Imagine bobbing in the icy waters of Alaska on an expedition cruise expectantly waiting for a brief turn at the naturalist’s binoculars to get a closer look at a mama grizzly and her cubs on the distant shoreline. Or sitting frustrated in the safari vehicle squinting to see a tiny spec across the landscape as those with binoculars gleefully describe every detail of a rare yellow-billed stork. Not fun.

So you vow to purchase binoculars before your next adventure. But how to choose? How do you know what pair will best fit your needs?

Lodge guest looking through binoculars, Melimoyu Bay, Melimoyu wilderness lodge, Patagonia Sur, Chile, South America

To help take the mystery out of buying, here are a few expert tips by Heidi Krajewsky, a naturalist at wildlife cruise outfitter Maple Leaf Adventures

1. You Don’t Need the Highest Power of Magnification

One of the common myths about binoculars is that a higher power of magnification is better. This is not true. Binoculars don’t just magnify an image, they also magnify relative motion. So if you spend time on a moving boat, a higher power could make everything blurry or - worse yet - using them could make you feel seasick. The most common magnification is seven or eight and that’s usually enough. If you have a steady hand, you could get binoculars up to a power of ten. I do not recommend, however, anything higher, unless you buy a pair with an internal image stabilizer. But stabilized binoculars usually cost more, don’t always produce good results, are heavier and require batteries. I’ve had to use them for wildlife surveys, when reading a number on a tiny flipper tag or bird band was necessary from a zodiac, for example, but for most wildlife viewing they are actually more hassle than they’re worth.

2. Get a Good Ratio

The ratio between the magnification and the objective lens size is important to consider when choosing binoculars. As a general rule the ratio should be as big as possible. For example, the ratio on my 8x42 binoculars is 5.25 (42 ÷ 8 = 5.25). That pocket-sized travel pair you think is perfect might, in fact, not be so great. Most travel binoculars are usually 8x21 with a ratio of only 2.625. This reduces the field of view by half and you end up nodding your head all over the place in order to find that whale, bear or bird you were trying to see up close.

3. Try Before You Buy.

When you’re in the store pick up the pair you’re considering and try them out. Do they feel comfortable in your hands? Are they bulky, heavy or awkward? Does the focus run smoothly without moving your hands too far? Can you find objects easily and zoom in on them? Try focusing on an object not too far away, then something on the other side of the store. Go to the door of the store and focus on something on the other side of the street. Don’t wait until you’re on in the field to discover they’re not a fit.  

What about you? Do you have a favorite binocular model or brand to recommend? Use the comments below to share. I’d love to learn what works best for you. 

Heidi Krajewsky is a biology researcher, naturalist, first mate and world adventurer. She has conducted years of field studies on sea birds and marine mammals using many kinds of binoculars and has crewed Maple Leaf Adventures voyages for more than a decade. For more about Heidi, view her crew bioThe above tips are excerpted from a blog post that originally appeared on

About Maple Leaf Adventures

With a reputation as one of Canada’s top sustainable tour operators, Maple Leaf Adventures’ multi-day excursions give guests one-of-a-kind experiences in some of the most beautiful and rare places in the world, often in areas that were once under threat of destruction or in dire need of protection. With trips in southeast Alaska and in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands, National Geographic Adventure has rated Maple Leaf one of the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth”. For more information, visit or call +1-250-386-7245

faded dividing line.png


Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the group travel blog and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".