A guide to field sport optics

issue date : 27 June 2008

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I was stunned. I stared in disbelief at the empty space in the parking lot in front of the shopping centre in Empangeni, where I had left my official Isuzu 4×4 bakkie 10 minutes earlier. It was gone. In the row just behind where my vehicle had stood, sat a man in his car, reading the local newspaper. I knew him well. He was a policeman, waiting for his wife to come off duty. She worked in the CNA, where I had spoken to her a minute ago.

They had stolen my bakkie, with my binoculars in it, from right under his nose, but he saw nothing. I had been on my way home from a friend Louis-John’s game ranch at nearby Ntambanana, where I had helped him cull 52 of his excess impala, which would usually have taken about three nights.

Being a handgun hunter, I wasn’t suitably equipped, but Louis-John had just the right tools for the job. A part from a strong spotlight, he also had a silky-smooth and super-quiet little Miroku .22 lever-action rifle, fitted with an unusual Nikko Stirling telescope. Instead of the normal reticule, the scope had a little ring where the cross-hairs meet. All I had to do was place the impala’s brightly illuminated eye in the ring and squeeze the trigger. It was literally a bull’s eye every time.

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Thanks to this efficient scope, I finished the job and culled 52 impala the first night. I hate night culling, but to protect the grazing it had to be done and I was relieved when it was over. This let me to spend the next day studying birds using another superb optical instrument, my pair of 8×40 Zeiss roof-prism binoculars. Bought 10 years previously, when the rand was strong, it was one of the first of its kind and precious to me. Little did I know that was to be the last time I’d use it.

A major loss o, staring in amazement at the empty parking space, I was unsure what the biggest loss was, the 4×4 bakkie or my binoculars? I could never again afford another Zeiss and I had to shop for something else. Guided by sales clerks, who obviously knew nothing about binoculars, I spent several frustrating years with one pair of unsatisfactory binoculars after another, until I found what I needed.

They weren’t roof-prisms, but more affordable porro-prism binoculars made by Bausch & Lomb in the US. I liked them so much I bought two. That was more than 20 years ago and I’m still delighted with them. Being informed about your choice Because several readers have lately asked my advice on binoculars, I’ll share some basics with you.

Apart from spectacles and rifle scopes, binoculars are the most widely used and handiest of all optical instruments. can enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of the outdoors a hundredfold. But then it must be a good one. Using bad binoculars is like using someone else’s spectacles.

It’s worse than being without them. Always buy the very best binoculars you can possibly afford. good pair is like a house – if looked after it lasts more than a lifetime, so do some homework before buying one. here are basically two types of binoculars – the old-fashioned porro-prisms, named after their designer Ignatio Porro, in which the tubes or barrels have a distinct dog-leg kink, and the modern roof-prisms in which the tubes are straight.

However, not all prisms are created equal. Visual sensitivity Optical quality depends on two types of prisms, BAK4 or BAK7, of which the first is far superior and more expensive. Some manufacturers won’t tell you what prisms they use because they’re a BAK7, but that’s easy to determine. Hold the binoculars at some distance from your eyes pointing at a white wall. If the light-spot that you see is somewhat angular (square), it’s a BAK7, if it’s perfectly round, it’s what you want – a BAK4.

All good binoculars have anti-reflective coatings on all air-to-glass surfaces, which assist light transmission and reduce glare. Note how the coatings are described as just “coated” – only the outside lenses are coated in a single layer, which means nothing. Multicoated means basically the same thing, but multiple layers are used, only marginally better. Fully coated means all surfaces are coated, which is good, but what you really want is fully multicoated, which means that light-loss will be minimal. ll binoculars have a two-figure designation: 7×50 or 10×42.

The second figure refers to the size of the front objective lens and indicates its diameter in millimetre. bigger the objective lens, the more light gathered and the better the twilight performance of the binoculars. But the more bulky and heavy it will become. The first figure indicates the power or magnification and that is the main reason people buy binoculars, but it’s also the point where most err by going for too high a magnification.

Although high magnification brings objects closer, it not only narrows you field of view, but also magnifies your body-shake, which every living person has. What you win in magnification you lose in shake. It becomes worse with age and only disappears when you die. It’s fashionable among birders to use only 10x binoculars and the market is flooded with them.

I have always had a preference for 7x or 8x binoculars and have seen more birds than you can dream of. A high-soaring eagle in the sky is usually over the horizon before you find it with a 10x and if you do, it jumps around like a jitterbug. Today, roof-prisms from Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss dominate the top-end binocular market and can cost anything from R16 000 to over R20 000.

There are many other good roof-prisms on the market, like those from Leupold, Nikon, Bushnell, Canon and Pentax, but those worth looking at start from about R3 000 upwards. Roof-prisms are more compact and can focus closer than the average porro, but good porros are much cheaper and by no means obsolete. Rand for rand, porro-prisms give better performance for your money, especially in medium or low-priced binoculars. It’s the optics that are important, not the design. Unlike roof-prisms, some truly excellent porro-prisms are available for well under R2 000. Avoid cheap porro-prisms and low-priced roof-prisms. Most of these are nothing more than sophisticated junk that ruins your eyes.

Before buying binoculars there are a couple of things you should check. Many good binoculars don’t comply with all the desirable qualities (see box: Before you purchase). The best quality at the lowest price Shop around if your budget is limited. Surprises still happen, like when I was recently asked by Ramrod to test their Ultraoptec 10×42 “GamePro” roof-prism binoculars. I must confess, initially I didn’t want to test a roof-prism costing less than R2 000. I took one look through it and put it back in its box, but Ramrod persisted.

Two weeks later they sent it back. Feeling mean, I decided to see how tough it was and if it could break. From 1,5m, I dropped it on the concrete floor of the stoep, but nothing happened. I dropped it again, still nothing. Then at full speed I dropped it in front of one of the wheels of the quadbike. Its hard rubber exterior had hardly a scratch, it was still perfect. Incredible! If you treat it like you should, I’m sure it will never break. Eventually I started to use it and soon realised that although price gives some indication of quality, you have to compare apples with apples.

Although I would have preferred the 8×42 and the sharpness of my superb Bausch & Lomb is marginally better – its image is quite good. Unlike most inexpensive models, it has screw-in eye cups to aid spectacle-wearers and what is unreal is that the rear ocular lenses are so large I lose absolutely nothing of the image when using it with glasses. It started to grow on me and now I love it.

It’s nitrogen filled, has BAK4 prisms, can focus down to only 1,2m and complies with almost all criteria set above. It comes with a remarkable elastic shoulder-harness on which you can wear any binoculars or camera full day without irritation. If you’re looking for good, affordable binoculars, but can’t afford the top-dogs, give Shelly at Ramrod a call on (011) 462 6986. Tell her you found it in the Farmer’s Weekly and ask for their nearest retail outlet. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail abrejsteyn@gmail. com. Skype Name: abrejsteyn |fw

Before you purchase:
Is the focus needle-sharp throughout, or does it get soft towards the edges? Utmost sharpness is most essential and non-negotiable. If it’s not, don’t buy it. Is the image bright? Are the colours true to life? Are the binoculars waterproof or nitrogen-filled? It prevents fogging and internal fungal growth on the lenses. Is there excessive chromatic aberration – ghostly blue or yellow edges to objects towards the edge of field of view? Is the field of view adequate? Except in mini binoculars, the objective diameter divided by the magnification should not be less than three.

Can it focus closely, to under 3m? How fast do they focus? It should take under 0,7 rotations of the focus wheel to go from 5m to infinity. Are they robust? Are they rubber-coated? Is the adjustable eyepiece tight? To avoid continuous resetting it shouldn’t turn too easily. Is it easily adjustable to spectacle or sunglass-use? Are the eye-cups of the screw-in type? Rubber cups don’t last when folded over frequently. Is it nicely balanced and comfortable to hold, and not too heavy? Is the focus wheel accessible and easy to use? Is there a rain guard for the oculars? Can you leave it attached to the neck strap or binoculars? Are there objective lens covers?