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8x vs 10x vs 12x
on February 25, 2011
I've written a review about the last iteration of these binoculars and I won't repeat it here. Briefly, these are the best binoculars you can get without spending big bucks, and I think they are the cheapest binoculars you should even consider buying (while there might be an exception to this, cheaper binoculars are bad enough to be worthless and a complete waste of money). These binoculars are three times as good as what you can get for $100 and 90% as good as what you can get for $2,000. They are better than most similarly priced binoculars, and better than many much more expensive binoculars.
Since this is one of the most common binoculars bought by beginners (for good reason), I thought it would be helpful to have a breakdown of the uses of the different magnifications as many buyers have probably not used binoculars extensively. I am mostly into birding and wildlife watching, so beware of that bias if your needs are different.
Don't know what size binoculars to get? Probably just get the biggest ones you can afford, I mean, more magnification is better because you see more, right? Not really. There are a number of trade-offs associated with high magnification. This will help you decide what size is best for you (hint, if you are reading this, 8x42 is almost certainly the best choice for you).
Binoculars have two numbers such as 8x42 or 10x50. The first number refers to magnification, typically 8 or 10, but others also exist (6, 7, 12...). The second number refers to the size of the objective lens (that is the big piece of glass farther from your eye) which in turn determines light gathering potential. These nikon monarchs are offered in 8x42, 10x42, and 12x42 sizes. I don't know that I've ever seen 12x binoculars, but 8x and 10x binoculars with the same objective lens (42mm in this case) will be nearly identical in size (and, counterintuitively, the 10x will often be very slightly smaller). The higher the magnification, the more light you need, so a 10x binocular will need a larger objective lens than an 8x binocular to have similar brightness.
First major consideration: trade-off of magnification vs. brightness. Higher magnification means things appear closer, but higher magnification also means less brightness. Brightness is very important to see markings and to have a pleasant image to look at (try watching a movie with the monitor brightness turned way down, not as much fun, is it?) Obviously you can counter this trade-off with larger objective lenses, but that gets expensive and heavy.
Second major consideration is shake. 10x binoculars are hard to hold steady (and I am young and not particularly shaky). If you are leaning against a tree with a low heart rate, no problem, if you just ran up a hill to see something, much harder. As you up the magnification you also increase the problem of shakiness. If you can't hold the binoculars steady, your eyes can't focus on what is in them. This one is really, really, really important. If you haven't used binoculars much before, you probably don't realize how much of a problem hand shake can be. 8x is pretty easy to hold steady. 10x isn't so bad. 12x is more or less out of the question without a very steady support.
Third major consideration: Field of view/ease of finding things in your binoculars. Try this: take your digital camera, put it to full zoom and try to aim at a distant object that takes up much of the screen. Kind of hard, isn't it? Now zoom out all the way and try to find that same object. Much easier. Binoculars are very similar, the larger the magnification, the more zoom you are working with, the the more difficulty you will have getting an object in sight. This is particularly true with moving objects. Lower magnifications make it easier to scan because the give you more peripheral vision.
Fourth (somewhat less major) consideration: depth of field. This is the range of distance from you that is in focus without moving the focus wheel. Larger depths of field are better. Smaller magnifications tend to have wider depth of field. Wider depth of field is more pleasant to look at and makes finding things easier. Mostly a wide depth of field just looks a lot nicer.
So, what size to get? Of the available sizes: 8x42, 10x42, and 12x42. 8x42 is definitely the most versatile. 8x magnification is quite a lot, but shake isn't too bad, depth of field is pretty good, field of view ("peripheral vision") is pretty good. These are ideal for watching moving birds as they are easy to track with. I prefer 8x binoculars and most of what it comes down to for me is that the image that comes through them is much more pleasant to look at: brighter, crisper, more depth of field. Learning to aim your binoculars at something takes practice, and 8x will definitely be easier to learn with. 8x really shines in lower light conditions, in tracking fast moving birds, and whenever your hands might be shaking a bit (which is pretty much always). While 8x is definitely the choice for a beginner, it does not mean that it is only for beginners and many, probably most experienced birders use 8x as their primary binocular.
10x can definitely help show some markings on birds. For still and slow birds in good light, or when it is easy to track birds (think hawks) 10x can be an excellent choice. They are a little bit less versatile, they are a little bit harder to use, require a bit more technique and steadiness. Still a really good choice for birding. 10x make IDing birds a bit easier (in good light and with good technique) but the overall image is a bit less pleasant to look at, and that is really important to me, less so to other people. 10x is a very popular choice among birders (probably slightly less popular than 8x, but not by much). If you are interested in watching how birds behave, get 8x, if you really want to see those faint markings to make a positive ID, 10x may work better for you.
12x is not for birding. I've heard of some birders using them in some situations, but I have yet to actually meet one. 12x is better suited for astronomy or looking at targets or any time you know you can be sitting still and resting your binoculars on a large static object. 12x is a very specialized tool, it should not be the only pair of binoculars you own.
I hope this helps.