A Guide to Low-Light Binoculars

Serious nature-watchers may want to invest in low-light binoculars in order to take advantage of the dawn and dusk hours, when wildlife is most active, and thus most visible.

| May/June 1989

  • Man Looking Through Binoculars
    You'll find extra hours in your nature-watching day with the right optics. 
  • Binoculars
    Most binoculars are either roof prism (right) or porro prism (left).
  • Roof Prism Binoculars Diagrams
    The field of view of roof prism binoculars extends 341 feet wide.
  • Porro Prism Binoculars Diagrams
    Porro prism binoculars have a 394-foot field of view.
  • Low Light Roof Prism Binoculars Cutaway
    Compact 5X32 binoculars trade some relative brightness for convenience.

  • Man Looking Through Binoculars
  • Binoculars
  • Roof Prism Binoculars Diagrams
  • Porro Prism Binoculars Diagrams
  • Low Light Roof Prism Binoculars Cutaway

It's at least a thousand yards across the river valley to the grassy little park where I watch our local elk feed most every June evening. Tonight they emerge from the quaking aspens and scrub oak at exactly 7:30, following the lengthening tree-shadows out into the little clearing.

By 8:40, it has grown too dark to continue watching the animals through my little 7X2 minibinoculars. In fact, I can no longer see well enough through them even to focus. I put the minis aside and take up a newer, larger pair, of low-light binoculars, size 7X50.

Optical magic.

Not only are the elk once again visible, but with the help of the big 7X50s, I can now make out subtle differences in size and coloration between individual animals and observe exactly what each is doing: A lone cow is lying near the bottom edge of the park chewing cud. A few yards above her, next to a clump of scrub oak, lies a second, somewhat larger cow, this one with a very small calf relaxing nearby. At the very back of the clearing, two pony-sized yearlings are playing tag in and out of the "quakies." A sixth animal is feeding in the deep shadows

With these magical low-light binoculars, a full half-hour passes before I again lose clear sight of the little herd. That's half an hour of prime-time nature observation I would not, could not, have enjoyed without them.

Since wildlife is most active (and thus most visible) at dawn and dusk, serious watchers need binoculars with the ability to magnify not just images but ambient light as well—field optics that will provide rewarding viewing not just in good light but also in the deep forest shadows of midday and at the dim edges of early morning and late evening. Unfortunately, the minibinoculars so popular today, even the very best of them, actually reduce the amount of light reaching your eyes, while most popular-sized binoculars enhance image brightness only very slightly, if at all.

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