How To Choose Binoculars For Bird Watching (Best UK Guide)

How To Choose Binoculars For Bird Watching (Best UK Guide)

The best binoculars for bird watching vary depending on the type of bird watching you enjoy. Or put another way, there’s more than one bird watching scenario especially here in the UK. There’s wide open spaces like beaches, or at a lakeside or there’s the more enclosed bird watching in tightly packed woodland.

That makes it virtually impossible to say which type of binoculars are best overall, you need to work out whether you want a good all-round set or if you’re looking for binoculars for a specific niche. Once you have that worked out, all you have to do is find the pair with all of the features you might need and you’re away.

How Much Should You Pay For Binoculars For Bird Watching?

We can’t tell you how much you should pay for your binoculars, but what we can tell you is that with binoculars the cheapest is never the best. Binoculars are usually a once in a lifetime purchase so it pays to invest wisely. Find a pair with all of the features you require and take it from there.

A word of caution

Don’t be fooled by the adverts for binoculars with no brand name for less than £20 remember with binoculars you really do get what you pay for and the cheapest is never the best. Go for a trusted brand and only buy from a legitimate company then set your sights on the best model you can afford and enjoy.

What’s The Best Magnification For Bird Watching?

Probably the main reason you want binoculars when you’re bird watching is to get a closer view of the birds in their natural environment. That means you need a pair with the highest magnification right? Wrong, why? Because with greater magnification comes a poorer field of view. And that’s not all, if the magnification is too high, the image will appear shaky which makes it blurry and instead of a close up, clear image you get a blurred image that won’t keep still.

You could fix the binoculars to a stand, using a tripod and an adapter and there are even electrically powered stabilisers available. But that doesn’t help with the diminished field of view. So if you’re only going to buy one pair of binoculars for all of your bird watching activities, then you’ll be better off buying a pair with 8x magnification, that’s not the greatest magnification but for your usage, it’s the most practical.

Bird Watching

Why Is 8x Magnification The Best For General Usage?

There are a couple of reasons for using lower magnification binoculars for general bird watching  and they are;

  1. A Wider Field Of View
  2. Greater Image Stability
  3. Better Eye Relief

That all sounds good, but what does it mean? Let’s look into it in more detail and put some of that jargon into plain English.

A Wider Field Of View

The field of view is the distance you can see in front of the binoculars and out to the sides. Think of looking straight ahead without binoculars, just using your naked eyes. As you stare straight in front of you, you can see more than in the straight line to the front. You are able to see a certain distance diagonally outwards from each eye, that’s your field of vision. So once you hold the binoculars up to your eyes and stare straight ahead, you can also see some distance diagonally from each eye, that’s the field of view.

In practical terms, if you spot movement in the trees up ahead, then quickly put the binoculars up to your eyes, with a wider field of view, you’re far more likely to spot the bird almost immediately, without having to frantically search around for it. This is a great help when spotting many of the smaller species found in the UK that move pretty quickly, so time is of the essence. For this reason many bird watchers prefer the lower magnifications of 8x or 10x, which both offer a wider field of view.

There is another benefit to wider fields of view, they tend to allow more light through the objective lens (large lens at the front) which means you see a brighter, clearer image.

Greater Image Stability

If you’re using a tripod this is not an issue, but most of us bird watchers often make our best views when we’re on the move. The problem is we all shake when holding something out in front of us, it’s something to do with the nervous system and it’s quite natural and nothing to worry about. Unless you’re trying to watch a bird that’s 10 metres away in a tree.

The higher magnification you have in your lenses, the more pronounced that shaking is going to be. That’s why most seasoned bird watchers prefer 7x, 8x or 10x magnification. Any higher than 10x not only loses field of view, but also becomes shaky and as a result blurred.

Better Eye Relief

The binocular lens that you put to your eye, known as the “eyepiece”, has an optimal distance it should be from your eye to be able to see the full image. This distance is called the “eye relief”. 

The further away from the ocular lens (lens closest to the eyes) your eyes are, the smaller the amount of the magnified image you can see. It’s like looking through a tunnel, the further back you pull your head the image lessens. Generally we would recommend an eye relief of 14 mm or greater that way you won’t miss out on the full image.

So For General Bird Watching 8x Are The Most Suitable

That’s for general use in a variety of situations, open fields, beaches, lakesides and watching small birds in the edges of forests, woodlands etc. Producing clear, bright images that are easy to spot due to the wide field of view. But what about Watching birds of prey?

What’s The Best Magnification For Watching Slow Moving Birds?


There are times when you’re going to want to go and see waterfowl, larger birds and even (if you’re lucky) birds of prey. As all of these birds tend to move far slower (unless they’re spooked) you don’t need such a wide field of view and can then concentrate on seeing larger, clearer images. We can offer you some useful advice for these times too.

With Slow Moving Or Statutory Subjects Stronger Magnification Is Best

As magnification increases, the field of view decreases, but this is not a problem with slow moving birds, or birds that are standing still. So with these types of subjects you can use binoculars with a higher magnification to see more details. These types of waterfowl for example tend to be either standing on the foreshore or floating in open water.

As they are not moving you won’t have to scan around looking for them so the field of view isn’t so important. But the detail is amazing, and you could be tempted to go too high on magnification which leads to blurred images due to the natural shakes we mentioned earlier. 

For Waterfowl, Birds Of Prey And Other Slow Moving Wildlife 10x Is Best

Why 10x and not 12x? The answer is because anything above 10x will produce an image too shaky to see clearly. This is true for hand held binoculars. If you are going to remain in one place, you can consider getting a higher magnification pair of binoculars and support them with a stand. But for general walking through areas of nature we wouldn’t recommend any higher than 10x magnification.

10×42 Binoculars Are The Best For Spotting Waterfowl And Birds Of Prey

Have you noticed the difference? We know that 10x deals with magnification but what does the 42 represent? The second set of numbers on a binocular (in this case 42) tells you the size of the objective lens (the front lens) in millimeters. The larger the objective lens is, the more light gathered into the binoculars – The brighter the image will appear. 

The size of the objective lens is an important factor when calculating the field of view, and although we don’t want to get too technical, the more field of view you have the lower the image quality will be (from a point of view of detail). So to gain detail on images you have to lose a percentage of field of view and vice versa.

The other point worth remembering when it comes to objective lens size is the more light that enters the binoculars the better the image will look in dull lighting (dawn or dusk for example).

Lens Coatings

Having coated lenses helps to cut down on glare, and increases the crispness of the image seen through the binoculars. But there are many choices when it comes to coatings, and some are better than others so let’s go through them quickly to avoid confusion. There are 4 types of coatings that you’re likely to see advertised as features on binoculars and they are;

  1. Coated Lens
    When it comes to binocular lens coatings, a coated lens is the lowest form of coating you can get. It basically means that at least one lens has been coated.
  2. Multi-Coated Lens
    This can mean either multiple surfaces have been coated or one surface has multiple coatings applied to it.
  3. Fully Multi-Coated Lens
    Fully multi-coated lens means that both lenses have been coated inside and out with multiple layers applied to them. This will give you better colour, contrast, brightness and light transition.
  4. Broadband Fully Multi-Coated Lens
    This is the top of the range and includes everything you get with fully multi-coated lens but with added coatings to work across a wide spectrum of many wavelengths and produce the ultimate in clear images.

There are also prism coatings which increase the reflection of light and give an improved brightness and contrast of the image. There are many types of prism coatings but the top type are dielectric coatings. These prism coatings are only used on roof prisms due to the way they work, Porro prisms don’t need to be coated. 

What Are Eye Cups?

On older binoculars you usually find rubber eyecups that can be folded up or down but modern binoculars have plastic or metal rubber-coated eyecups that are adjusted by twisting up and down. These help you hold the binoculars at the right distance from your eyes to see the field of view comfortably. 

Also if you press the binoculars directly onto your eyes for too long you will get eye strain, by adjusting the eye cups you can relieve that strain. For those of you that wear glasses, the eyecups can be twisted completely down to bring your eyes closer to the lenses so you can see the full field of view without having to remove your glasses. 

Binocular Sizes

There are 3 sizes for binoculars, they are compact, midsize and full-size. These sizes are based on the size of the objective lens.

  • Compact
    Objective lens less than 30mm
  • Midsize
    Objective lens between 30 to 40mm
  • Full-size
    Objective lens more than 40mm

The size you choose will be determined by the way you intend to use them. If they will be put in a backpack then a compact pair makes sense. Midsize binoculars will give you brighter images and will be more comfortable to hold for longer periods. Full-size binoculars will be heavier and harder to hold long-term.

Are Waterproof Binoculars Worth It?

Whether you are going to go bird watching in the hot balmy days of Summer, or the wilds of Winter you should consider investing in waterproof binoculars. This is because you live in the UK where the weather can change as quick as the first flash of lightning. Also because it’s not just water that can enter binocular lenses and cause problems. Dust, debris and even mould spores can find their way into the tubes of binoculars that have not been properly treated.

If your budget allows, go for a pair of binoculars with a code of at least IPX6 which gives great waterproofing against any rain or snow storms you’re likely to encounter anywhere in the UK. IPX7 will allow you to drop the binoculars into water up to a depth of 1 metre for 30 minutes without any water getting inside the lenses, which is handy if you intend kayaking or general boating while birding.

If you do intend using your binoculars whilst travelling on water, you should also consider investing in a floating strap. These straps attach to the existing strap and will prevent the binoculars from sinking which means you won’t lose your prize possession. These floating straps are reasonably priced and for the sake of around £20 you can save your potentially £1000 binoculars.

Other Specifications Worth Considering

Fogproof binoculars are also worth considering as they are filled with an inert gas that contains no moisture and so will not suffer from the effects of temperature extremes (like leaving the warmth of the car for the cold wet field where the nesting pair of rare birds has been reported).

Rubber coating makes sense too as it allows for slight knocking about or at least accidental bumps. 

What Type Of Binoculars Are Best Porro Prism Or Roof Prism?

Without getting too technical, the main differences in these 2 types of binoculars are in the size and weight. Porro prism binoculars are on the whole bigger, heavier and easier to knock out of alignment than roof prism binoculars. They are easy to distinguish because roof prism binoculars are far smaller and look like 2 straight tubes with a central focusing twist knob. Where Porro prisms are far bigger and wider.

If you are intending to spend most of your time in one place and plan on using a stand or tripod then Porro prisms will probably work best for you. But if you are more likely to be off roaming around the countryside roof prisms will probably be your best bet as they are smaller and lighter. Plus they’re far less likely to get knocked out of alignment due to the internal arrangement of the prisms.

Image Stabilisers

The idea behind this technology is to remove the natural shakiness that we all have, but which is only visible at fairly high magnification. The way it works is with built in sensors to detect movement and compensate for any shakes by showing a steady, consistent image.

So What Are The Best Binoculars For Bird Watching?

Bird Eating Mealworms

We hope we’ve given you enough information to make an informed decision on which binoculars to buy for your particular needs. As we said earlier, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to the best binoculars for bird watching. It very much depends on which area of bird watching you are interested in, and how often you expect to go bird watching.

Just To Recap On The Main Points

The best binoculars for bird watching fall into 2 main categories which are; stationary bird watching and bird watching on the move. Once you’ve decided how you intend to do your bird watching, you then need to decide which type of binoculars suits you best: Roof prism or Porro prism. You will also need to consider which types of birds you are likely to be watching, faster moving birds like songbirds, or slower birds like waterfowl. Once you’ve got that clear in your mind you need to consider the following;

  • Magnification
    The best magnification for bird watching whilst walking or trekking is either 7x, 8x or a maximum of 10x. If you intend to remain stationary, in a hide for instance and you can use a stand then any magnification will be OK even up to 20x or 30x but remember the higher the magnification, the lower the field of view.
  • Objective Lens Size
    The objective lens size determines the amount of light that is allowed to enter the binoculars. This is very useful in low light situations, bad weather, dawn or dusk. Because more light equals a clearer, brighter image.
  • Roof Prism Or Porro Prism
    Porro prism binoculars are on the whole, heavier, larger and more likely to get misaligned. Roof prisms are generally smaller, lighter, more compact and discrete. 
  • Lens Coatings
    A good lens coating will improve the colours, increase the contrast, brightness and light transmission, and decrease any glare.
  • Waterproofing
    However you plan to bird watch, the British weather will probably catch you out at some time. So a high level waterproofing is a good idea.
  • Fog Proofing
    Fog proofing is definitely a good idea as the inert gas that is used to remove the oxygen contains no moisture and having a gas sealed inside means no water or dust can enter. So the lens will remain waterproof as well as fog proof.
  • Rubber Coating
    Having a rubberised coating will not waterproof your binoculars but it will prevent minor scratches and scrapes from accidental collision with rocks etc.
  • Size
    There are not too many people that want to be carrying a large, cumbersome pair of binoculars around so as long as the specifications are not affected, a smaller size binoculars might be advantageous.
  • Image Stabiliser
    This is a good idea on higher magnification binoculars (above 12x) to keep a clear and steady image even though your hands will be shaking ever so slightly. At high magnification that slight shake will be increased to create a blurry image without the image stabiliser.
  • Weight
    There are not many people who would favour carrying heavy binoculars around. So unless you are planning to use them in a stationary position, a lightweight pair will be sufficient.

Frequently Asked Questions

What magnification binoculars is best for bird watching?

The best magnification for bird watching is between 7x to 10x, probably 8x with an objective lens of 42mm.

Which is better 10X42 or 8X42 binoculars?

8×42 will probably be better for shorter distances but 10×42 will be better over longer distances.