Astronomy with a Pocket Binocular.

Creating a new genre of amateur astronomy literature.

A work commenced November 11, Anno Domini 2019.

Subject to Copyright

I’m a big fan of pocket binoculars; they’re tiny, elegant, and when decently made, are  very sharp shooters. Compared with standard-sized binoculars, ‘pockets’ are much less expensive and there is a good one available to suit most anyone’s budget. They can work well with kids, grand-parents and every one in between. Their extreme portability makes them very popular across a broad ecclesia of people; hikers, birders, sports spectators, hunters, theatre goers and general nature lovers. They’re as likely to be found near a window overlooking a garden as they are tucked away in a backpacker’s pouch. But what is less commonly known is that they can be used for casual astronomical viewing. Unlike telescopes, there is no set up required. Simply pick it up and off out you go! They’re so small that they are completely immune to the vagaries of the Earth’s atmosphere. It doesn’t matter if the seeing is horrid or immaculate, their small apertures and low magnification will show you the same view, under the same conditions, time and time again. Their very low carrying weight allow individuals to hold them to their eyes much longer than standard binoculars in the 40 to 50mm aperture class. And as soon as you’re done, they fold away in a pocket, hence the name.

Pocket binoculars are almost invariably not recommended for astronomy. Sure, they don’t provide those knock-out views you get with larger binos, but what if your only instrument were a pocket binocular? Is viewing the night sky anathema? Absolutely not! Even small glasses like these can bring a great deal of cosmic real estate to your eyeballs. And though their ability to gather faint starlight is limited, they will nonetheless greatly exceed the acuity of even the keenest, sharpest human eye.

I suspect that one of the main reasons why pocket binoculars are not spoken of much in astronomical circles is that most people live in big cities or towns, where light pollution drowns out much, if not all, the glory of the starry heaven. They are disconnected from the great natural light show provided by Amighty God, who reveals His majesty in every shooting star, every burning sun, every moon, planet, and galaxy scattered across the Universe. But if you take leave of the cities and drive out into the countryside, the night sky is transformed from a washed-out, featureless dome into a marvellous light show that can fill us with awe and re-unite us with the sacred, the mysterious and the infinite-eternal.

I have the immense good fortune to live in a beautiful place, far enough away from the large cities and towns that are home to the vast majority of people. I can step out of my back door and immediately engage with the sky. I take nothing for granted. For me, astronomy is not always connected with darkness. In Scotland, we enjoy many fabulous sunsets, painting radiant colours; brilliant oranges, sanguine reds, and even purple splashes across the heavens as the Sun makes its way toward the horizon. As dusk gives way to darkness, the night sky has a way of wrapping itself around you like a magic cloak. At first, only the brightest stars can be seen, but as full darkness falls upon the landscape, the great host of heaven come out to play. Being located on the western edge of northern Europe, beautiful auroral displays are common, colouring in the northern horizon in magnificent ribbons of incandescent light. Out here in the sticks, the great river of stars that constitute the Milky Way can be easily seen on a dark, Moonless night.

During  deepest winter, darkness rules. The Sun sets early(4pm) and rises late(8am). Many go to work in darkness and travel home in darkness. Yet in summer, the Sun rules the sky from 3.30am to after 9pm, and even then its shallow dip below the northeastern horizon never brings true darkness. In June and July, twilight rules the wee small hours. Still, whether it’s high summer or deepest winter, my pocket binoculars never fail to show me something new and exciting.

A mid-Summer’s night stroll; looking northeast at 2 minutes after midnight on June 22, 2019.

My quest to find a good pocket binocular encountered many unexpected twists and turns. I don’t live anywhere near a good binocular dealer, so I was not afforded the luxury of ‘trying before you buy,’ as it were. No, in my case, the best I could do was ‘buy-in and try.’ Some models promised the earth but fell well short of the mark. In other cases, I trusted the opinions of a number of so-called ‘experienced glassers’, but upon learning how to test such instruments myself, I discovered that many of these reviews were just not discriminating enough. It was like deja vu all over again from my telescope testing days( I have no interest in acquiring any new telescopes, as I already have all I could possibly wish for). Some models advertised as ‘premium’ turned out to be junk.

Premium junk.

In the end though, I settled on a couple of models – both 8 x 25  formats – made by reputable firms; Zeiss and Opticron. Unlike a swathe of pretenders, these were the real McCoys. Both models are very well made, with fully-multicoated optical components and phase corrected Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms. The Opticron has a wonderfully flat field of view, thanks to the incorporation of aspherical ocular lenses, but the size of the field is rather restricted as modern pocket binoculars go; just 5.2 angular degrees. In contrast, the Zeiss Terra has a significantly wider field – 6.8 degrees – but is not quite as sharp at the edges of the field as the Opticron. During daylight testing, I ascertained that the Zeiss Terra produced a slightly brighter image, due in most part to the employment of higher reflectivity dielectric coatings on the prisms. The Opticron, in contrast, has silver coated prisms, with slightly lower reflectivity.

My instruments of choice; the Zeiss Terra(left) and the Opticron Aspheric LE(right).

Both models display excellent control of stray light and do not produce annoying internal reflections and glare when pointed at bright objects like the full Moon, or during the day, when glassing strongly backlit scenes. This affords the highest levels of contrast in the images they produce. For astronomical use, where all the objects are effectively located at infinity, it is important for the field to remain as flat as possible from the centre right the way to the edge for aesthetic appeal. While many of the pretenders I tested were good on axis, their edge of field definition was less than desirable. And no one wants to see stars bloat to enormous sizes as they are moved off axis.

Both models have hermetically sealed optics, filled with dry nitrogen gas at a slighly higher pressure than the surrounding atmosphere. This prevents fogging of the optics in cold weather and slows down internal corrosion of the components. The slight pressure differential also creates a small outward force that helps keep dust and fungi  from entering the instruments. Ergonomically, the Zeiss is easier to use, as its slightly larger frame fits my hands that little bit better than the Opticron. Both focusers are buttery smooth with zero backlash when rotated clockwise or anti-clockwise, but this has proven more important during daylight observing than at night, where relatively little focusing adjustments are required, as for example, in moving from a target at low to high elevations above the horizon. The Opticron is the more elegant instrument; the Zeiss more rugged.

Mechanically, both the Zeiss and Opticron are very well endowed. The double-hinge design on both models has enough tension to maintain my particular inter-pupillary distance, and fold up with ease when not in use. The eye lenses are good and large on both instruments, allowing me to comfortably and swiftly engage with the entire field, with little or no guesswork or blackouts. The eyecups on both instruments are robust, comfortable and simple to deploy. Unlike other models which offer several positions, both the Zeiss and the Opticron only have two- either fully down or fully up. So, not a lot to think about, you’re either in or you’re not.

And both have the same eye relief; 16mm.

The Zeiss Terra Pocket(right) is a little wider and taller than the more conventional Opticron Aspheric(left), but both fold away when not in use.

The larger field of view of the Zeiss(6.8 degrees) is more useful for daytime applications, but at night, when observing the sky, even a 5.2 degree field is more than sufficient to frame the vast majority of targets I’m likely to study. I estimate that the limiting magnitude of both instruments to lie somewhere between +8.7 and +8.9. And with the same exit pupil – 3.1mm – they allow me to image targets with the sharpest part of my well designed eye lenses.

A Walk through the Autumn Sky:

A favourite autumn  haunt.

November is perhaps my favourite month. It’s easy enough to justify. I entered the world in November, and have come to associate my experiences of it with the carefree days of my youth. While the trees begin their long winter slumber, I feel especially alive. All my senses go into overdrive. Maybe it’s the vibrant colours of autumn leaves that assault the eyes, or the sweet, musky aroma of decaying plant matter that infuses the misty air. Or could it be the crunching sound made by my feet as they wade through the rain-soaked leaf litter that creates a memory trace back to the innocence of childhood? Whatever it is, walking though the rural autumn landscape upwells deep feelings of reverence for the preternatural beauty of the wet and the wild.

The feeble light of November compels me to re-schedule the times of my walks, and usually I try to make the most of the daylight by venturing out around noon, when the Sun is at its highest in the sky. And though November nights can be mild, bitterly cold, and everything in between, the celestial treasures that attend a clear night with no Moon greatly warm the heart.

To help us find them, it pays to invest in a good literary guide and, in this capacity, I would heartily recommend  Ian Ridpath’s and Wil Tirion’s, Collins Stars & Planets, now in its fifth edition. In it the student of the starry heaven can find all kinds of useful information, packed full as it is with month-by-month maps of the entire night sky, as well as beautifully illustrated colour maps of all 88 constellations that grace the celestial sphere.

Good companions under the stars.

Heralds of Winter

So without further ado, let’s begin our adventures with a pocket binocular. A great place to start is to seek out two amazing sights in the northern heavens; the glimmering Pleiads and imposing Hyads, both located near each other, and both well situated for observation, riding high in the sky after 9pm on mid-November evenings.

The constellation of Taurus.

Before we embark on our first celestial adventure, let’s get suitably attired  by reading the  celestial swangsong of Lord Byron(1788-1824):

‘Tis midnight! on the mountains brown

The cold round moon shines deeply down;

Blue roll the waters, blue the sky

Spreads like an ocean hung on high

Bespangled with those isles of light,

So wildly, spiritually bright.

Whoever gazed upon them shining,

And turn’d to earth without repining,

Nor wish for wings to flee away,

And mix with their eternal ray?

From Night at Sea by Lord Byron.

Both the Pleiades and Hyades, the heralds of winter, are easy to find in the November night sky. Both are located in the zodiacal constellation of Taurus. The Hyades is readily identifiable as a distinctive V-shaped asterism with a bright orange coloured star, Aldebaran, marking the southeastern-most tip of its horns, and a little higher up and to the right of it you’ll see the glittering jewels of the Pleiades star cluster.  Known by many names throughout antiquity and even further back into the long human pre-history, the Pleiades appears as a tiny congregation of stars, rather like a miniature Plough with a somewhat truncated handle. For me, the most inspiring references to the Pleiades  are sourced from God’s very own love letter to humanity; the Holy Bible. In all, the gleaming Pleiads are mentioned three times in the Good Book, twice in Job (9:9 & 38:31) and once in Amos(5:8), where the King James Version mentions them as “the seven stars”. The Lord God Almighty challenges his servant, Job, by asking him if he can “bind the sweet influences of Pleiades?” The implication is clear; no human can do such a thing, but it’s all in a day’s work for his Creator.

With my average eyes, I can usually make only six members from my home. But at darker sites, with better transparency, I have occasionally chanced on the seventh member – whence its nickname of the Seven Sisters – though still with considerable difficulty. That said, there are many accounts of people seeing more than seven members with the naked eye. For example, from the summits of high mountains, where the air is thinner and (often but not always) less turbulent, reports of seeing as many as 10 or 12 members are not uncommon in the archives. I know of one account, published in the Astronomical Register from October 1883, where astronomers at the newly established Pic Du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees, at an elevation of about 9,500 feet, reported the detection of 16 members with the naked eye!

The Pleiades, as seen in the 8 x 25 pocket binocular.

Through the pocket binocular, the Pleiades never fails to inspire. Instead of straining to see six members, several dozen are plainly presented covering the central third of the binocular field. And though the view is immeasurably improved by looking through a larger binocular or small telescope, I cast my mind’s eye back in time to when the Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei, first turned his primitive spy glass on the same cluster of stars in 1610. Though the field of view of his telescope was woefully small (about one quarter of an angular degree, or half a full Moon diameter), Galileo still managed to record the main stars of the cluster, which are spread across one and a half Moon diameters. That’s something I have done before when I was sketching the Double Cluster in Perseus using a large Maksutov Cassegrain, sporting a field of view of only half an angular degree. It’s challenging but it’s certainly doable!

The Pleiades, as drawn by Galileo Galilei in the winter of 1610. Image credit: Wiki Commons.

The number of stars visible in the Pleiades depends on a variety of factors; the amount of light pollution you encounter, the transparency of the air you’re looking through, as well as its elevation above the horizon. I find the latter factor particularly interesting, as I have watched the Pleiades from its heliacal rising in the east in the wee small hours of August nights, right the way through to late spring, when it is observed sinking ever lower in the west.  When the cluster is glassed close to the horizon, only the most brilliant members are clearly discerned with the pocket binocular. For example, when observed at just 10 degrees above the eastern horizon, the dense canopy of air you’re looking through will dim the brilliance of the cluster by nearly one stellar magnitude! But if you venture out later in the evening, when the cluster has reached say 30 degrees altitude, you’ll gain an extra half a magnitude and your little binocular will begin to to show many fainter members. So, the higher the cluster rises in the sky, the better the view you will experience. This is equally true of any astronomical target, so it always pays to wait until your binocular target is well above the horizon; patience is a virtue!

The brightest luminaries of the Pleiades have beautiful names, inspired by the mythology of classical antiquity; Merope, Pleione, Electra, Asterope, Maia, Celaeno, Alcyone, Taygeta and Atlas, which you can see on page 241 of my guide book referenced earlier. The pocket glass reveals that they all have a silvery white colour, that betrays their relatively young age, which astronomers estimate to be about 50 million years. The centre of the cluster is thought to be located at a distance of about 450 light years.

If the Pleiades fail to inspire, then surely the majestic Hyades can? To see it, cast your gaze at the bright orange star Aldebaran and bring the pocket glass to your eyes. What you will see is a large V-shaped asterism filling most the field of view of the pocket binocular. These are the ‘horns’ of the celestial Bull, with Aldebaran situated in the south east of the field. Like the Pleiades, the Hyades is also steeped in ancient Greek mythological lore(but mostly pagan). Indeed, the Hyades were the fabled daughters of Atlas and Aethra, and half-sisters of the Pleiades.

The Hyades(with the outlined V shape) as seen in the 8x 25 pocket binocular.

When situated high in the sky, the Hyades is a marvellous sight in the pocket binocular. If you take a long, studied look at it with dark-adapted eyes, you will begin to notice that there are other red stars in the field, specifically, the three brightest stars that delineate the upper(northernmost) horn of the Bull. Its other stellar constituents appear white or blue-white to my eyes.

In order to create more atmospheric scenes, it pays to seek out some trees over which the Hyades and Pleiades appear to hover. Even on a dark night, the silhouette of tree branches set against these illustrious autumn clusters can be easily made out and adds greater dimensionality to the binocular view. I also love to observe these clusters as they change their orientation in the binocular field, rising in the eastern hemisphere, culminating in the south, before falling back towards the western horizon.

Unlikely Twins

The constellation of Gemini as depicted on page 153 of the guide book.

By the time the Pleiades and Hyades have reached a good altitude in the sky, the constellation of Gemini will be seen rising above the eastern horizon. But just as the full Moon often appears larger to the naked eye when it is close to the horizon, the same is true of the relative positions of the stars. Though seldom(if ever?) discussed in the contemporary astronomical literature, the illusion is known as the horizon enlargement effect. This can be perceived rather easily when observing the two brightest luminaries of this constellation; Castor and Pollux. If you see these stars rising in the background of a distant landmark, such as a hill or a building, they will appear to be more widely separated than when they are situated higher up in the sky. The effect is quite dramatic, though still illusory. That said, the little pocket binocular always shows them to be the same distance apart, no matter where they are situated in the night sky!

This curious effect was discussed over a century ago in an interesting article penned by Dr. Edouard Claparede, which first appeared in the October 1905 edition of Archives de Psychologie, and which was subsequently discussed in a short communication published  in the journal Nature dated February 22nd 1906, in which it is stated:

He(Dr. Claparede) arrives at the conclusion that when we see the moon or sun, at the horizon, we are surprised into believing it to belong to things terrestrial – to come into the class of objects which are by far of the greatest interest to us. As such we notice it with much greater attention, and for this reason overestimate its size.

But there is yet more illusion associated with Castor and Pollux, the so-called celestial twins, than that presented by the horizon enlargement effect. Situated exactly 4.5 angular degrees(or 9 full Moon diameters) apart, both stars easily fit in the field of the view of my pocket binoculars, but if you look at their colours they will be seen to be completely different; Castor(located higher up in the sky) is white, pure as the driven snow, while Pollux(lower down) presents as orange in contrast. What is more, Pollux appears distinctly brighter in the pocket glass than Castor(and to the naked eye for that matter!), though their designation is opposite to what one might expect in that the brightest star in a given constellation is usually assigned the Greek letter alpha, and the second in glory, beta and so on. The reason lies squarely at the feet of the Johann Bayer(1572-1625) who wrongly assigned the Greek letters to these stars in 1603 in his magnum opus, Uranometria Omnium Asterismorum, seemingly unaware that Castor was fainter than Pollux. In fact, Castor, with a visual magnitude of + 1.6, is assigned to the second tier of stellar glory, while Pollux, at +1.1 is a bona fide 1st magnitude sun.

Curiosuly, Bayer’s blunder was not unique to his good self. Many celebrated astronomers through history estimated both stars to be of the same degree of glory(2nd magnitude); Hipparchus, Tycho Brahe and Hevelius, to name but a few. And closer to our own time, Argelander(1840) and Heis(1860) though accurately assigning Pollux to +1.1, designated Castor a value fully half a magnitude fainter than it really is (+2.1). Only with the invention of the photometer in the 1860s did these discrepancies become resolved.

Looking at these stars through the pocket binocular, or any other optical accoutrement for that matter, one is hopelessly unaware of their distances from the solar system, which astronomers have estimated to be 52 and 34 light years for Castor & Pollux, respectively. And neither could they realistically be expected to have been formed from the same stellar nursery. What is more, though the apparition is quite beyond the capabilities of these tiny binoculars, Castor is a fascinating multiple star system of which, the two most prominent are closely separated stars, designated A and B, both roughly three times the mass of the Sun and of an early spectral type A, with an estimated age of 370 million years. Through a small telescope at high magnification, they make a splendid visual target, easily resolved in this epoch(2019) in even a humble 60mm refractor.  Pollux on the other hand, is a more highly evolved orange giant star, nearly twice the mass of our Sun and of late spectral type K, with an age nearly twice that of its so-called twin(724 million years).- or should it be triplets?

What blessed illusions the stars rain down upon us!

A Field Full of Stars!

The stars of Perseus, with its brightest star, Mirfak. marked with a pencil tip.

Were you to venture outdoors after supper on a clear, late November evening, the constellation of Perseus, the celestial Hero, will be very well placed, high in the eastern sky, and easy to scrutinise with the pocket binocular. Now cast your gaze at its brightest luminary, Mirfak, bring the glass to your eyes, and you’ll be greeted by a remarkable sight; a field littered with a few dozen stars, ranging in brightness from the 2nd to the 8th magnitude of glory! The nearly flat fields presented by my chosen instruments make vewing this target an especially enjoyable experience, with pinpoint stars from centre to edge.

Known by various names, this remarkable congregation of suns is most often referred to as Melotte 20, after the Anglo-Belgian astronomer, Philibert J. Melotte(1880-1961). Better known for his photographic discovery of the eigth satellite of Jupiter, Melotte published a ground-breaking photographic atlas of the sky in 1915, wherein he numbered this curious stellar grouping. The eye, naturally enough, humanises the view; creating order out of the stellar chaos; almost effortlessly linking up the light years between its members, imbuing  them with a sense of the familiar; perhaps slithering serpents or great meandering rivers. If this were a typical telescopic scene, with its higher power and smaller field of view, you’d be easily fooled into thinking that this was a bona fide star cluster, bound up in a gravitational embrace like the comely Pleiads. No, the stars you pick up with the little pocket glass are not so much bound by gravity as they are by common velocity; they’re all moving in the same direction through space. And it was this discovery that led to the other appellation bestowed upon them; the Alpha Persei Association, thought be located about 600 light years from the solar system.

Melotte 20 as observed in the pocket binocular, mid-evening view looking high in the east.

The majority of its stars are young (50-70 million years) and of early spectral type O or B, explaining why many appear white or blue-white to my eye. And yet, if you concentrate your gaze on its brightest member, Mirfak, the pocket glass will soon convince you that it’s not merely white, but rather a creamy-white. And that comports with its spectral class; F5.

Mirfak is a very big star in the scheme of things; fully 8 or 9 times the mass of the Sun, and so destined to live fast and die young.

It is unquestionably more difficult to view Melotte 20 when it’s at its best position at my location, especially if you’re not inclined to lying on your back, observing it as it passes near the zenith later in the night. The early evening location of Melotte 20 will afford a more comfortable viewing experience in the pocket binocular. What’s more, I have enjoyed glassing it profitably under less fecund skies, from towns and even under the bright light of cities.

Unlike the Pleiades, the most prominent members of which have memorable names, most of the stars in Melotte 20 are only acknowleged with numbers. Yet the Old Book tells us that although it was allotted to Adam to name all of God’s creatures, the Lord knows all the stars intimately. As the Psalmist declares;

He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.

Psalm 147:4

And yet, mighty in the creation of its myriad blazing suns, is He no less mighty in giving life to a tender, green blade of grass upon the earth?

There’s no escaping. Near and far, everything lies within the span of His hand.

More Leopard than Lion

I am by temperament, solitary. Although I’m a fully committed family man, I am happy and content in my own company. I’ve always disliked crowds and spend the vast majority of my observing time alone with my instruments and my thoughts. Maybe it’s just about growing older.  In past years, I have attended some star parties, but found them more a distraction than anything else. My days of hooking up with fellow amateur astronomers ended abruptly several years ago, when I accepted an invitation to travel across the Atlantic to join a small group high on a mountain. It was just a few short months after my late father passed away and I was still grieving for him. I was in two minds about going, as it was quite an expensive trip for me, but the organiser reassured me that I would be “closer to my father” on top of that high mountain, soaring 8,500 feet above sea level. Even though he knew I was a man of deep faith from our email exchanges, one evening he found occasion to taunt me in front of a few other guests, by claiming that there was no actual evidence that Jesus Christ ever existed! What a cruel, ignorant and insensitive thing to say! Rather than argue with him, I walked away and was immediately consoled by a fellow Christian in the group, who told me he had been fighting this kind of ignorance all his life. But we are to forgive our fellow men their trespasses and I have long forgiven him, though I hope that the same chap will more clearly understand that being a Christian is far from being a hairbrained, flash-in-the-pan way to think and live. It has, after all,  by far the greatest explanatory power that makes sense of the whys and wherefores of the world we find ourselves in.

As I explained earlier in this communication, I see no hard distinctions between glassing during the day and peering at the sky on a dark night. Afterall, the Earth is a planet too and it was created so that we could freely explore it! And though we live in a fallen world, where all of the creation groans for the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to adopt the sons and daughters of Adam, we can still enjoy its beauty by studying the lifeforms that teem and multiply upon its surface.  And what better tool to explore this aspect of the physical Universe than with a good quality pocket binocular!

Here in the glen, mild days in late November invariably mean overcast, damp and often misty mornings and afternoons, with poor visibility. But thanks to the waterproof nature of my pocket glasses, I need never worry about them. A little rain on the optics and body armouring has no lasting consequences on the operation of such instruments. Indeed, I have come to regard their getting wet as a kind of initiation rite lol!

A little rain maketh the binocular.

Every denuded tree branch, every crawling insect, scurrying rodent, every fallen leaf, and grazing sheep upon the hillsides cry out for study with the pocket binocular. And because my field glasses possess excellent close focus capability, well under two metres, I can explore the dying days of 2019 in exquisite detail. But nature never ceases. She is in constant flux.

For the birds.

Gone are the green leaves of the deciduous trees and the warm sunshine they once basked in. Gone are the family of noisy magpies that rested in the Rowan tree in my back garden for much of the year. I still see them about and hear them chackering from afar off, but they have taken up residence elsewhere. And while the brambles have seen their halcyon days come and go, the brilliant white snowberries are ripe for the picking by hungry tree birds, as are the holly bushes now adorned with their brazen red fruits.

Exploring terrestrial astronomy.

What an extraordinary thing it is to be alive!

Doubtless, human knowledge has come a long way, with the mature sciences of physics and chemistry providing us with a wonderful platform to understand at least the salient features of the macrocosm and microcosm, between which we find ourselves. But though we have some measure of understanding of how matter behaves in the Cosmos, living things more and more, appear to be an exception. The more we study them, the more complex they are shown to be. Some men have deluded themselves into thinking that we understand the living state, but it is quite apparent that we are far from understanding what it really means to be alive. The growing things are a mystery and a law unto themselves! It is a curious thing that the Biblical Creator is uniquely known as the “Living God.” A Being who declares, “my glory I will not give to another”(Isaiah 42:8) When I contemplate the majesty and beauty of the living world, I can more clearly understand why the Living God would withhold His secrets from humanity, lest we destroy it, either in our ignorance or arrogance, or both. It’s one thing to have dominion over nature, to be responsible stewards of the biosphere, as it were, but quite another thing to play god. And though we continue to grope in the dark, I suspect that the essence of life may forever lie beyond the capabilities of science to elucidate.

Afterall, based on our track record, He has every right to withhold such knowledge from us!

A Stupendous Accumulation of Star Matter

The Andromeda Galaxy, as it appears on page 75 of our guide book.

The sky is rich in mystery.

Especially for the tyro.

I am reminded of a curious tale related by the Canadian-American astronomer, Simon Newewcomb(1835-1909), concerning a skipper who, having set out from England, while  plying the dangerous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, noticed a curious object in the crystal clear heavens, which he apparently sighted every night during his voyage. After docking in the New World, he eagerly made his way to the Observatory at Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he told the learned Professor Bond in no uncertain terms that he had discovered a comet! Bond was used to hearing such yarns however, and soon revealed to the gallant skipper that his ‘comet’ was, in fact, the great Nebula in Andromeda.

But the same object really is steeped in mystery. Afterall, its conspicuous, smudgy light must have been seen by humans far back into hallowed antiquity, yet there is nary a  mention of the ‘nebula’ by other great pre-telescopic observers, including Hipparchus and Tycho Brahe, nor even by the venerable Bayer. Indeed, the first tentative recording of it didn’t come until 974 AD, when the medieval Persian skygazer, Al Sufi, made vague reference to it, only to be re-discovered by the German astronomer, Simon Marius(1573-1624) on the long night of December 15 1612, when he examined it with a primitive Galilean telescope, describing it as a ” flame seen through horn.”

Spare a thought for poor ole Marrius. His ‘Dutch trunk’ had a field of view scarcely a quarter of an angular degree wide, so what he likely described was the bright nucleus and little more. The pocket binocular does immeasurably better however. The Andromeda ‘nebula’ is easily seen with the naked eye on a dark, moonless night from my back yard, presenting as a small, cloud-like smudge. And though it was always referred to as a nebula throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was finally shown to be a bona fide ‘Island Universe’ or ‘galaxy’  in the early 20th century, when its prodigious distance was finally estimated.

A pocket glass view of the great Andromeda Galaxy.

Through the pocket glass, its distinctve lenticular shape is easily discerned. The mid-section is brightest and represents the core of the galaxy, and extending off on either side of the core, your little glass ought to be able to allow you to trace its fainter spiral arms which extend its width to more than 3 angular degrees, or six full-Moon diameters. Messier 31, as it is also commonly known today,  has two smaller companons, analogous to the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds that orbit our own Milky Way; wee elliptical galaxies in their own right- M32, just south of the core and another, M110, situated a few degrees off to the north of the core. While both of these fainter companions are magnitude +8 or thereabouts, and so ought to be just visible with the pocket glass, I personally find them to be rather elusive in these pint-sized glasses.

Maybe you’ll fare better?

That said, it’s always an awe-inspiring sight to spy this distant galaxy in any optical instrument, however small. Most astronomers estimate that the Andromeda galaxy is as big, if not bigger than our own Milky Way, with somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars. Its distance is worth contemplating also; between 2.2 and 2.5 million light years away.

The Scriptures inform:

But Jesus answered them, My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.

John 5:17

So, when you next cast your gaze on its ghostly magnificence, take a few moments to muse upon the perspective. When the light you see from it first set out across intergalactic space, our Creator was busy putting the final touches on making our jewel planet ready for the last Big Bang of His creation; the sudden introduction of human beings (Adam & Eve and their descendants), fashioned from the dirt of the ground(Genesis 2:7), uniquely made in God’s image, and freely able to think and wonder about the dark, wheeling vault above their heads!

Contentedness

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

1 John 2:16

The last Thursday of November is American Thanksgiving Day, where families across that great nation come together and give thanks to their Creator for the many blessings He has bestowed upon them. I wish we had something similar here, but the ugly head of  secularism makes that a very unlikely prospect. Unfortunately, we have had no trouble  adopting a less reverent American tradition, Black Friday, when some folk behave more  like animals, pushing and shoving their way into department stores in search of bling.

The hobby of astronomy is not immune to rampant materialism either. That’s one of the principal reasons why I turned my back on promoting vainglorious refractors, where I lusted after ever more expensive models just to feel like I had ‘arrived.’ I was just feeding a greedy habit. But then I took heir of myself and managed to break free from this vicious cycle, discovering the wonderful virtues of Newtonian telescopes, which have met all my needs as a keen visual telescopic observer; and saved me a great deal of money to boot;- funds to donate to more noble pursuits!

I didn’t need or want them any more. They have no power over me.

I have taken the same approach to pocket binoculars; I have chosen two models that offer all the performance I could possibly want. They’re not cheap, but neither are they overtly expensive.

I received a curious email a couple of weeks back from a chap who wondered why I didn’t go the whole distance and buy in the most expensive models, like the Swarovski CL or Zeiss Victory pocket, or some such. My reply was that I did not believe that I would be gaining anything in moving to a Swarovski, as the 8 x 25 model provides the same generous field of view(6.8 angular degrees) as my Zeiss Terra,  has the same light transmission(88 per cent), and though I have not field tested that particular model, I have very strong suspicions that the Zeiss is every bit as good– and may even be that little bit better – than the Swarovski CL pocket at half the retail price. And as for the Victory model; sure it offers a wider field of view in excess of 7 degrees and sports fluorite objectives. But my average eyes would very likely not notice any significant optical differences from the much more economical Terra(which also employs ED glass)  and I could happily live without that slightly wider field.

Don’t chase the wind.

So I don’t have any desire to have the ‘best.’ It’s an unhealthy attitude and a distraction from what’s really important. My instruments are well good enough for every application I employ them for. What’s more, even premium instruments develop faults.Take this report as an example. You’ll not likely hear anything like that on a public forum though, where their fanatics seem to be completely intolerant of any criticisms expressed about their ‘little babies’.

Happy with my chosen tools.

I am thrilled to bits with what I have.

I’m content; happy with my tools!

Surveying the Landscape

The view from the top of Dunmore, looking northeast over the Fintry Hills towards Stirling.  Black Friday morning, 2019.

Were it not for the tall conifers that lie in the common ground beyond my back garden, I would have an unobstructed view of Dunmore, a hill rising just over 900 feet above the valley floor. When our houses were first built in the late 1950s, there were no trees to block the view, as my wife reminds me when ever we look back over old family photos. Dunmore is just one of a number of gently rolling hills that comprise the Campsie Fells(Gaelic Monadh Chamaisidh) a chain of extinct volcanoes that date to the Carboniferous Period some 300 million years ago, when Scotland lay near the equator, and which stretch for about 16 miles from Denny Muir near Falkirk through Fintry and on as far as Dumgoyne in the west. Very popular among ramblers and hillwalkers, it also served as a convenient field site for geology undergraduates from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, who explore its many interesting geological features.

Columnar jointing in basalt sill under summit of Dunmore, Fintry, seen here in better light. Image credit: Edinburgh Geological Society.

After a short walk up an old winding dirt road, you’ll arrive at an abandoned red ochre quarry, an iron-rich, clay-like  mineral used as a pigment for paint in olden times, but more recently as a road sub-surfacing material.  From there, the path takes you over a couple of burns and some boggy ground until you reach the base of Dunmore. After a magnificent night of crystal-clear skies and freezing conditions, temperatures struggled to get above zero all day, and climbing even a small hill like this is not an inviting prospect for many who like their creature comforts. The low-lying Sun of mid-morning keeps much of the terrain in shade and one has to tread carefully on the icy surface underfoot, so you need to wrap up warm and wear appropriate boots with a solid grip. But as we approached the peak, the Sun had risen high enough in the sky to lend some of its gentle heat to us, and though it did not have much power, my wife and I were immensely grateful for its uplifting warmth which always raises the spirits.

The morning Sun illumining the Cairn atop Dunmore.

It only took 50 minutes from doorstep to summit and just 30 minutes for the descent.

We took along the lightweight Zeiss pocket to survey the sleepy valley below, still covered with a thin veneer of ground frost, but the visibility proved exceptional. Looking north, we could easily make out Loch Lomond about 17 miles in the distance, surrounded  by a string of Munros(mountains over 3,000 ft) of the Trossachs, the gateway to the Scottish Highlands. To prevent the fogging up of the ocular lenses, I kept the little Terra folded up in a warm pocket and enjoyed about ten minutes of intensive glassing, drinking up the magnificent quality of the morning light as I scanned the Fintry Hills across the valley and northwards towards our national park. The sumptuous late autumn colours were sublimely captured by the pocket glass, as were the chissled contours of the scraggy outcrops on the hills across the valley, bathed in a cobalt blue sky.

How great an artist is our Creator!

The view to the north, with Loch Lomond at centre left and the mountains of the Trossachs rising up into the sky.

It is no small wonder that the founding fathers of modern geology were Scotsmen; most especially James Hutton from the 18th century and Charles Lyell from the 19th  _ both of whom were surely provoked to reason by the stark and stunning beauty of the Scottish outdoors!

From such an elevated vantage one gets a clearer perspective on the sheer enormity of the landscape, its extraordinary age and our fleeting existence upon it. The Old Book says it far better than I can express it;

Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.

                                                                                                                          Psalm 144:4

It was well worth the effort to climb on this bitterly cold morning. But we had delicious homemade soup and a warm fire to greet us upon our arrival back home.

Orion Rising

The mighty constellation of Orion a few hours before meridian passage. Photo taken by the author on the night of November 29 2010.

December 1 saw the continuation of the cold snap. Temperatures once again struggled to get above zero all day, with nighttime lows of -6 or -7C, but the brilliant winter sunshine makes the cold much more bearable and even inviting. My Opticron Aspheric LE  8 x 25 with its excellent close focus of under 1.5 metres is a wonderful optical tool to explore the intricate architecture of ice crystals laid down by old Jack Frost in his relentless march across the countryside.

Leaves, flowers and tree branches are covered with delicate patterns and the grass beneath my feet takes on a ghostly silver glaze. I find that I have to reduce the interpupillary distance between the ocular lenses on the pocket glass to obtain the most compelling views on up-close subjects. Cold, cloudless nights with little in the way of wind engender the ideal conditions for the deposition of hoar frost. Hoar is a modern rendition of the old English words of ‘hor’ and ‘har’ meaning ‘grey’ or ‘white.’ Under such conditions, water vapour sublimates directly from the gaseous state in the air to solid ice without first condensing as liquid water.

Jack Frost has been busy creating a silvery landscape.

Because the low winter Sun casts its golden rays on the hills to the east of the village, it gets the lion’s share of their heat and so it’s not unusual to observe much more frost-free terrain higher up than in the valley below, creating lovely, stark binocular vignettes that I can enjoy simply by peering out my front livingroom window. Perhaps the most amazing effects of hoar frost occur when they envelope cobwebs and glass windows on greehouses and other such, which can create wondrous patterns that are as beautiful as they are fascinating to study.

Around 5pm, in deep twilight, a low lying crescent Moon hovered just above the hills to the south-southwest, beautifully silhoutted by the branches of a grand old Horsechestnut tree in the foreground. It was a delightful sight in the pocket glass, with its unilluminated side clearly seen bathed in earthshine. Some prominent craters were sharply defined all along the terminator, with no annoying glare or internal reflections that I have observed in lesser glasses.

On early December evenings, the constellation of Orion the Hunter arrives at a position of prominence only around midnight but doesn’t reach its highest elevation until it culminates in the south at around 1.30am local time. As a result,  I generally explore it with the pocket binocular late in the night, and sometimes on into the wee small hours. Our target this evening is the three prominent belt stars of the Hunter which can be studied from most any location, whether it be a brightly-lit town or dark country site. Our little guide book on pages 196 through 198 reveals their lovely appellations; from left to right, climbing ever higher are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. The excellent contrast of my pocket glass reveals the pure white colour of this curious stellar trio, which in itself betrays their young age in the scheme of things. The eye is naturally drawn to their almost perfect linear cast. Both Alnitak and Alnilam shine at the same magnitude (+1.7) but the lowermost Mintaka shines about half a magnitude fainter, though I find this somewhat surprising, as it always seems a little brighter than the guidebook suggests. Perhaps this is yet another splendid illusion caused by the equally brilliant stars towing the stellar line. What do you think?

Their similar brightness along the same line of sight also paints the distinct impression in the mind’s eye that they might be located at the same distance across the great dark of interstellar space. Actually, two of the belt stars are located at about the same distance from the solar system; Mintaka(700ly) and Alnitak(736ly). But you might be surprised to discover that Alnilam is situated nearly three times further away at over 2000 light years!

Placing the belt stars in the upper left of the binocular field, you’ll soon notice another white stellar jewel in the lower right of the same field. This is Eta Orionis; a dapper double star for the keen telescopist, resolvable into two components, and roughly aligned east-to-west in the high-power field of a small backyard telescope, under good seeing conditions.

As the belt stars climb ever higher as they approach the meridian, the pocket glass will enable you to bag progressively fainter members, arranged in curious loops and arcs around the brilliant three. However, because the belt stars never rise very high in my far northern latitude (56 degrees), the faintest members are better observed in larger binoculars. Indeed, the belt stars are but the brightest luminaries of a grander still binocular open cluster known as Collinder 70, comprising of some 100 stellar members down to the 10th magnitude of glory. Many of the fainter members are hopelessly beyond the power of my litte pockets to discern, but I have been genuinely thrilled by how many fainter suns that appear out of the sable depths, as the belt stars near culmination in the south. And if you’re lucky enough to live at more southerly latitudes, Collinder 70 ought to be an even more engaging sight in a humble pocket glass, as it will be placed higher in the sky. So, go out and have a gander!

 

 

To be continued…………………………………..

 

De Fideli.

In Search of a Good 8 x 32 Binocular.

Two mid-priced 8 x 32 binoculars compared: the Celestron Trailseeker(left) and the Helios LightWing HR( right).

The march of technology continues apace and never ceases to amaze me. This is especially true when it comes to telescope and binocular optics. You can now buy very decent optics at budget prices that display a level of quality we could only dream of a couple of decades ago. And technologies that were only available on premium optics up to fairly recently are now being offered by companies offering much more economical packages to sate the requirements of the masses.

That’s exactly how I feel about my recent foray into binocular testing. Advances in coating technology, in particular, has allowed many new optical firms to offer products that are edging ever closer to the performance levels only available on premium models until recently. Even entry-level roof prism binoculars feature decent anti-reflection coatings on all optical surfaces(which can be as many as 30 in a good roof prism binocular), as well as phase correction technology that significantly increase contrast, accurate colour rendition and image brightness. These less expensive models used either aluminium or silver coatings to boost light transmissions to as high as 80 to 85 per cent, but one can now obtain very economically priced models that also feature super-high reflectivity, broadband dielectric coatings that have increased light transmission to above 90 per cent, in touching distance of the most expensive, premium binoculars money can buy.

Unfortunately, many amateurs who enjoy using quality binoculars mistakenly conflate high-level optical performance with the introduction of extra low dispersion (ED) glass, but the truth is that such an addition contributes little to the quality of the optical experience. Much more significant is the use of higher quality coatings that significantly increase both the brightness and contrast of the images, which in turn enables one to see those finer details, thereby boosting resolution(perhaps this is why the Helios has HR in its name?). Of course, many(but not all) premium binocular manufacturers use a combination of ED glass elements and the finest dielectric coatings, making it all the more difficult for the user to assess the relative importance of either component. But I was able to explore and confirm the dramatic effects of the latter by putting a couple of  mid-priced 8 x 32 compact roof prism binoculars through their paces; a Helios LightWing HR and a Celestron Trailseeker(both pictured above), both of which feature premium quality dielctric coatings on the prism surfaces as well as high-quality broadband anti-reflection coatings on the multiple lenses and prisms used in their construction. Neither instrument contains ED glass elements however. For more on this, check out this short youtube presentation by an experienced glasser and binocular salesman describing one of the models I will be evaluating in this blog(the Helios LightWing),  and who formed the same conclusions as this author.

Both instruments were acquired from the same source, Tring Astronomy Centre. Their friendly and knowledgeable staff have offered exceptional service with a number of past purchases and I had thus no hesitation approaching them again for the acquisition of these 8 x 32 compact binocular models.

The first model I acquired was the Helios LightWing HR 8 x 32, which set me back £127 plus £5 to ensure an expedited delivery of the package within 24 hours of ordering. As soon as it arrived, I inspected the contents, which included the binocular with a rain guard, soft carry case, a lens cloth and generic(read single page instruction sheet) and padded neck strap. Within minutes of its arrival, I had the binocular out of its case to perform my iphone torch test in my living room to see how well an intense beam of white light behaved as it passed through the instrument. As I outlined in a few previous blogs, such a test is extraordinarily sensitive, showing up even the slightest stray reflections in the field of view and revealing how well the optical components suppressed the tendency of the light to diffuse across the field, reducing contrast as it does. Well, to my great relief, the result was excellent! Despite the torch being set at its highest setting in a darkened room, the Helios LightWing HR showed only the feeblest level of ghosting on axis. What is more, there was no difraction spikes or diffused light in the field! The image was exceptionally clean. Indeed, comparing the result to my control binocular, a Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42, which also exhibits exceptional stray light control, the Helios was providing even better results!

To put this in some additional context, the torchlight test result for the Helios 8 x 32 was better than my Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 pocket binocular and a Swarovski EL Range 10 x 42, as I recall from my notes!

I now had a new standard by which to measure all other binoculars!

The same was also true when I placed the light beam just outside the field of view. Only a very minimal amount of glare was seen in the field.

The Helios LightWing HR 8x 32 revealed exceptional control of stray light and annoying internal reflections.

Wow!

This told me that the binocular ought to produce very high contrast images in even the most demanding conditions, either by day, glassing in strongly backlit scenes, or at night, when looking at bright light sources, such as artificial street lighting or a bright Moon. No doubt, this is attributed to a variety of factors including excellent multi-layer coatings on all optical surfaces, as well as a sound knowledge of how to adequately baffle the instrument.

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Note to the reader: My pet peeve is seeing excessive glare and strong ghosting from internal reflections in a binocular image. Indeed, I am quite intolerant of it! Moreover, I usually dismiss any reviews that do not test for this phenomenon. Unfortunately, that also entails taking the majority of user reviews I read online with a large dose of salt!

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Examining the Helios, I noted the unusual colour cast of the anti-reflection coatings on both the objective and ocular lenses. They seemed to be immaculately applied! I also noted how the objectives were recessed very deeply; with ~ 10mm of overhang. This is a very good(and often overlooked!) design feature, as it cuts down on peripheral glare during bright daylight observations and also affords considerable protection from dust and rain.

The unusual colour cast of the anti-reflection coatings of the Helios LightWing objective lenses.

Mechanical assessment: The Helios is very well constructed. The chassis is fabricated from a magnesium alloy which combines light weight(500g) with good mechanical strength. This is an unsual offering in such a low-cost instrument, with cheaper polycarbonate or even ABS plastic being the rule rather than the exception on models offered at this price point. The central hinge had enough tension to maintain my particular IPD but I would have liked it to be just a little bit stiffer(just like my wonderful Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42). I found handling the binocular to be unusually tricky, as the rubber eyes needed to attach the neckstrap protrude from the barrels a little too much, making it rather more awkward to get the binocular comfortably placed in my hands while observing.

The focus wheel is very large in relation to the overall size of the instrument. Indeed, I thought it was a little too large! Although I could get a good grip, rotating it showed that it was somewhat clunky and offered unusual resistance to movement. In contrast, the dioptre ring moved with silky smoothness, and you can actually see the right ocular field lens moving as you rotate it!

The buttery smooth right-barrel dioptre ring is a joy to adjust.

The eyecups are rather stiff but do extend upwards with two clickstops. With an eye relief of 15.6mm, eyeglass wearers will find it difficult to image the entire field. Fortunately for me though, this wasn’t a problem, as I don’t wear eye glasses while glassing. The cups are made from quality metal covered by a soft rubber-like material. They are very firm and hold their positions securely even when undue pressure is applied to them. Overall, a very nice touch!

The chassis is covered by a rather thin rubberised skin, which was somewhat thinner than I’ve seen on a variety of other binoculars I’ve sampled. As a result, it has slightly less friction while man handling, which can prove important, especially if used for prolonged periods in the field. It also means that it would wear down that little bit faster after extended use.

The Helios can be attached to a tripod or monopod for increased stability via the built-in bush located between the barrels, toward the front of the instrument.

Optical daylight testing: Scanning some autumn leaves in my back garden confirmed what I had witnessed in the torchlight test. The image was very bright and tack sharp with wonderful contrast and colour fidelity. There was nary a trace of chromatic aberration( which continues to affirm my belief that ED glass is unnecessary: -a marketing gimmick? – for such small, low power binoculars). However, this was only true in the central 50 per cent of the field. The outer part of the field became progressively softer with the edge being out of focus. Examining a telephone pole about 25 yards in the distance unveiled very strong field curvature as it was moved from the centre to the edge of the field of view.

I hit another snag when I attempted to image the Fintry hills about a mile in the distance. The focus wheel was racked to the end of its natural focus travel but I still could not quite reach a sharp focus. Adjusting the dioptre ring on the right barrel allowed me to just get there but the left barrel was still not sharply focused. After dark, I did a test on the bright star Vega, which unfortunately confirmed my daylight tests. Although I could achieve pinpoint sharp images in the right barrel, the left barrel showed that the star was badly bloated. Another test on the Moon showed the same thing. The right barrel gave a razor sharp image with exceptional contrast and no internal reflections or diffused light around it, but the image at the edge was badly out of focus.

The whole experience left me somewhat bewildered. Why expend so much effort into applying state-of-the art coatings into a binocular with nice mechanical features, only to see excessive field curvature in the outer part of the field? It just didn’t make sense! I mean, Helios could have made the field a little smaller(it has a true field of 7.8 degrees) with sharper edge definition and I would have been happy.  In reallity you see, I had been spoiled by the nearly flat fields presented by my Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42(and over a larger field to boot- 8.2 degrees), as well as those presented by my Zeiss Terra pocket and my other models with aspherical ocular lenses. Needless to say I was disappointed and decided to contact the staff at Tring the same evening, explaining my findings.

Next morning, they contacted me, apologising for the defective optic, as well as suggesting that I could have a replacement Helios LightWing, or try a Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32, which apparently had very similar specifications to the former. Now, I had a bad experience with an 8 x 25 Celestron Nature DX(an entry-level roof prism binocular) which showed far too much glare and internal reflections for my liking. But I had a good look at the specifications on the Celestron Trailseeker models, which were recently discounted by 20 per cent and were now being offered at the same price as I had paid for the Helios LightWing. After some deliberation, I decided to accept their offer of trying the Trailseeker. And to their credit, Tring shipped out the binocular, together with a return label for the Helios, the same day, and I received it less than 24 hours later!

How about that for customer service!

The Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32 package.

With some trepidation, I opened the package and inspected its contents. First impressions looked good. I received the binocular, a much higher quality carry case, a binocular harness, tethered rubber objective caps and rain guard, a decent quality padded neck strap, a lens cleaning cloth and a comprehensive instruction manual dedicated to the Trailseeker  line of binoculars( in five languages).

The Trailseeker binocular specifications looked very similar to the Helios, which included the application of premium-quality phase and dielectric coatings, a 7.8 degree field (136m @1000m), Bak-4 prisms, o-ring sealed, dry nitrogen purged, making it fog proof and water proof(though to what extent was not revealed). And just like the Helios, the Trailseeker can be mounted on a tripod or monopod.

As with the Helios, the Trailseeker has very deeply recessed objectives (again about 10mm) but the anti-reflection coatings looked different in daylight;

The Trailseeker also has deeply recessed objective lenses but the coatings appeared different.

Just like the Helios, the Celestron Trailseeker has a rugged magnesium alloy chassis but the focus wheel is significantly smaller. Weighing in at just 450g, it is 50g less bulky than the Helios. The Trailseeker build quality is excellent; rugged, much easier to handle than the Helios and overall having better ergonomics. The tough, rubberised covering has better grip than the Helios too, and small thumb indentations on the belly of the instrument makes it that little bit more comfortable to hold in the hand.

Nicely placed thumb indents on the underside of the Trailseeker make handling that little bit more intuitive.

Well, you can guess what I did next; yep, I set up my iphone torch, turned it up to its brightest setting and placed it in the corner of my living room with the curtains pulled to cut off much of the daylight. With a good close focus of about 6.5 feet, eagerly I aimed the Trailseeker binocular at the light and examined the image.

Drum roll……………………………………….

An excellent result! Internal reflections were minimal, diffused glare was all but absent and diffraction spikes were very subdued. Comparing the Trailseeker to my Barr & Stroud Savannah 8x 42 control binocular showed that it was on par with it. What a relief! To be honest, I had some reservations about the Celestron, owing to my unfavourable experience with the cheaper Nature DX model, and so I half expected that they might skimp on this important process. But no, they did a very good job! So far, so very good!

I was also impressed with the mechanical attributes of the Trailseeker, which is difficult to ascertain vicariously without man handling it. Though quite conservative in design, the eyecups are of high quality(metal over rubber) but have a nice feel about them. They twist up much more easily than those on the Helios and have two settings. Like the Helios, the eye relief is pretty tight(15.6mm) for eye glass wearers but is plenty good enough for those who observe without glasses.They do not budge even when considerable force is applied to them. I would rate their quality as very high, so much so that I don’t think I will have much in the way of problems with them going forward.

The metal-over rubber eyecups of the Celestron Trailseeker are a good step up from the Nature DX models and feel very secure while glassing.

The focus wheel has a ‘plasticky’ feel about it but unlike the Helios, infinity focus does not lie at the extreme end of the focus travel. This is actually useful for ‘focusing out’ some of the aberrations at the extreme edge of the field. Unlike other user reviews of the Trailseeker, the focus wheel on the unit I received was quite stiff to operate out of the box but this will surely loosen up with more use. Rotating the focuser both clockwise and anti-clockwise revealed little or no backlash or bumpy spots that you often encounter on cheaper binoculars. Some users balk at the idea of using a plastic focuser but I cannot for the life of me understand why it would make much difference. I mean, if it works, it works! What’s to give?

The focus wheel on the Trailseeker is nothing out of the ordinary but does work well in field use.

The dioptre ring is located under the right eyecup. It rotates smoothly with just the right amount of friction.

Optical daylight testing: As I’ve illustrated above, good mechanical design and great control of stray light don’t count for much if the images don’t deliver. So I was eager to see how the Celestron Trailseeker behaved when looking ’round the landscape. Accordingly, I examined the same autumn leaves in my back garden set a few tens of yards away. This time, the results were very much more encouraging! The leaves focused beautifully, throwing up excellent brightness, contrast and sharpness with a much wider sweet spot than in the Helios, which I estimated to be about 70 per cent of the field.  I could immediately tell that there was much less field curvature in this binocular than in the Helios, allowing me to sharpen up the edge of field definition with only minor tweaking of the focus. This much reduced field curvature was also apparent when I examined the same telephone poll I observed with the Helios. Instead of the strong off-axis distortions I encountered with that instrument, as the pole was moved from the centre to the periphery of the field, the Trailseeker proved much more forgiving.

What a relief!

Having said all of this, there was more off-axis field curvature in the Trailseeker than in my Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42, which, in comparison, throws up a wider and flatter field nearly all the way to the edge. As I’ve said many times before, the Savannah is a phenomenal operator given its very modest price tag. Perhaps some of the drooling gayponauts reading this blog right now could get off their fat backsides and confirm it!

Nah, probably too much to ask!

The Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 wide-angle binocular; an existential threat to the hubris of thieving gayponauts.

Nightime testing:

After dark, the Trailseeker delivered excellent results on artificial street lights, just as my torchlight tests reliably anticipated. There was no annoying glare, internal reflections and the diffraction spikes were small and very subdued. Turning the instrument on a low Moon skirting the horizon showed wonderful sharpness on axis, with well above average contrast. And when I placed the Moon at the edge of the field, it remained quite sharp, though visibly softened by a small amount of field curvature. Needless to say, it was in a completely different league to the Helios in this regard!

Later in the night, with the Moon having set, I examined the appearance of the large and sprawling Alpha Persei Association located nearly overhead at the time. This provided an excellent test of how its many bright stellar members would behave from the centre of the binocular field to the field stop. To my relief, the stars remained acceptably small and sharp across the entire field, with the stars at the edge of the field requiring only a small tweak in focus to improve their definition. They did not balloon to stupidly large sizes like I observed in the Helios.

Turning the binocular on the Hyades in Taurus gave very pleasing results too. Contrast was excellent with its many colourful stellar components remaining acceptably small and crisp even at the edges of the field.

I considered these results to be very acceptable. This is one small binocular that can be used profitably for nightime observations!

A Walk in the Countryside with the Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32

Although the Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32 is a small, high-quality and lightweight instrument, it is not readily pocketable, unless you have a coat that has rather large and deep receptacles. Having tried a few 8 x 32 binoculars, I personally find them a little awkward to use in comparison to my two favourite pocket binoculars like my Opticron Aspheric LE and my Zeiss Terra(both of which are 8 x 25 formats) or a larger instrument such as my 8 x 42. I just find the 8 x 32 format a bit kludgy in my rather small hands. That said, the 8 x 32 seems to be a popular choice for birders and other nature enthusiasts, who tire of schlepping around a larger instrument for hours on end. In good light, there’s no real advantage in using a larger format binocular and so I tend to use my pocket binos most often. But if you are observing in low light conditions, such as a dull, overcast winter day, late in the evening or early in the morning, the 8 x 32 would definitely be a better choice. I have verified this wisdom by comparing the views through my  8 x 25 Terra and the 8 x 32 Trailseeker at dusk, where the brighter images served up by the latter are plainly in evidence. And because you have a relative abundance of good quality light to play with, you can see more details in the image. Shimples!

Choosing a small binocular is a deeply personal choice that you can only decide on after trying them in the field.

The consensus view is that larger binoculars are more comfortable to use since their larger ocular lenses make it easier to place your eyes in the correct position to see and immerse yourself in the field of view. I believe there is definitely some truth in this, but in the end it’s really about what you get used to. I personally have no trouble lining up my eyes with the smaller eye lenses on my pocket binos, so I never see this as being much of an issue.

Enjoying the rich colours of autumn on a hill walk overlooking Fintry.

All that having been said, the Trailseeker 8 x 32 is a very handy companion on my daily two-mile ramble ’round Culcreuch Castle Estate, which has some extensive wooded areas, a fast-flowing river, numerous small brooks, open fields which extend towards the surrounding hills and a small pond, where I enjoy watching the antics of a variety of water-loving avian species. The field of view is very generous at 7.8 degrees, which is quite large as most 8 x 32 binoculars go, though some models sport still larger fields in excess of 8( ~ >140m@1000m) angular degrees. The razor sharp optics on the Trailseeker has given me many wonderful views of golden autumn leaves glistening in weak November sunshine. I especially love to stand under a tree and glass the branches above me, focusing in on their wondrously complex contours. The low autumn Sun this time of year illumines the trunks of the trees in the wooded areas around the estate, highlighting the wonderful texture of the tree bark and the play of light upon the lichens and mosses that live symbiotically with it.

If time is not against me, sometimes I like to stop and focus in on a stretch of water flowing from the numerous small streams that feed into the Endrick, imaging the contours of rocks laden with fallen leaves and closing in on the foamy organic bubbles that swarm along the fast-flowing stretches. And when the Sun shines on the water, I can feast my eyes on the beautiful and intense reflections emanating from its surface. This is where glare control is paramount, as even a small amount of light leakage can ruin an otherwise compelling binocular scene.

Binoculars have come a very long way since their founding days. I find it amazing that one can acquire quality optics and durable mechanics like this at such keen prices. The Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32 has been a very pleasant surprise, combining wonderful ergonomics with state-of-the-art optical science. I think a lot of people will enjoy it.  And now that its price has come down significantly, this is a good time to grab yourself a real bargain and enjoy the wonders of nature up close and deeply personal.

Just in case……………..

 

Thanks for reading!

 

Neil English has fallen in love with what binoculars have revealed to him, and is seriously thinking of compiling a larger portfolio of  binocular experiences for a future book-length treatise on their various applications.

 

De Fideli.

Product Review: Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 Pocket Binocular.

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25: a noble gesture from a market-leading optics firm.

October 1 2019

Preamble;

Review A

Review B

 Review C(verified purchaser):

Although I read glowing reports for these pocket Zeiss Terra ED 8×25 light carry binoculars, my previous 4 month ownership of the Swaro CL 8X25 pockets had tempered my expectations. However, I found these small glassing gems to perform optically and ergonomically within 95% of the venerable and well built CL’s (at 1\3 the price)! They, just as the CL, have handling and comfort limitations compared to compact or full size binoculars. But for quick trip non-intrusive viewing, ease of portability and very accurate powered views, these little pockets are hard to beat. Overall, they possess very nice ergonomics, have natural color presentation, crystalline resolution that is real sharp and bright, with very good contrast views. Their FOV (field of view), whose sweet spot extends to within 10% of their wide 357ft limit, has a comfortable and stereoptic DOF (depth of field) . Hinge tensions are perfect, and the focuser is fast, going from close focus (mine’s about 5ft) CW to infinity in just 1.25 turns. Eye cup adjustments lock fully in (for eye glass wearers) and fully out (non-eye glass wearers). My vision is 20\15 and with the very comfortable eye cups fully extended and resting on my brow, I can align the small EP (exit pupil=3.1) with my pupils, gaining a full unobstructed sigh picture! With its ED glass, CA (chromatic aberrations) is well controlled and I find day light\low light viewing to be bright, natural and enjoyable! Diopter is set on the front dial (for the right barrel) and has enough resistance to stay put. Made in Japan for Zeiss, they offer a lot of features and performance at a great value point. These will make great travel companions and will be back-ups for my full sized field excursion instruments!

Review D(verified purchaser):

I also read about these on an astronomy forum, where I got the “use” info below, but not the specs.
Buy these now. A best buy. Here’s why:
1. Zeiss is a world class optics company. So is Swarovski.
Compare this Zeiss Terra ED 8×25 to the world-class Swarovski 8×25 at $819 on Amazon (list price is even higher). This will show you
a) specs are same: field of view (6.8˚),
brightness (14.1 vs 14.2),
weight (11 vs 12 oz),
eye relief (16 vs 17mm), and
size in inches
b) specs favor Swaro: water resistant to 4 meters (vs 1 meter for Zeiss)
c) specs favor Zeiss: close focus 6.2ft (vs 14.2 for Swaro),
operating temperature -20 to 144˚ (vs -13 to 131 for Swaro)
d) use favors Swaro: view is said to be more comfortable to look at, ergonomically
focus has lighter touch, for those who like that
e) use favors Zeiss: view is more crisp, contrasty (Swaro view is said to be softer, more milky)
focus has firmer touch, for those who like that
f) price favors Zeiss: $293 (vs $819 for Swaro)2. Compare them to other Zeiss binos from the SAME series – Zeiss Terra ED.
– 8×25, 10×25 are made in Japan
– 8×25, 10×25 are getting great reviews, for small binos
– all larger Terra ED models are made in China
– all larger models are getting panned for poor optics and build quality
I think everybody is well aware that China optics and build quality are inferior (so far) to those from the US, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Austria, etc.So this 8×25 model is unusual. Superior optics and build are normal for Zeiss, except for their Chinese built Terra ED line.
Luckily, the 8×25 model is made in Japan with Zeiss design. This results in typical world class Zeiss quality.What is hard to understand is how Zeiss makes a $293 optic that arguably outperforms an $819 Swarovski.For bino newbies looking at 10×25, remember: the 10×25 will have a smaller exit pupil, so your views may black out more. Also, a 10x is way harder to hold steady and actually see than an 8x. So, even though you think you want 10x, you probably really want 8×25. With the 8×25, you’ll actually see and enjoy the view more.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

What you get:

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 pocket binocular kit.

The Zeiss Terra pocket arrived double-boxed. After opening the outer packaging, the binocular kit was housed inside a very nicely presented box with a very fetching design which folds open to reveal the contents. Unlike other products I’ve received in the past, the Zeiss box has depicted on the inside, a colourful alpine scene with majestic mountain peaks soaring high above a beautiful river valley. Perhaps the team at Zeiss intended the user to explore such landscapes? Whatever the reasoning behind it, it was certainly a pleasant touch.

With Zeiss, even the packaging is premium.

Unlike customers who bought the Zeiss pocket binocular when it was first launched just a few years ago, I was relieved to see that the instrument was housed inside a small clamshell case with a magnetic latch carrying the blue & white Zeiss logo.The box also contained a lanyard, operating instructions and a lens cleaning cloth. I was surprised that the binocular itself came neither with eyepiece or objective lens caps, but I suppose they are not really necessary, as the case very effectively protects the instrument from dust and moisture.

The box has the serial number on the side, which is needed to register the product on the Zeiss sports optics website.  On another side of the box, the detailed specifications of both the 8 x 25 and 10 x 25 models are presented; another nice touch.

The binocular was housed inside the clamshell and was pristine, with no dust on the lenses, or gunk on the interior of the barrels. From the moment I prized the neatly folded instrument from its case, I was impressed. The frame is composed of a fibre-glass like polymer, with a fetching black, grey and blue livery. The sides of the binocular have a rubberised exterior making it easy to grip well while in use. The double-hinges were rigid and hold their positions solidly once the correct inter-pupillary distance is chosen for your eyes. The optics are hermetically sealed, nitrogen purged and had immaculately finished anti-reflection coatings on both the ocular and objective lenses. They are also treated with a Zeiss’ proprietary hydrophobic coating that encourages any moisture and grime that gathers on the lenses to fall off, rather than accumulating on the surfaces. The instrument is guaranteed to operate flawlessly over a very impressive temperature range: -20C to +63C, so covering almost any environment it is likely to find itself in.

The binocular is water resistant, but to what degree remained a bit of a mystery owing to the rather odd way in which Zeiss chose to present it: 100mbar.

You what mate?

Thankfully, some physics knowledge helps to clarify the reference to water pressure.

P = Rho x g x h, where P is the water pressure, Rho is the density of water, g is the acceleration due to gravity and h is the depth in metres. Rearranging to find h gives;

h = P/ (g x Rho) = 10^4/ (10 x 10^3) = 1m

Knowledge is power lol!

So, not as waterproof as a Swarovski pocket binocular(I think it’s 4m) but adequate for most purposes.

Fully folded down, the Zeiss Terra pocket is about 70mm wide and 110mm long. The oversized barrels make the Zeiss a wee bit taller when placed on its side in comparison to a classic pocket instrument, like my lovely little Opticron Aspheric LE;

The Zeiss Terra Pocket(right) is a little wider and taller than the more conventional Opticron Aspheric(left).

The Terra weighs in at 310g, so about 40 grams lighter than the Swarovski-made counterpart. Lighter isn’t necessarily better however, as some individuals find holding such light glasses problematical. But once unfolded, the significantly wider barrels more than make up for its low mass, as I shall explain more fully a little later in the review.

The eyecups look a bit suspect, but once you begin rotating them, they work really well. They have no indents but do have ample friction. There are only two positions; fully retracted or fully extended. You know you’ve reached either situation by hearing their clicking into place. They are very solid and hold their positions superbly. Eye relief is 16mm and I was able to enjoy the full field with eye glasses on or without. Placing your eye on the eyecups is very comfortable, with their soft, rubberised overcoat and the large field lenses makes for very easy centring of your eye sockets along the line of sight of the optical train.

The dioptre(+/- 3) setting lies at the other end of the bridge(near the objectives), which initially presented some problems for me, as it is rather stiff and difficult to get going, but once you’re done you’re done! The focusing wheel is centrally located and is reassuringly large and easy to grip, even with gloves on. It moves very well, with the perfect amount of tension. Motions run smoothly, with little in the way of play or backlash when rotated either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The focuser requires one and a half full rotations to go from one end of its focus travel to another.

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 has a large, centrally placed focuser. The right-eye dioptre ring is located at the other end of the instrument, near the objective lenses.

The objective lenses are very deeply recessed, more so than on many other pocket binoculars I’ve used. This affords the 25mm objective lenses greater protection against aeolian-borne dust and also serves as a first-line defence against glare. Cool!

As the other reviewers showcased earlier, the Zeiss Terra pocket binoculars are manufactured in Japan, with the larger models originating in China under Zeiss supervision. You can see that quite clearly by examining the under belly of the instrument:

The underside of the binocular reveals its country of manufacture: Japan.

That said, and contrary to what the other reviewers have asserted, I don’t fully subscribe to the notion that all Chinese-made binoculars are inferior to those produced in Europe or Japan, as I shall elaborate on later.

All in all, it’s pretty obvious that a great deal of sound engineering was put into these pint-sized field glasses.

Handling: The Zeiss pocket is supremely comfortable to use, the slightly larger frame fitting comfortably in my hands. Indeed, with its wide field of view and thicker barrels, it feels like you’re peering through a larger instrument. The big eye lenses make it easy to get the right eye placement with none of the blackouts I’ve experienced on a number of other pocket binoculars. Its light weight means that you can carry it round your neck for hours on end with no neck strain. Its easy to get both hands resting on the central bridge, using my little finger to engage with the focus wheel.

Optical Assessment:

Straight out of its case, the Zeiss Terra impressed. Looking at some tree trunks just beyond my back garden fence reaveled a wealth of high contrast detail. I was immediately taken aback with the expansive field of view; not only was it wide, but the image remained tack sharp across nearly all of the field. Images snapped to a very sharp focus and I experienced no trouble focusing from just a few yards away all the way out to some trees located hundreds of yards away. Glare suppression looked excellent, even when pointed at some backlit scenes strongly bathed in sunlight. It was immediately clear to me that I was looking through a very high quality optical instrument.

As I stated in earlier blogs, I don’t really consider the inclusion of low dispersion (ED) glass as necessary in a small binocular like this, but it’s a nice feature when presented as part of a larger, properly designed system. After all, and as several other reviewers pointed out, the Zeiss seemed quite comparable to arguably the most sought-after pocket binocular on the market; the venerable Swarovski CL pocket binocular. But what is not widely communicated is that the latter achieves all its optical excellence without using ED glass. That should send a powerful message to the gayponaut propagandists. No, its all about using great glass, great coatings and solid mechanical engineering. Alas, I was not able to compare this pocket binocular with the Swarovski, but the fact that the little Zeiss was often mentioned in the same company as it speaks volumes about its optical quality.

Further daylight tests showed that off-axis aberrations were very well controlled. Even at the edge of the field pin cushion distortion and field curvature were minimal. Looking straight up at a denuded tree branch against an overcast sky showed no colour fringing on axis but as the image was moved off axis, some slight secondary spectrum was noted. Overall, I was very impressed at the Zeiss’ optical quality; it really does exactly what it says on the tin!

A niggly moment: While the little Zeiss pocket binocular fits perfectly inside its small, clamshell case without the supplied neck strap attached, I found that the addition of the strap made it very difficult to get a snug fit. Wrapping the neck strap around the central bridge simply didn’t allow the case to close properly(the magnetic latch never stuck), but after several attempts experimenting with different approaches, I finally hit on a way to get the binocular with its strap on to fit the case. The trick involves wrapping the strap tightly around the ocular lenses.The latch sticks.  Problem solved!

More discriminating optical tests:

Flare & Glare assessment:

Even if the glass used in binoculars were mined from the asteroid belt, it counts for nothing if it can’t control light leaks. My initial daylight tests showed that glare and internal reflections were very well controlled in the little Zeiss binocular, but they can’t tell the whole story. So, I set up my iphone torch at its brightest setting in my living room and examined the focused images through  the Zeiss Terra, comparing its results with my Opticron Aspheric(a nice little performer) as well as my control binocular; the Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah, which has excellent control of stray light.

The results were very interesting. The Zeiss faired better than the Opticron, but not by much. However, it was not as good as the Savannah, which exhibits exceptional control of internal reflections even though it collects far more light than any pocket binocular.

Further testing of the binoculars on a bright street light revealed some additional information. Internal reflections were well suppressed in both the Zeiss and Opticron binoculars, but the Zeiss showed more prominent diffraction spikes. The Savannah control binocular, in comparison, proved superior to both pocket binoculars. It shows very little flaring and internal reflections and much better control of diffraction spikes.

And therein lies an instructive lesson. The Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 is fabricated in China yet shows exceptional control of glare and internal reflections. So, it’s not so much where a binocular is built that counts so much as how it is constructed.

An exceptional, Chinese-made binocular; the Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah wide angle 143m@1000m.

It is all the more remarkable, since the Savannah can be purchased for half the price of the diminutive Zeiss!

All in all, these tests showed that the Zeiss binocular is very well protected against stray light, glare and internal reflections and this goes a long way to explaining why the views through it are so compelling.

Collimation and Field of View Tests:

I checked the collimation of the barrels on the Zeiss by placing the instrument on a tall fence and aiming at a rooftop, checking that both the horizontal and vertical fields correlated with each other. They matched up very well.

Field of view is best assessed by turning the binocular on the stars. Accordingly, I aimed the Zeiss Terra at the two stars at the end of the handle of the Ploughshare, now low in the northern sky. The Zeiss was able to image both Mizar and Alkaid in the same field with a little bit to spare. These stars are separated by an angular distance of 6 degrees 40′ (or 6.66 degrees). This result was consistent with the specifications on the inside of the box; 6.8 angular degrees.

Further Observations:

Comparing the Opticron Aspheric to the Zeiss Terra in daylight, showed that both instruments were about equally matched in terms of sharpness( the aspherical oculars on the Opticron certainly help in this regard), but I could discern that the image was that little bit brighter in the Zeiss. Better coatings in the Zeiss binocular throughout the optical train give it the edge in this regard. Field of view was also much more expansive in the Zeiss( the Opticron has a true field of 5.2 degrees in comparison). Colours were also that little bit more vivid in the Zeiss pocket binocular, caused perhaps by its better contrast and superior control of chromatic aberration.

Close focus is very good. I measured the Zeiss Terra to have a minimum close focus distance of 1.4 metres, so this should be a great little instrument for use as a long distance microscope, to spy out insects, fungi, flowers, rocks and the endlessly fascinating complexities of tree trunks.

The eye lenses on the Zeiss Terra pocket binocular measure 18mm in diameter, the same as the Swarovski CL pocket. But they are still small in comparison to a larger format binocular like my 8 x 42.

But while the field of view is quite immersive in the Zeiss Terra, it lacks the majesty factor of a larger binocular, such as my Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah, with its whopping 8.2 degree true field and better eye relief. Larger binoculars are simply easier to engage with your eye sockets and are thus more comfortable to use than any pocket binocular on the market.

Performance under low light conditions easily show the limitations of the small objectives on the Zeiss Terra. At dusk, the 8 x 42 was vastly superior to the Zeiss, showing much brighter images, as expected. So, as good as the Zeiss pocket binocular is, it can’t defy the laws of physics.

A Walk by the River Bank

River Endrick, near my home.

One of the best reasons to own and use a pocket binocular, is that it encourages you to go outside and explore the landscape. They’re so light weight and handy that anyone can carry one. Sometimes I use the Opticron and at other times I like using the Zeiss. Their sharp, high-contrast optics deliver wonderful images of the Creation. For me, nature is life affirming; a profound source of revelation and illumination. Like a great Cathedral, it fills me with awe and wonder. The sound of the wind whistling through the trees, the babbling brook and the noisy chirps of small tree birds form part of a symphony paying homage to the One who fashioned it all. For some, the Darwinian, materialist lie has dulled or even extinguished the sense of wonder that is innately endowed to every child. Dead to the world, believing themselves to be highly evolved animals, they pose no meaningful questions and can give no meaningful answers to life’s biggest conundrums. As you think, so you are.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

For me, being able to explore the wet and wild places with tiny optical aids is a source of unending joy. On sunny afternoons or early in the morning, I sometimes take myself off for a walk along the banks of the River Endrick which meanders its way through the beautiful valley in which I live. Streches of shallow, fast-flowing water predominate but are also complemented by deeper pool and riffle sequences; favourite haunts of  Brown Trout, Perch and other course fish. Lanky Herons frequent these waters in search of fresh prey.  Bracken flourishes all along the river, and my pocket binocular allows me to study their shape and form in great detail. As summer gives way to autumn, their bright lorne hues transform into various shades of brown and tan. Spiders weave elaborate but deadly webs of silk with their spinnerets that sparkle and glisten in the morning sunlight, creating a wondrous decoration that I can experience up-close and personal with my long range microscope.

Towering trees soar into a blue sky by the banks of the Endrick.

Many species of tree grace the banks of the river; Ash, Silver Birch, Sycamore, Horse Chestnut and even the odd Oak. Thriving from frequent rain showers, their trunks are covered in lichens, moss and algae that reveal a wealth of intricate structure and a riot of colour that changes in accordance with the varying altitude of the Sun as it wheels across the sky. I especially delight in observing the colour of autumn leaves in bright sunlight, the ruby reds of anthocyanins and the yellow-orange hues of carotenoids. Every now and then, I watch as the fast-flowing water, dappling in weak autumn sunshine, ferries off fallen leaves, their destinies unknown. My pocket binocular shows me that every tree trunk is unique. Each tells its own story, visual scars of its past life.

On some stretches of the river bank, I can still find some late-flowering wild plants that delight the eyes with colour in unexpected ways. And as autumn continues its march towards winter, the thick brambles begin to yield their succulent fruit. What could me more pleasing and more natural than to feast on their nutritious berries?

An expected riot of autumn flowers observed along the river bank.

At some places along the river bank, there are expansive rocky stretches. And yet every stone you unturn reveals even more of God’s Creation. A scurrying earwig, a wondrously armoured wood louse or a frollicking spider.The pocket binocular brings everything into stunning clarity. And though at first glance, each stone looks more or less the same, my little pocket spyglass shows that they too are all unique. Every crevice, every colourful grain is one of a kind.

A rocky stretch along the river bank.

This tiny corner of the world is ripe for exploration, with every day that passes presenting new adventures, new wonders to delight the eye. But so is yours!

Bird Watching with the Zeiss Terra Pocket Binocular:

Can good pocket binoculars be suitable for birdwatching?

Lots of birding websites don’t recommend using pocket binoculars for birdwatching, citing their small fields of view and reduced comfort compared with larger binoculars as the most common reasons. Having used these small binoculars for a while now, I must say  that I respectfully disagree. The Opticron Aspheric has served as a good birding binocular for me, especially for quick looks at birds that visit our back garden table and the crows that nest in the conifer trees in the common ground beyond our back yard fence. Recently, a group of five magpies have taken up residence in the Rowan tree in our back yard. Each evening as darkness falls, they hunker down in the tree and don’t seem to be fazed by us turning on an outside light or noisy disturbances when it’s time to put the garbage out. During the day though, they are often seen chackering away at each other loudly(magpies don’t actually sing) as if to resolve some dispute among themselves. Further afield, there is a small pond just a few hundred yards away in the grounds of Culcreuch Castle, which attract quite a few varieties of water bird; swans, duck, water hens, heron and even the odd cormorant. Once I learned to use them properly, small binoculars like these have never presented much in the way of a problem for me.  And since the Zeiss Terra pockets have a nice wide field of 6.8 degrees, they have proven to be better suited than the Opticron in this regard because you can better track the motions of birds with a wider true field.

On the Zeiss Sports Optics website, under ‘usage’, they seem to be saying that the Terra pockets are less suitable for birding, but I wonder if this is merely a clever ploy to get folk to buy into their larger(and more expensive) models. If so, they’re lost on me. With their excellent optics and generous field of view right to the edge, they can and do serve as good birding glasses. Of course, you can only form your own opinions by actual field experience but you may discover that the little Terra is all you really need! Seen in this light, acquiring a Zeiss Terra pocket binocular can actually serve as a cost-saving measure that stops you haemorrhaging your hard-earned cash on ever bigger and more expensive models.

How About Astronomy?

A small binocular like this is not the best for exploring the night sky since its small objective lenses cannot gather enough light to really wow the observer. However, the Terra’s excellent performance both at the centre of the field and extending nearly all the way to the edges, as well as its wonderful contrast make star gazing a pleasant experience. Out here in the sticks, the sky is quite dark and rewarding, even when observed with such a small instrument. Its field of view is large enough to enjoy some of the showpieces of the sky like the Pleiades, the Hyades, and larger asterisms such as Melotte 20 in Perseus, which can be taken in with its generous field of view. Stars remain very tightly focused and pin sharp across the field. Later in the season, I look forward to exploring the winter constellation of Orion the Hunter, to seek out its magnificent nebula in his Sword Handle, as well as the many delightful clusters of stars that are framed within its borders.

On another autumnal evening, I was able to pick up the three Messier open clusters in Auriga, M34, the Messier galaxies, M81 and M82, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Double Cluster in Perseus, wide double stars like Mizar & Alcor and the Coathanger asterism in Vulpecula. Running the binocular through Cygnus and Cassiopeia will also reward dark-adapted eyes with innumerable faint stars, like fairy dust on black velvet. One delightful little project involves exploring the lovely colours of bright stars such as blue-white Vega and Sirius, creamy white Capella, brilliant white Rigel, orange Arcturus and fiery red Betelgeuse and Aldebaran.

Following the phases of the Moon can also be a rewarding and worthwhile pursuit, as the Terra’s above average glare and internal reflection control will ensure that you get nice crisp, contrasty images. Lunar eclipses can also be enjoyed. You might also like to try your hand at observing the beautiful light shows presented by clouds passing near the Moon on blustery evenings. The excellent contrast of the Terra will also allow you to see stars around the Moon which can be very arresting to observe. Capturing the bright Moon as it rises over man-made buildings will also delight the eye. Above all else, don’t let its small aperture deter you from exploring God’s wonderful creation, which fills the Universe with hope and light.

Final thoughts:

Terra: for exploring the Earth and beyond.

The Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 pocket binocular is a fine, high-quality optical instrument that is easy to use and transport. If taken care of, it will give you years of enjoyment where ever you wish to take it. As I said from the outset of this blog, I believe Zeiss did something very noble in bringing this little binocular to market at the price point they set. To be honest, and as others have quipped, they could well have stuck a ‘Victory’ label on it and no one would be any the wiser. Optically, Zeiss engineers have cut no corners to deliver an ergonomic, durable and optically sound instrument that will delight anyone who looks through it. I suspect that the Zeiss Terra pocket might be one of their best-selling products. It is even available on finance and buy-now-pay later schemes here in the UK, although I would strongly advise would-be buyers to save up and pay the price in full rather than incurring more debt, where you ultimately pay more. The Zeiss is expensive as small binoculars go, but I feel that it’s worth every penny, as for me at least, it has already given me countless hours of wonderful experiences. In the world of high-quality pocket binoculars, the Terra certainly stands out in a crowd. Highly recommended!

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Neil English is the author of a large medley of essays(650pages), Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, which showcases the extraordinary lives of amateur and professional astronomers over four centuries of time.

Post Scriptum:

1. The Zeiss Terra has a two year warranty, which is enacted once you register the product on the Zeiss website. Cross-checking is thorough, requiring the serial number, and the name & address of the place of purchase. After checking these details, you receive a confirmatory email from the Zeiss Sports Optics team, welcoming you to the world of Zeiss.

2. The little foldable Zeiss Terra is very suitable for those adults with unusually small inter pupillary distances (closely spaced eyes) and children.

3. The overall light transmission of the Zeiss Terra ED is 88 per cent. Source here. This is exactly the same as the Swarovski CL Pocket(non-ED just in case Pepperidge farm forgets, ken ) binocular. Source here. Zeiss Victory Pocket binocular light transmission is 91%. Source here.

4. The family of magpies came back to the Rowan tree in my garden, as they always do, just before sunset. Here is a picture of four ( I think!) individuals settled in the tree branches at 20.09pm local time on the evening of October 6 2019.

Wee magpies hunkering down for the night in my Rowan tree.

5. After a week of abysmal weather, with endless cloud and rain, I finally managed to test the little Zeiss Terra pocket binocular on a very bright gibbous Moon at 10:25pm local time on the evening of October 10 2019, when it was within an hour of meridian passage. At the centre of the field, it delivered a beautiful, clean and razor sharp image with no false colour. The background sky was good and dark with little in the way of diffused light. Internal reflections were pretty much non-existent with the Moon in the centre of the field. Only when it was placed just outside the field did I detect some minor flaring. Moving the Moon to the edge of the field threw up some slight lateral colour, bluish at its southern edge, and green-yellow at its northern edge. These results were entirely consistent with my flashlight testing. This will be a useful Moon-gazing glass!

De Fideli.

Product Review: The Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8 x 25 Pocket Binocular.

A fine compact binocular at a fair price.

Tiny little pocket binoculars have grown on me.They can be supremely useful to those who value or need ultra-portability, when larger binoculars simply are unworkable. Their tiny size ensures that they can be carried in a pocket or a small pouch, where they can accompnay hikers, hunters, sports enthusiasts, bird watchers and nature lovers who delight in seeing the full glory of God’s created order. Frustrated by a lack of any credible reviews of a variety of models, I began a ‘search out and test ‘ program that would teach me to select models that offered good optical and mechanical performance, as well as good value for money.  As you may appreciate, this was far easier said than done, but in the end, I did find a model that I could trust to deliver the readies; enter the Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8x 25 binocular.

Retailing for between £120 and £130 ( ~$175 US), the little Opticron pocket binocular didn’t come cheap. But good optics and mechanics are worth having, especially if the user intends to employ the instrument on a regular basis. As I explained, I chose this model based on the performance of a first generation Opticron Aspheric that I had purchased some time ago for my wife, possessing identical optical specifications to this newer model, but without having the additional advantage of being nitrogen purged, as well as being water and fog proof. In truth, I chose the original model without much in the way of research and with very little experience of what the market offered; Opticron is a good make, trusted by many enthusiasts for delivering good optical performance at a fair price.

Opticron began trading back in 1970, founded as a small British family firm, and offering binoculars, spotting scopes and other related sports optics for the nature enthusiast. Since those founding days, Opticron has continued to innovate, where it now is a major player in this competitive market, offering well made products catering for the budgets of both novices and discerning veterans alike. And while some of their less expensive models are made in China, many of their high-end products are still assembled in Japan.

What you get.

What your cash buys you: The Opticron was purchased from Tring Astronomy Centre. It arrived double-boxed and with no evidence of damage in transit. You get the binocular with both ocular and objective covers, a high quality neoprene padded case, a comprehensive instruction manual & warranty card. The details of that all-important warranty are shown below:

Details of the warranty.

After a few days of intensive testing I was satisfied that I had received a high quality instrument and so I elected to register my binocular on the Opticron website.Owners are not obligated to register the instrument in this way however, as all that is required is proof of purchase, should any issue arise with the instrument in normal use.

Binocular Mechanics: The Optricron Aspheric LE WP 8 x 25 is a classically designed pocket binocular with a double-hinge designed allowing the instrument to fold up into a very small size that can be held in the palm of your hand. The hinges have just the right amount of tension, opening up and holding their position even if held with one hand.

The focuser is slightly larger than the first-generation model, and has better grip, allowing you to use it even while wearing gloves. The barrels and bridge of the binocular are made from aluminium, overlaid with a tough, protective rubberised armouring. Compared to the first-generation model,  the new incarnation induces more friction with your fingers, an important feature if it is to be used for extended periods of time.

The New Opticron Aspheric LE is now water and fog proof.

Initially, I found that turning the focuser to be a bit on the stiff side, but after a few days of frequent use, I became used to it. Turning the focuser either clockwise or anticlockwise showed that there was no backlash, moving smoothly in either direction. The instrument has an integrated neoprene lanyard which can be wound up around the bridge while being stored in its case. I very much like this rather understated feature, as there is no need to fiddle about attaching a strap. Out of the box, it’s ready to use!

Using the Optricon Aspheric LE WP is child’s play; just twist up the eyecups and they click into place. There are no intermediate settings. If you wear glasses, leave the eyecups down.

The twist-up eyecups have a soft rubberised overcoat which are supremely comfortable on the eyes. There are just two positions; fully down or fully up. Once twisted up, the cups lock in place and rigidly stay in place with a click. Eye relief is very generous(16mm), allowing eye glass wearers to engage with the entire field. I don’t use glasses while observing through binoculars, so I always pop the eyecups up while viewing through them. Optimal eye placement is very easy to find quickly, thanks to the large field lens, with none of the annoying blackouts I experienced on a few lesser models.

The dioptre setting is located in a sensible place; right under the right eyecup. A small and very elegantly designed protruding lever on the dioptre ring makes it very easy to rotate either clockwise or anti-clockwise. It works well and stays in place even after repeatedly removing the instrument in and out of its small carry case.

An elegant design feature; a small protruding lever under the right eyecup makes it easy to adjust the dioptre setting.

I measured the interpupillary(IPD) range to be between 32 and 75mm, ample enough to accommodate most any individual. Moreover, the well designed dual hinges on the bridge ensure that once deployed they stay in place with little or no need to micro-adjust while in use. The Opticron pocket binocular weighs in at just over 290 grams.

If the Opticron Aspheric pocket binocular were a car, it would surely be an Aston Martin.

Optical Assessment: Although this tiny binocular does not have a stalk to allow it to be mated to a monopod or tripod, I was able to assess how well collimated it was by resting the binocular on a high fence, and examining the images of a rooftop some 100 yards in the distance, checking to see that the images in the individual barrels were correlated both horizontally and vertically. This was sufficient to affirm that the binocular was indeed well collimated.

During daylight hours, the binocular delivers very bright and colour-pure images thanks to a well made optical system which includes properly applied multi-coatings on all optical surfaces, good baffling aginst stray light and silver coated prisms(boosting light transmission to 95-98 per cent). The binocular also has correctly executed phase coatings on the prisms to assure that as much light as possible reaches the eye. Sharpness is excellent across the vast majority of the field, with the aspherical optics minimising off-axis aberrations including pincushion distortion and field curvature. I wouldn’t be surprised if the overall light transmission is of the order of 80 to 85 per cent(revised in light of the tranmissitivity of the Zeiss Terra ED pocket glass with a light tranmsission of 88 per cent).

One of my pet peeves is seeing glare in the image when the binocular is pointed at a strongly backlit scene. I was delighted to see that apart from very slight crescent glare  when pointed near the Sun, the images generally remained stark and beautifully contrasted. These good impressions were also confirmed by more stringent tests conducted indoors by aiming the pocket binocular at my iphone torch set to its maximum  brightness. These tests showed that although there was some weak internal reflections  and flare, they were well within what I would consider acceptable. At night, I was able to see that when the binocular was aimed at some bright sodium street lamps, only very slight ghosting was evident. Finally, aiming the 8 x 25 at a bright full Moon revealed lovely clean images devoid of any on axis flaring and internal reflections. Placing the Moon just outside the field did show up some flaring however, but I deeemed the result perfectly acceptable. You can chalk it down that these results are excellent, especially considering the modest pricing of the instrument.

Colour correction was very well controlled in both daylight and nightime tests on a bright Moon. On axis, it is very difficult to see any chromatic aberration but does become easier to see as the target is moved off axis. That said, secondary spectrum was minimal even in my most demanding tests, affirming my belief that a well-made achromatic binocular can deliver crisp, pristine images rich in contrast and resolution.

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An interesting aside: My former colleague at Astronomy Now, Ade Ashford, reviewed a larger Opticron binocular- the Oregon 20 x 80 – for the October 2019 issue of the magazine. In that review, featured on pages 90 through 94, he confirmed what I had previously stated about larger binoculars with powers up to 20x or so; there is no need to use ED glass if the binocular is properly made and this goes for both daylight viewing and nightime observations. Below is Ashford’s assessment of the 20 x 80’s daylight performance:

And here are his conclusions:

Moreover, Ashford offers this sterling advice to the binocular enthusiast:

” …..don’t get hung-up on ED glass instruments. A well-engineered achromatic model will perform well, particularly if it uses Bak-4 prisms and its optical surfaces are multi-coated throughout.”

pp 91

Having ED glass counts for nothing if the binocular is not properly made. I would much rather have a well made achromatic instrument than have a poorly constructed model with super duper objective lens elements.

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A fine quality pocket binocular in the plam of your hand.

My Little Aston Martin:

The little Opticron has already accompanied me on a few hill walks, a Partick Thistle FC( sad, I know!) testimonial and numerous rambles near my rural home, where it has delivered wonderful crisp images that never fail to delight. The field of view(5.2 degrees) is a little on the narrow side as pocket binoculars go, but its plenty wide enough for most applications and besides, the distortion free images nearly from edge to edge quickly override any perceived handicap of having a restricted viewing field.

Its tiny size and lack of garish colouring make it the ideal instrument to bring along to sports events, where it doesn’t attract attention from fellow crowd members. The Opticron is also a most excellent instrument to examine colourful flowers, butterflies and other marvels of nature near at hand, thanks to its excellent close focus; measured to be ~51 inches.And because its waterproof, it would also make an excellent companion while sailing or fishing.

The Opticron pocket binocular comes with a very high quality padded pouch to protect the instrument from any kind of rough handling.

Of course, the power of a small, high-quality pocket binocular quickly dwindles as the light begins to fade in the evening, or during the attenuated light before dawn, where a larger field glass really comes into its own. A little pocket binocular like this is far from the ideal instrument for viewing the night sky, but it can still be used for the odd look at the Moon, a starry skyscape or brightly lit cityscape.

I consider weatherproofing to be a sensible and worthwhile addition to any binocular and is certainly welcome on this second generation Opticron Aspheric. The instrument is purged with dry nitrogen gas at a pressure slightly higher than atmospheric pressure. This positive pressure helps to keep out dust and marauding fungi, and the sensibly inert nature of nitrogen ensures that internal components(including the silver coated prisms), will not tarnish or oxidise any time soon. This will only serve to increase the longevity and versatility of the binocular in adverse weather conditions, especially in my rather damp, humid climate. When not in use, I have taken to storing all my binoculars in a cool ( ~60 F) pantry with silica gel dessicant inside their cases. Yep, all my instruments are in it for the long haul.

Quality you can wear.

The Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8 x 25 is an excellent example of how a well made, achromatic binocular can deliver wonderful, sharp and high-contrast images. It is more expensive than many other pocket binoculars, but you most certainly get what you pay for.

 Thanks for reading!

Neil English’s new title, The ShortTube 80; A User’s Guide, will hit the bookshelves in early November 2019.

 

De Fideli.

N=2: Why I’m the Very Proud User of a Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 Binocular.

An alpha binocular in many ways, except for the price.

Semptember 9, 2019

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is something in a name.

In my ongoing investigation into binoculars, I’ve discovered that, like telescopes, you don’t always get what you pay for. In particular, if a product offers advanced optical features like a full multi-coating on all air to glass surfaces, ED elements, or phase corrected roof prisms, it doesn’t necessarily translate into a solidly functioning optic. I’ve tested products purported to have premium optics but upon inspection, did not deliver all the goodness that they were promising in cleverly devised youtube promos and fancy specification sheets etc.

One company that has bucked this trend is Barr & Stroud, a once prestigious optical and engineering firm, established in Glasgow, Scotland, that at one time supplied all manner of optical instruments to the British navy during two world wars. Like many other large optical firms established in Britain, it underwent considerable re-structuring over the decades. Today, the brand name is owned by Optical Vision Limited(OVL) and began producing binoculars for the civilian market in 2011, moving production to China.

My enthusiasm for the brand began just a year ago(2018), when I initiated testing a variety of their binoculars in different price ranges. Like many others who have looked through their instruments, I was duly impressed by the incredible bang for buck of their offerings, with optics that punched well above their modest price tags.

Of particular note is the Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42, which delivered wonderful, wide-field, high-contrast and colour pure images of the Creation. Unlike other brands in the same price range, which offered so-so performance, especially off-axis, these binoculars maintained excellent control of the same aberrations. The massive 8.2 degree field of these 8x glasses is sharp across the vast majority of the field, with only the extreme edges showing significant distortion.

My first Savannah was actually purchased on the second-hand market, and that out of sheer curiosity. Expecting such a wide angle binocular to show average optical quality as one moves off axis(like so many others I’ve tested), I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that this excellent image quality was being maintained to the extreme edge of the field. Indeed, the view, in retrospect, was almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, the dioptre ring, which is situated in a very unusual place on this binocular (just ahead of the large focus wheel) developed a fault, which necessitated its return to OVL for repair. What I actually received was a brand-new instrument and so I was able to asess the performance of two samples of the Barr & Stroud Savannah that inspired the writing of this blog.

Two great performers: the Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 Savannah(left) and the 10 x 50 Sierra(right).

Built like a proverbial tank, the fully weatherproof and nitrogen purged Savannah 8 x 42 is heavier than many competing models on the market. Indeed, at 819 grams, it even weighs more than my 10 x 50 Barr & Stroud Sierra binocular (which also delivers excellent optics and mechanics for the buck). Outwardly, the Savannah has a rather Spartan look and feel about it, with features that are simple and rather understated. The eye cups are of very high quality, which can be set to three positions, and with a very generous 18mm eye relief, is ideal for eye glass wearers and those who like to observe without glasses. When twisted up, they click into place with a reassuringly loud “thwack” sound, and which remain in that position even after excess pressure is applied. Indeed, I rate these eyecups very highly and amongst the best that I have sampled thus far in my binocular education.

The high quality multi-coatings on the 42mm objective lenses of the Savannah. The reader will also note how deeply recessed the objectives are. This helps suppress glare in bright, daylight conditions.

The focus wheel is large and moves smoothly without any stiction, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, making it easy to change the position of best focus from as close as 2 metres to beyond infinity. The tension is just right; not too stiff and not too slack.

All the accessories that come with the Savannah are of high quality; including a hard black clamshell case, a padded neck strap with the B&S logo and rubber objective and eyepiece lens caps that can be affixed to the binocular and so are not easily lost in routine field use. The instrument also comes with the company’s 10-year warranty.

The large and responsive focus wheel on the Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42.

The new binocular turned out to be every bit as good optically than the first one I returned! Indeed, it could even be that little bit better! Images are bright and razor sharp, rich in contrast and colour pure. Though it contains no ED elements, the instrument shows only a trace of chromatic aberration, and only if you go looking hard for it. Like I said before, I don’t consider the presence of ED glass as a feature that is necessary on binoculars of this specification. Crank up the power nearer to the resolving magnification, and it’s a different story. But in this realm, what I’m more interested in, and which is far more important in the scheme of things, is how well the binocular is put together.

Roofs are complex instruments, requiring engineering skill and very careful assembly of the components. Some firms know how to do it well, others don’t…..methinks.

The high quality twist up eyecups on the Savannah click securely into place with a loud “thwack” sound. Note the tough, texturised rubber amouring covering the instrument.

My assessment of binocular optics involves the usual procedures employed by other reviewers, but I have also devised much more demanding tests to learn how well the light is being transmitted though the optical train.  What I have discovered is that many purportedly high-end roof prism binoculars (based solely on their recommended retail price) often show considerable flaring and annoying internal reflections when observing strongly backlit daylight scenes. In addition, night time testing on bright artificial street lights and the full Moon also provide solid clues as to what is going on inside the test binocular(which unfortunately, are all hermetically sealed!!).

One particularly stringent test is to direct an intensely bright beam of light from my iphone into the binocular to see how it deals with glare and internal reflections. No roof prism binocular, no matter how well made, can completely pass these tests;

All fall short:- but what astonished me was how well they were suppressed in the Savannah 8 x 42. Unlike many other models, which reveal too much glare and bright ghosting across the field, both my 10 x 50 and 8 x 42 Barr & Stroud instruments came out with truly excellent results! In particular, the degree of glare suppression and control of internal reflections present in the Savannah was fully the equal of a world class binocular: – in this case, the Swarovski 10 x 42 EL Range:. Where you will often pick up diffraction spikes and flaring from bright street lighting in an inferior instrument, as well as contrast-robbing diffused light around such artificial light sources (not to mention internal reflections), my new Savannah 8 x 42 shows up very little. This is easily seen in regular daylight testing, where the images thrown up by the instrument show very high contrast, allowing very fine details to be easily discerned.

Performing a small, bright light test in the comfort of my living room. Note the small amount of daylight left in the room to asist imaging objects immediately behind and around the light source(my iphone torch).

I thought long and hard about why such an economical instrument offered such unreasonably excellent control of stray light, and then I remembered how the same company made high-quality optical instruments for the British navy. Out at sea, where sunlight is strongly reflected off the water, glare suppression would have been a high priority for any optic used for long distance surveillance. Although it remains an interesting conjecture on my part, it could be that the technicians who assemble such binoculars have specialised knowledge on how to keep those internal light leaks at bay. Afterall, once upon a time, not doing so might well have made all the difference between life and death!

Some important details coming through on the focussing wheel. The ocular lenses are hard coated for extra durability.

Whatever the reasons for such optical excellence, the wonderful colour correction, contrast and suppression of stray light make the 8 x 42 Savannah binocular an excellent choice for birders and naturalists. I cannot think of a better instrument – without dropping an additional few grand – to take along with me to observe the deluge of autumnal colours that are only just emerging, as the trees shut down for a long, winter nap. But, as I’ve discovered, the 8 x 42 also delivers knock-out views of the celestial realm!

As I recall, it was with some trepidation that I decided to try the Savannah. I was leary of the advertised field of view -143m@1000m or 8.2 angular degrees. I had learned of other binoculars delivering such enormous fields of view but having disappointing off-axis performance. Better to have a binocular that delivers a smaller field of view with tightly focused stars near the edge than suffer the indignation of seeing those stars swell up in the outer part of the field. It’s just not tennis!

But my fears were completely allayed once I tried them out on the night sky.  I was literally blown away! Not only was the field of view enormous, but it was very well corrected, right to the edge of the field. Believe me, I have experienced some real howlers, where stars are pinpoint sharp in the centre of the field but when moved off axis, the same test stars balloon into enormous blobs when positioned near the field stop. Starfields remain crisp throughout the field of the Savannah binocular making it an excellent choice for casual star gazing.

Although the binocular can be mounted on a monopod for increased stability, I have rarely used it in this capcaity. Instead, I enjoy hand-holding the instrument where the 8x magnification makes it considerably easier to hold steady over a 10x instrument. That said, if I wish to push the instrument to see the very faintest stars, a monopod is a good way to go. Some binocular authorities I have read suggest that you can gain up to 1 stellar magnitude deeper if the image is stabilised.

The very well corrected, ultra-wide field of the Barr & Stroud Savannah  8 x 42  provides stunning views of large clusters of stars. For example, it provides knock-out views of Melotte 20, otherwise known as the Alpha Persei Association, where the field is littered with several dozen hot, white stars varying in glory from the third to the 10th magnitude. But perhaps my fondest night time experience with this wonder binocular was seeing the entire Sword-Handle and Belt stars of Orion in the same field on a cold, dark December evening.  And where my 10 x 50 Sierra binocular can just frame the Hyades, the Savannah frames the same picturesque asterism with plenty of room to spare!

The large, sensibly flat field of the Savannah has proven excellent for watching meteor showers. I just aim it at the radiant and watch to see if some shooting stars flash across the field. I also love exploring the interface between land and sky. Indeed, as described in this blog, the Savannah is my instrument of choice to explore Moon and starscapes rising above trees and buildings near my home. The Savannah has re-kinded my interest in observing the full Moon when the clouds pass over it. I adore the play of light and colour the binocular serves up in its enormous field of view.

The 8 x 42 is always by my side while using my backyard telescopes. It has greatly increased the speed and efficiency of finding faint fuzzies. Once I locate the target with the binocular, the telescope is pointed at the same spot of sky where I can rapidly hone in on the object.

A binocular that doesn’t want to go inside its hard case.

Readers will forgive my rather vaunted praise of this amazing instrument. But I feel it is justified. In an age of con artists and let downs, this instrument is nothing short of a ray of sunshine. It offers exceptional value for money and has sated my desire to acquire anything else in this mid-sized binocular class. I can hand-on-heart recommend it to other observers looking for an excellent all-round binocular for day and night time use. You’ll not be disappointed!

Thank you for reading!

 

Neil English is the author of several books in amateur and professional astronomy.

 

 

De Fideli.

In Search of a Good Pocket Binocular.

Far from the madding crowd.

August 30 2019

Pocket binoculars are a popular choice for many birders, hikers, ramblers and all-round nature lovers who want to get up-close and personal with God’s illustrious creation. If you have scenery like this right on your door step, trust me, you’ll be keen to take along some binoculars to enhance and extend what your eyes can see;

A pocket binocular usually has objective lenses less than 30mm in diameter and offer magnifications anywhere from 7x to 10x. They are small and in general fit inside a pocket, giving rise to their name. Like all other binoculars, pocket glasses come in a range of prices, starting from just a few tens of pounds right up to £1000, depending on the make and model. The cheapest models are to be generally avoided, as they often have very shoddy optics and/or mechanics, but things get very interesting once you move into the mid-priced market, where you can acquire decent optics and mechanics for prices anywhere from £70 up to a few hundred pounds. But is buying a pocket binocular from a reputable optics firm a sure way to get decent quality? I’m going to have to concede that the answer is “no.”

That’s based on my experiences mainly with two models from the well established companies: Bresser(Germany) and Kowa(Japan). Both models were acquired from amazon and possess similar optical specifications, the Bresser Pirsch 8 x 26mm and the Kowa SV 8 x 25mm DCF, which set me back £97.00 and £83.00, respectively. Both models are roof prism designs, have fully multi-coated optics and phase corrected prisms to maximise the amount of light that is transmitted to the eye, and to render colour-true images in bright daylight conditions.

The Bresser Pirsch 8 x 26mm was exciting to unpack, as it looked the bizz from the online images and the specifications promising “premium quality worthy of their prestigious lifetime warranty.” And when I opened up the case to have a look at the binocular, I must admit to being instantly impressed; here was a stylish looking instrument with a beautifully made, ‘Swarovski like’ open bridge design. The focuser was large and constructed from high quality metal. In operation, it was a joy to use, moving with silky smoothness, with no stiction when turned clockwise and anti-clockwise through its travel.

The Bresser Prisch 8 x 26 compact binocular.

All the accessories were of high quality, which included a padded next strap, an oversized nylon case, instruction manual, rubber objective and eyepiece covers, and a lens cleaning cloth.

The twist up eyecups are amongst the best I have encountered, clicking through a number of stages from fully retracted to fully extended.They hold their positions very well, even when significant pressure is applied to them. The dioptre setting is situated in a sensible place; just under the right barrel. It is stiff and once set in place it will not easily budge.

The beautifully designed twist up eyecups are amongst the best I have personally encountered with four positions. Here they are shown fully extended.

Handling this binocular was particularly pleasurable, as the open bridge design allows for firm gripping either with or without gloves, and can easily be focused using one or two hands. The binocular is lighter than it looks: ~ 290 grams

Firm grip: handling the Bresser Pirsch 8 x 26 binocular.

The Baader Pirsch 8 x 26 has outstanding mechanical quality.

The instrument comes with quality accessories, including a padded cary case and quality neck strap.

But mechanics are only half the story of any binocular. How did the optics fare?

Collimation was tested by mounting the binocular securely on a monopod that was firmly sandwiched in place between two planks of wood on my garden fence, and examining the fields of view presented by both barrels of the instrument. This showed that the binocular was indeed well collimated, certainly within factory tolerances. I had no trouble instantly merging the images once the optimum IPD was selected. Close focus was estimated at about 6.5 feet, in line with the stated specifications. So far so good.

The quoted eye relief for the Pirsch binocular is 15.6mm. That should have been plenty good for eye glass wearers. However, I found that only by pressing my glasses hard against my eyes could I observe the full field. It was not comfortable and so I think folk that have to use eye glasses when using this binocular will struggle.

Testing collimation of the Pirsch binocular. And yes, this wee instrument does have a tripod connecting thread!

True to the specifications, the binocular offers a fairly wide field of view. I measured it as about 6.6 degrees(in agreement with its stated FOV of 117m@1000m). Compared with an entry level test binocular with no phase coating(but with fully multicoated optics), the image was better corrected for seidel aberrations across the field of view, revealing noticeably less field curvature, pin cushion distortion and lateral colour than the entry level unit. On axis, no chromatic aberration could be seen at the edges of a nearby telephone pole as seen against a bright, overcast sky, while the control did show a little bit. And while the image looked good in many daylight scenes, it wasn’t long before I discovered that the binocular was not showing the contrast I had been enjoying with my wife’s Opticron Aspheric LE 8 x 25mm pocket binoculars. Looking into brightly backlit scenes revealed a potential problem with the Pirsch; there was some flaring and internal reflections coming through. So that caused me to investigate the matter further.

A cursory examination of the binocular review literature revealed something rather shocking to me. Very few reviewers had the presence of mind to investigate and report back on light leakage within the binocular, which can lead to very incomplete knowledge on how an instrument ought to behave under real-life situations. I consider it essential information for any savvy buyer, as it doesn’t matter how well a binocular is appointed with high-tech features if they can’t manage to adequately suppress stray light in the optical train. To me, this is Optics 101.

Fortunately, this is easily done by carrying out an indoor test using an iphone with its torch turned up to its maximum brightness and examining the in-focus images of how that light is delivered to the eye whilst looking though the binocular in a darkened room a few metres in the distance. You can also glean good information on how well a binocular will deliver by pointing the instrument at a bright street light or the full Moon(this is a considerably less severe test but an important one in any binocular assessment).

Well, the tests were very convicting. Not only was there many bright internal reflections but the Pirsch binocular seemed to be causing bright light sources to become diffused across the field of view, manifesting as a contrast-robbing, circular haze. And it was the same when I pointed the binocular at a bright sodium street light.  I had not seen such terrible control of stray light since the day I tested a very inexpensive Celestron Nature DX 8×25 unit several months back. Needless to say, I was not a happy bunny! Incidentally, even my entry-level control optic showed far less flaring and internal reflections than this purportedly “premium” instrument!

As another control for these tests, I employed my most excellent Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42, which shows remarkably little flare and diffusion of light under the same conditions. Indeed, as I already communicated in a previous blog, this superb instrument possesses the same level of glare and internal reflection control as a Swarovski EL Range 10 x 42 unit I recently subjected to the same tests. The reader will note however, that no roof prism binocular, no matter how well built it is, can completely eliminate such optical side effects.

My control binocular for flare and internal reflection testing; the Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 wide angle, which delivers superbly contrasted images even in harsh lighting conditions.

A curious aside: I wonder will flare and internal reflection testing suddenly enjoy an upsurge on future binocular forums? Hmmm.

I suspect that many of these pocket binoculars are not tested for flaring and/or internal reflections because these small instruments are not recommended for night time use and so any problems they have in this regard might easily slip below the radar. I would check out your instrument to see how it fares in this regard.

For me, a binocular, no matter how small it is, should pass these tests. Remember, we’re not looking for perfection here. If you’re viewing a city scape at night or gazing at the Moon from time to time, your pocket binocular should have minimum light leak and scatter, so that it does not show up in ordinary use. Is that really too much to ask for?

I don’t think so!

Verdict: The Bresser Pirsch 8 x 26 possesses excellent mechanical features but its optics do not match its mechanics. Not recommended. Luckily I had registered the instrument with Bresser to enable the terms of the guarantee to be fulfilled.

So how did the Kowa SV 8 x 25 fare in comparison?

Here is what the company promised.

Well, the package I received came in a small box, containing the binoculars, instruction manual, carry strap and eyepiece caps but no objective covering caps. Unlike the Pirsch, the Kowa is double hinged, which enables you to fold the barrels under the bridge,. making it truly pocketable. You can get an idea of the transportable size difference of both the Pirsch and the Kowa by comparing the size of their carry cases;

The carrying cases for the Pirsch(right) and Kowa binocular(left).

My first impressions of the Kowa SV 8x 25mm binocular were favourable. It is small and rather cute looking. Kowa engineers deliberately designed the instrument to be very lightweight using modern materials. It has a very well armoured body with a tough, coarse- feeling rubberised exterior.

The Kowa SV 8x 25 is a well made binocular using modern materials to reduce the weight. Like the Pirsch, the dioptre setting ring is under the right barrel.

The eyecups twist up and down like the Pirsch  but appeared to have only two fixed settings; fully extended or retracted.  You can however, set the eycups at any position and they will hold their place.

The Kowa glass had what seemed to be immaculately applied anti-reflection coatings on the eye lenses and objectives, which almost disappear when examined head on. Kowa also apply a hydrophobic coating on the elements that allegedly repels water, oil etc, making cleaning the exterior optics that little bit easier.

The kowa ocular lenses have nice anti-reflection coatings. Note the smaller eye lenses on the instrument.

And here is what the objectives look like under inspection. Kowa engineers applied extra armouring around the nicely recessed objectives for added protection.

The objective lenses on the Kowa are nicely recessed and have immaculately applied anti-reflection coatings.

The focuser is made of a soft material that effortlessly moves clockwise and anti-clockwise. I found that it was smooth and very responsive in use, with little in the way of stiction.

A close-up of the Kowa focuser.

Like the Pirsch, the instrument is fully waterproof and is nitrogen purged. The optics are fully multi-coated and a phase coating applied to the Schmidt-Pechan roof prisms. But at this stage in the game, I had learned not to place my hope in an instrument based solely on these claims. I recalled the story of the little Celestron Nature DX which also advertised such advanced optical treatments, but failed miserably in field use.

Like the Pirsch, the Kowa barrels were well collimated and the field of view was found to be slightly smaller than the Pirsch, at just over 6 degrees. But when I began to assess the optics of the unit, I hit my first snag. The smaller eye lenses on the instrument made it very difficult for me to accurately position my eyes and I immediately noticed that I was frequently experiencing black outs as I moved from one daylight target to another. It did have better eye relief than the Pirsch though, allowing those who wear eyeglasses to use it fairly easily.

Worse still, I noticed that when I was observing with the Kowa in bright daylight conditions outdoors, I could see a faint ghosting in the field which would only vanish when I pressed my eyes tightly against the eyecups. The contrast was noticeably better in the Kowa images though, with excellent control of colour and seidel aberrations. But I was worried about the ghosting I saw, and so decided to perform my iphone torch test to see what was what.

Such testing revealed some problems. While the horrible diffused light I saw in the Pirsch was far better controlled(but nonetheless present), the test revealed a pretty bad case of on-axis flaring. My heart sunk as I contemplated the implications of the test. This would also show up in nightime test I told myself, and I waited until the evening to find out for sure.

Turning the unit on a bright sodium lamp all too easily revealed a pretty bad dose of on-axis flaring which ruined the image. And though internal reflections were much better controlled in the Kowa than in the Pirsch, the flaring on bright nocturnal lights was, quite frankly, very annoying and downright unnaceptable. And yet again, my entry-level control binocular fared better than the prestigious Kowa in the same tests.

I really hoped Kowa, a company which enjoys a strong reputation for precision, high-end  sport optics, would be able to deliver a binocular image without this degree of flaring, but  alas, it was not to be.

Visibly upset, I contacted Kowa UK to report the result. They quickly responded and apologised to me for the fault, explaining that this was a very ” unusual” finding.

Well maybe. But it didn’t stop me immediately packing up the instrument and its accessories and returning it to amazon. I received a full refund, but had no interest in  testing out a replacement unit. Once bitten twice shy.

Note added in proof: Control of light leakages bares little correlation to the price paid for these binoculars. For instance, my Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 and 10 x 50 roofs have a retail value of about £130 and £80, respectively, but have excellent control of stray light. If these did so well, why couldn’t the little pocket binoculars deliver?

Ich verstehe nicht.

Another pretender:

Same old same old: the Olympus 10 x 25 has the same optical design as the Kowa SV pocket binocular.

What about the Olympus 10 x 25 WPII?  I took a chance on this product also. Retailing for about £70, it offered all the same features as the Kowa binocular. Indeed it was almost a carbon copy of the Kowa, except for the magnification and focus wheel, but alas it also showed too much daylight glare when pointed at brightly backlit objects, so that went straight back to amazon as well. Though sharp in the middle of its relatively massive field(6.5 angular degrees), the Olympus binocular showed very distorted images in the outer 30 per cent of the same portal. So, not great, either.

An Old Reliable: It’s not all doom and gloom though. Compared with the three binoculars I had evaluated thus far in this blog, my wife’s Opticron LE Aspheric 8 x 25 pocket binocular is in a completely different league optically. With minimum flare, no blackouts and good control of internal reflections, the little classically styled Opticron is very well built and just works, time after time after time.

A classically styled pocket binocular that just works; the Opticron LE Aspheric 8 x 25.

Now a few years old, the Opticron LE Aspheric features multi-coated optics and silver- coated phase corrected prisms. Aspherical ocular lenses produce a very flat field that renders undistorted images right to the edge of the field. And though its field of view is a little restricted at 5.2 angular degrees, it’s a nice tidy portal with very well defined field stops.

The Opticron Aspheric LE has simple twist up eyecups for those who do not use eyeglasses while observing.

The eyecups have just two positions; up or down. With 21mm eye relief, the instrument is extremely comfortable to view through. The double-hinge design does allow the barrels to fold up to pocket size though;

Snug as a bug in a rug.

It has its own built in lanyard so there is no need to fiddle about attaching a neckstrap. The original Opticron Aspheric LE (with the green logo) is a bit on the urbane side though; it is not weatherproof and the outer armouring is smooth and non-texturised. But a few years back, Opticron gave this pocket binocular a bit of a makeover; the new Aspheric LE is waterproof and purged with dry nitrogen, making it that little bit more versatile than the first generation model. Eye relief is reduced to 16mm, which should still be plenty good for all users. It also has new eyecups and a  re-designed focuser. Details can be found here.

Nice big(17mm) eye lenses on the Opticron Aspheric LE make for highly immersive views.

The instrument is more expensive than the Pirsch and Kowa models though; ~£120. But that extra cost does buy you peace of mind, or so I’m led to believe.

I”m going to order up the new model to determine how consistent the quality is. I will report back in a wee while to tell you how I get on with it.

Watch this space!

September 10 2019: Well the new Opticron pocket binocular arrived safely today. So, what was in the goodie box?

The Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8 x 25 pocket binocular and its accessories.

The binocular was purchased from Tring Astronomy Centre, and I elected to have it shipped to me via expedited 24 hour delivery. The cost, including postage, came in at £120. Like everything else I have received from Tring in the past, the product arrived in perfect nick. It was double boxed, witth the package including the pocket binocular, an instruction manual, lens cleaning cloth, and warranty card, and a stylish padded carry case with the Opticron logo on the front. I even received a £75  wine voucher!

The New Opticron Aspheric LE is now water and fog proof.

Unlike the original model, the make and specifications on the new model are embossed on the upper bridge. The armouring is also slightly more texturised than the sleeky, first generation model.

The original model had plastic eyecups, but the newer incarnation has what appears to be a slightly more comfortable rubberised overcoat.

Using the Optricon Aspheric LE WP is child’s play; just twist up the eyecups and they click into place. There are no intermediate settings. If you wear glasses, leave the eyecups down.

I rather like the simplicity of the eyecups on this instrument. There are only two positions: fully extended or fully retracted. The 16mm eye relief is plenty good enough for eyeglass wearers(verified by my own tests).

The focus wheel is larger and a little easier to work with than the original model.That will make it easier to use with gloves on. I did find it to be a wee bit on the stiff side though, but I figure with more use, it will became easier to negotiate.

The newer Opticron Aspheric LE( right) has a slightly larger focusing wheel.

The ocular lenses are the same on both models; good and large and easy to engage with.

Both models have the same optics, including large ocular lens.

The neoprene carry case is very nicely made and fits the pocket binocular perfectly:

A very nicely fitting padded neoprene carry case will keep your optics safe while not in use.

Close up of the Opticron labelled padded case.

You can probably guess by now what I did first: yep, I performed my torch test to see how well stray light was being controlled inside the barrels. Well, it passed with flying colours; not perfect, but perfectly acceptable! Indeed, it was very similar to the results I obtained for the original model. Later, I performed a test on some sodium street lights and the results were very good. Only very slight ghosting and no annoying glare.

What a relief!

Conducting some observations during the day also delivered very pleasing results.The images are very bright, sharp and colour-pure, thanks to good quality glass, anti-reflection coatings and a silver mirror coating on the prisms. Like the original model, backlit scenes show excellent control of glare and certainly enough to satisfy the vast majority of users. The aspheric ocular lenses did a great job maintaining a very flat field nearly all the way to the field stop. Close focus was astonishing! I measured it at just 51 inches (~1.3m), so significantly less than the advertised 2 metres. A nice bonus!

Clearly the quality control on these instruments appears to be very good indeed.

Weighing in at just 291 grams, and with its double hinge design, folding it up and storing it in your pocket is a breeze. It’s nice to have a pocket binocular that does exactly what it says on the tin.

Alas, I was unable to perform my last test on the bright Moon owing to the presence of a weather system (the remnants of hurricane Dorian) passing over Scotland, but the results on stray ligt control gives me no cause to be concerned. It will pass the full Moon test with flying colours!

A quality pocket binocular in the palm of your hand!

A Curious Aside: Here’s a binocular review posted on September 11 2019.

Wow!

The reviewer even conducted tests for glare and flaring etc!

Shockeroonie!

Don’t take my word for it; look at some other reviews of the Opticron Aspheric LE pocket binoculars to better establish a consensus:

Calvin Jones, Irish author, birder and naturalist

Diane and Michael Porter’s Birding Binoculars

Feathersoptics review

 

Conclusions and Lessons Learned:

It is clear that good optical performance cannot be gleaned from checking the specifications of a pocket binocular. Claims of a product offering fully multicoated optics and phase corrected prisms etc count for nothing if they cannot suppress glare and internal reflections to an acceptable degree. In this blog I have sampled but a few models that fell short of my expectations. In the end, only the Opticron Aspheric LE 8 x 25 delivered the readies.

The best way to proceed with acquiring a pocket binocular is to test it out in person, if at all possible, before handing over your hard-earned cash. The reader should also be leary of any binocular review that does not mention or test for glare, flare and internal reflection. This is an essential feature that must be controlled if you are to derive the best performance out of your pocket optics.

Life’s too short to look through bad glass!

Opticron also manufacture a series of more expensive pocket binoculars in their BGAT PC Oasis series. These will also be a good bet, but you’ll have to cough up another £100 to acquire one. I may test one of these models out in the future.

I did consider a few ED models in my quest. For example, the Hawke Endurance ED 8x 25 has a wider field of view and retails for 20 per cent less than the Opticron(which has no ED glass), but is it as well built? And how do the optics fare? To be honest, I don’t know, as there wasn’t any discriminating reviews available for me to make a decision, but they might be worth a punt. I did contact Hawke asking them how well they suppress glare in their small pocket binocular and received a very quick reply. Here is a copy of my correspondence with the company:

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Dear Sir/Madam
I am writing to inquire about glare suppression and internal reflections in your Hawke Endurance 8x and 10x 25mm pocket binoculars.
I have been testing a few brands and some show very annoying flare and/or ghosting when pointed at a bright street lamp or a bright Moon.
Will your products pass such tests?
I appreciate that no binocular can completely eliminate these but all I am asking for is no obvious ghosting when pointed at the moon or strongly backlit scenes in daylight.
Thanks in advance of your reply.
Sincerely
Neil English.

from: Hawke UK uk@hawkeoptics.com

Hello Neil,

Thanks for your email and interest in Hawke Optics. The internal components of our binoculars are treated to be as glare resistant as possible. We use a combination of matte finishes and ribbed surfaces to prevent a flat reflective surface. However, it will never be possible to completely eliminate reflections like you are talking about and so even with these countermeasures, our binoculars will show some white out when looking towards a bright light source.

Kind regards,

Alex Jenkinson

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

I wonder if any of you have tested the Hawke model? If so, I’d be very keen to hear from you. Failing that, I might just go ahead and purchase one to do a full review; warts and all.

I would also trust the optics in the Pentax AD bocket binocular, which also retails for about £100. But that’s not based on direct experience with this model, only an inference made from using two other binoculars from their line.

For a few hundred pounds more you can acquire excellent pocket binoculars from the ultra-premium end of the market from Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski. However, I don’t think you’ll notice any big optical differences between the Opticron and these though. The value lies more in their mechanics than anything else.

For me, I feel the Opticron delivers everything I could wish for in a pocket binocular; both mechanically and optically. It’s a quality product that will stand the test of time if looked after properly.

Well, I hope you found this blog to be informative.

Good luck with your quest to find a good pocket binocular!

 

Neil English’s newest title, The ShortTube 80: A User’s Guide, hits the bookshelves in early November 2019.

Post Scriptum: Shortly after local midnight on September 12 2019, I ventured outside to see if I could gain a glimpse of the bright and nearly full Moon, that had just past the meridian and about 17 degrees above the southerly horizon. I compared the Bresser Pirsch 8 x 26 to the Opticron Aspheric LE WP 8x 25. A brisk westerly breeze was blowing, quickly shifting the clouds over and then away from the Moon. During one such clear spell I pointed both instruments at its silvery white face and studied the images.

Result: The Pirsch showed annoying glare and some obvious internal reflections in the field. The glare also brightened the backround sky around the Moon, reducing contrast. However, the Opticron unit showed no visible internal reflections and only slight flaring when the Moon was placed just outside the field. The backround sky around the Moon was much darker to boot, showing clearly superior image quality to the “premium” Pirsch.

 

De Fideli.

Caveat Emptor!

As you may gather, I’ve taken a keen, active interest in testing out binoculars with an aim to providing my readers with good quality products that won’t break the bank. As part of that process, I needed a few entry-level models to compare and contrast them with other products purporting to provide better optical quality. In one transaction, I purchased an Eyeskey labelled 8 x 32 roof prism binocular on August 5 2019 from eBay. It was brand new and set me back £37.79, taking about two weeks to ship directly from China to my home in Scotland.

Here is a photo of what I received:

The Eyeskey Package.

Here is a close-up photo of the Eyeskey binocular; the reader will note the texturing of the armoring and distinctive tripod adaptor cover

The Eyeskey 8 x 32 roof prism binocular.

Here is what it looks like from the ocular end:

Note the plain 8 x 32 & Bak4 Prism labelling on the focus wheel.

And here is a photo of the tethered rubber objective lens covers as well as the thumb indentations on the underside of the binocular:

Note the tethered rubber objective covers and thumb indentations on the Eyeskey.

After inspecting the Eyeskey binocular and its accessories, I recalled another binocular, marketed by a company called Avalonoptics.co.uk, which I had come across in a previous internet search.

Here is Avalon’s 8 x 32 Mini HD binoculars( all images taken from their website):

Avalon 8×32 Mini HD Binoculars BLACK

Here is an image of the entire package:

Here is an image of the writing on the focusing wheel:

Note the thumb indentations on the under side of the barrels on the Avalon:

And here is an image of the tethered objective covers on the Avalon:

 

Next, I took a look at the specifications of both models.

You can view the Avalon specs here

And here are the Eyskey specs( source eBay):

8561-8X32_01

Both claim to be fully multicoated, are nitogen filled and fog proof, but there is no mention of a phase coating on either model.

There is a few differences in the quoted specifications. The advertised field of view is 6.78 degrees for the Eyeskey and 6.9 degrees for the Avalon model; quite close. Eye relief is quoted as 18mm for the Eyeskey and 15mm for the Avalon, but these figures can often be incorrect or at least misleading(as I will explain in another up-and-coming binocular review). The Eyeskey has an advertised weight of 18.3 oz = 519 grams, whereas the Avalon has a quoted weight of 416 grams.

Weight can also be misleading though, as it can vary according to whether you include the lens covers and strap etc.

The boxes look pretty similar with just different logos on them, same goes for the neck strap and generic instruction sheet.

Now for the price comparison:

Eyeskey 8 x 32: £37.79

Avalon 8 x 32 Mini HD: £119(recently discounted 20% from £149)

Finally, have a look at this youtube presentation of the said Avalon Mini HD binocular here.

Is the Eyskey 8 x 32 model worth the £37.79?

I suppose for what you get it’s a bargain.

But what about the Avalon?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide!

Caveat Emptor!

 

Neil English debunks many telescopic myths in his new historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

 

The Field of Glory.

Companion under the stars: the Pentax PCF 20 x 60 binocular.

Preamble

Visual astronomy can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. We can use the eyes our Creator designed for us to marvel at the beauty of the night sky. Or we can employ a telescope to get those up-close views, where both resolving and light gathering power are needed to make sense of what we see. But there is also the binocular perspective, which fills a niche set midway between that of the eye and that of the telescope.

On the night of August 25 2019, I found myself doing all three. After an hour of admiring dim and hard to find deep sky objects using my largest telescope; a 12″ f/5 Newtonian reflector, I sat back in my observing chair to drink up the naked eye heavens above me. The air was still, with no wind, and only the occasional screech of a barn owl breaking the silence. After a few months of twilit skies with only the brightest stellar luminaries on display, true darkness had now returned to the landscape. By 11:30pm local time, the bright constellations of Cygnus, Lyra, Hercules and Aquila had passed into the western hemisphere, with Bootes now sinking perilously close to the western horizon. And over in the northeast, Cassiopeia, Perseus and Auriga were making excellent progress climbing ever higher in the sky.  Andromeda and Pegasus were also ripe for exploration. The familiar asterism of the Plough hung low over the northern horizon, far below the North Star, Polaris, around which the great dome of the sky wheels. With no Moon in the sky, and good transparency, the river of light from the northern Milky Way stood out boldly, snaking its way across the heavens from east to west. It was the perfect opportunity to break out my big binocular, a Pentax DCF 20 x 60 and boy did it deliver the readies!

Using a monopod for big binocular astronomy on the go.

As I described at great length in the preamble linked to at the beginning of this blog, the Pentax DCF 20 x 60 combines excellent optics with great mechanical features in a relatively light weight package; ideal for use with a monopod. The instrument attaches in seconds to a strong, high-quality ball and socket mount head and can be transported easily from one place to another. Delivering a pristine, flat field some 2.2 degrees wide, the Pentax had already delivered gorgeous views of the heavens during Winter and Spring evenings, but I had not yet had an opportunity to sample the skies of late Summer/early Autumn with this powerful optical instrument.

My first target was M13, easily found about one third of the way from Eta Herculis to Zeta Herculis in the western edge of the famous Keystone asterism. I had already admired this big and bright globular cluster earlier in the 12″ telescope at high power. The 20 x 60 binocular revealed a bright fuzzy bauble about half the size of the full Moon and neatly sandwiched between two 7th magnitude field stars. Of course, the binocular could not compete with the majesty of such a cluster as presented in a large, light bucket, but it was nonetheless a lovely sight with wonderful contrast against a jet black sky.

I then moved over to Lyra and centered the bright summer luminary, Vega, shining with its intense blue-white hue across the sea of interstellar space, and surrounding it a swarm of fainter suns, including the famous Epsilon Lyrae of double star fame. Moving into Cygnus, I turned the binocular on Beta Cygni, known more commonly as Albireo. With a steady hand, I could easily resolve the beautiful, wide colour contrast double star; marmalade orange and blue-green secondary. Panning about eight degrees due south of Albireo the binocular field soon captured that remarkable little asterism that is the Coathanger (Collinder 339). What makes this a particualrly engaging visual sight is the uniformity of the stars comprising it; most shining with a soft white hue and of the sixth magnitude of glory.

Moving about five degrees to the east of the Coathanger, and forming a neat little right-angled triangle with the stars of Saggita, the celestial Arrow, I chanced upon the large and bright planetary nebula, known commonly as the Dumbbell (Messier 27). Unlike other planetary nebula, M27 is one of the few that present clearly in the relatively low power view of the binocular. Try as I might though, I could not see the hourglass shape of the nebula as seen in telescopes at higher power; it was more or less circular in form, softly glowing against the background sky at magntude 7.4.

I didn’t have to travel far for my next visual treat; M71, a faint globular cluster situated nearly exactly midway between Gamma and Zeta Saggitae. With its population of mostly 12th magnitude suns, M71 presented as a misty patch in a glittering hinterland of August star light.

Adjusting the ball & socket head of the monopod, I ventured back into Cgynus and centred the lovely binocular double,  commonly referred to as 0^1 Cygni. Like a wider version of Albireo, the 20 x 60 binocular presented their fetching colours perfectly, orange and turquoise (magnitude 3.8 and 4.8, resepctively). I could not however clearly resolve the fainter 7th magnitude component parked up against the orange member, which a small telescope so easily shows.

Eager to examine another stellar hinterland, I moved the binocular so that Deneb was centred in the field of view. Well, this binocular portal took my breath away! Hundreds of suns of varying degrees of glory smattered haphazardly across the field, and here and there the excellent contrast of the instrument also showed up some small nebulous patches set adrift among the starry hosts. With its very generous 21mm of eye relief, the big binocular was delivering very comfortable and immersive views. It was almost as if I could reach out my hand and touch the heavens!

With midnight approaching, I noticed that the great square of Pegasus was clearing the rooftop of my house, and a little further to the east, Andromeda, the Chained Lady, had by now gained a decent altitude. Eagerly, I trained the binocular on a foggy patch clearly seen with the naked eye. I had arrived at the Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31). The lenticular shaped core was big and bright and beautifully contrasted against a sable sky, and with averted vision it was not hard to trace the spiral arms all the way to the edges of the field. Its fainter companions, M32 and M110, were also seen with a concentrated gaze, the former being easier to see and just a half an angular degree to the south of M31. M110 proved much more elusive though, being larger and fainter than M32 but nonetheless fairly easy to pick off about a degree away to the northwest of the main galaxy.

Moving into Cassiopeia, the binocular presented field after field of brilliant starlight with a wonderful variety of colours. Many faint open clusters came to life as I inched the binocular through its mid-section; NGC 457(otherwise known as the E.T. Cluster) was very engaging, especially the bright, 5th magnitude white super-giant star marking its southern border, and then on into the heart of M103, a compact little open cluster just to the northeast of blue-white Delta Cassiopeiae. My notes from a good few years back informed me that the cluster presented as unresolved in an inexpensive 15 x 70 binocular, but this instrument, with its significantly higher magnification, was just beginning to hint at some individual stars within the cluster. A comely quartet of stars flanking the southeastern corner of the Messier cluster made the scene especially engaging to study. Panning very slowly eastward through the constellation, roughly from Delta to Epsilon Cassiopeiae, my eyes picked up many faint open clusters, including NGC 44, 663, 559 and 637.

By about a quarter past midnight, Perseus had risen to a good height above the northeastern horizon, and I eagerly sought out the famous Double Cluster(Caldwell 14), easily located as a foggy patch to the naked eye roughly mid-way between Perseus and Cassiopeia. With great excitement, I moved in on my target, all the while bringing to mind the stunning views I had reported with this binocular last Winter. Wow! I wasn’t disaapointed. The entire field exploded with stars of various hues; white, blue-white, creamy yellow and sanguine, the two sumptuous open clusters beautifully resolved with curious fans of stars radiating outwards from their centres. Sharpness was extreme from edge to edge, with the stars presenting as tiny pinpoints. I believe that this 20 x 60 binocular renders these awesome natural spectacles as good as you’ll ever see them; the combination of decent light gathering power and magnification using both eyes is a match made in heaven! This was a pre-season teaser though. The Double Cluster will only increase in majesty, as it continues to climb higher in our skies over the next few months.

Moving to Algol, the Demon Star, I then navigated about 5 degrees west from it, where I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I was able to pick up another lovely open cluster, M34. The powerful double eye on the sky resolved a few dozen members, mostly 7th, 8th and 9th magnitude members sprawled across an area of sky roughly the size of the full Moon. Many fainter members, largely unsresolved by the instrument, gave the cluster a very lively, translucent appearance, a consequence I suppose of the inability of the binocular to cleanly resolve its faintest members, which go all the way down to magnitude 13. Sometimes, not seeing things clearly adds to the visual appeal of deep sky objects.

From there, I moved back to Alpha Persei and placed it at the upper edge of the field of view of the 20 x 60. Even though the binocular has a fairly restricted 2.2 degree true field, it was able to pick up a generous assortment of bright O-B stars at the heart of the moving cluster Melotte 20. It was a beautiful sight!

With the time fast approaching 12:30 am, I picked up the 20 x 60 astride its monopod and moved to the front of the house, where my gaze met with the Pleiades rising above the Fintry Hills to the east of my home. Though it was still at a fairly low altitude, the 20 x 60 produced a draw-jopping view of this celebrated open cluster, its orientation being rather lobsided compared with how it appears later in the autumn. Many of its fainter members were extinguished by virtue of its low altitude, but it was still a magnificent sight. Again I would concede that large binoculars produce the best views of the Pleiads. And it will get better, night by night, as Autumn turns to Winter.

With a waning crescent Moon not far away from rising, I retired from the field of glory with a head full of vivid memories. This was just the beginning though. God willing, it will show me even grander sights as the days continue to shorten through the autumnal equinox and onwards toward the December Solstice.

 

Neil English’s new book, The ShortTube 80, A User’s Guide, will soon be published by Springer-Nature.

 

 

De Fideli.

Test Driving the Swarovski EL Range 10 x 42 Binocular.

The Swarovski EL Range 8x 42 binocular.

For more than a generation Swarovski Optic has been supplying premium quality sports and nature optics to an international customer base. Beginning back in 1935 when Wilhelm Swarovski started manufacturing small 6 x 30 binoculars, his business expanded greatly during World War II and by 1949, Swarovski launched itself as a separate company, manufacturing very high quality binoculars, spotting ‘scopes and rifle sights at their large facility at Absam, Austria. Employing more than 800 employees, Swarovski has a turnover of in excess of 100 million Euro with 90 per cent of its revenue generated from exports.

Swarovski produce a very extensive range of premium quality binoculars for birders, hunters and nature enthusiasts, ranging from small pocket-sized instruments(8 x 25) right up to large 56mm aperture instruments for specialised, low light work.  Having recently re-kindled my interest in using binoculars, I have had the privilege of enjoying two Swarovskis, an older EL 8.5 x 42mm (owned by my coalman, Graham) and a first generation EL Range 10 x 42mm, owned by a neighbour of mine (Ian), both of whom are keen hunters. In this blog, I wish to discuss the latter instrument in some detail.

Introduced in 2011, the EL Range 10 x 42mm features top-notch optics and state-of-the art laser-based range-finding technology that enables the user to accurately estimate distance to any given distance between about 33 and 1500 yards with an error of just +/- 1 yard. In addition, its built-in inclinometer allows angular measurements up to 90 degrees, thereby covering every angle compensation you are likely to use (especially when hunting in mountainous regions). Powered by a CR2 lithium ion battery, up to 1000 measurements can be made before replacing it. The second generation of the EL Range series was introduced in 2015, which offers some improvements over the original, including faster estimation of distance.

Ian very kindly allowed me to borrow his first-generation EL Range 10 x 42 for a short spell. For my tests, I concentrated solely on the optical and mechanical performance of the instrument, which were conducted over the space of 24 hours between July 22 and 23 2019, which included indoor, bright daylight, dusk and night-time observations. For those of you who wish to learn more about its ranging capabilities, check out this link.

The Swarovski EL Range 10 x 42: optical and mechanical excellence.

Mechanical design: The EL Range 10 x 42 weighs in at about 32 ounces. This was surprising given the presence of two prominent arches placed on the underside of the instrument. These apparently increase the stability of the instrument when making hand-held distance estimates.

The underside of the EL Range 10 x 42 has raised arches to help stabilise the instrument while conducting distance measurements

The 10 x 42 Range has individually tunable eyepieces with the dioptre compensation is accessed by pushing up the ring at the base of each ocular. The twist up eyecups are a work of art, plain and simple. Beautifully made, they click up and down effortlessly and hold their positions even when considerable downward force is applied. They can also be unscrewed if they need to be replaced or to access the ocular lenses for cleaning.

The exceptionally well designed all-metal twist up eyecups are a joy to adjust with soft rubber  eye contacts to make viewing as comfortable as possible.

The focus wheel is also a joy to use. With very finely machined threads, focusing from nearby to far away objects is effortlessly achieved via its buttery smooth motions.

The beautifully designed large central focus wheel is buttery smooth with no stiction.

Like all other mid-sized binoculars by Swarovski, the instrument has an open bridge design which is very stable and easy to balance and the well-designed hinge allows for quick and easy adjustment for my optimum inter-pupillary distance. The optics are housed in magnesium barrels to reduce overall weight and are overlaid by a tough, protective rubber overcoat that is very easy to grip. The optics are hermetically sealed and nitrogen purged to prevent any internal fogging. The instrument is water resistant to depths of up to 13 feet.

Overall, I would rate the mechanics on this binocular to be of exceptionally high quality.

Optics: Just like its mechanical excellence, Swarovski spare no expense incorporating the very finest optics inside their binoculars, and by that I mean the highest quality optical glass(which includes extra-low dispersion components) and state-of-the-art anti-reflection coating technology. The prisms are of Bak-4 Schmidt-Pechan design, which require phase coating to optimise light transmission. Swarovski like to think of the entire optical system acting as one collective unit which they call “Swarovision.” The light transmission is 91%( a figure derived from their technical data).

The objective and ocular lenses immediately exposed to the air are also treated with a proprietary coating that repels water, oil and grease. They also will not fog up on cold days if one accidentally breathes on them.

The state-of-the-art anti-reflection coatings of Swarovski objectives. Note also the deeply recessed objectives which cuts down peripheral glare during field use.

After I had made adjustments to the dioptre settings for my own eyes, I excitedly began tests on the 10 x 42 during bright evening sunshine. Examining a range of targets including the top-most boughs of some nearby conifers, rooftops and the broad tree trunk of an old Horse Chestnut tree, I was most impressed at the crystal clear clarity of the images. Comparing these to my own Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 binocular, which gives a ‘warm’ tone, the Swarovski was more neutral toned in comparison and ever so slightly sharper to my eyes. But what most impressed me was that the image was also a little brighter than my 8 x 42! This became more apparent as the sun began to set and dusky twilight ensued.  If the Swarovski was transmitting 91 per cent of the light collected to the eye, the Savannah was probably transmitting something more like 85 per cent.

Comparing binocular views can be very enlightening. Top: the Barr & Stroud 8 x 42, bottom: the Swarovski EL Range 10 x 42 .

The field of view of the Swarovski is 6.4 degrees, the images being perfectly flat across the entire field thanks to specially designed field flatteners in the ocular lens assembly. This makes the field stop stand out that little bit more than in my 8 x 42 wide-angle Savannah (sporting an 8.2 degree true field). Examining the edge of a telephone pole some 30 yards in the distance revealed a sliver of chromatic aberration in the Savannah but I could discern none at all in the Swarovski.

Edge of field correction was also superior in the Swarovski. Where the Savannah clearly revealed some pin-cushion distortion at the extreme edge of the field, the Swarovski revealed little or none in comparison.

Going indoors for a while, waiting for the sky to get maximally dark, I conducted my iphone torch test to see how both instruments would compare in regards to their ability to suppress internal reflections. This is a severe test on any optic. I darken the room and turned my iphone torch on at maximum brightness. Then, viewing from a comfortable distance, I aimed both instruments at the light to see what was what. A while back, I had tested the Barr & Stroud Savannah 8 x 42 (and the 10 x 50 Sierra made by the same firm) and noted how well they suppressed glare and internal reflections. To my delight, I found both the Swarovsji and the Savannah to reveal broadly similar results; both units very aggressively blocked annoying internal reflections! Note that this test is far more severe than pointing the instruments at a bright Moon. Indeed, some instruments(including some top of the range models) that passed the Moon test faired considerably worse in this more discriminating test.

Star testing and an encounter with a waning Gibbous Moon:

At this time during the summer, the twilight which dominates during late May, June and the first half of July begins to give way to significantly darker skies. So around local midnight, I ventured out again to test the binoculars on some starfields poking through some cloud banks that were beginning to break up as the night progressed. lying on my recliner, I aimed the binoculars on some star fields in Lyra and Cygnus. The view through both the Swarovski and the Savannah was excellent, with the former offering a flatter field from edge to edge. Contrast was excellent in the Swarovski as well, and the stars presented as tiny, sharp pinpoints. It also reached that little bit deeper than the Savannah as one would expect in comparing an 8x optic to a 10x optic of the same aperture. The Savannah, although possessing a wider field of view, also showed some distortion of the stellar images at the edge of the field.

At around 00:45 UT, a bright waning gibbous Moon was rising in the eastern sky and had gained enough altitude to see it from my back garden. Both instruments presented very pleasing views, but with the subtle differences in colour tone and image scale. The Savannah produced a warmer tone with a very slight yellowish tinge in comparison to the Swarovski, which was correspondingly cooler and a more neutral white appearance. The low altitude brought out the usual atmospheric refraction in both instruments. In the Savannah, a very slim sliver of blue was observed around the edges of the Moon, while in the Swarovski the same sliver was more yellow than blue. The greater magnification of the Swarovski was immediately apparent however, where it presented significantly more in the way of crater details than the lower power Savannah.

Before packing up, I enjoyed watching the fast moving clouds passing near and over the lunar image in both instruments, creating a wonderful dispaly of natural colour. It was good to get out and do some observing in a reasonably dark sky once again.

Now, I suppose you are wondering whether I would recommend the Swarovski to a prospective buyer, especially since I do not, in general, have a tendency to use or promote premium equipment. I’m going to say ” yes” with this one, for reasons I would like to outline here.

It boils down to how much you intend to use the instrument. For astronomical telescopes, most folk get to set up and use their gear maybe once or twice a week(if you’re especially keen)  for a few hours at the most, though I suspect that this is probably the exception rather than the rule. If you are a keen glasser however, you will likely use binoculars far more frequently and for long periods of time. The Swarovski is a beautifully made, precision instrument that will endure knocks, extremes of weather and much more besides. It comes with a very nice quality case and  carrying strap and the company stands behind many innovative accessories that will only add to your pleasurable experiences.  It will often be your only companion in the great outdoors. Without a doubt, a premium binocular like this will hardlly ever fail, so you are investing in a durable, high- quality instrument that will grow as your interests grow and diversify.

I can say all of this with absolute confidence. Why? Because within a couple of days of testing both instruments disaster struck with my Savannah.

If you recall, I bought the Savannah second hand from an ebay seller. It worked flawlessly even with continued use every day, for many months. I was intending to bring it along with me to southwest Wales for a family vacation, when the dioptre ring developed a fault. Although it still worked quite well, I found I had to turn it to the extreme end of its travel before getting a well focused binocular image! The failure upset me, but thank goodness, the story had a silver lining.

An Act of Generosity

I contacted Optical Vision Limited(OVL), the company that now owns Barr & Stroud, as well as other small players in the mid-priced binocular market. I explained the problem to them, at which point they asked if I could provide proof of purchase. I then explained to them that I actually bought it used and that I just assumed that the 10-year warranty was transferable to new owners. Unfortunately, OVL informed me that the warranty was not transferable. However, they were aware of my long-standing work for the astronomical community and kindly offered to honour the warranty. Well, the relief on my face was all too clear to everyone and I accepted their gracious offer. I dispatched the instrument by courier to their depot in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, just prior to setting out on our 400 mile journey to Pembrokeshire.

While we were in Wales, OVL contacted me to say that they would be sending me a new binocular to replace the old one and asked if I would choose a day for the courier to deliver the instrument. I arranged to have it delivered the day after our return home.

Sure enough, the new Savannah 8 x 42 arrived in perfect nick. Excitedly, I opened the box to find the brand-new instrument carefully packed inside. I had my new Savannah and it worked perfectly!

After a year of considerable grief in my professional career, something good finally happened!

 

Contentment.

Thank you so very much OVL!

What the experience taught me

I once purchased a pair of perfectly serviceable 10 x 50 binoculars for $30 at an electronics retailer. These binoculars showed that if you choose carefully, you can get good optics for relatively little money. So what do you get if you spend ten times as much? In terms of the actual view, not as much as you might expect. Yes, more expensive binoculars have better optics that will deliver more light to your eyes and sharper images, but the difference is not night and day. What the extra money does buy you is mechanical quality. Expensive binocuars can withstand the inevitable bumps  and knocks of everyday use without trouble, and having focusing mechanisms that are sure and precise.

Gary Seronik, Editor of Sky News and former Sky & Telescope columnist and author of over 200 articles under Binocular Highlights.

This quote from Seronik’s book, Binocular Highlights (2nd edition) is very true. In my case the Savannah binocular (mid-priced in the scheme of things) gives you about 90 per cent of the optical performance of the Swarovski. Yes, the latter is definitely the better instrument, but it is the mechanical design and not the optics where it especially excels. That said, I have become very fond of the Savannah, as it feels right in my hands, and punches well above its weight. I don’t know how the fault with the dioptre ring developed but what I can say is that I will be keeping a very close eye on it. And if any issues arise with it again, you’ll be the first to know!

Second time lucky: fingers crossed!

I am very grateful to Ian for allowing me to test the 10 x 42 EL Range. I now know why he spent so much money to acquire one!

 

Neil English’s new book, The ShortTube 80: A User’s Guide (267 pages), will soon be published by Springer Nature.

 

 

 

De Fideli.

A Great Pocket Binocular: the Pentax DCF LV 9 x 28.

Excellent optical and mechanical quality in a compact size; the Pentax DCF LV 9 x 28. The instrument measures 117 x 115 x 44mm.

The compact binocular market presents a daunting challenge to the would-be buyer. There are just so many models to choose from. By compact, I mean a binocular that can fit in the palm of your hand and possess objective lenses less than 30mm in diameter. I purchased this instrument about eight months ago and have used it extensively on hill-walking trips and nature treks all around the beautiful, verdant landscape of rural and coastal Scotland. And they’ve even come in handy for watching sports events.

During the long and bright summer days, this pocket-sized binocular has excelled as a lightweight optical device to study the Creation at close range or from a distance. As any experienced binocular viewer will tell you, small aperture binoculars like these are all you need when light is abundant. That’s because the exit pupil of most folk’s eyes shrinks during daylight to 2 or 3mm and so using larger aperture instruments offer little in the way of advantage.

The Pentax DCF LV 9 x 28 offers very high-quality optics in a rugged field-friendly design. The objective; a triplet system arranged in two groups is fully multi-coated. The ocular lenses are a five element design(and fully multi-coated) and produce razor sharp images across the vast majority of the field.  The eyecups are of high-quality, rubber-over aluminium design that twist up, allowing the user to use them in any of four different configurations. The instrument sports very comfortable eye relief – 18mm – making them ideal for eye glass wearers.

The high quality twist-up eyecups are sturdy and offer excellent eye relief for all observers.

The eyecups hold their positions very well, even when unreasonable pressure is applied to them and only move when twisted.

The Pentax compact offers a true field of view of 5.6 degrees and a magnification of 9x. I’ve really come to appreciate this magnification, as it offers a real edge over 8x models, which bring finer details into sharp focus. 10x models start introducing too much shake which limits their use during extensive, hand-help outdoor applcations.

The ocular end of the Pentax DCF LV 9 x 28.

The unit is phase coated for bright, crisp imaging and is fully weather proof, being dry nitrogen filled to prevent internal fogging and corrosion. It is also water resistant, and tested at 1m depth for several minutes (JIS Class 6).

Glare and internal reflections are supressed to very satisfactory levels. One design feature to reduce flaring involves mounting the objectives a few millimetres (~5mm) in from the end of the objective barrels.

Recessed objective lenses are a clever way to reduce flaring during bright daylight viewing.

The superior optical design of the Pentax DCF LV 9 x 28 became more evident to me during poor lighting conditions, such as at dawn or dusk, or while viewing targets in a heavily forested location. Cheaper models, such as the Celestron Nature DX 8 x 25, quickly revealed its limitations during these demanding conditions, where the images became overly dim and harder to discern. No such problem with the Pentax unit, where its better coatings and supression of internal reflections made all the difference. And while larger binoculars in the 32 to 42mm aperture range are better for these low-light conditions, I’ve been quite impressed at just how well the Pentax stood up. The images are razor-sharp and colour free with a nice, neutral or ‘cool’ colour tone.

The dioptre setting( the texturised grey ring in the photos) on the Pentax is located immediately under the right-hand ocular lens and has proven to be very precise and largely immune to movement. Indeed, I have rarely felt the need to adjust it since the day the unit arrived here.

What I have especially come to appreciate about this model is the large focusing wheel, which offers very smooth and precise adjustments to focus. Many pocket binoculars have much smaller focusing wheels, making them that little bit more challenging to operate, especially when attempting to image targets moving from fairly close up to far away, or vice versa, like birds in flight, or while using gloves during cold weather conditions.

The large, smooth focusing wheel on the Pentax DCF LV 9 x 28.

Though not the lightest unit in its aperture class (365g), I have found them to be better suited than many lighter models, as the latter tend to be made more flimsily or are too small to fit securely in the hand during prolonged observations. You need a bit of inertia when using pocket binoculars at 9x, and for me, the Pentax provides the ‘Goldilocks’ size and weight to allow me to optimise my viewing experiences. The underside of the binocular has nice thumb indents for secure handling; a useful feature, in the hand.

Thumb indentations on the underside of the binocular make gripping the instrument that little bit easier.

While I  would never consider such a small binocular to be the ideal companion under the stars, I have enjoyed occasional quick looks of the celestial realm with this instrument. Gazing at the Moon is always a memorable experience, the main craters and mountain ranges being crisply defined and without the annoying internal reflections found in other models( the Nature DX was horrendous in this regard). Star fields are faithfully rendered, and provide pleasing images across its 5.6 degree angular field. Chromatic aberration is pretty much non existent as you’d expect from an instrument in this aperture class( indeed many of the so-called ultra premium models in this aperture class do not use ED glass).

The Pentax DCF LV 9 x 28 is fairly expensive, as pocket binoculars go (I actually bought mine in an ex-display sale with a one-year warranty), but I feel it was worth every penny. The peace of mind one gets when using a mechanically sound and optically excellent instrument such as this is definitely real and when one factors in the countless hours it has accompanied me on my long country walks, hikes, during vacations, and attending sports events(my boys are keen footballers, golfers and rugby players), it has already paid for itself many times over.

Since the introduction of the DCF LV range about a decade ago, Pentax has recently re-branded these models as the AD series (details here). I would heartily recommned this pocket binocular to anyone who is serious about making a life-time purchase. Its excellent optics and sturdy mechanical construction will give you years of hassle-free operation even in less than ideal observational conditions.

 

Dr. Neil English has recently re-kindled his interest in binoculars. His latest article, Paradigm Shifts(presenting the latest science against the existence of extraterrestrial life), will be published in Salvo Magazine Volume 50(Fall 2019).

 

 

De Fideli.