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Feel the intensity, not your equipment. Maximum image quality. Minimum weight. The new ZEISS SFL, up to 30% less weight than comparable competitors.

Zeiss SFL 8x40, A Field Review (2 Viewers)

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
Before I dive into the review I must first state that this was only possible due to the efforts of two of my contacts at Zeiss Germany and Zeiss UK who enabled me to obtain a pre-production unit just in time for me to take it to the Western Isles of Scotland for three weeks. My thanks go to both of them. To accompany this review I have not only included a close-up of SFL out in the field but also a couple of photos that show the kind of habitat in which the field work was undertaken.

The announcement from Zeiss of a new 40mm binocular model came as a big surprise. The previous premium 40mm from Zeiss was the first model Victory launched in 2003 and prior to that was the Dialyt 10x40B GA T whose history goes back to 1980, with its close cousin without rubber armour going back even further. SFL slots into Zeiss’s current model range above Conquest HD and below Victory SF, neatly filling the quite wide gap in Zeiss’s price range and significantly undercutting Swarovski’s EL.

Those members remembering the more compact size of binoculars in the past might be interested to learn that while the Dialyt was only 150mm long (considerably shorter than Zeiss’s current top line model, the SF42, at 173mm) it is just beaten in the shortness stakes by SFL which measures 144mm. This latter length is more in keeping with 32mm models and it just so happens that SFL is the same length and weight as Swarovski’s NL32. This means SFL is significantly lighter than that highly regarded Dialyt which pushed the scales to 730g (26 ozs) compared with SFL’s 640 g (23 ozs). What fascinated me was the prospect of a binocular so light and compact but with a 5.00mm exit pupil. Little did I know that SFL has more talent than can be revealed by simply looking at the specifications.

While it is true to say SFL is the length and weight of a 32mm model, and I can verify that is no more of load on my neck than a 32, there is no escaping the way the optical tubes flare out to house 40mm objectives. This means that despite the flattering length and weight, SFL does feel bulkier than a 32 and the bigger objectives also mean a little less room between the optical tubes for your fingers and thumbs. Nevertheless SFL is a neat, fine-handling model. Slip three fingers around the tube below the bridge and your first finger falls effortlessly and naturally on the focus wheel.

Prior to arriving on North Uist my very brief time with SFL left me thinking the focus wheel was far too stiff to rotate, but after intensive use on the first day which found me enjoying two sightings of Otter and great views of Artic Skua, the focus wheel eased significantly and has since been acceptable if not quite as free-turning as one might wish. As already mentioned, this unit is pre-production and I have been assured that production units will have better focus feel. The focus speed when tested at home using my standard and easily repeated assessment method, turned out to be very similar to that of Zeiss’s FL8x32, so quite fast, but by no means the fastest. In the hand I found SFL to be comfortable, well-balanced and the 5.0mm exit pupil meant eye-positioning was easy and reliable. SFL feels very well made, and I am particularly pleased to report that the eyecups reliably stay in the selected positions.

The dioptre adjustment wheel is sited on the right-hand optical tube and it worked well. It is not locking, but during intensive use during the 3-week review period, the setting was completely reliable, as were the eyecup positions, despite the indignity of the binocular being regularly laid on while I was prone (and shuffling about) taking close-up photos of flowers, moths and other subjects.

The view through the SFL has a generous sweet spot, softening a little at the edge of the field of view but still remaining sharp enough to recognise objects . In this respect I think Zeiss have chosen a very nice balance with their field-flattener. The sweet spot is as big as one would wish and the softer edge of field is easily sharp enough to see what is there (and can be sharpened further with just a gentle nudge of the focuser), while the overall view does not have the artificiality that excessive field-flattening can bring. Although I could find a miniscule hint of chromatic aberration if I tried when looking at views containing extreme contrasts (for example, black rocks against a background of pure white sand), ensuring I was viewing on-axis minimised this tiny amount, and for all practical purposes the view was CA free.

Sharpness and contrast are excellent but the SFL’s trump card is its amazing presentation of colours. Clearly, with a model whose priority is light weight, Zeiss could not design-in a complex and heavy eyepiece to deliver an outstanding optical feature such as a monster field of view. So it seems to me someone had a moment of brilliance when they realised they could still do something very special with the lightest component in any binocular’s optical system, and that is the lens coating. Through SFL, all colours are superbly rendered, looking fresh and clean in a way that not only brings a clarity to the overall view but also aids perception of details too. I will return to this aspect later in this review.

On the way north to the Western Isles, I had a hint of SFL’s superb colour palette when we stopped briefly at a lay-by overlooking the outer Clyde estuary and I couldn’t resist pulling out the SFL to look at the yachts. I was staggered by the purity of the white of their sails and hulls, and by the brightness of the orange inflatable boats carried by some, and by the coloured covers around the furled sails of others. However, mindful of how a bright and sunny day can flatter the performance of binoculars I filed this experience away under ‘needs verification’ and two days later I had it.

On the ferry from the north of Skye out to the Western Isles, we left the small port of Uig under heavy grey cloud and in a mist-like rain that created a scene that could only be described as ‘murky’. No chance of binocular-flattery. As we cleared Uig bay and entered the open sea a couple of Kittiwakes flew nearby and I raised the SFLs to take a look. These are familiar birds to me, but my first reaction was a gasp of surprise simply because the grey of their upperparts was rendered so beautifully. How can you be excited by ‘grey’? But I was. And the white of its underparts were so pure, while its black wingtips appeared to have been freshly dipped in intensely black ink. At that point the Kittiwakes were joined by a handful of Manx Shearwaters, skimming over the wave-tops and banking from side-to-side. Manxies can appear brownish under bright skies but on this dullest of days, through the SFLs, these were coal-black on their upper surfaces and their under-wings were a dazzling white with the edges outlined with a deeply contrasting black. I was truly astonished at how the SFLs could conjure such magic from black, white and grey, and in such unpromising conditions.

These first impressions were not misleading, SFL makes everything look freshly coloured, not in an artificial or unnatural way, but in a way that is just so natural and harmonious. Scanning around the scene overlooked from our rental cottage, the green of the bracken on the slopes, the blue of the sail-cover of a yacht moored nearby, are all rendered fresh and bright and the ginger-brown seaweeds on the shore, rocks, and skerries in the sea loch, look as if they were cast in bright bronze only five minutes ago. Yesterday SFL made even a dark-phase Arctic Skua look freshly coloured and even more menacing than usual as this powerful and graceful bird flew strongly by at low level.

Early in our visit we were blessed by two sightings of Otters, one of which lasted over 45 minutes, during which it foraged and caught many food items that it ate on the surface of the sea-loch, floating on its back with its tail and all four paws comically sticking up in the air. This same animal swam to a nearby rock and climbed out to spraint (leave a scent-carrying deposit) and then shook itself with the water spraying off in all directions. The SFL faithfully captured the change in tone of its brown fur as it began to dry. Later in our holiday we had a similar sighting from our rental cottage. I glimpsed a shape in the choppy waves that could be an Otter and, sure enough, the SFLs revealed one swimming strongly north across the sea loch to Eilean na Mult (‘Crumpled Island’). To our delight it didn’t just disappear amongst the rocks on the shore but climbed over them on to the grassy top and galumphed (there is no other word for it) across the island, disappearing briefly into a hollow. It must have shaken itself down there, or dried itself by rolling on the vegetation, because it emerged on the other side a distinctly paler tone of brown, and then disappeared down onto the shore on the other side of the island.

Earlier I mentioned how SFL’s colour rendition can help with the recognition of details and I can give two concrete examples.

First, I have made 76 visits to the islands in the west and north of Scotland and have seen countless Gannets during these visits. But while using the SFL to observe a Gannet diving for fish and enjoying its dazzling white plumage with that ‘dairy ice cream’ flush of yellow on the head, I noticed a thin sliver of white in the black wingtips, just out-board of the carpal joints, that I had never seen previously. I was amazed and thought it must be an aberrant plumage feature, but on checking I found this is normal for Sula bassana. Was it just a coincidence that I spotted this plumage detail for the first time while using SFLs? I don’t think so.

Second, for 19 years we have visited sites on North Uist where we have found Bog Orchid Hammarbya paludosa, a rarity on Uist, to count the number of flowering spikes, and have done this using a variety of binoculars to help spot these tiny, yellow-green, orchids (here they are not much more than 40-50mm / 1.5-2.0 inches) amongst other vegetation. For the benefit of those wondering ‘why would you use binoculars to look for flowers when you could simply walk right up to them?’ I note here that this method means you avoid walking all over the site and damaging the sensitive boggy habitat, and it also minimises the risk of you crushing plants that have only just emerged above ground and are difficult or impossible to see. So, I am very familiar with the use of different binoculars to search for the characteristic colour of the Bog Orchids and I was delighted to find the SFLs made this a noticeably easier task than in the past, by rendering this colour so clearly and distinctly. And in case you were wondering, at this single site we counted 65 flowering spikes which was excellent for a visit relatively early in the Bog Orchid’s season.

Later, when scanning over a flower-covered salt-marsh covered in fading pink Thrift and fresh blue Sea Aster (with a scattering of white Greater Sea Spurry) once again the sheer clarity of the SFL’s colours made for a truly joyful experience.

Summing up, SFL brings a new combination of size, weight, and exit pupil to the market, combined with an excellent optical performance that delivers not only the expected level of perceived sharpness, but also a delightful representation of colours that creates a superb clarity of view. They are well-made too, my review unit having shrugged off driving rain, salt spray and being laid on by me while taking low-level photos on wet peat and leggy heather. Anyone contemplating spending £1500 - £1600 on a pair of binoculars should certainly include these in their short-list of models to audition.

The most obvious competitor for SFL at this price point is Swarovski’s superb EL 8.5x42, an icon for binocular enthusiasts, but with SFL 8x40 delivering an optical performance as good as that described above and having an area of view 11% bigger than EL’s and a close-focus of 1.5m compared with EL’s 3.3m, not to mention retailing in the UK at £50 less than the EL, and in the USA around $370 less, it looks like SFL will be giving Swarovski a hard time.

Below are two photos that show the kind of habitats in which the field work for the review was conducted and one pic of the SFL at a site on the north coast of North Uist.

Lee
IMG_5070.JPG IMG_5047.JPG SFL at Griminish.JPG
 

A2GG

Beth
United States
For the benefit of those wondering ‘why would you use binoculars to look for flowers when you could simply walk right up to them?’ I note here that this method means you avoid walking all over the site and damaging the sensitive boggy habitat, and it also minimises the risk of you crushing plants that have only just emerged above ground and are difficult or impossible to see.
I’ve witnessed birders and photographers out here just walk right into meadows and other sensitive habitats only thinking of the bird they want to find. They don’t consider the habitat itself.

Very nice review and photos. Wow it’s so beautiful out there. It’s hard to believe there are still unspoiled places like this.

You forgot to add the SFL is lighter and more compact than the EL 42.
Some will still choose the 8.5x42 EL just for that extra magnification, but everything else about the SFL 40 seems more appealing to me.
 

Pinewood

New York correspondent
United States
...

While it is true to say SFL is the length and weight of a 32mm model, and I can verify that is no more of load on my neck than a 32, there is no escaping the way the optical tubes flare out to house 40mm objectives. s around the tube below the bridge and your first finger falls effortlessly and naturally on the focus wheel.
..
Hello Lee,

Thank you for your detailed impressions of the SFL. Perhaps the initially stiff focussing may be adjusted in the production models.
To which 32mm glass are you making a comparison? The Zeiss 8x32 FL and the Zeiss 8x32 are different binoculars.

Stay safe,
Arthur
 

GrampaTom

Well-known member
United States
The first and really only disappointment I experienced when I bought my EL1042s a couple years ago was the additional size and weight over the 1040B Ga T*, I'd used for 35 years. I have been very interested in the SFL since announced, as they seem a return to that preferred bulk, but with the promise of modern glass and coatings. Have been anxiously awaiting field reports like these.
Thank you Lee.
 

GrampaTom

Well-known member
United States
Very nice review, Lee - thank you!!
Wish I would have been out there as well.

Question: what‘s your view, would you think the SFL may cannibalize some sales of the SF - perhaps both x42 and x32?

Canip
You didnt ask me, but I can predict.... Each year when we summed up the work and described what new and improved thingies were going to the warehouse and next year's catalog, our CEO would say, "Ok, I've listened to you guys all year tell me how great these are and how may sales we'll accomplish as new, or from the other guys. But lets be real, next month I want to see a forecast of the effect of cannibalization on our existing stuff."
 

pbjosh

missing the neotropics
Switzerland
Very nice review! Incidentally, today, I had about 10 minutes with a 10x42 SFL from a retailer. It also had a notably quite stiff focus wheel. Stiffer than Monarch HGs tend to have, which is already fairly stiff for me. Smooth underneath the stiffness, but it was not as nice as an SF or NL is. Good to hear that it loosens with use, but if it's been improved from your sample to the retail sample I tried today, I can't imagine what yours would have been like!
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
A very nice review Lee. Could I ask if you think you lose anything compared to the premium bracket Victory range with the significantly cheaper option?

Many thanks
Mike
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
Very nice review, Lee - thank you!!
Wish I would have been out there as well.

Question: what‘s your view, would you think the SFL may cannibalize some sales of the SF - perhaps both x42 and x32?

Canip
Its a good question and if someone was struggling to raise the funds to buy an SF there is good reason why they would be tempted by SFL. But if someone is seriously considering SF 42 or 32 and has the funds available then I don't see why they would be tempted by SFL given the larger fields of view of the SFs.
I see SFL as more of a competitor of Swaro's EL given its price level.

Lee
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
Hello Lee,

Thank you for your detailed impressions of the SFL. Perhaps the initially stiff focussing may be adjusted in the production models.
To which 32mm glass are you making a comparison? The Zeiss 8x32 FL and the Zeiss 8x32 are different binoculars.

Stay safe,
Arthur
Hi Arthur
I wasn't comparing the weight to a specific 32mm model just the general weight/size of premium 32s.

Lee
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
Lee, one can only describe your reviews as “lyrical and evocative”.

I do so enjoy reading them, and I envy you your ability to assume a prone position, and still get up again.

All the best.
Richard
Hi Richard

Hmmm. The getting prone takes as much time as it always has, but the getting up again takes significantly longer now.............

Thank you for your kind words.

Lee
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
Can you compare the colour rendition and overall contrast to your 32mm SFs? And maybe an impression of glare control.
Hi James

SFL has clearer colours than SF32 e.g. the white is cleaner, but SF32 has better contrast and of course a monster fov.
The weather on North Uist was rather poor for much of the time and very windy so I didn't get a chance to check out glare.
We are back home now and I have to return the SFL to Zeiss at Bird Fair in a couple of days' time so probably will not be able to check out glare.

Lee
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
A very nice review Lee. Could I ask if you think you lose anything compared to the premium bracket Victory range with the significantly cheaper option?

Many thanks
Mike
Hi Mike
Thank you for your kind words. For sure SF32 has a monster field of view, way bigger than SFL, has better contrast and is a 32 so is simply not as bulky as SFL. The field of view aspect is important if you go near the sea or big lakes and want to find where that diving bird / porpoise / dolphin will re-surface, especially if the water is choppy and the waves are hiding your subject so naked eye scanning is not effective. Also in habitats such as wetlands (think Leighton Moss or Minsmere etc) where you can get fast and erratic-flying butterflies/dragonflies/small birds coming quite close, a large fov helps to capture a view of these as they zoom by.
Having said all that SFL does have a good fov and that excellent colour presentation.

Lee
 

Troubador

Moderator
Staff member
Supporter
T
Enjoyed the review Lee! As mentioned by several, you are great writer!
Thank you for your kind words Chuck, much appreciated. Given a fine bino and with habitats such as those in the pics that are full of fascinating nature it is inspirational.

Lee
 

kabsetz

Well-known member
James, (post #10)

I had the SFL's for home testing in May, with some very bright daytime and evening sun over water for some of the viewing. They showed very little glare indeed. I did not directly compare to SF, but colour rendition seemed very natural to me also, just like Lee says. No complaints about contrast either. Very good binoculars.

- Kimmo
 

GrampaTom

Well-known member
United States
Still thinking about Canip's question in #3 above, re cannibalization and Lee's first impression. Based on conversations posted here prices seem to vary around the world, (whats up with Canada?). Used US $ here. Based on how one values performance, would seem these prices suggest competition from the SFL for several current "best" models. While the EL 8.5x42 is closest, would seem the SF 832 needs to be looking in its rear view mirror as well, for instance. Confess I wonder, if the SFL stays at $1800. or ends up a bit discounted once the pipeline is filled, as it is so close to the SF and so far from Conquest?

Included Lee's favorite Square area FOV, (albeit calculated at 100).

1657727246251.png
 

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