For many outdoors adventurers, a pair of binoculars can add a ton of fun fun to your recreation. Whether you’re hiking, bird watching, or even stargazing, the right pair of binoculars can make your activity great… but the wrong pair can mean frustration. With the many types of binoculars out there, how are you to choose?
Here, we hope to make it easier for you to choose the type of binoculars that are right for you. We’ll go over the different types of binoculars, what each type does, and the key differences between the different types.
The History of Binoculars
Today, we think of binoculars as handheld, portable devices– but that’s not always true. Technically, any optical instrument with a lens for each eye that is used to survey something far away is a binocular.
The first binoculars took their design ideas from eyeglasses. The first person to file for a patent on a binocular-style device was a Dutch eyeglass maker, Hans Lippershey. Lippershey’s instrument received approval in 1608, but he wasn’t granted an exclusive patent. These early binoculars had a narrow field of focus and limited magnification.
There is limited evidence of binocular production in the intervening centuries, until the 1850s. We know that there were field glasses manufactured for the American Civil War, but none seem to have survived. However, in 1854, binocular manufacturing changed dramatically. Italian inventor Ignazio Porro designed a prism system that revolutionized binoculars’ ability to magnify at increased range while producing upright images.
By 1894, the first modern-quality binoculars were sold, and the binocular industry was started. Today, Porro’s designs are still used in many pairs of binoculars. While there have been many improvements, binoculars primarily still rest on these technical principles from the late 19th century.
Today’s binoculars, however, are very different externally from their predecessors. With sleek, impact-resistant housing and streamlined designs, today’s binoculars are designed for an active, outdoor lifestyle. With a little care put into their maintenance, a good pair of binoculars can last a really long time. Since this equipment can be such an investment, it’s good to know as much as you can about the different types of binoculars before making any purchases!
Porro Prism Binoculars
Porro prism binoculars still follow the prism arrangement first designed by Ignazio Porro in the mid-1850s. This Z-shaped prism arrangement works when light is sent from the objective lenses to a pair of triangular prisms. The movement amplifies and inverts the light to give you a sharp, magnified, 3D view of whatever you’re looking at.
The Porro prism design can be slightly cumbersome and unwieldy– it takes up quite a bit of space in the tube. These binoculars are typically larger than other types of binoculars because they have to have offset lenses. But Porro prism binoculars provide a clear 3D image and a greater field of view than other types of binoculars. They are also cheap to produce, which means they’re less expensive than the other type of prism binoculars– the roof prism binoculars.
Pros of Porro Prism Binoculars
- Good 3D image resolution
- Wider field of view
- Better depth perception
- Most can be mounted on a tripod for steadiness
- If there is an individual focusing mechanism, it can be very water-resistant
Cons of Porro Prism Binoculars
- Lower magnification
- Less likely to have high-end features like protective coating on lenses
- Less like to be waterproof or weatherproof
- If there is a central focusing mechanism, it is less likely to be waterproof
Roof Prism Binoculars
Roof prism binoculars, which are sometimes called Dach binoculars (“Dach” is the German word for “roof”), are the other type of prism design you see in modern binoculars. Unlike the Porro prism binoculars, the prisms in roof prism binoculars are layered on top of each other in a complex array that creates a bright, highly magnified image.
Roof prism binoculars have straight tubes instead of offset lenses, so it’s fairly easy to tell which is which. The complex prism design has allowed these binoculars to get very small and compact without sacrificing resolution or magnification. They tend to have a narrower depth of field but offer great image brightness and clarity. They are more expensive than Porro prism binoculars, but for many people, the lightweight designs and high magnification power makes the price tag worth it. Roof prism binoculars also are more likely to come with higher-end features like ED glass (extra-low dispersion glass), which improves image clarity and makes the binoculars easier to use and better at what they do.
Pros of Roof Prism Binoculars
- Compact shape
- Highest magnification
- Clear image
- More durable, with increased waterproofing and weatherproofing
- Better balancing makes them comfortable to hold
- High-end features are more readily available, like ED glass and advanced coatings on lenses and prisms
Cons of Roof Prism Binoculars
- Narrower field of view
- Images may seem flatter than with Porro prism binoculars
- Not every pair is tripod-ready
Galilean Binoculars: Field Glasses or Opera Glasses
These binoculars are low-powered and lightweight. The highest magnification available in these glasses is 4x, which means that you can keep them up for a long time without eye fatigue. These binoculars are used to watch sporting events where the action is a bit far away, or at theatrical or operatic performances.
Something really interesting about these types of binoculars is that they are also called Galilean binoculars because they use a mechanism designed by Galileo himself. When the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei designed an instrument for astronomical observation in 1609, he used a tube with a convex lens for the objective end and a concave lens for the eyepiece, without any prisms and only one mirror. This is exactly what these types of binoculars use. As they say, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Pros of Galilean Binoculars
- Minimal eye fatigue
- Great for watching the action at medium distances, like in a stadium
Cons of Galilean Binoculars
- Highly limited field of vision
- Maximum 4x magnification– not great for birdwatching or long field surveys
- Not as rugged as other types of binoculars
Binoculars By Use
While the binoculars above are differentiated by design, you will also want to consider best uses for the different types of binoculars when you’re shopping for a pair. Some binoculars perform great in one case but not another. Some binoculars are too heavy for hiking, for instance, but perform great when you’re using them for stargazing. There are so many designs and types of binoculars that it makes sense to learn about them all before buying a new pair.
When most people think of stargazing, they think of telescopes. But a high-powered pair of binoculars can actually be better than a telescope because they provide a wider field of view. Good binoculars can let you see things like the rings of Saturn, Jupiter and its Galilean moons, comets, the craters of the Moon, meteor showers, and much more. And while you can look up at the sky with any pair of binoculars, the best binoculars for astronomy are designed to bring the sky to you. They’re typically fairly bulky, but for stargazers, that can be a small price to pay for the wonders of space.
Pros of Astronomy Binoculars
- Extremely high magnification
- Good field of view
- Clean, precise images
Cons of Astronomy Binoculars
- Many require a tripod
Dental and Surgical Loupes
We’ve all seen surgical glasses or dental glasses that magnify small areas for precision work. Sculptures, painters, and anyone working on small objects may use this type of binocular. These may really be considered more glasses, but they work via a convex lens that magnifies the image. Often in a 2.5x magnification range for dentists and surgeons, but other magnifications are used as well.
Pros of Loupes
- Hands free wearing
- Small and lightweight
- Reduce eye fatigue over other binocular types
Cons of Loupes
- Generally fragile
- Heavy loupes can be uncomfortable for wearers that need to wear for significant time periods.
Focus Free Binoculars
Most binoculars have a focus knob that lets you adjust how you perceive the image. That’s not true of focus-free binoculars, which have a fixed focal length and distance. They work best at medium distance, and there’s no need to worry about fiddling with the focus. This means that these binoculars are perfect for kids who are just starting out. As a bonus, they’re cheap, and that means you don’t have to worry about handing them to a five-year-old. Focus-free binoculars are a great way to get kids involved in your outdoor activities.
Pros of Focus Free Binoculars
- Easy to find
- Easy to use
Cons of Focus Free Binoculars
- Limited to the binoculars’ default setting
- Sometimes cheaply made
Marine binoculars are safe to use in and around water. They have a wider eyepiece and objective lens that gives you a larger field of view. They also have low to moderate magnification power, which makes them great for whale watching, wreck viewing, or navigating. Lower magnification means that it’s easier to keep the image stable since higher magnification causes shaky images with any movement (this is important while on the water). These binoculars often come heavily armored, with rubberized coatings to make them waterproof and fog proof. You may also want to equip them with a floating neck strap, just in case.
Pros of Marine Binoculars
- Fog proof
Cons of Marine Binoculars
- The lower magnification makes them not great for use cases outside of marine use cases
Night Vision Binoculars
Night vision binoculars have one job: letting you see in the dark. These binoculars are great for nighttime or low light situations and have complicated internal devices that make it possible to amplify light. Most night vision binoculars use batteries, but some new designs use piezoelectric charge generators to power the electronics inside the tube.
Generally, most night vision binoculars are best used when it’s dark. If you like spelunking, night hiking, scouting for hunting, or any other activity when you’re mostly operating in darkness, you might want a pair of these binoculars.
Pros of Night Vision Binoculars
- You can see in the dark
Cons of Night Vision Binoculars
- Can be heavy
- Needs power
- Not as good for daytime use, or cannot be used during daytime
This is a broad category of binoculars, and defining exactly what a “wide angle” binocular is a subjective thing. Marine binoculars, some birding binoculars, and other types of binoculars can all fall into this category. One common binocular brand identifies wide angle binoculars as follows:
- 7x wide-angle binocular: 9º or greater coverage, equivalent to 158m field of view or more at 1000m distance.
- 8x wide-angle binocular: 8º or greater coverage, equivalent to 140m field of view or more at 1000m distance.
- 10x wide-angle binocular: 6.5º or greater coverage, equivalent to 114m field of view or more at 1000m distance (1º is equivalent to 17.5m at 1000m and 52.5 feet at 1000 yards).
Wide-angle binoculars can come in Porro or roof prism style. These binoculars are often quite large and have the widest field of view, letting the user see more than any of the other types of binoculars. This has made wide-angle binoculars very popular with birders. While they can be heavy and are much bulkier due to the angle of the tubes and lenses, if you’re trying to see as much as possible, you can’t beat wide-angle binoculars.
Pros of Wide Angle Binoculars
- Greatly improved field of vision
- They often have better visibility in low light conditions than narrow field of view binoculars
Cons of Wide-Angle Binoculars
- Can be expensive
Zoom binoculars are an interesting type of binoculars– they function more like a high-powered camera zoom lens and use electronic mechanisms to increase magnification. As a result, they distort the image, especially around the edges. For this reason, a lot of people do not like to use them. But while they might not be right in every situation, there are a few cases where zoom binoculars outperform other types. If you’re doing long-distance scouting and need to zero in on a particular object, zoom binoculars can really help. But for cases where you’re looking more generally, these binoculars don’t perform as well as other types.
Pros of Zoom Binoculars
- Extremely high magnification
- Variable magnification
Cons of Zoom Binoculars
- Require power
- Distort the images
- Limited field of view
Which Binoculars Are Right For Me?
Now that you know all about the different types of binoculars, you still have to figure out which binoculars are right for you. The best way to choose binoculars is to think about the types of activities you will use them for.
Are you a dedicated birder whose outside time is spent looking for the next lifer? Then you’ll want a pair of binoculars that lets you see as much as possible– maybe a wide-angle pair. If you want to use your binoculars for hiking, then you’ll want to pick a rugged pair that’s compact and comfortable to carry. If you plan to use your binoculars on the hunt, you’ll want a pair that lets you focus quickly and see things clearly and with good depth perception.
Ultimately, the choice of binoculars comes down to a lot of deciding factors, and only you know what you plan to do with your binoculars. We hope that our guide to the different types of binoculars and what they’re best at will help you make the right decision!
What is the difference between monoculars and binoculars?
We have written a complete guide on binoculars vs monoculars here.
What are the best hiking binoculars?
For further information here, read our article on the best hiking binoculars.
What are the best birding binoculars?
For further information here, read our article on the best birding binoculars.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about