Friday, March 8, 2013

My Optics

I am a well-known birder and author of bird books.  I am often asked what optics I use.  The answer is: a lot.

I have used many different brands of binoculars and telescopes over the years, and there are so many good products on the market today that I could not possibly even try them all.  However, I’ll share a few tidbits about what I use and why.  My only caveat is that I have done product testing for Leupold optics and have a casual connection to the company. They don’t pay me but I do get complimentary products now and then. I keep the ones I like.


I own several pairs of binoculars.  Right now my main everyday pair is an older-model Swarovski 8.5x42 EL.  These are really glorious for a bright, flat, crisp view at any distance. They are amazingly crisp at long distances. I like them a bit better than the new “Swarovision” kind.  Why?  I’m not sure.  But I do. 

Would I spend that kind of money for binoculars again?  No.  There are many excellent bins out there in the $300 to $700 price range. If I were starting from scratch I’d probably get mid-price Leupold, Kowa, Pentax, Vortex or any of the other brands that offer decent optics in the price range.  There are really not many differences in mid-price mid-size binoculars.

I am shopping for some 10x42 bins to use at the coast.  I’m not sure what I’ll get yet. The new Kowa line of mid-priced (under $1,000) binoculars is superb and I hear good things about the Leupold McKinleys, which are brand-new and I have not yet seen. A lot depends on ergonomics in the hand; the optical differences are minimal. I don’t mind heavier binoculars; some people do.

I have some “mini-bins” for special purposes. One pair never leaves the car, because you never know when you might see a bird.  They are Leupold Katmai 8x32, an excellent, rugged super-compact that lives easily in a corner of the glove compartment.  Their little sister, the Katmai 6x32, stays at home and is the “feeder-watch” binocular.  They are also excellent for sporting events. Their only drawback is that the eyecups get stiff to move up and down.  I wear glasses so I don’t move them.


My scopes have changed many times over the years.  Right now my main birding scope is a Leupold Boone & Crockett 20-60 x 80mm.  It is optically wonderful, clear up to 60x, but has a couple of issues.  One of these is that the focus mechanism takes a lot of turns and is a little stiff.  The other is that the groove on the mounting plate that is intended to take a stabilizer pin is slightly too narrow for some pins.  The groove concept is excellent, as it means you don’t have to aim your pin for a hole.  However, you may have to shave your pin a little.

I also have an Orion Apex 127mm Maksutov-Cassegrain mirror scope. The Orion scope is superb for “deep-water” birding under good conditions, that is, sitting on a headland scanning for seabirds.  The body is inexpensive, about $400, and the eyepieces are standard 1.25 inch astronomicals. I use Orion Edge-On eyepieces, which are fairly expensive (about $100 each) but give a splendid view.  You can, for example, get a perfectly bright, usable 81x or even higher powers. I also have a fancy Celestron zoom eyepiece that fits the Orion scope and goes to 125x, which is usable only under the best conditions of atmospheric clarity. This scope is NOT waterproof at all and needs good atmospheric conditions to be truly effective.  It is also bulky.  However, on the days when I can use it, it is amazingly good for things like distant murrelets.

Finally, I keep a Leupold Golden Ring “scopelet” in the car at all times, wedded to a window mount.  This is a 10-20 x 40mm pocket scope that is absolutely perfect for those sudden pullovers when you see waterfowl, hawks or shorebirds from the road, and your “real” scope can’t be quickly hauled into position. The 20x through a 40mm objective is enough power to sort out most of what I see.

 The "Scopelet" mounted for use

I have also recently used the 80mm Pentax. It has the advantage of having eyepieces interchangeable with the Orion mirror scope and a very bright image, but is so large that it’s like carrying a harbor seal on a tripod (Leica owners will know what that’s like). For a couple of years I used the Leupold Kenai (comes with two eyepieces, a mediocre 30x wide-angle and a fairly good 25-60 zoom), Leupold Variable (a superb 15-40 zoom with huge eye relief, but stops at 40x and sometimes on the coast I want more) and the Nikon Fieldscope, both the small and large sizes, all of which are good.  Nikon makes a wonderful fixed-power 60x eyepiece for its scopes.

Kowa is making some remarkably good scopes these days, and Leica, Zeiss and Swarovski continue to be the upper scrapings of the market, and the cost. The best scope I have ever looked through is the top-end Zeiss, which is astonishing at high powers.  You can also take a ten-day WINGS tour for what the scope costs. 

The Changing World of Optics

So what are the trends that I am watching as an optics user? The latest Swarovski binoculars are excellent but in my view don’t represent a real advance over the next-oldest EL models.  I think their EL models are just as good as the “Swarovision” things. If somebody buys a Swarovision and offers to sell you their EL at a good price, take it.

Leupold is making some very solid mid-range binoculars and so are Pentax, Kowa and other companies.  Many of these are in fact produced at the same Chinese factories and badged as needed, with minor differences. Slightly further down-market, the Vortex and Eagle Optics brands scorned by some birders because they don’t have a fancy name are perfectly good for most users under most conditions.

Leica is making superb optics these days, and Kowa, which faded a bit in the 1990s and early 2000s, has probably improved the most in the last ten years and has some really excellent binocs and scopes out there now, closing in on the upper-crusties.

The good news is that the general level of quality is absurdly high these days.  I don’t think you need to buy really expensive toys to get good optics and have a good field experiece.  You do need to find something that works for you, which might be different from what works for me.

Good birding.

1 comment:

dhogaza said...

When my old armored Zeiss 10x42s got stolen some years back, I decided I didn't really want to spent 4 digits for a pair of binoculars. In my life, that money is better spent on camera optics.

So I bought a pair of Leupold roof-prism 10x50s.

Optically, they're great. Less chromatic abberation on the edges of the image circle than my old Zeiss (I'm sure modern offerings by Zeiss have improved greatly, though), less curvature of field (not really important for binoculars) etc.

I'm extremely happy with them.

I think one thing you get with both high-end birding optics and high-end camera optics is robustness. My old zeiss survived 15 years of being bashed to the ground while trapping hawks for banding, they were really beat up.

The Leupold's are a bit dainty, the one time they were dropped, into fairly thick gravel, an eyecup got messed up and now won't extend all the way. A minor nuisance, but I baby these while I was reasonably certain the old Zeiss would stop bulllets.

Then again, given the price I paid, I could destroy two copies of this binocular and after buying a third replacement would still be ahead of the price of pair of Zeiss or equivalent.