Binocular update: Secrets of the best views

After 11 p.m., look in the east and you’ll see a gorgeous little star cluster. These are the “Seven Sisters” or Pleiades. Aim your binoculars at them.

Forget telescopes, which most people use once or twice and then never again. Binoculars are for watching everything, day and night, and you’ll use them periodically forever.

Through binoculars, the 3,000 stars visible to the naked eye on the clearest night in the Catskills jump to 30,000. Such promiscuously star-studded vistas seem to feed the human spirit. And as eclipse viewers just discovered, they’re the ideal instrument clearly to show the pink flames of nuclear fire leaping from the Sun’s edge during totality.


By day, the brightness enhancement is needed for a different reason. Magnifying anything spreads out its light, so binoculars cannot make things look seven-to-ten-times larger (the typical range) unless they first crank up the brightness to compensate. The end result in a good pair of binoculars is a blown-up image that is no dimmer than the world looks without them.

Binoculars are rated with two numbers, as in 7×35 or 10×50. The first numeral is the magnification: simply how many times larger the object appears. The second is the diameter of the main lens in millimeters. The combination is important: You want the first number divided into the second to be at least three and ideally four or more. Tiny “shirt-pocket” models are often fraudulently advertised as being “brighter and more powerful” than standard binoculars. But these pocket models are actually much dimmer, especially in low-light conditions such as deep woods or twilight or astronomical use. Such 8×21 instruments are essentially useless.

Also avoid “zoom” binoculars, which have a lever that alters their magnification. The lenses in such instruments are compromises and deliver an inferior image. And their field of view is porthole-tiny.

The best out there

The answer to everything is Canon’s image-stabilized models. These are absolutely wonderful, with rapidly swiveling mirrors that compensate for vibrations of your hand. I recommend their second-cheapest model, the 10×30 IS, which costs around $500 but is worth every cent. I also have their much-more-powerful 15×50, but it’s really too heavy to recommend for everyday use. Their very best model, which I also own, is the 10×42 IS, which is obscenely expensive at $1,400. Same magnification as the 10×30, but slightly better optics and decidedly brighter image in low light, and totally waterproof. If you can afford them (occasionally on sale for around $1,150), this is the best image through any binoculars at any price. The only down side: They’re a bit hefty in weight. So, if you want a light pair that is amazing but not quite the best, or if you just can’t bring yourself to spend so much, get the Canon 10×30 IS.

But say even $500 is out of your range. Then spend just $26 on the Celestron 7×35 UpClose G2 binoculars. Great, high-contrast image, wide field, perfect magnification and brightness package: a fine binocular. It just won’t steady the image for you, that’s all.

Quick demo

Whatever you own, point your glasses straight up the next clear night, at nightfall, around 8 p.m. Look for the brightest star that’s closest to directly overhead. Aim your binoculars there: This is Vega. You’ll see its beautiful blue-white diamond color. But now, find the nearest little star to it. Through the binoculars, it’s a gorgeous double star. People with slightly sharper-than-normal 20/20 vision (20/15 or 20/10, enjoyed by about a quarter of all kids between the ages of 7 and 19) will see it as double with their naked eyes alone. This is the famous binary Epsilon Lyrae.

Later that night, anytime after 11 p.m., look in the east and you’ll see a gorgeous little star cluster. These are the “Seven Sisters” or Pleiades. Aim your binoculars at them. Bam! Now, instead of eight stars, you’ll see dozens, and their blue color will be obvious. This stunning galactic cluster is a powerful demonstration of the power of your binoculars. And the view is 3-D, too.

Finally, on moonless nights like these, if you live away from town and city lights, slowly sweep your “glasses” across the Milky Way and drink in all the myriad stars and clusters and blotches of nebulae. Nothing like it.

Epsilon, the Pleiades, the Milky Way: all better through binoculars than any telescope. Now you know why you should own a pair. And that’s in addition to their wide performance in birding and other nature observations during the day.