Selecting the Best Safari Binoculars for Photographers and Holiday Travelers

One of the best decisions I made when planning my first Chobe safari was getting a good pair of binoculars.   With this overview, I hope I will help you make the right decision on binoculars for your safari journey.

I guess the first discussion is on whether you actually need binoculars.  In other articles at this site, it is discussed how close one can get to game and how plentiful the game is at Chobe National Park.  The truth is that while one can get by without, the entire experience is enhanced with binocular. They allow one to:

  • spot game in the distance that may be of high interest for viewing or photography.
  • see details on an animal they may have been missed.
  • Better appreciate birdlife in the park
  • Note things in low light that many have gone unnoticed (with the right binoculars, objects will actually appear brighter in low light conditions through these glasses than to the naked eye!).
  • Spot animals in bushes that would have gone unnoticed.

In summary, you can get by without binoculars, but, you’ve been planning this trip for a long time.  Your spending a lot of money to be on this safari.  It would be a shame to miss out on the full experience of the game drive by not having this one basic piece of equipment. Once it is decided that a pair is needed, other key questions include how much does one need to spend and how powerful should the binoculars be.  The following discussions will hopefully answer these questions as well as help one in understanding features of binoculars.

Please note: most safari companies and guides on game drives often supply one pair of binoculars to the group but they are often of low quality and a little battered from regular use and you will have to share them.  Since you never know when action will occur at Chobe National Park, missing something exciting because someone else has the binoculars can be frustrating. Further, binoculars should be adjusted to your eyes.  If sharing a pair, precious time is lost fumbling with controls one is unfamiliar with.

How To Select Binoculars

If you have read this far, you are probably interested in getting the right pair.  You will also note very quickly that the selection process will include compromise.  I know you want it all in this purchase, but, sorry, it can’t be done.  For example high magnification means less of a field of view or aA compact body design will probably result in less light gathering ability.  This limitation on ‘having it all’ is why one needs to have a primer. It can be quite confusing. In the following discussion we will review some of the key terminology and, maybe more basically, what the numbers mean.

The numbers:

When you begin looking at binoculars, you are going to see numbers such as 8×42, 10×50, 7×35, etc., so lets begin by helping you understand what numbers mean. This is standard nomenclature, so let’s discuss one of these.  First, an 8×42 would be pronounced eight by forty two. The number before the “x” is the binoculars magnification and the number after the “x” is the binoculars objective lens (outside lens) size in millimeters. Once would call an 8×42 binocular has 8 times magnification and a 42mm objective lens.

Okay, we have explained what these first two numbers mean, now let’s discuss how to use this information

Magnification

Above, I have used the examples of 8×42, 10×50 and 7×35.  You now know that the first pair has eight times magnification (8x), the second has ten times (10x) and the third has seven times (7x), but these numbers are merely relative without some more reference information. A first, fairly useless point of reference: binoculars on a giant battleship are 40×178 and must be supported by a stand.  What you needs to have a high power of magnification to be able to see the spots on a leopard but not too high because there is no place for a tripod in a safari vehicle and a handheld binocular with a very high magnification power is difficult to keep still.  Typically, the larger the magnification the larger the size and weight and safari travel is about compact packing and travel weight restrictions. In theory the higher this number the ‘closer’ your target appears to be. BUT above 10 and you get shake and so the image moves around too much. Limit yourself to 8 or 10 for Safari.

Recommendation: For viewing wildlife, I personally like a larger magnification, around 8x to 10x, which is pretty big, but to get this I am giving up some field of view (discussed below), which I feel is not as important on safari. Powers of 7x or 8x are by far the most popular among regular binocular users. Binoculars with magnifications above about 12x are generally not recommended for use without a tripod.

Note: A binoculars magnification also has an effect on the brightness of the image – if the objective lens size stays the same , the more you magnify, the dimmer the image will be. With this additional understanding, let’s review objective lens diameter:

Objective Lens diameter

The second number (for example, the “42” in an 8×42 binocular) is the diameter of the Objective Lens in millimeters (mm).  The objective lens is the front lens on the binoculars. This governs the amount of light that can get through to your eye and thus the brighter clearer the magnified image you see.

While higher magnification powers can be useful, power by itself does NOT increase the level of observable detail; image resolution is a function of objective lens diameter, not of binocular power. Higher powers result in images that are less bright and in a binocular that is more difficult to hold steady in the user’s hands. A binoculars objective lens size determines how much light the binocular can gather. The larger the lens the more light the binocular can take in, giving you brighter images.

A binoculars physical size is determined by its objective lens. An 8×25 binocular and an 8×40 binocular both will see the same 8x magnified view, however the 8×25 will have smaller 25mm objective lenses and this means a smaller, compact body design. The 8×40 binocular will have larger 40mm objective lenses, giving the binocular a larger body design.

You will be out spotting wildlife in the early morning and at dusk; therefore you need a binocular with a large outer diameter . The bigger the number the better works here too. The only drawback is that bigger also means heavier and bulkier. Your neck will be very tired if you carry around a pair of 12×60 binoculars all day!

The larger 40mm-50mm objective lens sizes will collect a lot of light for viewing in lower light conditions and are desired for safari. As noted before, binocular selection is full of compromise. Recommendation: Recognizing the need for compromise on size and weight yet needing to have good low light viewing, I selected a 42mm objective lens.

Exit Pupil Size

You also want a decent exit pupil size to collect a lot of light in these low light conditions.   Actually, in determining the magnification and the objective lens size, you will indirectly determine the exit pupil size for a pair of binoculars. The exit pupil is the magnified image in the eyepiece as it leaves the binocular to enter your eye and its diameter, measured in millimeters, is determined by dividing the aperture by the magnification. Exit pupil diameters will generally vary from 2.5mm to 7.1mm and, as an example, a 7 X 35 binocular will have an exit pupil of 5mm.

The main importance of the exit pupil is how it relates to the pupil size of your eye. The eye pupil is controlled by the iris, which acts like a variable aperture for the retina and will allow the pupil to change in size from about 2mm up to 8mm, depending on the brightness of the available light. When the exit pupil of the binocular is larger than the eye pupil, some of the light coming from the binocular will fall on the iris and is undetected by the observer. When the exit pupil is smaller than the eye pupil, then the amount of light falling on the retina will be less than that collected with your normal vision at that particular time, and so the object observed will appear dim.  It should also be noted that resolution and contrast are affected adversely, resulting in loss of clarity of the observed image.

The discussion needs to get a little technical here, but this is an important understanding. On a bright day, an observed image through a compact 8 X 20 binocular (exit pupil 2.5mm) will appear just as bright as a 7 X 50 (exit pupil 7.1mm) since one’s daylight-adapted pupil (2 to 3mm diameter) is the limiting factor in observed brightness under these conditions. However, at dusk or very early morning light on safari, the eye pupil size will vary between 4 and 5mm. For the best performance under these conditions, a minimum exit pupil of 4mm is essential, such as that provided by a 8 X 32 or a 10 X 40. From the above discussion, one can see that it’s important to consider the exit pupil of a binocular in the context of eye pupil size and the viewing time or conditions of the observer.

The ocular, or eyepiece, design included with a binocular has important performance implications. While the most basic function of an eyepiece is to magnify the image formed by the objective lens, in fact the eyepiece also largely determines the binocular’s field of view and edge-of-field image resolution.

Recommendation: As noted, the exit pupil size will be driven by magnification and objective lens diameter, but keep in mind the ration and shoot for 5.25 mm or more

Field of View

A binocular’s field of view is pretty much what the name implies.  It is the width of real estate one can see at a specific distance.  Technically, it is measured in degrees of arc or as field-width (in feet) at 1000 yards distance. A great way to visualize this is with an example.  Consider binoculars with a field of view of 310 feet at 1000 yards.  Now imagine a fence that is 1000 yards away from you and is infinitely wide from left to right. When you look at that fence in your binoculars, you will see 310 feet of that fence.

The field of view of the binocular is generally determined by its magnification. Binoculars with smaller magnifications have larger fields of view. The more you magnify, the field of view is decreased. Once more, we are talking about the compromise during binocular selection. The Field of view is probably more important in bird watching binoculars because many birds are fast moving and erratic so a wide field of view makes them easier to locate through the binoculars.

Recommendation: I am soft on this recommendation as I don’t think it is as critical on safari as it would be for something viewing a football game.  A target would be at least 330 feet at 1000 yards.

Eye Relief

Eye relief is actually a term that describes how far away from the eyepiece your eye can be and still see the whole field of view. While this can affect comfort for all uses, it is most important for eyeglass wearers, because glasses hold the eyes back from the eyepieces. If the distance to your eyes is greater than the binoculars’ eye relief, you will see only the center part of the image. It’s like paying for a box seat but watching the game through a hole in the fence.

Normal eye relief for binoculars ranges from 9 to 13 mm. Even though the eyecups of most binoculars adjust to let one wearing glasses get closer to the back of the binoculars, in many cases, it’s not close enough.

RecommendationThis seems most critical when using your binoculars with sunglasses or prescription eyewear. If you wear glasses, shoot for an eye relief of 15 or more.

Lens material

As I have noted before, you have waited a long time and are paying a lot for this trip, so you are going to be want to see the animals very clearly.  It all starts with the glass. This is also where binocular cost really starts to go up. Better optics come from better quality glass.  Quality glass can be expensive.  Ultra-High Quality glass can be really expensive.  The better the glass, the less imperfections in it that can scatter or keep light from moving through it correctly.  This is ultimately what you are paying for – the quality of the glass.

Coatings are applied to the glass to help with light transmission.  But not all coatings are the same quality, and not all binoculars apply coatings to all surfaces.  Be careful to look at the manufacturers wording. “Coated optics” generally that means they have applied coatings to the outside lenses. Better binoculars have lenses that are listed as “fully coated”.

Recommendation: Look for “fully coated” to be sure the glass has been coated on both sides for even better light transmission.  You will even find “multi-coated” and “fully multi-coated” when more than one coating is applied to the lenses.

Binocular Types
Mini Binoculars generally include objective lenses not larger than about 26mm (1″) in diameter, are of a straight-line roof prism design, and are designed for compactness and ease of transport.

Mini binoculars are small, lightweight and highly versatile in their range of applications. For example, as a moderately priced gift, it is a rare person who will not enjoy, and find many uses for, a mini binocular. Because of their relatively small objective lenses, however, mini binoculars are not intended for safari.

Compact Binoculars utilize Porro prisms to invert the image and usually are styled to form-fit comfortably in the observer’s hands; objective lenses are typically 26mm in diameter or less. As their name implies, compact binoculars, while larger than mini binoculars, are relatively small and easy to carry.

Compact binoculars are extremely popular for sporting events, as a gift item, or as a general-purpose travel binocular because, again, for all but the most advanced applications, compacts provide a good trade-off between weight, performance and cost; however, I do not recommend these for a safari.

Standard Porro Prism Binoculars: Most binoculars referred to as general-purpose are standard Porro prism models. They  typically have large objective lens apertures, 35mm or more, which enables bright, high-contrast images on the entire range of viewing subjects, from sporting events, to long-range animal observation in the wild, to high-resolution study of a bird’s feather structure.

A moderately priced, high-quality, standard Porro prism model is a binocular for almost any observing application. Standard Porro prism binoculars are available in a wide range of specifications and price points.

Standard Roof Prism Binoculars: provide professional-level binocular resolution and performance. Designed usually for advanced applications, such as for serious birders and safari, standard roof prism binoculars are typically of 35mm objective lens aperture or larger; include sleek, straight-line roof prism styling; and incorporate the finest optical glasses, multicoatings, and multi-element eyepieces. The result is bright, extremely sharp, high-resolution images throughout the field of view, and with a level of image fidelity unobtainable in lesser binoculars. Although premium-grade standard roof prism binoculars are not inexpensive, they are usually treasured for a lifetime.

Porro vs. Roof prism: From the above, you can see that both roof prism and porro prism binoculars may be a fit so I am sure you are wondering what are the advantages of roof prism and Porro prism binoculars. Roof prism binoculars are lighter and have a closer focus distance. Roof prism binoculars also have a more stream-lined design. Porro prism binoculars often cost less than roof prism binoculars and can provide better depth perception.

Recommendation: Both will work – it is partially a style issue and partially an issue of how often one plans to use the binoculars.  I hope to go on safari or birdwatch often, so I have personally chosen porro prism binoculars.

Other factors: Size/ Construction

  • It needs to be light and compact because you will be packing a lot of other things for your safari and there are weight limitation considerations. If possible, you want a pari that ways no more than 32 ounces.
  • The roads in Africa can get rough and might cause you to drop your safari binoculars so they need to be tough to withstand accidental bumps and bashes.
  • Water protected if not waterproof (will help to keep out dust)
  • You’re using these for travel in a remote place.  You want the best pair that you can afford to loose! Don’t go crazy on this decision.

Price

The last factor to discuss is price.  I have noted several times that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many, so you want really good binoculars, but that said, it mustn’t cost too much because a safari is often a once in a lifetime experience and even though you might use it on occasion back home it probably will not justify spending the thousands which some of the best binoculars cost.

A common question that comes up is “what makes that 2000 dollar 10×42 binocular better than the $200 10×42 binocular? If they are both 10×42, what could possibly make them have so many different price ranges?

From the discussions above, you can guess that its optical quality.  But what does that even mean?  Really?  Two-thousand dollars for a binocular? So who buys $2000 binoculars? People with a lot of money!  But seriously, this isn’t always the case.  Why do golfers buy $600 drivers?  Are all golfers wealthy?

A binocular is an important tool in three very popular hobbies.  Birding, hunting and wildlife viewing.  Birders will spend top-dollar on high end optics because they look out of those binoculars for hours at a time, the quality of the image is very important in their enjoyment of their favorite hobby.  Hunters rely on high quality optics to mean the difference of not getting that trophy buck or not even seeing it. For the avid wildlife viewer, every detail on the animal is important.

In the discussions above, we have provided the ammunition for a good decision. Think about what you are using your binoculars to view and how often you will use them.  Many of the best selling binoculars are priced under 150 dollars because this is the budget for average binocular use.  If your only use is to get a quick check out the back field to observe any activity on your property, a simple inexpensive binocular will do the job just fine, but we are talking safari – low light use on the trip of a lifetime.

You can take a 100 dollar binocular and a 500 dollar binocular out on a sunny day and both will perform very well.  They will do their job, bring objects in closer for your viewing enjoyment.   But if you were told to look at this problem in low light of ask to comment on the quality of the image from the edge of the field to the other edge of the field, you would start to see some differences.  If you also were told to look at the color difference between them, you would begin to see even more differences.  As you get up to the highest quality binoculars, you immediately notice how “perfect” things look.

Recommendation I love the great glass, but I think you can get a decent pair for safari between $200 and $400.  Considering the cost of camera bodies, lenses, etc.  this isn’t a bad price for good glass.

Bottom Line Summary: Best Safari Binoculars

Magnification: 8x to 10x

Objective Lens Diameter: between 40mm and 44mm

Resulting exit pupil size: between 4 and 5.8

Field of View: At least 330 ft at 1000 yards.

Eye relief: 15 or more

Prism and Coating: BAK-4 prism and Fully Multi-Coated surfaces

Weight: Not more than 32 oz. lbs.

Target Price: $200 to $400

For more information

The above information is an amalgamation of my experience and information from the following company and organization links:

www.african-safari-journals.com

www.binoculars.org

www.birding.com

www.cabelas.com

www.eagleoptics.com

www.meade.com

www.promaster.com

www.swarovskioptik.us

1 comment for “Selecting the Best Safari Binoculars for Photographers and Holiday Travelers

  1. September 6, 2011 at 7:22 am

    Very useful info you have here. Helps me decide what to take on my own safari. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *