Unlike telescopes, which are mainly used by dedicated amateur astronomers, binoculars, for obvious reasons, are owned and used by a much broader cross section of the general population. When my students get to know me, they will inevitably have to endure my unbridled enthusiasm for optical devices of all kinds lol, and that includes binoculars. One of my mathematics students, Sandy, expressed an unusual interest in some of my instruments, and he further informed me that his parents, who run a small ferrying business at Balmaha, on the shores of nearby Loch Lomond, used several binoculars in their everyday work. My interest was further piqued when Sandy told me that his grandfather owned a big Zeiss binocular, which was inherited by his father and would eventually be passed on to him in the goodness of time. I asked Sandy whether he would be willing to bring the Zeiss binocular by so that I could have a look at it. After checking with his parents, Sandy agreed and kindly allowed me to use it for a week in order that I could assess it and give it a good clean. Naturally enough, I jumped at the opportunity!
The instrument, a Carl Zeiss Jenoptem 10 x 50W porro prism binocular, came in a lovely leather case; a far cry form anything made in this era.
The instrument had no lens caps and so had accumulated quite a bit of grime on both the ocular and objective lenses over the years. The Jenoptem, which was manufactured in East Germany(DDR), featured a Zeiss multi-coating, which helped me to date it to after 1978, when the company apparently began to apply their anti-reflection coatings to all the lenses and prisms in the optical train. So my guess is that it was probably acquired in the early 1980s. I believe Zeiss Jena offered a higher quality porro 10 x 50 in the Decarem line around the same period, but I have not had the pleasure of testing one of these units out.
The instrument has a very Spartan look and feel about it. Weighing in at about 1 kilogram, the Jenoptem is built like a proverbial tank, with a central focusing wheel and right eye dioptre.Turning the nicely machined metal focusing wheel first clockwise, and then anti-clockwise, all the way through its trave,l showed that it was still in excellent working condition, with zero backlash and bumping that one usually encounters with cheaper porro prism binoculars.
To begin the cleaning process, I unscrewed the objective housings from the front of the binocular in order to get at the inside surface of the objective lenses, which had a significant amount of grime as well as a small amount of fungal growth. Using a good quality lens brush, I carefully removed much of the dust before using a microfibre lens cleaning cloth soaked in a little Baader Optical Wonder fluid. In just a few minutes I was able to remove the remaining grime on both the outer and inner surfaces of the binocular objectives, as well as the surfaces of the prisms in the rear module of the instrument. The ocular lenses were also given a good cleaning.
I was able to verify that the prisms were indeed coated in the same way as the objectives, although I also discovered that the steel clips holding the prisms in place had rusted significantly over time. I did not attempt to clean the clips, as I judged that doing so might throw the instrument out of collimation.
Seen in broad daylight, I was able to verify that the lens coatings had not suffered much in the way of wearing, looking smooth and evenly applied, giving a bluish or purple cast, depending on the angle of view.
After screwing the objective modules back into place, I was now ready to begin my optical tests of this older Zeiss binocular. I compared the views served up by this instrument with those garnered by my Barr & Stroud 10 x 50 Sierra roof prism binocular that I use almost exclusively for astronomical viewing. After setting the right eye dioptre on the Zeiss to suit my own eyes, I started with an iphone torch test to assess how the instruments fared in suppressing glare and internal reflections.
Because the Zeiss does not have the same close focus (~2m) performance as my Barr & Stroud, I had to place my iphone torch several metres away in my hallway in order to get the Zeiss to focus on its light. As usual, the torch was adjusted to its highest (read brightest) setting. Comparing the two in-focus images, I could see that the Zeiss fared considerably worse than the Barr & Stroud. Specifically, it picked up two fairly bright internal reflections, as well as quite a lot of contrast-robbing diffused light, which rendered the Zeiss image considerably less clean and contrasted in comparison to my control binocular. The difference was quite striking!
After dark, I aimed the binoculars at a bright sodium street lamp and again compared the images served up in both instruments. As expected, the Zeiss showed much more in the way of internal reflections, with a lot of diffused light that produced a fog-like veil around the street lamp. The Sierra 10 x 50 in comparison served up a much more ‘punchy’ image with much better control of internal reflections and far less of the foggy, diffused light evidenced in the Zeiss.
Next, I compared the Zeiss and the Barr & Stroud Sierra on a daylight test, examining a tree trunk in the swing park about 80 yards from my front door. Again, the difference between both instruments was striking! Although the image was very sharp in the Zeiss at the centre of the field, it was noticeably dimmer than the Sierra. That diffused light I picked up in the iphone torch test created a foggy veil that significantly reduced its contrast in comparison to the control binocular. I was also able to discern many more low contrast details in the Sierra owing to its ability to gather significantly more light than the older Zeiss. The colour cast presented by both binoculars was also noteworthy. The Zeiss threw up quite a strong yellowish colour cast to the Sierra, which showed a much more neutral cast in comparison.
Examining the periphery of the same field also showed that the Sierra was exhibiting a larger depth of focus than the Zeiss, which was quite unexpected, as I had been given to understand that porro prism binoculars in general show more depth of focus than their roof prism counterparts. In addition, the Zeiss showed more distortion at the edges of the field than the control binocular.
The Zeiss Jenoptem has very tight eye relief, which I estimated to be just 10mm. The Barr & Stroud Sierra, in contrast, has much more generous eye relief in comparison- 17mm – making it significantly more suitable for eye glass wearers. Indeed, I found it difficult to image the entire field in the Zeiss, having to move my eyeball around to see the field stops.
In summary, these daylight tests clearly showed that the venerable Zeiss was no match optically for the Barr & Stroud 10 x 50 roof prism I had tested it against. The latter was simply in a different league to the former, no question about it!
Handling in the Field:
The Zeiss is rather big and clunky in my small hands and is more difficult to find that optimal position while viewing for extended periods. Weighing more than 200g more than the Sierra, it is also harder to hold steady. The significantly smaller frame of the Sierra roof prism binocular is much easier to negotiate, and is simply more comfortable to use. In addition, the Zeiss has no provision to mount it on a lightweight tripod or monopod, but the Sierra, like most other modern binoculars, does.
Though the weather proved quite unsettled during the week that I tested the Zeiss, I did get a few opportunities to test it out on the night sky. Once again, I used my Barr & Stroud Sierra 10x 50 roof prism as a suitable control. My first target was a bright, waxing gibbous Moon fairly low in the southern sky. The Zeiss threw up more in the way of internal reflections than the Sierra. The colour cast of the lunar surface appeared more yellow in the Zeiss compared with the cleaner images of the Sierra. As I expected from my iphone torch tests, the sky immediately arround the Moon was also brighter in the Zeiss, with noticeably lower contrast than the Sierra. Moving the Moon to the edge of the field also showed that the Zeiss threw up more distortions than the Sierra control binocular.
Turning to Vega high in the northwest after sunset produced good on-axis images in both binoculars, but when moved to the edge of the field, the Zeiss threw up that little bit more distortion than the Barr & Stroud Sierra. The same was true when I examined the Pleaides and the Hyades in Taurus.
Conclusions and Implications:
The Zeiss Jenoptem was a good binocular in its day but is clearly inferior in almost every sense to the Barr & Stroud roof binocular used in comparison. 40 years ago, the Zenoptem would have set the average factory worker a whole month’s salary to acquire new. In contrast, the Barr & Stroud Sierra can be had for between £100 and £120 in today’s market. The value of waterproofing was made manifest in the observation of rusting of some of the metal internal components of the Zeiss. The Sierra, in contrast, is fully waterproof, o-ring sealed and purged with dry nitrogen gas to inhibit internal fogging and corrosion of any metallic components used in its construction.
Enormous advances in optical technology over the last four decades, particularly full broadband multi-coatings applied to all lens and prism surfaces, higher quality optical glass, as well as phase coated prisms on the roof binocular, collectively allow very efficient light transmissions to the eye. This is all the more remarkable since roof prism designs usually have many more optical components than their porro prism counterparts.
Better eregonomics in modern roof prism binoculars as well the employment of strong, low mass polycarbonate housings in their design make them lighter and easier to use than their porro prism counterparts from a generation ago. All of these add to the comfort of using them either during the day or at night when looking at the heavens.
I had a look on ebay to see what these old Jenoptems were being offered for. I found quite a few of them selling for between £150 and £200, so not the high prices demanded by other classic binoculars.
This comparison test must have implications for many people who already own or use older binoculars and who have not compared them to modern incarnations. And that’s as true for Zeiss as with any other manufacturer. Indeed, I was quite shocked at how much better my first quality roof prism 8 x 42 roof prism binocular fared compared to an old 7x 50 porro I was gifted back in the early 1990s. Technology has well and truly marched on! And while I like classic instruments just as much as the next guy, I see little point in using any when even modest instruments created in the modern age are likely to perform better than similar instruments made a generation ago. It’s just a hard fact of life.
The technology of the past is certainly interesting but it would be daft to neglect the advances offered in the modern era.
I would like to extend my thanks to Sandy and his parents for allowing me to test drive these old binoculars. I will be advising him to use lens caps on the optics when not in use and have also provided a sachet of silica gel dessicant to minimise moisture-induced corrosion of the optic.
Neil English discusses all manner of classic telescope technology in his 650+ page historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy(Springer-Nature).