnification and 40mm objective lens diameter. Now divide 40/8 and we have the exit pupils of 5mm.

The human eye’s pupils are known to be open about 2-3mm during daylight and up to 7mm during the night. This may be slightly different for every person, but in general, larger the human eye pupil, more light can observe during low-light and night situations.

When we observe through binoculars with small exit pupils, the image seems to be darker and harder to align our eyes to the ocular lens of the binoculars to the light ray which is passing through. Generalizing, the exit pupils have to be wider to offer an optimum watching experience but not too wide.

In birdwatching, we do the observations during the day in general, sunny or overcast, it may be even morning or evening, in a forest or in a difficult lighting situation; I mentioned earlier that we do prefer to choose binoculars with an objective lens diameter of 42mm+ to cover birdwatching.

That is true and calculating the exit pupils in general to the objective lens diameter and the optimum zoom recommended of 8x or 10x, we may have an exit pupils of 4-5mm, which is brilliantly good for any types of daylight observations.

But what happens if you choose a pair of binoculars 10x25mm for birdwatching?

25mm means poor low-light performance and the exit pupils is going to be of 2.5mm. This makes the observation difficult as there will be challenging to align and keep aligned the binoculars to our eyes and the image will be darker in general.

Below, I will try to cover 5 different binocular settings to the exit pupils it may have and the performance it may have for birdwatching.

SettingsExit pupilsPerformance
10×242.4mmLow aperture. narrow exit pupils. Poor low-light performance overall. Do not recommend.
8-16×253.1mm-1.56mmZoom binoculars with low aperture. Exit pupils of 3.1mm at minimum zoom and 1.56mm and maximum zoom. A disaster in low-light performance while zoomed in. Definitely do not recommend.
8×425.25mmOptimum magnification, larger aperture. Good exit pupils. Definitely recommend for birdwatching
10×424.2mmSame aperture as the above but more magnification. The image should be slightly darker but will definitely perform very well. I recommend.
10×505mmSame magnification as the above but larger aperture. We got extra light and larger exit pupils. Definitely recommend for birdwatching.

The prism design

Masterpiece representation of Porro prisms and Roof Prisms

There is no major difference in quality between the Porro prisms and roof prisms. Those are the two main prisms binoculars are using. The Porro prisms are more often used for the majority of binoculars allowing the design to carry larger objective lenses, where the roof prism are found in more compact binoculars.

Although the Roof prisms are not as common as the Porro, they are found in high-end compact binoculars. In terms of price, we are going to see a higher percentage of Porro Prisms binoculars on the market at a cheaper price.

In the end, is just a matter of preference but I won’t focus too much on it. Moreover, to be able to carry larger objective lenses, a Porro prism is often found in those binoculars.

Focusing distance for birdwatching

The focusing distance is the actual distance between you and your subject. Most of the binoculars are able to focus relatively close (under 10m / 33ft) but some of them won’t focus that close.

In terms of observations, you have to think about how close can you get to your subject? If you expect that you will be closer than 10m or 33ft, I rather look for binoculars with a closer focusing distance. Now this said, there are a few binoculars which are underlining the focusing distance, therefore, they are often known as “macro binoculars”

Not really a term I want to use but the minimum focusing distance for some of those binoculars are about 50cm distance (half a meter, 1.6ft) As you probably won’t get that close to a bird, they are good for extreme situations where you may actually be able to do that. Have a look at our other article where we covered these binoculars.

The few binoculars exceptions for birdwatching

Not always 8x and 10x may be the only magnification you can use for birdwatching, same goes with the aperture, as not always above 42mm may be the best. There are plenty of situations where you may actually need something… a bit different.

The whole article is just a guideline and not a rule to follow. But in some cases, I would break those guidelines and take the birdwatching to the next level.

  • Binoculars with image stabilisation.

The first point where I would break this rule if you may want to go for the binoculars with image stabilisation. As an instance, I would give an example a 12×30 IS binoculars. 12x is indeed above the ‘recommended magnification’ and 30mm below the ‘recommended aperture’. Same goes with the exit pupils of 2.5mm – below our recommended exit pupils values.

But here is the thing. Those binoculars may have exceptional optics behind and the active image stabilisation. The optics may help indeed to improve the brightness and contrast in daylight conditions and the image stabilisation to improve the overall birdwatching experience by stabilising the image to a steady point where you may love more those binoculars than a standard pair of 8×42

I would rather not say “go and buy the first IS binoculars” but test them in the field if you got your hands on a pair and see how this goes.

  • “The big daddies of birdwatching”

That is not a term I want to use but the best to compare with the standard binoculars are the astronomy binoculars or telescopes where in some specific situations you may want to have those.

I will give you a real-life example. I have the Skymaster 25×100 – 25x magnification and 100mm objective lens diameter. Those are definitely not binoculars to choose for birdwatching. How do you carry them around? they are so heavy! and not to mention you need a good and steady tripod.

If you got into an observation point over a nature reserve, I would rather have the bulky 25×100 over my 10×42. A few reasons behind: 1 – I do not change my position so I don’t have to carry them around. 2 – The distance between me and the wildlife is relatively huge, probably 50-100m or even more. The 10×42 may not be enough in this situation.

One another example if you are going to safari or any other zone where you really want to keep the distance from your subject, not only birds but wildlife in general and you have a good vantage point, a 25×100 or a spotting scope or even a ground telescope will work amazingly. Keep in mind that sometimes the 8 or 10×42 may come in hand, so don’t go to buy the bulkiest binoculars from the market just for the extra zoom or aperture. Carefully consider your needs and if there are circumstances where any other binocular types may overtake the advantage of having a standard binocular for birdwatching.

Waterproof, weatherproof?

Absolutely yes. Most of the binoculars within the average price range will be waterproof (check the documentation of your binoculars), weatherproof and fog-proof. It is the most important that your binoculars may be characterized to be in special weatherproof and fog-proof as you are going to be in nature while birdwatching and sometimes it may start raining or be foggy – you do not want condensation inside the binoculars.

In fact, the majority of those binoculars are nitrogen-filled with an O-seal ring to keep the weather elements outside and avoid condensation at all. They are brilliant for any extreme weather conditions. Moreover, the binoculars with nitrogen-filled gas are protecting the inside from forming any kind of mould or fungus in long-term usage.

Definitely you should make sure that the binoculars are weatherproof, waterproof and fog-proof before you buy them.

On the average price basis, there would be a few binoculars I would recommend to choose for birdwatching – you cannot go wrong there.

But before all, let’s narrow down the whole article to the most basics: How binoculars should be for the best birdwatching experience?

The best binocular settings for birdwatching:
Magnification: 8x to 10x is the optimum magnification. No zoom binoculars
Objective lens diameter: Above 42mm
The optics: High-quality optics, preferably ED glass elements.
The exit pupils: Above 3-3.5mm
Sealed: O-ring sealed with nitrogen-gas filled in – waterproof, weatherproof and fog-proof.
Prisms: Both Roof and Porro prisms would do just fine.

Disclaimer: The below links of the recommended binoculars are Amazon Affiliate Links – the products are on Amazon and to respect their policies, I am not going to say the prices as they may change. We earn a small commission if you are going to buy the products through our affiliate links.

Nikon Monarch 8×42 ED

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The Nikon Monarch 8×42 is our first and the top-recommended binoculars for birdwatching on an average price. This Monarch model, the same as Monarch 10×42 have ED glass elements inside. The binoculars are weatherproof, waterproof and fog-proof by having nitrogen-gas filled in and O-ring sealed. The cheaper alternative to those binoculars is the Prostaff 8×42 and Prostaff 10×42 without the ED elements.

Celestron Outland X 10×50

how to choose celestron binoculars for birdwatching

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Celestron is well known to be producing amazing astronomy binoculars, the big bulky ones. But they also produce a series “outland X” for the outdoorists, making these binoculars good to choose for birdwatching at a relatively cheap price. The binoculars do not have ED elements but are nitrogen-purged and O-ring sealed making it waterproof, weatherproof and fog-proof.

Canon 10×30 IS

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The above binoculars are the exception I’ve been talking on the section above and although these have an only 30mm objective lens diameter on a 10x magnification with the 3mm exit pupils, the optics behind and the image stabilisation may overtake those disadvantages and offer a great experience for birdwatching. I would recommend to test them before you buy them, but in general, they are great binoculars for birdwatching.

Now is the time for some questions to be answered. If you have any other questions please leave a comment in the section below and I will try to cover them in the Q&A section 🙂

Do I need to pick a tripod when I choose binoculars for birdwatching?

No, in general, you do not need a tripod for birdwatching binoculars if the binocular magnification is about 8x or 10x or does have image stabilisation. However, you may have a better experience if you set your binoculars on a portable tripod or even better, on a monopod.

How to take birds photographs through binoculars?

There are two simple techniques to do that: the first one is to align the phone camera to the binocular eyepiece and snap a picture, but this may be difficult, while the second option is to have a universal mount adaptor for mobile phone.

I wrote a full article covering this subject, therefore, I would recommend you to check it here if you are interested in how to take birds photographs through binoculars.

It seems that this may be the alternative of taking photographs with the mobile camera through binoculars. In general, I definitely do not recommend binoculars with camera for the following reasons:

  • Most of the binoculars with a camera are cheaply manufactured, extra optics and electronics to cover and does not offer good experience birdwatching or recording/photographing the birds.
  • Rarely you may find binoculars with a camera with a larger objective lens diameter to provide good observations or recordings during difficult lighting conditions.
  • Unless you are investing in an expensive piece of equipment, I definitely not recommend them.

For more information about it, I would recommend you to have a quick read on my other article “Should I buy binoculars with camera?”

Spotting scopes or binoculars for birdwatching?

In the case of birdwatching, I would recommend the binoculars over the spotting scopes for the simple fact that you are able to observe with both of your eyes. This does not mean that the spotting scopes may not have their use as they are more portable than binoculars but simply does not offer the same experience as watching through binoculars.

Can I use the birdwatching binoculars for other types of observations?

Yes, of course. A standard 8x or 10x magnification with a 42mm+ objective lens diameter binoculars may be widely used for any other type of observations such as sports, stadium sports, landscaping, nature, events & concerts, moon watching or even astronomy.

This is great. I hope I did cover everything to know about how to choose binoculars for birdwatching in this topic. Please, if not, or if you have any other questions, leave a message in the comment section below. For now, I say thank you for reading our article and great observations to have!

Gabriel Mihalcea

Passionate about binoculars, photography and blogging with years experience behind, I love to split my time and observe the beauty of this world with different eyes.

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