There has never been a better time for the binocular enthusiast. Nowadays, a huge range of models are available that offer high quality optics for nature studies, birding and astronomy. Doubtless, this revolution is wrought by advances in technology; better glass, better coatings, as well as steady progress in materials science. Greater competition among the various optics houses also helps drive prices down, so that many more people can take advantage of this new technological wave; and that is good news for a multitude of hobbyists.
I recently described my very favourable impressions of a new instrument; the Barr & Stroud Sierra 8 x 42 roof prism binocular, which offers excellent optics, good weather proofing, great compactness and very light weight compared with my old, well-worn 7 x 50 porro-prism binocular, which had served me well for three decades. The 8 x 42 is an ideal instrument for daytime applications, where its decent light gathering power and efficient transmission of light to the eye, yields images that have great colour fidelity and excellent contrast. As I also explained, the 8 x 42 can be used productively for night-time applications, where it offers good performance within the remit of its aperture.
Still, as good as the 8 x 42 is, I felt I was missing out a little were I to use the instrument for specialised deep sky viewing, compared with slightly larger instruments that have long been the staple of the binocular astronomy enthusiast; I wanted to be able to do binocular astronomy using only a binocular; under its own terms.
Enter the venerable 10 x 50. And that prompted me to seek out a high quality instrument that I could almost exclusively dedicate to night sky use. A good 10 x 50 would gain about about a half a visual magnitude over the 8 x 42 and its slightly higher magnification would be advantageous for pulling out faint deep sky objects that are not so well seen with the smaller binocular. I had heard some great things about the Nikon Aculon 10 x 50 porro prism binocular and I seriously thought about acquiring it, since it seemed to offer a lot of bang for the buck, but when I considered its weight- 898g, it seemed rather on the heavy side. You see for me, weight is a brute fact: the heavier the binocular, the less I would likely use it.
Deeply impressed by the way the compact 8 x 42 handled various situations, I looked again for a roof prism model offering 10 x 50 specifications and it wasn’t long before my interest was piqued by the Barr & Stroud Sierra 10 x 50 roof prism binocular, which I felt was very reasonably priced. So I took the plunge and ordered one up.
Just like the 8 x 42, the 10 x 50 Sierra arrived very well packaged in an attractive box. The same soft, black carry case housed the binocular, as well as receiving the neat 10-year warranty card and single page instruction sheet.
The binocular is very well built, with a strong, rigid bridge that is not easily moved once the proper interpupillary distance was set. Ditto for the diopter setting, which is quite stiff and thus not likely to budge in field use. Like the 8 x 42, the unit is o-ring sealed and purged with dry nitrogen gas making it fog and weatherproof (water resistant up to 1.5m for three minutes), Its weight is considerably lower than the Aculon; just 780g. The focuser is smooth and firm to the touch and offers an excellent close focus distance of just 2.5 metres (tested). It also has rubberised caps to protect both the objective lenses and the eyepieces. What’s more, they can be permanently affixed to the binocular so they won’t get lost in a hurry.
Like the 8 x 42 Sierra, the 10 x 50 unit features fully multi-coated optics and the BaK-4 roof prisms are phase coated to maximise image brightness, contrast and colour fidelity.
The eyecups can be twisted upwards for use without eyeglasses, or can be kept fully down if oe decides to use them with eyeglasses.
Eye relief is very generous 17.8mm and the field of view offered is just under 6 angular degrees.
Full details of the 10 x 50 Sierra can be viewed here.
The very same afternoon the 10 x 50 Sierra arrived, I took off on my long country walk to see how they performed during daylight hours. The first thing I noticed was their additional weight; fully 130g heavier than the 8 x 42 Sierra. After a few miles of walking with the instrument hanging around my neck, I experienced significantly greater back strain than I was accustomed to carrying the lighter 8 x 42. This was fully expected however and affirmed my conviction that 8 x 42 would better serve me during daylight hours.
I fully expected a little more chromatic aberration, given the specifications of the 10 x 50 and this was confirmed by focusing on a distant hilltop against a bright overcast sky. Still, it was very minimal and perfectly acceptable. Certainly, it would never be enough for me to consider a model with ED glass; that would be overkill to say the least! The images served up by the 10 x 50 were beautiful, crisp and bright, with great colour fidelity and excellent contrast, although it was immediately acknowledged that I would be sacrificing some field of view over the 8 x 42.
While using the 8 x 42 for prolonged periods during my daily walks, I noticed that on bright days, light entering my peripheral vision was causing some annoying glare to seep in. This had nothing to do with the type or make of binocular but merely reflected an operational issue while using any binocular. Thankfully, I found a great solution; enter Eyeshields produced by a US-based company called Field Optics Research.
Costing £25 delivered, I received two pairs (one for the 8 x 42 and the other for the 10 x 50) of eyeshields which fit snugly onto the oculars and can be deployed at a moment’s notice. They remain permanently affixed to the eyepieces and fold down when not in use. Another neat feature of the EyeShields is that you can still use the rubberised dust caps with them on. They do a simple job, shileding your peripheral vision from stray light, but also stop wind-driven dust from accumulating on the oculars. They work really well, effectively eliminating the said glare I was encountering during my observations. Though a bit costly for what they really are- rubber eyeshields in a tin box lol – I can certainly vouch for their effectiveness and would highly recommend them to any binocular enthusiast.
One thing caught my attention though: I noticed that the company state that the product is “patent pending”. I don’t know if something like this can really be patented though. I mean, I have similar eyeshields which came with some of my older orthoscopic and Plossl eyepieces, so it’s hardly something truly novel.
The eyeshields very effectively block peripheral light entering the eye while using binoculars in bright ambient light settings.
Though I acquired the binocular at the start of November 2018, I was not able to conduct star tests until the evening of November 7, owing to a prolonged bout of cloudy, damp and misty weather, typical for this time of year, which all but extinguished the light from the stars. Seeing some breaks in the clouds after dark stoked deep feelings of joy, and I immediately grabbed the 10 x 50 to begin my observations. My first impressions were very favourable. This cost-effective instrument served up beautiful views of the Pleaides, my first target in northern Taurus. I immediately appreciated the wonderful contrast of the instrument and could instantly make out many more fainter members than I could see with the 8 x 42. The increased image scale was quite significant too, framing the asterism very well in the field of view.
Two tests of the size of the field were conducted; first with the Hyades, which was quite simply stunning in the 10 x 50 and I was delighted to see that the main ‘V’ shaped configuration was nicely framed in the binocular field with a little room to spare. The field came alive with many sparkling jewels, brighter and more numerous than in the 8 x 42. Star colours seemed even more vivid too. Since the main part of the Hyades is in excess of 5 angular degrees wide, this comported well with the field quoted in the specifications table.
In the second test, I was able to get brilliant white Rigel just inside the same field as the Orion Nebula (M42), a distance I estimated to be about 5.7 angular degrees, so quite close to what the manufacturer claimed. It’s nice when the stated specifications agree with experience!
At tightest focus, brilliant yellow Capella in Auriga showed no fringing of any sort that my average eyes could detect, and moving the brilliant autumn luminary to the edge of the field showed that it remained agreeably sharp and tight; perhaps even a tad better than the wider field offered up by the smaller 8 x 42. I reasoned that this was not to be unexpected, as it is easier to get a better corrected field as the field shrinks in size.
Sweeping the binocular through the heart of Auriga showed its clear superiority over the 8 x 42. The 3 Messier open clusters were easier to pull out from the background sky and I was also able to more easily see a number of other fainter nebulae that were mere suggestions in the smaller Sierra binocular.
As a resolution test, I steadied the binocular on the side wall of my house and aimed it at golden Albireo, now rather low in the northwestern sky. I believe I was just able to pick off its companion, something I have not been able to achieve using the 8 x 42 after several attempts.
The weight difference between the Sierra binoculars is immediately obvious under the painted canopy of the night sky. It is harder to hold the 10 x 50 steady, but I find that this is less important for large deep sky objects than it is for studying smaller targets like individual stars, where the wondrous creation of the human eye-brain seems to act as a natural image stabiliser. I found it beneficial to move my hands further forward in order to get a better grip of the objective end of the instrument while in field use. This strategy definitely helps me to get the most stable images from the 10 x 50 during prolonged (greater than 20 seconds or so) observations.
In another test, I compared the binocular views of M 35 in Gemini, which had cliimbed out of the eastern murk, reaching a decent height just after local midnight. While both binoculars easily showed the large, roughly wedge-shaped open cluster, its sub-optimal altitude enabled only a few stellar members to be made out in the 8 x 42 but many more were discernible with the larger 10 x 50.
Some other daylight tests:
Many inexpensive binoculars often come with misaligned prisms which cut off some of the light reaching the eye. This is especially true when the product comes via courier. I’ve had a large 15 x 70 binocular in the past that came badly misaligned, which made me far more cautious about buying a binocular online. Thankfully, this was not the case with the Barr & Stroud binoculars, which were all properly and securely collimated in the factory prior to dispatch.
A simple way to test this is to examine the shape of the exit pupil of the binocular when pointed at a bright light source. A square or non circular shaped light shaft is an easy way to show if the prisms are undersized (thus losing some light) or misaligned. As the photo below shows, the exit pupils of the 10 x 50 are round, as are the 8 x 42s, indicating that all is well.
Like the 8 x 42 previously tested, the 10 x 50 showed little sign of pincushion distortion while examining the profile of a horizontal roof located about 100 yards distant.
Attaining binocular stability without sacrificing mobility
As I stated previously, binocular astronomy, for me, generally means hand-held viewing, without the need for tripods or other more elaborate kinds of mounts that just get in the way. That’s one of the reasons why I eventually grew disillusioned with large and heavy binoculars. But any 10 x 50 unit, whether roof- or porro prism-based, will eventually show its limitations in regard to attaining rock steady views of star fields, or for teasing apart tighter binocular double stars, or even for seeing the most detail on the Moon. One way round the problem is to stabilise the binocular on a fence or a wall, but this convenience is not always practicle, especially if you’re on the move. The best compromise is to use a lightweight monopod and it is to this device that I turned to in field testing.
One thing the reader must be made aware of is that roof prism binoculars will not, in general, be compatible with standard porro prism binocular tripod adapters. Many of these adapters might fit the roof prism binocular but the stalk will more often than not be too wide to attain the optimum interpupillary distance so important for the most comfortable, immersive views. To that end, I ordered up a smaller adapter especially designed for medium sized (up to 50mm aperture) roof prism binoculars. I elected to go for a well machined, high-quality unit marketed by Opticron (shown below).
Having acquired a monopod some time ago for use in landscape photography, I was eager to see how the binocular would fare using this configuration, so I began a set of field tests using this device to see if it would tick all the boxes.
The Opticron adapter mates to the 10 x 50 Sierra very well, enabling the correct interpupillary distance to be maintained.
The binocular with its adapter readily screws into the monopod. The whole configuration is still very lightweight, ultraportable and is now ready for testing under the night sky.
To what degree will the monopod stabilise the images in the 10 x 50? Off the bat, it will yield images that are more stable than an image-stabilised (IS) binocular, without the attending arm strain, high cost and need for battery power, but will fall short of that generated by a tripod.
Shortly before local midnight on the evening of November 15 2018, I stuck my head out my back door to discover that the sky had cleared somewhat after a rainy spell. The air was grand and mild, and the Moon had set shortly after 11pm, yielding a fine, dark sky. Pleasantly surprised, I ran in and fetched the 10 x 50 atop the monopod. The Pleiades was very high up in the south; ideally placed for binocular viewing. Settling into my recliner, I was able to negotiate a very comfortable position with the monopod securely held against the ground. Centring the asterism in the field of view, I was dumb struck by how good the view was; a blizzard of blue white stars piercing through the canopy of night in a blaze of glory! The effect of stabilising the view makes an enormous difference to what you see. Some highly experienced binocular users claim that you can go up to a magnitude fainter if the image is stabilised. I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not, but what I can say is that it was a supremely joyful experience. I just lay there for twenty minutes in the dark feasting my eyes on the celestial apparition before me. During the spell, cloud patches of varying thickness marched across the sky, diminishing the brilliance of the Pleiads by varying degrees, but as they passed through the full splendour of the cluster reasserted itself.
I will add a strong ball & socket adapter to the monopod so that I can make angular adjustments to the binocular. That way, I will increase the viewing comfort that little bit more.
That was my first experience with the monopod; a first step. In time, I’ll take another.
November 17 2018:
After rummaging around in me ole box of tricks, I selected a good ball & socket adapter for the 10 x 50 binocular. Although I had a few of these handy, I elected to use one that could carry the 780g instrument with ease. My best one, shown below, can carry cameras and other equipment up to 2 kilos in weight.
It worked really well with the binocular in daylight tests. Indeed, it will give me yet another degree of freedom whilst conducting my observations of the night sky.
So, there it is; I think I’m ready for another session under the stars. What attracts me to this arrangement is its sheer simplicity; increased stability, easy to carry, easy to manoeuvre, easy to store away!
To be continued……………..