Zero to Hero

A Beginners Guide to Buying Binoculars

Capt. Mike Genoun November 17, 2010

Technology has certainly evolved over the last decade. Yet, even with state-of-the-art multi-function displays at our fingertips, some things are still best done with our very own two eyes. This is exactly where binoculars enter the picture.

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Photo: Steiner

Magnifying distant objects and barely visible shorelines has been an essential tool that has aided mariners for centuries. While advanced hardware certainly takes a lot of the guesswork out of situational awareness and object identification; binoculars are here to stay.

Ultimately, much the same as with all tackle and accessories, your final purchasing decision will be a direct result of the investment you’re willing to make…

There are numerous considerations when comparing precision optics. Foremost is reliability, which is defined by the ability to withstand the rigors of the harsh marine environment. Saltwater spray is extremely corrosive, which means durable construction with reliable weather-resistant armor is key, or it’s doubtful your binoculars will last more than a few seasons. Quality marine binoculars are nitrogen purged and tightly sealed with o-rings. While many brands claim their product is 100% waterproof, don’t believe everything you read. Ultimately, much the same as with all tackle and accessories, your final purchasing decision will be a direct result of the investment you’re willing to make. Keep in mind that optics designed solely for land-based activities will certainly leave you disappointed.

As with any pricey accessory, it’s important you understand features and performance capabilities before swiping your card. Don’t lose sight of the fact that only when you fully understand all of the options and compare them to your particular needs will you be able to purchase the right set of binoculars for you.

The first decision that has to be made is choosing between roof prism binoculars and porro prism binoculars. Roof prism binoculars feature straight tubes. The front objective lens is directly in-line with the rear ocular lens. Roof prism binoculars are typically compact, easy to carry and easy to store—important considerations when dash space is limited or if you plan on carrying the binoculars for spotting activity up and down the surf line when fishing the beach.

Porro prism binoculars are much more common in the boating industry and typically feature substantially larger front lenses than rear lenses. Although heavier than roof prism designs, porro prism binoculars generally provide far superior visual acuity. The best binoculars in this class are manufactured utilizing high-density barium crown glass (BAK4) for the clearest high-definition imaging.

Ample magnification is essential, too. We know binoculars are categorized with a number rating, i.e. 7×50. The first number means the object in view appears that many times closer than it would to the naked eye. Common magnifications include 6x through 20x, with the highest-powered binoculars requiring enhanced image stabilization to avoid blurred views.

The second number in the 7×50 description is the diameter of the front objective lens and is directly related to the amount of light being transmitted. While it’s obvious larger lenses allow more light to enter, high-density glass can become quite heavy.

Advanced lens coatings are another factor in the equation. Lens coatings serve multiple purposes including balancing the light being transmitted and reducing UV glare, both of which result in sharp images with outstanding contrast. Coatings have seriously gone high-tech. Steiner Binoculars, a trusted name in optics for over six decades, applies an optical coating that repels moisture with a proprietary substance on the level of molecular bonding. When doing your research it’s important you note how various brands describe coatings. Ideally, you want to wrap your hands around a set of binoculars with lenses that are “Fully Multi-Coated,” meaning all air-to-glass surfaces include multiple layers of anti-reflection coating.

With modern binoculars sporting some pretty crafty features, including built-in compasses and rangefinders to aid in estimating distances to navigational markers or surface-busting game fish. Selecting the perfect pair can be daunting. Before you make a final purchasing decision be sure to get a hands on feel for the quality of glass. Make sure the focusing rings are easily accessible and that the binoculars fit comfortably. Helmsmen who spend a lot of time on the water understand how important it is to have high-quality binoculars within arm’s reach at all times. Not only useful for identifying navigational hazards, but be the first to spot those busting fish way off the starboard bow and you’ll quickly be labeled a hero.

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