Binoculars for the Frugal Birder

Often birders find themselves walking through forested paths, looking for birds, until finally one catches their attention as it settles on a high branch. With naked eyes, they’ll try to search through the many tree branches to find it, but just before their eyes fully observe the bird, it stubbornly decides to fly away, leaving them thinking: “If only I had binoculars.”

Jamaica Bay, NY

Image: Cynthia Via

Most beginner bird watchers begin acquiring the interest by simply hiking through parks and looking at birds in their habitat without any special tool. At most they will settle for cheap, low quality binoculars. Even buying a tiny one in a thrift shop is more reasonable than spending anywhere from under $100 to $2000 on something that could be a passing hobby. Still, after missing out on countless birds one eventually begins to take birding seriously. Suddenly, there’s a need for a sturdy, reliable binocular so you don’t find yourself missing that rare glimpse.

To be expected, purchasing binoculars is a daunting undertaking, and with so many models boasting high-quality status, buyers are bound to make mistakes. This task presents itself as a paradox of choice, almost akin to buying a DSLR but with more suspense. First, you need to consider how often you plan to use them, and how much you’re willing to spend. If you don’t see yourself using them too often, or if you prefer a lightweight tool, then you’re better off buying small binoculars with a low to medium price range. 

Most frequently used binocular designs

Most frequently used binocular designs

Although we are searching binoculars for the frugal birder, we must still consider the design, magnification power, light gathering, and field of view. The first debate comes down to design: Porro Prism vs. Roof Prism. Porro binoculars are the classic shape with the offset eyepiece. They tend to be heavy and bulky, though they cost less. They have a sharper image and give a larger field of view, and they are great for large hands. Roof prisms, or the newer designs, have a straight look with the eyepiece right behind the front lens. They are easier to focus and are comfortable to hold, especially for small hands. But not to worrytechnology has enhanced the optics on the roof prism design, making it an almost equal competitor to the Porro: the coating on some roof prism mirror surfaces reduces light loss to minor levels. Still, those wanting to spend less than $200 will opt for the Porro Prism, losing on comfort for higher performance. 

Next comes selecting the magnification power. On the upper surface of a binocular, there are two numbers (for example 10X40). The first number is the magnification power of the binoculars. 10X means 10 times closer than without magnification. The second number, 40, is the diameter of the binoculars’ objective lenses in millimeters, and is related to the binoculars’ brightness. Light enters binoculars through the objective lenses, those farthest from the eye. Light-gathering capacity is nearly as important as image sharpness. Only a bright image reveals beautiful subtleties. There are magnifications of 10, 8, 7, and even lower. Many birders recommend using lower magnification, since they have a wider field of view, which allow you to easily find birds in dense foliage. Birders recommend 8X for those who want to see greater detail without the shakiness of 10X. It’s not recommended to get higher than 10X, since it’s harder to focus and not as comfortable to handle.


White-Vented Violetear (colibri) [Image:]

The field of view is the width of the area you can see while looking through your binoculars. The field of view is usually shown in degrees on top of the binoculars near the focus wheel. To calculate the field of view, multiply the degrees by 52.5. If it states a field of view of 7 degrees, the field of view would be 388.5 feet. When dealing with wildlife that move quickly, it’s best to use a wide field of view.

With new technological advancements, Roof Prism binoculars test well in action and are economic enough for the frugal birder. Below is a gathering of 5 great finds under $500 based on optics, focus, and handling. 




1. Leupold Cascades 8 x 42: Bright and sharp image at 1.4 pounds has a close focus distance of 10 feet, works well in low light, and is easy to focus and hold. The multi-coated lens system ensures maximum brightness for clarity, contrast, and color. It has a great exterior style and a high field of view.  $279.00 ( a smaller model Leupold Acadia BX2 8X32 $129.00, weights 1.1 pounds–great for a birder on the run.)

2. Bushnell Legend 8 x 42 Ultra HD: Provides a bright clarity with a remarkable wide field of view, sharp edge-to-edge, comfort, and sturdiness for low price. It weights 1.4 pounds. The hybrid magnesium chassis significantly reduces weight style, though aesthetic style is rough and masculine. $190.00

3. Nikon Monarch 5 8 x 42: Sharp, clear, and brilliant field of view. It has a rubber-armored body for strengthened durability. Weighs 1.5 pounds, so a little on the heavier side. It provides minimal shakiness and sits comfortably on nose. Easy to focus and hold. Great for entry-level. The lens caps can be annoying. $296.00

4. Swift Audubon Roof Prism 8.5 X 44: Weighs 1.4 pounds and has a slightly larger magnification, which makes a noticeable difference for detail and brightness. It has a close focus of 9 feet. It offers a superior, clear image, though at a much higher price.  $349.00

5. Vixen Optics Foresta 8X42 DCF: An underdog next to well-named brands. Light and easy to hold at 1.4 pounds. It has prisms with reflection-enhanced coating and an open hinge design with fully multicoated optics. Excellent in low-light and has a wide angle field of view. Sleek exterior style. A bargain for what it can do. $219.00

One could be happy without binoculars, but face it—birds are capricious, always wanting to keep away. Let us know about your binocular picks, and which one really suits you. After all, birders are as different as the objects they admire.

Central Park, 1958 Image:



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