Whether you want to survey the landscape, study animals from a safari 4X4 or just get a closer look at the birds in your garden, good binoculars can help you zero in on the action even better than a super-zoom camera.
All binoculars are sold with two figures tacked on to the end of the product name, such as 8x30. The 8x is the magnification figure, and the 30 is the measurement of the diameter of the objective lens - the one that you don't put your eye to - in millimetres. So, if the magnification is 8x, then an object 80 metres in the distance will seem, to your eyes, to be just 10m away.
The objective lens diameter comes in useful in terms of quality of the image. The wider the diameter, the more light can come in and the brighter your view will be - crucial if you’re viewing at dawn or dusk.
What’s equally as important is the field of view. Determined largely by the size of the eyepiece, it’s what can give a good pair of binoculars real wow factor. The field of view is generally narrower as the magnification stat increase.
So, in general, a pair of binoculars that offers a good magnification figure and a wide field of view is what you’re after ,but do bear in mind that the closer in you are, the harder it can be to keep the image still. It’s always best to test them out yourself, even if you’re simply peering across the street from the shop. You’ll know immediately if you’re prepared to pay the asking price once you’ve seen what a pair of binoculars can do. So don't try out any binoculars in a shop that you're not gong to be able to afford!
Best for safaris
Nikon Sporter EX 10x50 (£125)
Rather large and weighty at 825g, these Nikon Sporter EX binoculars are ideal for game viewing from the comfort of a Jeep. Used in daylight, the Sporter EX proves ideal for wildlife spotting; images are bright and have plenty of stability, and the rugged design is one reason why you’ll find this kind of bins in the hands of safari guides all over Africa and India.
Not particularly portable, but easy to operate and thoroughly advanced in terms of what you’ll see, our only criticism is the separate lens caps which could be easy to lose. If you want to get away from a safari vehicle and deep into the bush on a guided walk, we have two pieces of advice - always take a man (or woman) with a gun, and aim for a pair of binoculars no heavier than 400g.
Best for stargazing
Canon 18x50 IS (£969.98)
If you're hand-holding binoculars, we’d normally recommend you stay with a pair that offers a maximum of 12x magnification. We were tempted to find some mountable bins for this one but instead settled on this tech-heavy pair that is much more portable. The real trick of the Canon 10x50 IS is its Optical Image Stabilisation tech which at a stroke makes it ideal for serious stargazers with money to burn.
Once you’ve got the image in focus - a simple process using a central knob - press the button just behind. Hold it down and the image magically steadies. It’s an impressive feature and of great use, although it does mean using two AA batteries which add to the weight slightly.
Rubber-coated and weighing almost a kilo, these Canons offer 18x magnification and a 50mm lens and gives a wide field of view ideal for the night watch. The only drawback is the oddly shaped shoulder bag.
If you're willing to put up with the bulk of propped-up bins - most likely carted around in the boot of your car - go for something with a whopping aperture like the Celestron SkyMaster 25x100 astronomy binoculars.
Best for travelling light
Leica Monovid 8x20 (£299)
The bigger the objective lens, the brighter the image you'll see - which generally means bigger binoculars are better. That’s not good news for those in the habit of travelling light but there are some great options nonetheless, such as the Leica Monovid 8x20. It’s a pricey option, but build quality is awesome. Lightweight (it weighs just 122g) though waterproof to 5m, the eyepiece cuts out the residual light and it’s quick to set-up and easy to focus. It comes with a magnetic closing leather pouch complete with belt clip and a separate close-up lens.
Stored in the lid and attaching to the end of the Monovid, the close-up lens enables close-ups from around 20cm and it’s the kind of add-on that only a monocular design allows. You won't find this on any pair of binoculars we know of. The monocular idea does takes a bit of getting used to and keeping it steady isn’t always easy, but this quick-draw option is perfectly suited to travellers after something for watching wildife or even for outdoor gigs, though it’s not suitable for stargazing.
Best for wet conditions
Kathmandu Waterproof 10x25 binoculars (£39.99)
As well as weight – these from Kathmandu weigh a mere 290g – another thing to consider is how hard-wearing your binoculars are. You'll be using them outdoors, at dawn and dusk when moisture level can be high, possibly during the rain and perhaps on-the-go during a walking safari with a guide.
These good value binoculars, which come complete with nylon pouch and cleaning cloth, have twist-up eyecups and a very grip-able rubber-like coating. With decently high magnification, this durable pair is waterproof – technically for five minutes in a metre of water (any deeper and the pressure will force water in). That’s just enough time to dive into the Zambezi River after them, then. A good-value candidate for backpackers and hikers.
Best for bird watching
Pentax 8-16x21 UCF Zoom II (£96)
Thoroughly compact and ultra-lightweight at just 280g, these hand-held binoculars from Pentax are ideal for wildlife. While the standard 8x magnification lenses are ideal for close-ups in the foreground, it could be a bit limiting for some situations, so Pentax has niftily included a 16x magnification option.
It’s not at the cost of brightness or glare, both of which are boosted and reduced, respectively, though it is more difficult to focus in 16x mode. Easy to align, its double magnification status does mean it's slightly trickier to operate and the need to switch between modes does mean more tinkering with the focus. Scratch-proof and well made, its faux leather pouch is the strongest of all its price competitors here.
Best for all-round use
Barska Blackhawk 12x25 (£82)
Some binoculars can be delicate and others heavy or designed for specific uses, but the catch-all Blackhawks are hard-wearing and versatile. The 12x magnification makes them useful for anything from bird watching to general landscapes and safaris, and you can forget about treating them with kid gloves when travelling through unpredictable conditions.
Waterproof, with coated lenses and fold-down rubber eyecups that are already extended, the Blackhawk folds-up to a pocket-friendly size despite weighing 400g; the lightweight nylon bag with belt loop helps, and the whole package is no bigger than a chunky compact camera.