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Focus on the specs.

September 30, 2003|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

HAVING A TOUGH TIME DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN A wave and a whale spout while at the beach? Or a branch and a bunting when bird-watching? If so, it may be time to bring the natural world closer with a good pair of binoculars.

As with any high-tech gizmo these days, the options are varied and confusing. Binoculars have come a long way from those bulky models your dad lugged to football games. Now, some binoculars are small enough to fit into your pocket, make a shaky image stand still, or even do double duty as a digital camera.

The First Commandment of buying binoculars: Always give them a trial run, preferably outside a store, if possible. Check for a nice fit in your hands and comfortable eyecups, and make sure they're easy to focus.

If you eyeball binocular specs, you'll be hit with bewildering terms. Here's a guide to decoding them:

Magnification and objective lenses: Consider a model labeled 7x35mm. The first number is the level of power or magnification; in this case the object seen through the binoculars appears seven times larger than if seen with the naked eye. Magnification between seven and 10 times is usually plenty for most people. Anything more than 10 times usually requires a tripod to keep the image steady.

The second number is the diameter in millimeters of the objective lens -- the one farthest from your eye that collects light. A big lens captures more light than a small lens. More light means a crisper and clearer image. So if you're birding at twilight or hunting on a cloudy day, look for larger objectives. A general rule of thumb: Go for an objective lens five times magnification.

Field of view: The width of an area in feet that can be viewed from 1,000 yards. A higher magnification usually means a narrower field of view, so a large field, say more than 300 feet, makes it easier to track moving objects.

Size: Compact models -- typically 30-millimeter objective lenses and smaller -- perform best in good light and are perfect for hiking and backpacking. If portability isn't a concern, full-size models are great for serious wildlife watching. They also provide a wider field of view and deliver brighter images.

Eye cups: To accommodate eyeglass wearers, eye cups retract on most models. Cheaper models tend to have fold-down rubber cups, which could deteriorate. Pricier models offer nicer pop-up and twist-up versions.

Exit pupil: If you hold the binoculars away from your face, the exit pupil is the circle of light that is visible at the eyepiece. The larger the exit pupil, the brighter the image. To determine the size, divide the objective lens diameter, or second number, by the power, or first number (an 8x32 has an exit pupil of 4 millimeters).

Price: Generally, $200 buys a high-quality pair. Passable models are available for $80, and high-tech models can cost $500 or more.

Bells and whistles: Use caution. Most extras aren't that necessary. Waterproofing is essential for water enthusiasts, but it may make your binoculars weigh and cost more. Hunter and sports optics expert Bill McRae of Shoto, Mont., dismisses camouflage-colored binoculars as a fad that will not yield more wildlife sightings. He's equally skeptical of image-stabilizers that purport to calm a shaky image. Propping your elbows on a rock can do the trick. And that's free.

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