Binocular Basics

Choosing between Standard or Compact
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What I say in this section is based upon my experiences in the field as a birder, hunter, and naturalist—for better or worse it is not the result of any research or literature review. In the end there is no substitute for experience. Nothing would please me more than a response from someone who disagrees with every point below!

Which is better? Standard-size binoculars or compacts?

After using both compact and standard-size binoculars over many years, I'm convinced that standard-size binoculars (or "full-size," as they're often called) consistently offer superior performance and value for the dollar. Some of the more important reasons are as follows:

-- A larger field of view. Even a cut-rate pair of standard-size binoculars will still give you a much larger field of view, which always helps in locating wildlife, be it a warbler or an elk.

-- Brighter, crisper images, especially in low-light situations. Standard-size binoculars feature a larger objective lens—that's the end facing the subject. The larger the objective lens, the more light entering the barrel and the sharper and clearer the image. The majority of my wildlife viewing occurs in early morning and at dusk. Ambient light is diminished at these times, even in wide-open terrain. Add the usual complicating factors—dense forest, a shadowed canyon wall, the dark surface of a lake—and there is even less light to work with. I think the light-gathering ability of a pair of binoculars is every bit as important as its power of magnification.

-- A steadier image. Because they're small and lightweight, compact binoculars are harder to hold steady. If you have large hands, you'll find compacts especially difficult to hold and focus in a hurry. A steady view is important when you have an instant to ID a bird before it flies off, or if you've run up a hill trying to catch a glimpse of some furry thing that disappeared over the other side: You reach the top and grab the binoculars; you're flushed and breathing hard, and you can't hold them steady enough to even begin to see anything.

So what are compact binoculars good for? They're totally convenient. You can stick them in a coat pocket, even a shirt pocket—or in a glove box—a tackle box, and have them handy at all times. My five-year-old son uses a pair of compacts, which fit his small hands perfectly. For a lot of people, standard-size binoculars are simply too heavy to carry and difficult to grip.

Compacts certainly have their place in the scheme of things; for me, they're a nice alternative or backup to my 8 x 40 full-size pair. Still, I probably wouldn't have identified nearly as many birds, or spotted as many deer, elk, badgers, mink, and other animals with compacts as I have with the standards.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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