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I'm not sure if this is the right place to ask this question, apologies if not..

I'm after a pair of binoculars for visiting Nature Reserves to get a better view of colonies of birds on the water (at some distance) etc. Separately I'm interested in aviation and being able to view airplanes that fly overhead (about 15000-30000 feet) - not necessarily to absolute detail (registration number etc) but to be able to see more than I can with the naked eye.

Is there a strength/specification of binocular I could buy that would be optimal for both of these? Or should I look at 2 separate pairs?

I'm just a "hobbyist" and don't have $$$ to spend, I'm looking for just a "consumer" spec item.

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Hi! I see you've been around the network, but have just joined us, so welcome!! I love bird watching and almost asked a similar question last week. I'm glad you beat me to it, and I'm learning from the answers you're getting. I hope you stick around and have some fun! – Sue Mar 27 at 19:09
Airplane watching at 30,000 feet with binoculars? Is that even possible??? Did you mean to write 3,000 feet??? – Jim Beam Mar 28 at 14:05
up vote 8 down vote accepted

You can definitely go for one pair.

I've actually been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the optics at almost the bottom end of the market, if you go for something common like 8x20.

We've got 8x, 10x and 12x for wildlife (mainly). None were expensive. The 12x50s are great at dusk but lack the close focus for garden birds or some hides. The 8x20s are a little weak for nature reserves with open water or mud flats.

So I suggest 10x25 to 10x40. Water resistance is a good thing.

When I used binoculars for looking at aircraft on approach (a job years ago) I preferred my 8x to the rather rubbish 10x that were available.

If you find you need more for colonies on water, a scope would be worth it later on. In that case the bottom of the market, especially with a zoom eyepiece, can be poor quality and give a lot of aberrations.

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(Ah, I meant this as a comment to Chris' post. Oh well, I guess I need to try making it a real answer.)

For tracking moving objects, a wide field of view (FOV) may also be helpful. (Apparent FOV will be larger than actual FOV, e.g. a pair with a 7° real FOV may have a 52° AFOV: )

If you wear glasses, look for a pair with long eye relief (e.g. 15mm or more) as this will allow you to comfortably use them without removing your glasses. Unfortunately eye relief is usually inversely related to field of view, so you have a trade-off there.

It may seem as though field of view is tied to the size of the objective lens (e.g. the "32" in an "8x32" spec'd pair), but it actually has to do with eyepiece design and magnification. ( So, you'll want to look at the actual FOV specification to know the FOV. The objective lens diameter does have an impact on how much light is collected, but the quality of lens coatings will also affect this. For a good quality lens, daytime use is unlikely to be helped much by going larger than 32mm.

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(As addition to the other answers)

This also depends on whether you're going to use a tripod or not. If you're not planning to use a tripod, I recommend getting maximum a 10x magnification, which is about the limit of what you can hold without shaking too much. Then you should consider the field of view as well as the lens diameter. A bigger diameter obviously allows for more light to travel through and therefore give you a clearer image especially in dusk dawn. (As a guideline: (diameter in mm) = 5 * (magnification factor) are quite good in that regard, e.g. 10x50 or 7x35) But bigger lenses also means more weight to carry around.

Also I recommend staying away from the zoom binoculars. In the lower price range they are usually so bad that they break esily and just take away too much light. And again if you are not using a tripod, maginifcatiosn above about 10x are quite useless.

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I'd call the cutoff 12x (assuming you use both hands) rather than 10x but basically agree. – Chris H Mar 27 at 21:19

Don't concentrate on the magnification (strength) for your first binoculars for airplane viewing, especially if you'll be using them for an additional activity as well (bird watching). Concentrate on getting a binocular with a wide field of view. You'll learn enough from these binoculars to decide which magnification you really want when you buy your next binoculars, which probably won't be fit for both airplanes (far, large, fast) and sitting birds (relatively close, small, and not moving).

If you are interested in astronomy as well, make sure to have a large objective lens. This will allow the binocs to collect as much light as possible in low-light conditions, which is important for making the subject bright enough to see.

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