Tools & Gear Binoculars

Choosing binoculars for birdwatching

Roof prism binoculars for birdwatching

Whether you're a bird watching newbie or a seasoned twitcher looking for an upgrade, choosing binoculars for bird watching can be a bit of a challenge.

In this article, you'll learn the key features to look for when choosing binoculars for bird watching, including magnification, objective lens size, field of view and more.

By the end, you'll have all the information you need to choose the perfect binoculars for your bird watching adventures.

Let's get started!

What to consider when choosing binoculars for bird watching

First, the magnification power. Higher magnification may seem like a good choice, but it makes the binoculars heavier, making it harder to keep the image steady. Most birders choose binoculars with a magnification between 7X and 10X.

However, if you’re mainly going to be watching birds at some distance away, a 12X magnification may work better for you.

Next, look at the objective lens size - that's the lens farthest away from your eyes. A larger objective lens allows more light to enter the binoculars, resulting in a brighter and clearer image but also in heavier binoculars.

Don’t forget the field of view. Lower magnification means a wider field of view, which means you'll see more of the surrounding area and have an easier time following a bird as it moves around.

Weight and size matter too. You want something that is comfortable to hold and carry for extended periods of time.

Binoculars for birdwatching need to be easy to focus quickly.

They also need to be waterproof and durable, especially if you’ll be watching birds while hiking.

Finally, the right pair of binoculars needs to fit your budget.

By taking these factors into account, you’re sure to find the perfect pair of binoculars for your bird watching adventures.

What do all those numbers mean?

Binoculars are often described by numbers, such as 8X40, 7x35, 10x50 and so on.

The first number is the magnification, or how many times closer the bird will appear than when you look at it with your naked eye.

 Here’s a video that explains magnification in detail:

The second number is the width of the objective lens (the big one) in millimeters of width.

The width of the objective lens controls how much light can enter your binoculars and how bright the image will be.

Generally, the bigger the objective lens, the heavier and bulkier your binoculars will be. Most birders choose a lens between 30 and 50 mm wide.

Another number you may see is field of view, expressed as a number of degrees, e.g. "field 5.6 degrees".

This refers to the width of scenery that is visible from 1000 feet away. You can figure out what that width is by multiplying the angle given by 52.5.

 In this example, 5.6 degrees times 52.5 equals 294, which means you'd be able to see an area 294 feet wide.

What's the best magnification

Generally, experts recommend a magnification of 8x to 10x for bird watching. This provides enough light and detail to identify a bird, without narrowing the field of view too much.

This video talks about the most popular magnifications for birdwatching:

While higher magnifications may seem more appealing, they can actually make it more difficult to locate birds and maintain a steady image.

Higher magnifications also result in a narrower field of view, which may make it harder to track birds in flight or spot multiple birds at once.

Finally, the higher the magnification, the dimmer the image. If you often watch birds at dawn or dusk, or in a low-light environment, lower magnification will give you more light to work with.

On the other hand, lower magnifications may not provide enough detail for identifying certain species or observing birds at a distance.

Ultimately, the “right” magnification for bird watching depends on your personal preference and the birdwatching conditions you plan to enjoy.

 It's important to test out different magnifications and find one that feels comfortable and provides a clear, steady image.

Do lens coatings matter?

When choosing binoculars for bird watching, you may see descriptions such as ‘coated’, ‘fully coated’, ‘multi-coated’ and even ‘fully multi-coated’.

These terms refer to thin, anti-reflective coatings that may be applied to one or more sides of the lenses and prisms throughout the binoculars.

The purpose of lens coatings is to increase the amount of light that goes through the objective (front) lens by reducing the amount of light that is reflected away. They also lessen eyestrain by decreasing glare and reflections among the lenses.

Good quality coatings are as important as good quality lenses.

Cheap binoculars can lose up to 35 percent of the incoming light, resulting in a dim or fuzzy image.

On the other hand, a high-quality pair may lose less than 5 percent of incoming light and will show you a crystal-clear view.

 Tip: Be sure to avoid coatings that filter out red or blue light, as these will distort the colors you see, which may make accurate bird identification harder.

What's an exit pupil?

Exit pupil is the size in millimeters of the dot of light you can see through the eyepiece of your binoculars. The bigger it is, the better you'll see in dim light.

Field of view and close focus distance

When choosing binoculars for bird watching, it's important to think about where you’re likely to be birdwatching.

Will you be at home or in a local park, or will you be out in nature where the birds may be quite far away?

This question is important because it determines the field of view and close focus distance that will work best for you.

Field of view refers to the amount of scenery you can see with your binoculars, and close focus distance is the minimum distance at which you can focus on an object.

A wider field of view makes it easier to scan an area quickly and follow fast-moving birds without having to make constant adjustments.

A closer focus distance lets you observe fine details of the bird's appearance, such as feathers and markings, which is helpful for identifying the species.

 Close focus –6 to 10 feet - is also handy for observing small birds like hummingbirds or warblers, even when they’re fairly close to you. 

Ultimately, your best binoculars for bird watching will balance both field of view and close focus distance for your specific bird watching needs.

bee hummingbird 1 binoculars for birdwa

Porro prism or roof prism?

Porro prism and roof prism are the two main optical designs for binoculars. Both work well, but you might find Porro prism binoculars slightly better for birdwatching.

Here's how they’re different:

Porro prism binoculars

In Porro prism binoculars the inner prisms are slightly offset, forcing the light to follow a zigzag path. As a result, the objective lenses are spaced farther apart than the eyepieces.

Porro prism binoculars have a wider field of view than similar roof prism binoculars.

They often give better depth perception and more three-dimensional images, which is great for birdwatching.

They also produce brighter images and perform better during dusk and dawn.

Porro prism binoculars are also usually more affordable than roof prism binoculars.

Roof prism vs porro prism binoculars for bird watching - diagram

Roof prism binoculars

Roof prism binoculars have tube-like design in which the objective lenses and the eyepieces are in a straight line.

Their compact and streamlined shape allows for more durable construction that’s good for use in outdoor activities and harsh environments.

Roof prism binoculars are usually lighter than Porro prism binoculars, so they’re easier to carry all day, which is  why they’re a hit with hikers and travelers.

On the downside, roof prism tends to be more expensive than Porro prism models with similar specifications, especially those that offer advanced features.

If you’re thinking of buying roof prism binoculars, be sure to check for ‘phase coating,’ especially if you’re going high end.

Without getting too technical, phase coating helps keep the image sharp as it is reflected around the optics inside the binocular.

Eye relief

When it comes to choosing binoculars for bird watching, eye relief is an important consideration, especially for those of use who wear glasses.

“Eye relief” refers to the maximum distance you can have between the eyepiece and your eye, while still having a full field of view.

If you wear glasses, you'll want binoculars with a longer eye relief to ensure you can comfortably see the entire image without straining your eyes.

Most binocular eye relief is about 9 to 13 mm, appropriate for people who don't wear glasses.

People who wear glasses should choose an eye relief between 14 and 18 mm, depending on how thin and close-fitting your glasses are. (Thicker, more distant lenses means you need a higher eye relief number.)

Finding the right eye relief is crucial for a comfortable and enjoyable bird watching experience. So take the time to try out lots of different binoculars and find the ones that feel the most comfortable and provide the best image quality for your needs.

Weight and comfort 

You don't want to end up with a pair of binoculars for bird watching that are too heavy to hold steady for a good, long look, or that make your neck and shoulders hurt.

It’s tempting to buy compact binoculars for ease of use, but chances are you'll be sacrificing ease of use and image quality (due to less light entering the smaller objective lenses.) Compact binoculars are not a good choice for your first pair.

If you're going to be wearing your binoculars all day, consider using an affordable binocular harness
instead of a neck strap to distribute the weight evenly and reduce strain and fatigue. Many birders swear by a good binocular harness!

A binocular harness carries the weight of the binoculars on your shoulders rather than your neck, but still keeps them handy for use.

As an added bonus, a binocular harness also protects you from dropping your favorite binoculars!

If you have shaky hands or have trouble holding your binoculars steady (like me), you might want to consider investing a few bucks in a tripod or stand.

Ultimately, choosing binoculars that are both lightweight and comfortable will allow you to enjoy bird watching for longer periods without sacrificing the quality of your viewing experience.

Ease of focus

Because birds move around a lot it's important to be able to focus your bird watching binoculars quickly.

You should be be able to switch from a far to a close focus with less than one turn of the dial. The focus wheel should be in the center, between the eyepieces, and should turn smoothly without too much effort.

Try to avoid binoculars that have individual focus eyepieces for distances under 30 feet or so. By the time you get these babies focused the bird will be long gone!

Waterproofing and durability

Bird watching often involves spending long hours outdoors in varying weather conditions, so it's essential to choose binoculars that can withstand the elements.

Look for binoculars that are not only waterproof but also fog proof, as this will ensure that you can use them in any weather.

Binoculars are “fog proofed” by removing (purging) oxygen from the interior and replacing it with a gas such as nitrogen to prevent condensation.

You should also look for binoculars with a sturdy construction and a rubberized coating because bumps and drops out in the field (and at home) are pretty much inevitable.

Budget considerations

When choosing binoculars for bird watching, be sure to stay focused on which features are most important for you, such as magnification, lens size, weight or durability.

While it's true that “you get what you pay for”, it's important to remember that the most expensive binoculars may not necessarily be the best for you.

There are plenty of high-quality binoculars available at reasonable prices and you may find a mid-range option that suits your needs perfectly.

However, we strongly suggest avoiding super cheap binoculars. These are usually made with low quality glass and poor focus mechanisms, resulting in dull, dark images that will make you wonder why you bothered.

Try before you buy

Because a comfortable weight and feel are so personal, we strongly recommend that you get out and try as many different binoculars as you possibly can, even if you plan to buy online.

Where to find binoculars to try out?

Join a bird walk or nature hike and ask your fellow hikers what they like about their binoculars. Borrow them for a few minutes if you can.

If there's a bird festival near you, make a point of visiting. Many binocular companies will have booths there. Same goes for a hunting show.

You might also try local specialty shops, such as Wild Birds Unlimited or Cabela's.

As you’re testing binoculars, think about these questions:

  • Does the weight and balance feel comfortable?
  • Does the focus wheel move easily?
  • Is the field of view wide enough?
  • Is the image sharp and bright?
  • Can you focus close in (10 to 15 feet)?
  • Do you feel like part of the scene you're viewing?
  • Are the eye cups comfortable?


Binoculars are a key ingredient of fun and successful birdwatching, but finding the right pair can be a challenge.

You’ll need to think about comfort, durability and ease of use along with a quite a few more technical factors like magnification, field of view and eye relief.

The tips in this article should help you navigate the technical side but hands-on testing is just as important.

Take the time to try out as many different models and brands as you can before making a final decision, and don't let price be the only deciding factor.

Happy bird watching!

About the author

Joy Thurlow

Hi, I'm Joy Thurlow. Watching birds in the back yard is a favorite hobby of mine. My mission with Joy of Birdwatching is to share (accurate) information about birds, birding and useful products to help everyone connect with nature and enjoy the birds while we still have them. Thanks for reading!

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About the Author

Joy Thurlow

Hi, I'm Joy Thurlow. Watching birds in the back yard is a favorite hobby of mine. My mission with Joy of Birdwatching is to share (accurate) information about birds, birding and useful products to help everyone connect with nature and enjoy the birds while we still have them. Thanks for reading!


About the Author

Joy Thurlow

Hi, I'm Joy Thurlow. Watching birds in the back yard is a favorite hobby of mine. My mission with Joy of Birdwatching is to share (accurate) information about birds, birding and useful products to help everyone connect with nature and enjoy the birds while we still have them. Thanks for reading!