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It's Not Always About the Optics! (1 Viewer)

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
We discuss our choices and preferences of different binoculars constantly on Birdforum and although many would immediately respond to the question ‘what is the most important factor in your choice of binoculars’ with a rousing IT’S THE OPTICS! It is clear from the more detailed and calm discussions that other factors are often as important as optical performance.

Looking back over the binoculars I have owned since the first in 1971, I have been surprised at how often non-optical factors have played a vital role. Let’s take a look at these.

My first binoculars were a Swift Audubon 8.5x44 and after using them during several holidays in my home county my abiding impressions were that they were very bulky and very prone to fogging up after use in the rain.

After 3 years I decided the Swifts were just too enormous and the fogging made them useless until sent back to the importer for cleaning so they just had to go. In desperation I decided to replace them with Zeiss Dialyt 10x40Bs which were much more compact and had a good reputation for being weather proof. Was I interested at all in the optical differences between the Swift and the Zeiss? Not a bit. I just fell in love with the compact and smoothly streamlined shape and with the fact that despite the Zeiss’s focusing not being fully internal (the objective lenses moved to and fro inside the barrels) they were absolutely weather proof.

However, over the next 12 years, during which I had a Leitz 10x40B as well as two Zeisses, our holidays became more and more adventurous in that we spent increasing amounts of time on remote, rocky coasts and hills in Scotland. During our scrambling on, over and around boulders of all shapes and states of slipperiness and unsteadiness, both next to the sea and on mountain tops, I became more aware of the size of the investment hanging from my neck and the fact that although I tried hard to always follow my rule of ‘one hand for me, and one hand for my binos’ I frequently needed both hands to prevent accidents to myself, during which my precious and unprotected binos were swinging free and prone to knocks and bangs on the rocks. This is when I began to take notice of what the GA meant in the Zeiss adverts.

So my next choice of binos in 1986 was a pair of Dialyt 10x40 BGA T* and once again my investment was driven by a non-optical factor. I simply felt reassured by the heavy rubber armour and although I of course still tried to keep them safe at all times, occasionally over the next 17 years when these were my only binoculars, they did bump or scrape against rocks and boulders but always escaped unscathed.

In 2003 I became hazily aware of a brand that was new to me, Swarovski. It’s new EL 8.5x42 WB looked fascinatingly different so I tried one out and was immediately hooked. For sure the optics were sharper than the old Dialyt but what seduced me was the relatively smooth armour (no chunky bars of rubber), the comfort of the open-hinge grip and adjustable (not just foldable) eyecups. All in all it simply felt and performed better than the old Zeiss so I bought one. Now, the optics played a part in this decision but it was the other factors that were really the crucial persuaders.

It was a disappointment then when the focus mechanism began to deteriorate and despite sending it to Absam for repair, this only improved matters, it didn’t solve the problem, so it had to go. I moved on to Zeiss FLs after this and they had similar armour to the old GA Dialyt with chunky bars of rubber on the side. The FL 8x32 was my first 32mm and it alerted me to the fact that 32s were serious and capable instruments contrary to my ill-informed impressions, in fact I was so taken by the compactness of the 32 that I was rash enough to try a Conquest HD 8x32 and with its smooth-textured armour it immediately felt friendly and accessible in a way that for me eluded the FL. For sure the FL performed to a higher optical level but the Conquest just spoke to me in a way the FL never did, and it has remained a favourite ever since. At this point I should say I always felt a kinship between how Zeiss HT 8x42 felt in the hands and the little Conquest. Shame Zeiss never produced an HT 32.

Then, along came the mighty Zeiss SF 42s with their cunningly altered point of balance. These were a revelation at the time and the best accolade I can award them for this centre of gravity shift was that I could hold the 10x42 steadier for longer than any other 10x I had tried. Much later Zeiss released the SF 32mm models just around the time when I was coming to terms with having to reduce the weight I normally carry in the field due to medical reasons. Not long before this I had reviewed a Meopta 10x32 and discovered this format is eminently usable and not at all as fussy to use as theory suggests, so I was happy to sell off my SF42s and end up with both SF8x32 and 10x32. They perform to a very high standard indeed during the daylight hours in which we observe nature.

I hope you can see from this that for me at least, factors other than optical performance have played an important role in which binoculars became my favourites over the years. So please allow yourself to let these factors enter into your choices too.

Lee
 

Trinovid

mountain and glacier watcher
United States
Optics were definitely important to me when I got started in this game, but avoiding bulk played a far larger role in determining which tools to buy. Delicate balancing act, getting to the satisfactory point between having good enough optics, enough magnification, not too much magnification, keeping the weight and size down, yet still being comfortable to hold and heavy enough to bring some semblance of stability.
 

forent

Well-known member
"It's the ergonomics, stupid!" ;)

Seriously, Lee, you are so right. In optics, I don't need the maximum but sufficiency: sharp enough, contrasty enough, bright enough, wide enough, no tint, please low CA. And by all means no blackouts! No annoying optical defects that visibly get in the way everytime I look through. Then, it's ok optically. But how does the focuser feel? Do the eyecups fit my eyes, does the body feel right in my hands, too light, too heavy, too large, too small or just right? Do I like the haptics of the armour? Any other haptical irritations? And: Do I "trust" the device, does it feel solid and reassuring? Last not least: What about the design, do I like to look at it? Does the manufacturer provide appropriate service? (And to be honest: Do I like the brand?)
Perfect optics are nice but in the end all the parameters outlined have to be satisfied. Therefore I chose the Trinovid 10x25 over its Ultravid sibling: It may be slightly inferior optically but the Trinovid is ok and I vastly prefer its look and especially feel.
 

Maljunulo

Well-known member
There must be something wrong with me, because I like the optics of my current 8X32 SF, and am willing to adapt to their (insignificant) quirks in order to enjoy the superb images. (The images being the whole point, in my opinion)

I value them for what they are, rather than searching flaws to cite as evidence that they are not what I expect them to be. Whether or not some expectations are realistic is an entirely different topic.
 

Pinewood

New York correspondent
United States
Hello Lee,

Thank you for exploring how a binocular might work well for a user. My own experience with the Zeiss 10x40BT*P was less than happy, as I could not get a stable view. Oddly the Zeiss 10x32FL suited me far more, but 10x is just not an all around glass for me.

Stay safe,
Arthur
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
There must be something wrong with me, because I like the optics of my current 8X32 SF, and am willing to adapt to their (insignificant) quirks in order to enjoy the superb images. (The images being the whole point, in my opinion)

I value them for what they are, rather than searching flaws to cite as evidence that they are not what I expect them to be. Whether or not some expectations are realistic is an entirely different topic.
"Not Always" in the title leaves plenty of room for the times when the optics are crucial. SF8x32 is my favourite too.

Lee
 

Dr. K

Bad Weather Birder
United States
I'm a month into comparing the Zeiss 8x42HT and the Swarovski EL8.5x42 (also the EL8x32). My struggle has been that I rank them optically one way and ergonomically another. What I've found though, is that I can get used to the ergonomics of any of the three, then switching to another feels uncomfortable, initially. But, I can consistently appreciate 1) the viewing comfort, i.e., freedom of movement of the pupil, that comes with the larger ~5mm exit pupil in the 42s, and 2) the color contrast and saturation from the Swaros. SO, while I totally agree that the optics aren't always the most important thing, they are an important thing, and it sometimes isn't obvious which trait of the binos is going to remain the 'most' important thing. ymmv.
 

yarrellii

Well-known member
Supporter
Lee, I think you're so right. It was lovely reading your experiences and (like in a good novel) identifying with those "never lived recollections".
I agree wholeheartedly with your observations. The optics in a pair of binoculars can be excellent, but if fit/ergonomics/size/weight/convenience fail...
 
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Ted Y.

Well-known member
Canada
I am always evaluating the readiness of the manufacturer to keep me happy after buying the binocular: the warranty, at least 10-15 years; a support “who looks alive” – real answers in an interval of few days without propaganda nor “official” language; easiness to send/receive the binocular – like less papers to fill; and more.
 

ZDHart

Well-known member
United States
Quite true, Lee. We are on the same page with regard to evaluating binocular factors other than just optics.

Given a particular price point, I tend to start at optical performance (sharpness, clarity, brightness, color quality, FOV, freedom from aberration, etc.), which is very important to me, but is just one of a number of important criterion on which to judge binoculars.

Ergonomics, feel-in-the-hands, focuser operation feel, focuser positioning, eyecup feel, barrel shape, armor performance relative to grip hold... are all to be given due weighting when deciding on whether a particular binocular is well-suited to an individual.

As an example, closely comparing SF to NL to UVHD+, I was quite pleased with the optical performance of them all, but my decision to return the NL and keep the other two was primarily due to feel in the hands/grip hold.

The pinched barrel shape of the NL and relative slipperiness of NL armor - as compared to SF and UVHD+ - prompted me to return the NL, but keep the SF and UVHD+. Optical performance was not the decision point. I tried to like the NL, using them every day for a week or so, but I clearly preferred the fuller barrel shapes and armor grip hold provided with the SF and UVHD+.

As for favorites... my favorite "keepers" are:

8x32 and 10x32 SF
8x32 and 10x32 UVHD+
7x42 UVHD+

While there may seem to be some redundancy between the two x32 SF and the two x32 UVHD+, I consider them in quite different classes, due to the considerable difference in size between the SF and the UVHD+. The UVHD+ x32 are my choice when wishing to travel with small form factor binoculars, as the SF x32 are quite a bit larger. Both brand models are exceptionally wonderful binoculars, all around.
 
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KevinL

Well-known member
Thank you for the thoughtful post Lee. It made me open my eyes a bit and think. I tend to put all my emphasis on optical performance but you are right, there are a number of factors that also matter to the use and enjoyment of a binocular. In my mind it is a hierarchical set of factors with some being more important than others. Optical performance is a factor that matters to me more than anything else initially and first and for most. What good is the best ergonomics if the view is seriously flawed. On the other hand, even then binoculars from $200 and up are good enough optically to meet the minimum functionality requirements for effective birding. While at a store purchasing a binocular, I am splitting hairs with optical performance within my budget and often ignoring many of the other factors. It is thereafter with use that I start to find the pros and cons of my selection ergonomically.

Then next most important factor is weight and bulk, but probably more so is bulk. An example is between a formerly owned Vortex viper 10x50s vs Zeiss Conquest. The Conquest actually weighs a touch more 28 oz for the Zeiss vs 27.2 oz for the viper. But the extra length of the viper made them feel so much more burdensome.

To a point the next factor for me is field of view. A binocular has to have an adequate width of view and there is no such thing as too wide in my opinion. I should qualify that, I suppose by saying usable field of view. If the optic has a wide field of view but then a substantial portion of that view is not usable because of distortion, what good is a wide field? On the other hand, A binocular that is narrower but usable to the edge is not detrimental comparatively. Its not everything, but when choosing between models at a particular price point, it becomes a deciding factor for me.

As an eyeglass wearer, a binocular has to have an adequate eye relief. I suppose that is why I care less about the eyecups than others might. I am less particular about the focuser, or the balance, or the armoring personally. But the diopter is something that I am fickle with. Diopters that have play in them are an automatic disqualification. A locking diopter is a really nice feature and a non-locking one is an annoyance. I never knew how much that mattered to me until I had to fiddle with it repeatedly on a non-locking model.

Seriously, the lens caps are an issue for me. Good lens caps are a real difference maker. If they are inadequate it is a real annoyance. If they are designed poorly, they can be prone to getting lost, or difficult to keep on, or tough to get off quickly. Those play a critical role in the protection of the glass and the functionality of the binocular in field use. A manufacturer really has to be mindful of this. If I am paying about $1000 for a bin, I can't understand why they would include a poorly designed lens cap. Seriously Zeiss, this is my biggest annoyance with the conquest! It would be more tolerable if they at least offered better aftermarket options. Kudos to you Vortex, the models from introductory offerings on up to the top tier have very functional lens caps and are a pleasure to use. Perhaps that has to do with Vortex's commitment to warrantee, thus they provide the features to also protect the product.

Which brings me to perhaps one of the weightier factors for me in choosing a binocular. The warrantee is definitely a selling point. Binoculars that are well covered are a minimum for me at least. I have had too many optics need service, have a manufacturing failure or were damaged to ever consider not having that backing. This is really a driver with the hunter community which is why there are so many are die hard vortex guys even when other binoculars offer better optical performance or are less expensive. I don't find birders so demanding in this regard. Related is customer service. Some companies are better than others. The last but very important thing I would say matters to me, and this perhaps matters as much as other things, is just overall build quality. A cheap feeling binocular is a factor that can make the difference when choosing between competitors.
 

GrampaTom

Well-known member
United States
Giving credit to Lee's clever wordsmithing, that leaves the door open:

It's Not Always About the Optics! (underline mine)

Ill take Kevin's explanation of weighting. Compromise optics for all that other stuff? Nah. If the optics between 2 are comparable, then the other stuff kicks in, OK.

Believe this perspective is critical in reading Lee's NL/SF review thread. We need to know, or perhaps its obvious, how he weights things.
 
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ZDHart

Well-known member
United States
Giving credit to Lee's clever wordsmithing, that leaves the door open:

It's Not Always About the Optics! (underline mine)

Ill take Kevin's explanation of weighting. Compromise optics for all that other stuff? Nah. If the optics between 2 are comparable, then the other stuff kicks in, OK.

Believe this perspective is critical in reading Lee's NL/SF review thread. We need to know, or perhaps its obvious, how he weights things.
Tom... no worries. Seems pretty clear that Lee's intention assumes the buyer is pleased with the optics, for the price point, and shouldn't ignore the other factors either. In other words, don't buy simply because you like the optics, as there is much more to using an enjoyable pair of binoculars than optics alone. I don't imagine many people would choose a binocular with comparatively poor optics because they like the ergonomics. ;)
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
Tom... no worries. Seems pretty clear that Lee's intention assumes the buyer is pleased with the optics, for the price point, and shouldn't ignore the other factors either. In other words, don't buy simply because you like the optics, as there is much more to using an enjoyable pair of binoculars than optics alone. I don't imagine many people would choose a binocular with comparatively poor optics because they like the ergonomics. ;)
Don you are exactly right. If I was to get really forensic about this I would put it this way: while the optics need to be at a certain level, I tend not to delve further into the minutiae of this to determine my choice of bino but clearly am influenced by the many other factors involved. And of course I did not state this in the article because it was about how important other factors can be.

Lee
 

Richard D

what was that...
Supporter
United Kingdom
We're lucky in that it would be difficult today to buy binoculars from the mid-range upwards that don't have adequate central resolution over a reasonably good percentage of the field. Deciding where to compromise after that is the tricky bit... For me balance/weight distribution is a big consideration on 10x binoculars and a deal breaker even with 'perfect' optics. For other's eye-relief is undoubtedly a deal breaker.
 

GrampaTom

Well-known member
United States
Guys, I wasn't worried.

"Exactly right" seems less than zactly how we should describe many posts on BF. To paraphrase, we're all welcome to our opinions... We do though end up spending inordinate time/words, (self included), trying to explain, defend and justify. Ill do that here, for me this thread Lee, was required reading after your NL/SF review with weighted opinions so different from the many NL reviews posted on BF to date.
 

tenex

reality-based
What I look for in the mechanics is a solid smooth feel of quality that will last, which I do find very important in a world where even less expensive models now have surprisingly good optics. Regarding details of design I think I must just be very adaptive, because apart from a general preference for traditional vs open-bridge and loathing for knurled metal focusers, every model I've tried (which may not be a lot by some people's standards) has seemed to work just fine. I can do without thumb widgets (innie or outie) but can work with them. I seem to find the focuser naturally enough, my hold adapts to wherever the center of gravity is, and so on. I've got on fine with ridged, pebbled, and smooth armor. I can tell what I have in my hands and actually enjoy those various differences, as part of the character of each instrument.
 

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