Binoculars are an essential item for a safari holiday to Africa and many other destinations. On safari there are often tripods in camp which are great to use but out on a game drive or on a walking safari, your own binoculars are the best option - they are vital for bird watching and seeing the wildlife in detail and so I would recommend that everyone should have their own pair!
Firstly, I always recommend that you buy the best you can afford. A good pair of binoculars should last a life time, hence the more you can spend the better. I suggest visiting an expert and trying several different pairs, test how they feel in your hands, and consider the weight of them. Remember that on light aircraft flights there are restrictions on luggage weight, and size too.
Also consider how they fit into your camera or duffle bag, for safekeeping whilst in game drive vehicles. Make sure there is a strap or better still a body strap so that they do not hang from your neck.
What do the numbers mean?
10x25, 7x42, 8x32, 8x40, 8x42, 10x42, 10x50 are all labels you may see. The first number tells you the magnification power. That is, how many times closer you will see an image. The larger the magnification, the closer the subject appears.
On safari, most enthusiasts will opt for 7, 8, 10 or even 12 magnification. However the larger magnifications also mean more image shake and a narrower field of view. 7 or 8 gives a good field of view whilst still magnifying well and less shake when being held by hand, whereas keen birders may find a 10 or 12 best.
The second number tells you the width (in mm) of the objective lens, the one at the ‘other’ end of the binoculars that is furthest from you. The larger the number, the wider the lens, and the more light that is let in, which means a brighter and clearer image.
This is especially useful in low light settings such as dawn and dusk game drives, walking safaris in the forest or even gorilla trekking in the jungle. But the larger the objective lens, the less portable the binos are and the heavier they become. Many find that 42mm is a good balance between size and weight.
If you want something that is light and easy to slip into your pocket, a 10x25 would fit well. One guide I know insists that 10x50 is the best for him, but it is up to you and the cost and what you are using them for specifically.
What are prisms?
Traditionally, binoculars used several lenses inside the frame to magnify the image. However each time an image passes through a lens, light is lost and therefore some clarity, which means that your viewing experience is lowered.
Prisms are now often used inside the binoculars in addition, which help to magnify the image without using so many lenses. This means that smaller and lighter binoculars with prisms can be more powerful, which will hugely benefit you on safari, giving you bright and clear images in binoculars that are more portable and take up less of your luggage allowance!
I always recommend buying binoculars with a roof prism rather than porro prism, as in these binoculars the objective lenses line up with the eyepiece (as opposed to the traditional looking binos where they were offset). This gives a narrower more streamlined profile, taking up much less space in your luggage or camera bag.
How do I buy ‘safari proof’ binoculars?
On safari I recommend binoculars that are water proof, and preferably with other features such as rubber armouring, for knocks that you may incur on a game drive on bumpy roads but also to improve the hand grip.
Do I need to worry about lens coatings?
Lens coatings really help to improve your wildlife and bird watching experience. They reduce the glare from the lens which allows more light into the binoculars and a better viewing experience. There are different levels of coatings - the more coatings the more expensive the binoculars will be, but the better the brightness and clarity will be.
The coatings start at a single layer on one lens or a single layer on the glass surfaces that come in to contact with air, through to multiple layers of coatings on all air-to-glass surfaces. I recommend multi-coated or fully multi-coated lenses as these reduce the glare the best especially when in very bright environments such as out on a game drive on the open plains.
What other features should I look for?
If you wear glasses, you should pay particular attention to the ‘eye relief’ measurement. This is the maximum distance your eyes can be from the eyepiece and still see the full field of view. A longer eye relief also reduces eye strain. Over 16mm of eye relief is perfect for people who wear glasses.
Some binoculars have a twist type pull out eye cup too which is helpful for those who wear glasses, so that the cups do not interfere with your spectacles. Image stabilising is also useful if you are a bird watcher – you really want the sharpest imaging which will allow you to pick out the subtlest changes of feather colour.
The focusing mechanism is important too, and it is wise to find a pair that allow for fine tuning for sharper images, and also a manual wheel in the centre that is easy and natural to adjust for gross focusing. If you are going to be bird watching on your safari, fine close focussing is essential.
So which brand should I choose?
There are many brands that make wonderful binoculars for safari wildlife viewing. These include Bushnell, Nikon (I have a great pair of Nikon Prostaff 8x42’s), Pentax, Celestron Outland, Opticron, Olympus and Canon and the more expensive yet sublime Leica, Zeiss and of course Swarovski Optik.
Swarovski are a company that pay a great amount of attention to quality of the materials and production process and have meticulous customer service. If you would like to invest in binoculars that can be used time and again, these are a very worthwhile life-long investment.