"There's another flock coming over the horizon, just west of that old combine." Truth be told, I couldn't see the geese my buddy was watching through his 8X42mm Zeiss Victory FL binoculars. Flock after flock left a marsh in northern Saskatchewan, and I was frustrated by my inability to see them in the low light. I eventually spotted the birds with my binoculars, but his optics were clearly superior.
The topic of this column is a passion of mine, and right up front I want you to know I'm not going to go out on any limbs and state that Brand X is better than Brand Y. Very simply, my eyes aren't the same as yours. Lenses that enable my eyes to see in the poorest light and provide perfect color rendition and superb sharpness often don't work the same for my hunting buddies. For
example, I see a yellowish cast through a friend's binoculars that he swears
Regular Or Premium?
Premium hunting optics—binoculars, riflescopes and spotting scopes—are products in the highest price-points. They're the nicest toys on the shelf—the best hunting optics on the planet—and several optics companies strive for perfection, regardless of the cost.
I believe every performance level of optics has certain brand models that simply excel. For example, the most popular specs for binoculars are 7X35mm, 7X42mm, 7X50mm and similar models in 8X and 10X configurations. Through experience in the field, I've found the best binoculars for my vision in 7X35mm might be Brand X, but a completely different brand when I assess 8X42mm binos.
Optics manufacturers try to accommodate a variety of pocket-books by offering products at various price-points. In other words, there are inexpensive optics and very expensive optics, and many choices in between. You usually get what you pay for, so price is a major consideration when purchasing optics. Having said that, don't make price the only factor when shopping. I recently compared several binocs with identical specs, and the sharpest, brightest image for my eyes was produced by an instrument that sells for $300 less than the highest priced model in the test group.
I know what you're thinking: Are top-end hunting optics really worth the money? And what are the benefits?
I believe premium hunting optics are purchased for three reasons: highest optical performance; ruggedness and long life; and pride of ownership.
I discussed this topic with my friend Jon LaCorte from Nikon. "Hunters need optimal light transmission and definition because most game is active at dawn and dusk," he said. "The quality of the lenses and the correct application of coatings is essential for low-light performance." Jon also explained that high-end hunting optics employ the strongest internal construction to withstand harsh use and weather extremes.
After making the transition to premium optics years ago, I am a believer. At the end of a long day of using premium binoculars, my eyes are not sore and strained. I can see with incredible sharpness and in the worst hunting light through my binocs, spotters and riflescopes. My premium equipment is tough and completely reliable.
Let Your Eyes Decide
Determining which optics to purchase can be difficult. Brand loyalty is particularly strong in the optics world, and I believe the selection of premium hunting glass should be made on a purely individual basis. First, determine your budget and then do your homework to learn which makes and models are appropriate for you. Next—and this can be the difficult part—make an effort to do head-to-head comparisons of your top candidates.
I suggest you visit an optics dealer to compare the various makes and models it has in stock. Major outdoors retailers such as Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's, Gander Mountain and Scheels are great choices. You want to be very specific and compare apples-to-apples across brands. By that I mean you should try 3-9X40mm riflescopes from Brand A, Brand B, Brand C and Brand D. Let your eyes be the judge and then eliminate one brand. Then try the remaining three brands/models and eliminate a second. After you eliminate the third, get your credit card out and buy the one in your hand.
Here are a few other suggestions for comparing optics in a retail store:
Don't tie up a salesman and counter-space when there are a lot of other customers in the store. Do your comparing when the store isn't busy. I've found that immediately after a store opens on a weekday is usually ideal. Call ahead and ask a salesperson when a good time would be to spend 30 minutes or more comparing optics.
Ask if you can use a tripod or monopod to help support the optics during your testing. By resting the optics you'll maximize your ability to assess resolution (how clean and sharp the image is).
Look at the store layout and try to find poorly lit areas such as hallways or ceiling corners. Hopefully, there will be posters or other objects to observe in these dark areas. Such dark spots will enable you to assess light transmission. Also look for signs and posters with small print located at various distances from the optics counter. Signs are good for optics tests because you can either read the fine print or not.
Some small-town retailers might allow you to take their optics outside the store for testing. Look for distant overhead powerlines and far-off signs to assess resolution.
When testing binoculars, close your eyes and bring the instrument into position. Open your eyes and you should have a full field-of-view. Assess the ergonomics of each unit; this is an important consideration for hunters who might spend hours each day looking through their binocs.
Don't be swayed by personal opinions of the salesclerk or your buddies. Trust your eyes—they'll tell you which optics are best for your vision.
Unfortunately, many hunters don't have access to well-stocked sporting goods stores. In this case, you can ask to look through various models owned by friends or acquaintances. If personally field-testing optics just isn't possible, Internet Web sites dedicated to bird watching are an excellent reference for binoculars and spotting scope ratings as bird watchers are major users of high-end optics.
I'm fortunate to be able to test and hunt with a wide variety of hunting optics ranging from low-end models to the finest glass money can buy. Very simply, using the best hunting optics becomes addictive, and performance standards are so high I sometimes take for granted the incredible vision I enjoy while hunting. Believe me, there is a difference between standard and super-grade optics.