Reviews of optics
Published in Alula Magazine and Linnut magazine
ALULA TESTS LATEST TOP BINOCULARS (4/2000)
CANON 15x50 IS UD All Weather (4/2001)
Zeiss Victory FL a new champion? (3/2004)
Kowa TSN-883 (1/2007)
Opticron ES 80 ED (4/2007)
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Review of Optics
New Midsize Binoculars:
It seems to be an established practice among binocular makers to introduce a new line with the 40-42mm objective models, then to follow with the smaller sister models a year or two later. Leica and Zeiss have now followed this pattern by introducing 32mm 8x and 10x “midsize” binoculars. An 8x32 configuration is especially well suited for a top-class binocular, since a 4mm exit pupil is still large enough to allow for comfortable viewing and a bright image, and a high-quality 32mm objective can perform well enough to render the improvement in resolution obtainable with a larger objective practically invisible to the eye. The Leica 8x32 Trinovid has long been very popular among discerning birders, but Zeiss has lacked a modern top-class contender in their line-up for a while. 10x32s generally do not compare quite as well with their 42mm counterparts, since a 3.2mm exit pupil is not as natural and comfortable to view with and because 10x magnification makes the resolution limits of their smaller objectives easier to see. This said, the best 10x32s do manage to offer quite outstanding image quality.
Zeiss lent us both the 8x and the 10x32 FL and from Leica I got the 8x32 Ultravid. Since the 10x32 Leica was currently not available, I decided to focus on the more popular 8x models, although I do include notes below on the 10x32 where differences came up which are not directly caused by different magnification. Another binocular which would have belonged in this test is the “new” L-version of Nikon’s excellent 8x32 HG, but at the time of testing it was not possible to borrow one for a long enough period. No harm done, however, since we have previously covered the HGs quite extensively and the optical parameters and image quality of the L-models are unchanged. Improvements consist of lighter weight, material of the rubber armouring and the addition of click-stops to the twist-out eyecups. The weight of the 42mm HGs is down about 20%, but with the 32mm models the L-diet has only yielded a weight loss of some 20g. During the test, I also borrowed a more recent sample of the Swarovski 8x32 EL in order to see whether its performance might have changed from the ones I have tested earlier. However, measured resolution figures and a couple of field trips did not provide any reason to update my earlier conclusions about it.
I had the Leica and the two Zeisses for several weeks in January-March of 2005, so I had ample time to test them thoroughly and to use them extensively in the field, both together and separately. Our test team spent a wintry morning out in the wild with them, and several fellow birders also tried them and commented upon them, for which I am grateful. Since I do not wear glasses, comments concerning suitability for those who wear glasses are likewise largely based on feedback from fellow birders who tried the binoculars.
Resolution: I measured the resolution of the binoculars, mounted on a tripod, both with my eyes only and with a 3x “booster. Without the booster, I could resolve 2.5 line-pairs/mm at 10 m with both the Leica and the Zeiss 8x and 2.8 lp/mm with the Zeiss 10x model. With the booster, the Leica resolved about 4.7 lp/mm, the Zeiss 8x 3.2-3.6 lp/mm and the Zeiss 10x 4.0-4.5 lp/mm. The spread in the Zeiss figures comes from both units yielding different resolutions for each barrel. Compared with the reference binoculars and previous test data with other models, the resolution of the 8x32 Ultravid is on a par with the best 8x32mm binoculars tested so far, while both Zeiss models were a little bit less sharp - roughly on the level of the Swarovski EL 8/10x32s tested for issues 4/2003 and 1/2004. Subjective viewing impressions verified the impression of the Leica being a very sharp binocular. Zeiss’s performance on the test bench made me expect less than stellar sharpness in field use as well, and this expectation was reinforced by the results of artificial star tests, which revealed slight astigmatism in both the 8x and the 10x Zeiss - something one should not see in binoculars in this price range. In top-class binoculars, astigmatism is usually a sign of a flawed specimen, but since both units exhibited similar amounts, it is difficult to be sure. After these tests, I was somewhat surprised when the Zeiss image turned out to be quite satisfying in field use. In direct comparison with the Leica or the sharpest 42mm binoculars, you do notice that the 32mm Zeiss’s are not quite as sharp, but when using the binoculars to view birds, all testers were quite happy with the 8x Zeiss’s image. This is probably explained by the unusually low levels of chromatic aberration in the FLs, as this helps make their image cleaner and subjectively sharper. The Leica did noticeably better than the Zeiss on the artificial star test, but also failed to produce as compact a point of light as the best binoculars I have tested.
Technical properties and usability
Subjective fields of view for the Zeiss FLs are 64° for the 8x and 69° for the 10x, while the Leica has a 62° field. For wide-angle binoculars, the Leica's figures are normal, the 8x Zeiss's a little wider than usual, and the 10x Zeiss's unusually wide (the 10x32 Ultravid we did not have for testing also has a 69° field). Close focus and focus wheel action: All three models focus down to under 2 m, the Zeiss’s about 25cm closer than the Leica’s. Focusing is quick: for the Ultravid, focusing from 10 m to infinity takes an 80° turn of the wheel and with the FL's 60°. Focusing with both is easy, pleasant and fast, though the Zeiss has a smoother focus action than the Leica. My field tests included birding in -15 C° weather, where both of them operated faultlessly. There is a little bit of play in the Leica focus wheel and none in the Zeiss. The depth of field in both appeared normal as well, with no need to excessively fiddle with focusing. Use with glasses and dioptre adjustment: Measured eye-relief was 11mm for the Ultravid, 15mm for the 8x Zeiss and 14mm for the 10x Zeiss. For those wearing glasses the Ultravid thus has skimpy eye-relief while the Zeiss models are quite good. The eyecups twist out 8mm in the Ultravid, 12mm in the 10x Zeiss and 13mm in the 8x Zeiss. The Zeiss eyecups are large (41mm diameter), have a straight edge and are covered by relatively hard rubber. They also feel solid and have hardly any play. Just like the 42mm FLs they have notched intermediate positions at 4 and 8mm extensions. Leica’s eyecups are smaller (37mm diameter), their rounded edge is designed to yield a little, there is nearly as little play as in the Zeiss and they also have one intermediate click-stop at 6 mm. Eyecup comfort is influenced greatly by individual anatomy, but for me the Zeiss eyecups were considerably better. The FLs have significantly more focus margin past infinity for those who are heavily near-sighted than does the Leica. Of my two near-sighted test subjects (neither of whom wears glasses while using binoculars), one could barely focus the Leica to infinity and the other ran against the limit at 100 m. Both of them had no problems with the Zeiss, with a bit of margin still left over. Since both manufacturers state the binoculars as having a +- 4 dioptre adjustment range, we clearly see that near-sighted users should personally test this aspect rather than trusting brochures or test reports. The dioptre is adjusted in the FLs by pulling out and then twisting the focus wheel. The adjustment is continuous except for a notched zero setting. It is not possible to simultaneously focus the left eyepiece and adjust the dioptre setting, and the dioptre scale is not visible unless you pull out the wheel. Some users of the 42mm FLs complained that the wheel can inadvertently pull out, so when responding rapidly they messed up their dioptre setting when they intended to focus on a bird. I tried but failed to simulate such a mishap, but it is possible that in some units the wheel moves out more easily. The Ultravid has Leica’s customary two-part focus wheel that allows for very easy dioptre adjustment. Both barrels can be independently focused simultaneously, the setting can be locked in 0.2 dioptre steps and it is always visible on a clearly legible scale. Other observations: The binoculars are waterproof and nitrogen filled. Both the Zeiss and Leica bodies are fully rubberised except for the central hinge area. The Zeiss armouring is ribbed and Leica’s is smooth but slightly grippier. The central hinge area of the Leica is metal and can feel cold to your fingertips. Neither binocular features any bumps or indentations to guide your thumbs, so you are free to hold the binocular as you wish. My hands were somewhat happier holding the rounder and wider Zeiss, but the slender Leica was also nice to handle. If you have large hands, however, you might find handling 40-42 mm binoculars more natural. When it comes to looks, we thought the Ultravid was the clear winner - the 8x32 is a really stylish and well-proportioned instrument. The FL 32 looks a whole lot like Zeiss’s old 8x30 Classic and is by no means ugly, but failed to elicit in me the kind of “I want that” response the Ultravid did. Zeiss specifies the weights as 580g (8x) and 590g (10x) while the Ultravid weighs 560g. These weights are close to ideal and they all balanced well. There is no threaded hole for a tripod mount. New EU regulations have dropped guarantees to 10 years for both makers. The Ultravid eyepiece rainguard is still too tight. The Zeiss rainguard is, by contrast, loose enough to be quick and easy to use. It is really tedious to try to remove a sticking rainguard in fast situations and then try to stretch it on to the eyecups again. Both include a good range of other accessories: soft and contoured straps, tethered objective covers and sturdy and well-made cordura cases (Leica’s being more stylish while the Zeiss case is better padded, features a handy little zippered pouch for your lens cleaning cloth and credit card and comes with its own strap). List prices in Finland are 1300 euros for the 8x32 Ultravid, 1445 euros for the 8x32 Zeiss FL and 1495 for the 10x FL.
Both the 8x32 Leica Ultravid and the Zeiss Victory 8x32 (and 10x32) T* FL are excellent mid-sized top binoculars which easily meet the needs of discerning birders. Binoculars combining the strengths of both would come very close to being ideal and all-round, although neither of them offers image quality towards the edges of the field approaching that of Nikon’s HG L or SE models. The Ultravid features top-class image sharpness, brightness, contrast and colour saturation. However, a little too much chromatic aberration and a little bit of room for improvement in the ease of view limit its overall optical quality a bit. Eyecups which do not twist out far enough and relative lack of eyeglass-friendliness are other strikes against it. The Zeiss 8x32 FL would earn top honours if its middle-of-the field resolution and contrast were as good as those in the Ultravid, the Nikon HG L or in Zeiss’s own 8x42 FL. In my view, the improved correction of chromatic aberration attained by the fluoride glass objectives makes the FL’s image markedly more peaceful and clean. It has no significant usability shortcomings, is well suited for those who wear glasses and is exceptionally natural and easy to view with. The 10x32 FL is also a very good binocular, but was not quite as easy and comfortable to use as its 8x sibling. However, this small difference is probably a result of factors arising from the general parameters of 10x32 binoculars.