One of the great things about doing Charlotte Mason nature study is that you don’t have to have a bunch of expensive equipment. Just grab your journal and go outside. But sometimes it can be helpful to expand our nature study practices by having some equipment, if we want to. So today we want to discuss how you might be able to use binoculars as part of your nature study and what to look for in finding some binoculars that work well for that practice. Here to join me in this discussion are my friends and coworkers Karen and Doug Smith. Thanks for joining us.
Doug: Good to be here.
Sonya: We want to talk about binoculars specifically. Karen, let’s start with how do we use binoculars as part of our nature study? They’re not necessary, but what are they good for? How might they expand our abilities in nature study?
Karen: I’m going to state the obvious. They’re good for seeing things far away. Maybe you want to look at a bird or a mammal that is frightened by your presence. You can look at that closer if you have binoculars, so you can bring that right near to you and be able to see details with that. Maybe it’s cold and snowy outside, and you see a bird in the trees on the back of your property. You can use your binoculars to look through your window at that and stay inside where it’s warm. Maybe there are other places that whatever you want to look at is inaccessible, so you can use binoculars in those cases. They can also be used to not only see the birds and mammals, but butterflies, the leaves on trees, the moon, you can look at that.
Sonya: Not the sun, of course.
Karen: Not the sun. Yes. Do not look at the sun with them. That would not be a good thing.
Doug: We were not long ago looking at some trees and wondering what kind they were, and there were no leaves down low. With binoculars you can see the tops of the trees.
Sonya: Those are great examples of ways to use them. I assume you taught your children how to use binoculars? How did you go about that? Because it’s hard to see what they’re seeing and be able to dial things in. So any tips for that?
Karen: They need to adjust them this way [Karen demonstrates twisting the diopters], so that they see one circle, not multiple circles.
Sonya: In all the movies and TV shows, you always see the two circles when they’re showing the binocular vision. So you don’t want that?
Karen: No, and so when that all comes together, then they can work on the focusing. And you teach them how to use the focus on your pair of binoculars until the image is crisp and clear.
Sonya: What age do you think you would recommend for starting that? I would assume young children might struggle with that.
Karen: Young children are hard because they don’t quite understand. But usually later elementary, maybe some fourth graders, but definitely fifth and sixth graders could learn to use them, and then all the way through the rest of their life.
Doug: They take a little practice. So letting a younger child maybe try them out, experiment, and get a feel for them is a good thing. But they won’t be able to use them on their own for awhile.
Sonya: Now I’ve seen kid binoculars. I don’t know that you’d call them toy binoculars but I’ve seen the ones that are supposed to be for children. Are those any good? Or maybe I should expand that question. What should we look for in choosing a set of binoculars?
Doug: Those things that we think of as toy binoculars are pretty much junk. They’re going to create a frustrating experience for the child, so they won’t want to use them. They’re not going to be successful with those. You really have to step up a little bit to get something that’s actually even usable. They’re fine for pretend play.
Sonya: That’s true. We could let them pretend with it or make their own out of paper cups just for fun to emulate what others are doing. So what should we look for in binoculars? I’ve seen them advertised for a pittance all the way up to a fortune. Do you have to spend a fortune to get a good pair? Are we looking for 2 million magnification? What are we looking for?
Doug: The answer, as in so many things, is it depends. Binoculars can be expensive but they can also be something that lasts a lifetime. So they may be an investment. They are truly the kind of item that you get what you pay for. We can look at some of those features and what they mean, but if you’re only going to be using them casually, not very often, then no, don’t spend a lot on them. But if it’s something that you think you are going to use repeatedly and you are going to love those and it’s going to be an important tool for you, you might want to invest a little bit more.
Sonya: So if you’re going to invest a smaller amount because you’re not going to use them a lot, let’s say, what features should you look for to make sure you’re not wasting that small amount of money?
Doug: Let’s talk about magnification first. So many, especially on the cheap binoculars, toy binoculars, they like to advertise how much magnification they have. This magnifies things 20 times. No, we’ve got one that’s 30 times. Oh, ours does a hundred. And magnification actually can work against you. It’s not the most important thing. I brought some sticks and let’s illustrate that a little bit. [Doug picks up dowel rod about the length of a forearm.]
So let’s pretend the stick is the magnification of the binoculars. So Karen put your finger out. I’m going to hold it here [Doug holds the dowel near the end furthest from Karen’s finger] and pivot it, so my small movement here makes a larger movement at the end. If I want to point to her finger it’s not too bad with this stick. But my small movement makes a larger one. That’s how magnification works. [Doug picks up a longer dowel about the length of his arm and holds it near the far end.] Now if we have more magnification and I want to point at her finger and I’m making these little tiny movements here, it’s a lot harder to do. I’m having a hard time getting precise to the point that’s there. It’s the same thing with binoculars where, if you’re trying to say, look at a bird and that bird’s moving, you have so much magnification you can’t find it. So magnification isn’t as big of deal as we might think.
Sonya: So let me clarify. When you were focused, trying to get on the finger, it was trying to find it, not necessarily trying to dial in the focus, just trying to locate it. Because that’s happened to me sometimes, I’m looking for something, and it’s like Where did it go? Where did it go?
Doug: Yes, and with a lot of magnification any little movement of your hands is going to make a big movement in the things that you’re looking for. Especially a younger child is really going to have a hard time with that.
Sonya: Yes, because their movements are not as fine tuned yet.
Doug: So the other factor is the size of the lens. For the size of the lens, the larger it is, the more light it will gather and the clearer the image will be. But on the negative side of that, the larger the lens, the heavier the binoculars will be and the larger they will be, so there’s a balance point there. Now if you look at a binocular, you’ll see there’s usually a label. On the label it tells the magnification and the size of the lens. This pair is an 8 by 42. [Doug holds up a pair of binoculars.] So it says 8 x 42. That’s the number of millimeters. So 42 millimeters is the width of that lens, the diameter of the lens, and the eight is the amount of magnification. So you may say, only eight times?
Sonya: Yes, eight doesn’t seem like a lot.
Doug: It doesn’t seem like a lot, but an 8 X 42 is a perfect sweet spot for binoculars. If you talk to especially birdwatchers, most birdwatchers will say, “If you don’t know what to go for, go for an 8 x 42.”
This pair is actually smaller. It’s a 7 x 35. [Doug holds up another pair of binoculars.] Less magnification and a smaller lens, but you’ll notice the binoculars themselves are larger. That’s because of the way they’re built, the type of lensing that they use. That makes a difference too on how compact they are. Now you can do something like this [the 7 x 35] that’s not as compact and they will be less expensive. These [the 8 x 42] use what they call a roof prism—and you’ll see that term used in the advertising for the binoculars—that give it that straight look instead of this offset look and a little more compact. The problem with the roof prism is they’re more expensive to build well. So if you spend the same amount of money for one this way [the 7 x 35] or with the roof prism, the one with the roof prism is going to be lower quality. But if you spend more and get a better quality roof prism, you can get a nice set that is more compact.
Sonya: The compactness is helpful how?
Doug: They’re just easier to carry. You’re going to use them more if you have them with you and you want to take them along.
Sonya: That’s very true. If something is awkward to use, you’re going to use it fewer times.
Doug: Right. And they make other sets that are much smaller. You may want to have a smaller set or even one that has less magnification than eight, maybe a six for a child to use because it’s easier for them to get used to.
Sonya: Because of the stick. Yes, less magnification will be easier to find the object on the other end.
Doug: Yes. Let me give you a couple other little features. This one [the 8 x 42] has protective lens covers that stay attached. Whereas this one [the 7 x 35], the lens covers come off. I like having them stay here.
Sonya: Less chance of losing them.
Doug: Less chance of losing them, yes. When you look into binoculars, it’s important that the distance from your eye to the lens, they’ve designed that to be just right. But if you wear glasses, that’s going to change that distance. So these [the 8 x 42] have a little rotating cup that goes up and down. [Doug demonstrates small rotating pieces on the eyepieces of the 8 x 42 binoculars.] If you wear glasses, you bring them down and then your eyes are still at the same distance for glasses. This other pair [the 7 x 35] does not have that feature.
Sonya: So you have to manually adjust your glasses.
Doug: Yes, they don’t work as well for a glasses wearer. The other thing that you might look for that most binoculars have — you’ll see there’s one ring here that looks different than this ring. [Doug points out rings on the top of the 8 x 42 near the eyepieces.] This one’s got notches on it. This one’s adjustable because our eyes are not the same. So you adjust your focus with one and then you use the ring to make your other eye match that. It’s very important to have that or you won’t be able to see clearly with them. Now these [the 8 x 42] are a nicer, more expensive set of binoculars, and you can get into all sorts of features that are really only important if you use them a lot. For example, these are gas-filled so they don’t fog up in the cold weather, but that’s a little more of a premium feature.
Sonya: It sounds like, as with any technology, you can drill down pretty deeply into all the specs and details. But if, let me narrate, what I have learned from this is that magnification is not the only thing you’re looking for, and more magnification may not necessarily be better.
Doug: It may work against you.
Sonya: It may, yes, that’s true. 8 x 42 is a good starting point. It would be a good all-purpose binocular to look for, size and magnification. Also looking for some of the good features that are nice to have, extra features, are whether you have that roof prism, how compact it is, and whether you can adjust it for glasses, and being able to adjust both eyes separately, if you will. Those are additional features that can be very useful and helpful. Did I forget anything?
Doug: I don’t think so.
Sonya: Now let me ask you this question, just as a little aside. We’re talking binoculars but there are other apparatus that we can use for nature study that also include magnification lenses, like telescopes, microscopes, and things like that. Do these same features apply to those?
Doug: Some of them. The quality of the lensing, for example, is important, and the larger the lens the more light they gather, same thing. Magnification will work against you in the same way. You don’t want to telescope that has too much magnification or you won’t be able to find anything. You don’t want a microscope that has too much magnification or you won’t be able to find your small thing on a slide. You want to have it just right.
Sonya: All right, great. Thank you for sharing about these ideas of using binoculars in nature study and how to choose some good ones. I’m sure that will help our readers be able to expand with more confidence and be able to look at those nature friends from a distance so we won’t disturb them. Thanks so much.