Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dainty Lady Binoculars; Three Years on the Optics Hunt

I realize this is an odd pulse in posting since the blog has lapsed into silence: Matt is still in CA, I am still in MI. Both indefinitely. I've unsubscribed from the Brewster and Reeves County eBird alerts because my heart just can't take the beating. What news I do get comes from folks who haven't heard, and would like to know if I'll be around when they're in town. Lest I get too nostalgic, let's just say that it's kind of nice to not feel the weight of citizen science on my shoulders every time I'm out birding: Washtenaw County, Michigan has PLENTY of birders who are reporting their sightings.

Reminiscing aside, have some content! This post is not sighting related, obviously, but optics are optics and we've fielded questions about cameras and binoculars in the past - might as well share the learning curve. (Camera reviews may be forthcoming, but Lillian Stokes nails the epic point-and-shoot that is the Canon SX 50 in her review - and warns away from the 60)

A brief history of my binoculars:

Bushnell 7x35s circa 1997-2000
Price: I don't remember, but definitely well under $100 (donated* circa 2003)

Eagle Optics Rangers 8x42 circa 2000-2015
$350? sounds about right

Audubon (Swifts?) 7x35(??) 2003
Won during the Great Texas Birding Classic, donated immediately due to being completely useless for my eyes - retail was probably well under $200

Nikon Monarch 8x42 circa 2007-2014
Gifted to me as spares ~$250? Not sure.

Opticron Traveller** 8x32 2015
Listed around $370, paid closer to $320 due to festival discount.

* Binoculars were donated to the American Birding Association's Birder's Exchange program.

** Zeiss Terra ED 8x32 were ALMOST on the list where the Opticron Traveller now sits. For three long, drawn out, agonizing years, I bided my time, procrastinating. Mostly being too broke to justify replacing the EO Rangers, and too complacent with the Nikon Monarchs as backups. Why the final snap? Everything in my life has completely and utterly been destroyed. Field work in 2014 nailed the coffin on the Nikons (I was chipping GLASS on them - screw destroying the coating, I was annihilating the actual LENS that my left eye was looking through... moral of the story is don't tuck your bins under your left arm when hiking for two months straight and also carrying a clipboard that bumps the eyepiece - or something...) so the Nikons were put into retirement. Then the portion of body where the strap is secured... snapped. My Rangers literally had one connecting point for the strap. Lopsided binoculars + redneck engineering = babied them along for another year, almost. In the meantime, I'd already done my homework to replace the Nikons, but didn't want to think about the cost (upper limit: mortgage payment, lower limit: dog food).

My requirements:

Top priority - IPD of 54 mm or less. IPD stands for Interpupillary Distance. It's pretty irrelevant if you have a big head. Or a medium head. Or are an average-sized human. I weigh roughly 105 lbs soaking wet, and while I might have a huge ego, my head is relatively proportionate to the rest of me. This is problematic. EVERY decent pair of binoculars on the planet* has a minimum IPD of 55 mm or wider (*pers observation, additional citation needed). When looking through binoculars, vignetting and separate-circles are quite problematic if you're trying to actually see/watch anything, much less birds or butterflies. Spoiler: none of the bins that I owned actually fit me 100% and it led to headaches early on and not really using my bins much. The EOs did have decent eye-relief (more on that soon!) which helped a bit. They were definitely better than the Monarchs in that regard.

Second(?) priority - eye relief! I wear glasses. Really, it's tied as top priority. But you have to have them up to your eyes to know the difference. And if they don't work, there's no way you can make them work. Try holding up a pair of cardboard tubes to your eyes... you don't want the tiny light at the end of the tunnel. You want as much of a view in your eyeballs as you can stand. Hands-on testing is required to determine this rather personal fit.

Third priority - close focus! I like big bugs and I cannot lie. But I also enjoy small bugs. And medium bugs. And sometimes they're pretty close to me, so I want to look at them without stepping back a few feet and falling off the side of a cliff. Not that I'm generally bug watching on cliffs, but if I can focus on my toes, I'm happy (admittedly, I'm short... soooo....). The EO Rangers had a close focus that, on tip-toe, was essentially perfect. My spare Nikons would have required me to grow another foot in height to focus on my toes. Meh. Forget about close focus on those first Bushnells, and the Swifts, too. Anything over 8' isn't close anymore.

Fourth priority - size/weight/feel. I don't mind a bicep workout if there's good quality, but I have smallish hands and I don't want a sore neck/back/arm/whatever. I have used - and love - "branocular" harnesses (harnesses with the center-point in the back) because they do distribute weight nicely, but ultimately I wanted something on the smaller end of full-sized binoculars in spite of the improved weight distribution. If you can't hold/lug your bins for hours, you're not going to be happy 15 years later. In the process of deciding on my EO Rangers, I went to an optics fair at Armand Bayou Nature Center (circa 2000) and picked up literally every pair of bins that was 7-8x and after figuring out the closest IPD fit (which wasn't perfect, but mini-bins were not on the menu for me at the time - I wanted to go from 7x35 to 8x at least), the last ones - the ones I couldn't bear to put down - were the Rangers and... I think a pair of Leicas. But there's a pretty hefty difference between $350ish and $800 or whatever it was, especially for a broke high school student.

Research: I poured through Cornell's Binocular Review for hours, among other things.

Bottom line:
Times have changed a bit and I'm no longer in high school (thank goodness), but sometimes I feel that the limitations are the same - parents and dogs are about on par for being restrictive to birding lifestyles. Oddly, finances are almost similar. Give or take a car payment. On the bright side, The Biggest Week in American Birding was perfect for optics shopping and I walked away with a VERY lightweight, crisp, bright, compact set of amazing optics. The poor fellow who worked the Opticron booth, Paul, was exceptionally patient (seeing as he's been trying to set me up with a pair of bins since 2012 or so!) as I tested the Opticron Travellers and Zeiss Terra EDs side by side for the better part of an hour, intermittently, over the first weekend of the festival. I'm thankful that the Travellers were so new that I wasn't already familiar with their spec sheet - had I been familiar with their claim of a 57 mm IPD, I don't think I ever would have even picked them up. The eye cups PULL rather than twist up/down, but unless I'm handing off my bins to people who aren't wearing glasses, I don't see that as a problem. Since I wear glasses I also don't have to worry about one eye being focused differently than the other, so that's handy - rumor has it that it's a beast to twist the right lens into focus... as it should be.  The gear included was pretty basic - lens cloth, case, thin strap, eye covers that I didn't put on (because I'm lazy and/or would lose them). Unfortunately because the glass is so exposed I will probably beat them up a bit faster than the other pairs of bins, judging by my historical use. I can't wait to find out, though!

Costs: How I finally calculated what I, personally, was willing to spend...

Historical mortgage payment
One month's rent with average utilities
One month's therapy costs
Current vehicle payment
Weekly income
Adoption fee for dog
A year's worth of dog food
....average of all of the above. No numbers, you can guess.

It just needed to be a number that wouldn't raise my blood pressure to the point of absolute panic. The Laura Erickson method also applied: I couldn't spend more than I could reasonably afford to replace. Let's go with DEAR GOD I HOPE I DON'T HAVE TO REPLACE THEM. Because, really, life's a bit too unpredictable for that right now.

Maybe there will be photos of my beat up bins here at some point; for now I hope the horrifying descriptions will keep people pampering their optics as much as possible! Recreational birders may not abuse their bins as much, but it's worth thinking about. There are no right/wrong answers with optics - binoculars are like snowflakes and fingerprints and birders/butterfliers/dragonfliers/moth-ers/herpers will all have something different they want. The good news: it's all out there.

Happy trails!!

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