Safari Binoculars -Wildlife Photographers Never Leave Home With Them

Safari Binoculars,

A friend and I were hiking across the black sands of Breidamerkur in southern Iceland. We were scouting nesting habitat for two species of interesting seabirds—great skuas and parasitic jaegers—that commonly select this vast stretch of seemingly inhospitable volcanic wasteland to raise their young. Both of these birds can be exciting photo subjects.

As we walked, Steve and I talked about his new 11-megapixel digital camera and its sophisticated features, followed by a chat about using Photoshop® and a number of complicated actions used in printmaking using an Epson® printer. Unlike me, Steve embraces new technology easily, and can learn to use the most complicated equipment almost immediately. What impresses me even more is that he remembers these things in great detail—right off the top of his head!

So, you can imagine my surprise when I turned to see him struggling with his expensive safari binoculars—by using only one eye and only one side—as we both scanned the landscape searching for bird nests. I never could figure these things out, he told me. At that point, because binoculars can be such an important tool in wildlife photography, I stopped and gave him a basic lesson in safari binoculars and their use.

All nature photographers—especially wildlife shooters—should always carry a pair of safari binoculars in their camera bag. Binoculars are indispensable for viewing wildlife and their behaviors, or scanning large areas (like searching the pack ice for polar bears in Svalbard, checking for cats across the African savannah, or looking for seabirds and their nests on the ocean shore). With a bit of practice, binocular use should become second nature. Because of the high quality and light weight of some of todays compact models, there is little excuse for not carrying them with you on every nature shoot!

Styles of Binoculars (safari binocular)
Binoculars are manufactured in two basic styles—in Porro prism and roof prism configurations. In some new models, an enhancement has been added (to both styles). Image stabilization devices are incorporated into their design to reduce shake and vibration and improve viewing.

Porro Prism Binoculars
Todays stereotypic binocular design comes from the mid-nineteenth century independent work of Ignazio Porro and Ernst Abbe, Italian and German inventors (among several others), who placed two right-angle prisms in each side (barrel) of the binoculars, therefore bending the light and allowing the unit to be much more compact than attaching two straight, lengthy and unwieldy telescopes together. Porro received the first patent, hence the name still used today.

The barrels of a Porro prism design are angled to accommodate the prisms. You can tell if you own a pair of Porro prism binoculars as they generally appear M-shaped when you look down on them as they hang from your neck.

There can be numerous advantages to Porro prism binoculars, including a substantial transmission of light to your eye creating brighter images, faster and relatively closer focusing capabilities than many roof prism models, and a wider (angle of) view than most roof prism binocs are capable of producing.

Center focusing Porro prism binocs focus by turning an external focusing ring causing the eyepieces (ocular lenses) for each barrel to simultaneously slide forward or backward along a central external tube. Center focusing binoculars are the only style you should consider buying, as individual focusing binoculars—where both eyepieces are focused independently—are extremely frustrating to use under most circumstances.

Among the disadvantages to Porro prisms is their weight—quality Porro prism binoculars have large and heavy internal glass prisms that make them weighty, bulky (and often unwieldy) for many people, especially those with small hands. Usually, Porro prism binocs are less durable than many roof prism models—they can be relatively easily bumped from prism alignment creating fuzzy, cock-eyed images. The external focusing mechanism makes them less weatherproof as well.

Porro prism glasses are the best value for the money in the low to mid-price range (from $100–$300).

Roof Prism Binoculars
Production of roof prism binoculars started with Moritz Carl Hensoldt, a German microscope manufacturer, in 1897. Carl Zeiss later bought the company in 1928.

The term roof prism comes from the combined shape of the series of five small prisms within each barrel—presumably shaped like a German house roof in the late 1800s. The roof prism design features two connected straight barrels, giving it an H-shaped appearance from the front.

The advantages of roof prism binoculars are their light weight and streamlined design—comparable 10x (ten power) roof prism glasses can be substantially lighter than 10x Porro prism binocs. Their shape also makes them easier to handle for many people.

The design of roof prism binoculars allows for the focusing mechanism to be largely internal. With fewer external moving parts, the binoculars are usually more durable and weather resistant.

The somewhat inferior light gathering capability of the five-prism-system in roof prism binoculars is one of their disadvantages. This can make the image seem a bit darker when you look through them. They often dont focus as closely as Porro prism glasses (which is important if you are going to use them for birding activities and want to view birds in nearby shrubs), and they tend to be more expensive than Porro prism optics as well.

If your glasses will be used extensively for birding and wildlife viewing, roof prism binocs in the medium to high price range ($250–$1,000) are the way to go. They are more comfortable to keep around your neck for long periods due to their lighter weight and hold up better if you use them in the field in wet weather. They are also smaller and easier to stash in your camera bag.

Image and Gyro Stabilization
There are now numerous optics manufacturers who are adding mechanical image stabilizers to both Porro prism and roof prism binoculars. Canon leads this field with the largest number of models, styles, magnification-powers and prices. The obvious big advantage to image stabilized binoculars is their very steady viewing capabilities.

Disadvantages include their larger size as compared to non-stabilized models, their heavier weight (made even heavier when you add batteries), and, of course, their need for batteries and the fact that batteries can go dead during use.

Buying a New Pair of Binoculars
As a photographer, you already know that with camera equipment the old axiom holds true—you get what you pay for! The optical quality of the glass in camera lenses, lens smoothness, ease of use and durability are normally commensurate with what you pay. And the same is true with binoculars. In general, the more binoculars cost, the better they are. So if binoculars are going to be a major part of your outdoor activities—like extensive birding—it behooves you to get the best pair you can afford. Otherwise you might choose something a bit less expensive for casual use rather than getting top-of-the-line field glasses.

When buying binoculars youll be confronted with several decisions. The three big ones are: their cost, their magnification capabilities, and how comfortable they are to use and carry around your neck.

After deciding your price range, the magnification or power of binoculars is the next choice. The power is usually expressed as the first number in the familiar binocular designations 7x35, 8x42 and 10x40. In 10x40, the 10x means the 10 power binoculars will magnify the image 10 times, or roughly the equivalent of a 500mm telephoto lens. Every power (x) represents about 50 millimeters on a camera lens, so 7x binoculars would be about a 350mm lens. In general, the higher the magnification of the field glasses the more difficult it is to hold the image steady for binoculars that are not mechanically image stabilized. Normally binoculars above 10x are too big and shaky to easily hand hold, unless stabilized.

The last number on a pair of 10x40 binoculars represents the distance across the objective lens (the fat end of the binoculars where the light enters) in millimeters. Therefore on a 10x40 pair of binoculars, the objective lens on each barrel is 40 millimeters across. As a general rule in quality binoculars, the bigger the objective lens, the more light it will admit into the binocs, and the brighter the image to your eye. In cheap glasses you can have a big objective lens but very small prisms inside the barrel that negate the size of the bigger objective lens.

When you use binoculars a lot, their use becomes second nature. But getting to that point requires good choices as to the binocs you select for their ease of use, comfort and weight.

If at all possible, when buying safari binoculars, try them before you buy them! Check out models in an outdoor/camping store, an Army/Navy store, a Wild Birds Unlimited store—or even a gun shop! Without a doubt you can get much better prices for optics by mail order or on the Internet.

When testing safari binoculars, examine how comfortable they feel around your neck. Are they too heavy to be there for several hours? When you lift them, is it easy or will it become like pumping iron every time you put them to your eyes—a sure sign theyll be little used? Are they comfortable in your hands? Can you easily reach the focusing ring with your index finger? Can you hold them steady? Perhaps a lower power pair (like 7x or 8x) is easier for you to use than a 10x pair?

Ask yourself: Are they bright enough for me to see clearly in normal daylight as well as in more overcast conditions? Will I be using them in wet weather or rugged situations where rubber armoring and waterproofing is a necessity? (Most times the answer to that question should be yes if you are taking them in the field and not just using them from inside the house or your car!) Are the optics really clear and does the manufacturer include high-quality and chemically coated lenses and prisms to reduce light loss to the eye?

Finally, second-rate gimmicks to avoid when making your purchase are zoom binoculars, auto-focusing binoculars and binoculars with cameras built into them. With the exception of a few zoom models, no quality manufacturer includes these features in a good pair of binoculars!

Binocular Use 101

Adjusting Your Binoculars
Simple adjustments to your binoculars will make it possible to see a clear and bright image every time you use them—and use both eyes as well! When using your binoculars you want to be able to achieve a roughly oval (elliptical) field of view almost like you would normally see with your unaided eyes—and not the old movie binocular concept of looking through a double-holed black field reminiscent of peering through a Halloween mask!

The first adjustment helps to align the exit pupils of the binoculars with the pupils of your eyes. The exit pupils are the round circles of light you can see in the ocular lenses when you hold the binoculars about one foot away from you as you look at the eyepieces.

Modern binoculars are manufactured to allow the two optical barrels to pivot on a central axis so that the space between them can be adjusted. When using binoculars, it's important that the two halves of the binocs match the amount of space between your eyes to get the two images properly aligned. If they are not correctly aligned, youll only be able to use one side and one eye! Space between eyes varies greatly from person to person.

To adjust, push the two barrels together so that they are set to their minimum spacing. Look at a distant object and raise the binocs to your eyes and slowly expand the space between the barrels until you have maximized the field of view so that both fields are seamlessly aligned, forming an oval or circle.

The second adjustment compensates for differences in visual acuity between your left eye and your right eye and helps make both eyes see a sharp, crisp image despite their different strengths! It is done by means of making a diopter adjustment. This is accomplished by regulating the level of magnification in the lenses of the safari binoculars much in the same way an optometrist corrects for near-sightedness or far-sightedness with simple eyeglass prescriptions. Adjusted correctly, the diopter adjustment ring helps to clearly focus both sides of the binoculars on your intended target.

Depending on the style of binoculars you have, there are two basic configurations for adjusting the diopter. One style has the diopter adjustment ring mounted in front of the center focusing ring (usually between the objective lenses). Many roof prism binoculars use this system. The other configuration has the diopter adjustment ring in the right eyepiece of the binoculars, commonly found in Porro prism glasses. In either configuration, a diopter scale (indicating plus and minus magnification) appears on the diopter adjustment ring. Once set, these markings allow you to remember the proper setting for your eyes, and can easily be reset if they are changed while lending your binocs to a friend with different eye strengths.

To set your safari binoculars diopter to your eyes, first look through the left eyepiece with your left eye. While closing your right eye (or cover the right objective lens with your hand), turn the center focusing ring to focus on a distant object. (Then take your finger off the center focusing ring as to not change its position.) Then look through the right eyepiece with your right eye while closing the left eye (or covering the left objective lens), and slowly rotate the diopter adjustment ring to focus on the same object. Now, look through both sides simultaneously, and they should both be focused clearly and in concert with each other! Once you get your binocs focused and the diopter adjusted for your own eyes, the only focusing you have to do from then on is with the center focusing ring.

Focusing on Your Subject
Finally youll need to use your binocs in the field. And, basically, the more you practice using them the more proficient you will be—and the more automatic it will become to easily find your objective with your glasses!

There are two types of uses for your binoculars—spotting and scanning.

Scanning is the easier of the two uses to master as it entails simply focusing your glasses (usually to infinity), sweeping your vision across the landscape, and checking all interesting objects until you fortuitously see something of interest. This is a valuable technique when looking for savannah lions on a Photo Safari or looking for distant landscape features you think might make good photo subjects once you get closer to them.

Spotting is the more difficult technique to master. When using your safari binoculars for spotting, youve already seen something with your unaided eye, and you want to see it in more detail. This can range from seeing a ship at sea to an eagle in a tree. The best technique I know for spotting with binoculars follows the old baseball axiom—keep your eye on the ball! This holds true for binoculars use as well—especially while birding. For spotting, always locate your objective (i.e., the eagle in the tree) with your unaided eyes FIRST! Then without looking away from the subject, bring the binoculars up to your eyes and focus. With all the settings adjusted as above, the eagle should be easily found and snap into clear focus immediately. But my best advice for having your safari binoculars use become second nature is to practice, practice and practice!


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