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)
Canon 10x42L IS WP (NEW)
Hawke 8x43 ja 10x43ED (NEW)
Leica APO-televid 82 (NEW)
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Review of Optics
ALULA TESTS LATEST TOP BINOCULARS
In the last couple of years, Nikon, Swarovski and Zeiss have introduced new top-of-the-line binocular models. Alula tested the 8 and 8.5 power models of these latest offerings on a sunny autumn day. The purpose was not only to compare various features and qualities of the binoculars, but also to rank them according to their performance.
The new models included in the test were the Nikon 8x42 HG DCF WP, Swarovski EL 8.5x42 and the Zeiss Victory 8x40. In order to provide a reference, we included in the test a Leica 8x32 which has served one of the testers for some years. The Swarovski has a magnification roughly 6% greater than the others, but as it competes for buyers' attention primarily against 8x binoculars, it is justified to include it in this test. The higher magnification has not been allowed to influence the points given in the test. Leica has not introduced new models into this class of binoculars for several years, and since the 8x32 is well known for its quality and very popular among birders, it is very suitable as a reference model.
How was the test conducted?
Image sharpness of the binoculars was tested out of doors in shade by studying the detail of a FIM 20 bank note. The maximum number of points for sharpness is 10. Each of the four testers measured for each binocular the distance from which it was still barely possible to see the shadow lines of the large numbers on the note. There are about 6 lines/mm on a white background in these shadowed areas, and the distance at which the lines begin to merge into an evenly coloured field was under five meters with the magnifications in this test group. All the binoculars were tripod-mounted for the test, the light conditions remained very stable throughout, and no air currents disturbed the viewing. Among the 8x binoculars, the Nikon and the Zeiss were virtually the same: three of the four testers got exactly the same distance, and the fourth a 10 cm advantage for the Zeiss, with the average distances being 4.1 and 4.125 meters. The average distance for the Leica was 4.0 meters. The average distance for the Swarovski was 4.375 meters, but when this is multiplied by the ratio of magnifications 8/8.5, we get 4.12 meters. The conclusion drawn from these tests is that all three new models are equal in sharpness and provide a little more resolution than the Leica. However, the situation was not quite that straightforward. Contrary to the other three testers, the owner of the Leica got better test distances with it than with the other two 8x binoculars. In practice, these results probably mean that the limiting factor for sharpness with these binoculars is the visual acuity of the user's eyes (which for the test team members is considerably above average; for instance the author has visual acuity about 1.5 times the average). In actual use, the binoculars are either hand-held or supported with a finnstick, whereby possible small differences in sharpness lose their significance even further. To put the results in perspective, let me mention that during this test two of the testers 'unofficially' tested a 10x version of one of these new models, and got distances which exceeded those of the 8x binoculars by almost exactly the 10/8 ratio of the magnifications.
Optical quality other than sharpness was evaluated by looking at various objects, birds and sceneries in various angles relative to the prevailing bright sunlight. What follows is a list of evaluated characteristics. The performance of the binoculars in each category has been graded with points on a scale from 1-5: contrast, brightness, colour rendition, viewing against bright light or glare, image quality near edge of field, and general ease of viewing.
With respect to contrast and colour rendition, the binoculars were ultimately considered equal. All of them had colour rendition which was very close to neutral, but each of them nevertheless had their own characteristic colour bias which differed among all the tested models. The characteristic colour bias also influenced perceived contrast so that depending on the colour palette of the target being viewed, any one of the four could appear to have the best contrast.
Brightness differences were noticeable between the models tested, but the test team considered them to be insignificantly small in practice. However, the Swarovski and the Zeiss have been given one more point for brightness than the other two.
When viewing against bright light or glare, the Nikon and the Swarovski were flawless, while the image of the Leica suffered from some reflections. The Zeiss' image suffered from a disturbing amount of reflections, and some were visible even while viewing sideways to the sun or away from it. Despite these reflections, though, the contrast of the target through the Zeiss remained very good even when viewing against extreme glare over the water.
Evaluating image quality near the edge of the field provided a clear-cut ranking between the binoculars: the Nikon is best in this respect (but it also clearly has the narrowest field of view), Swarovski comes second, Leica third and the Zeiss is a clear last.
For general ease of viewing, the Swarovski scored full points thanks to its depth of field which was better than the rest by a surprisingly clear margin. Usually the depth of field diminishes as the magnification is increased. The depth of field was evaluated by focusing the binoculars on infinity and seeing how close you could comfortably view without touching the focus setting. In general ease of viewing, the Nikon and the Leica were tied, but the image of the Zeiss was hampered by a relatively pronounced curving of the image plane while panning, and viewing with it generally felt more strenuous than with the other three.
Ease of use was rated on a scale from 4-20. Points were given for focusing (8), ease of dioptric adjustment (3), comfort in the hands (5) and weight (4). Lately some binocular advertisements have touted as a new feature the possibility of one-handed viewing. In the test team's considered opinion, the (un-)ease of one-handed viewing with the binoculars now tested was directly proportional to their lightness; with none of the models did the design as such either facilitate or hinder it.
Technical properties: One of the testers measured the closest focusing distances of the binoculars. The results must be considered as only approximate, as they are influenced by the near/farsightedness of the viewer. In addition, the field of view is given, these figures being taken from the manufacturers' specifications. Maximum points (5) are given for a closest focusing distance under 3 meters, a criterion all the tested binoculars met. The field of view is evaluated on the basis of the subjective field of view (= absolute field times magnification), with maximum points (10) coming from a field 70 degrees or more, and each subsequent 2.5 degrees under that figure taking away one point. This might seem as an overly stringent standard, but we should keep in mind that the best wide-angle eyepieces of today's birding telescopes provide a 72 degree subjective field while having significantly better edge resolution than the binoculars in this test.
Special considerations for eye-glass users: One member of the test team evaluated the binoculars from the viewpoint of a birder wearing glasses. Since these factors are highly relevant to some and totally irrelevant to others, they are described rather than scored. The Nikon has the greatest eye-relief by a clear margin, and it is therefore the most likely one to give a full field through eyeglasses. The Swarovski was second in this regard, closely followed by the Zeiss. With the Leica, however, the tester had difficulties obtaining a satisfyingly full field. For near-sighted users who like to view without glasses, the binocular's focus range to infinity might prove too short. In this respect, the Nikon provides the smallest margin. The Leica and the Swarovski provide more, and the Zeiss clearly the most. A prospective buyer who wears glasses should always individually check these factors.
All of the tested binoculars are, according to their manufacturers, guaranteed waterproof, fogproof and nitrogen-purged. The Nikon has a 10 year warranty, and the other three a 30 year warranty. All come with a carrying strap and an eyepiece rainguard. In addition, the Leica and Nikon come with a soft case, and the Swarovski also features press-on objective lens caps which attach to the objective tubes with rubber rings. For the Swarovski and the Zeiss the bag must be purchased separately. Only Zeiss has thought it worthwhile to provide an attachment for a monopod or finnstick adapter, although you must purchase their custom adapter as an accessory. As it is easy to value these factors according to one's own priorities, they have not been included in the points score.
Score: optical quality 33; ease of use 17; technical properties 11, total 61
The Leica, our reference binocular, was the smallest and lightest (625 g.) binocular in our test by a clear margin. The design fits the hands very well, the weight is ideal and it is easy to use. Once revolutionary, the push-pull eyecups still work well, but the twist-in, twist-out ones in the Nikon and Swarovski models are even better. The dioptric adjustment is otherwise good, but difficult to adjust while viewing. The focus wheel is located and sized very well, but its texture is rather slippery, and as the binocular ages, its motion becomes uneven and somewhat stiff. Leica's armoring is also more slippery than that of the other binoculars in this test. The carrying strap is adequate for such a light binocular, and the eyepiece rainguard is very good. Although the Leica did not quite match the optical quality of its best rivals, the differences were in practice very small. The Leica also offers a sharp, bright, contrasty image with very good colour rendition (with a slight yellow-brown bias). Image quality towards the edge of the field is only average, but in a way which is not very bothersome or fatiguing. The view through the Leica is very easy, the field of view is adequately wide, and there are no significant weaknesses in its optical performance. The binocular's lightness and small size are also valuable features for many birders.
Nikon 8x42 HG DCF WP
Score: optical quality 37; ease of use 17; technical properties 9, total 63
The Nikon is the heaviest of the lot by a clear margin (980 g), but yet surprisingly compact. It is very well designed to fit the hands, and its weight is not that noticeable in use. The twist-in, twist-out eyecups work extremely well. Diopter adjustment is done with a ring around the right eyepiece which needs to be pulled a little and then twisted, and the adjustment is easy to make even while viewing. The focus wheel is well placed, of good size, and turns lightly and smoothly. The Nikon's armoring feels softest and thickest among the binoculars tested, and it provides a secure hold. The carrying strap is adequately wide, but not as wide and well-padded as in the considerably lighter Swarovski and Zeiss. The eyepiece rainguard fits a little too snugly but is otherwise good. The image quality of the Nikon is of the highest quality: sharp, contrasty, with deep, vibrant colours (a shade of reddish/brownish bias) and very peaceful. In direct comparison with the other two new models in the test, however, the Nikon's image always looked just a little bit darker, and its relatively narrow field of view reduced the impact of the image.
Swarovski EL 8.5x42
Score: optical quality 38, ease of use 17; technical properties 12, total 67
The Swarovski's weight (820 g) is between the Zeiss and the Nikon, but it is the longest of the three. The double-bridge design which is open in the middle is unusual but functional. There are molded thumb-grooves in the body which give a good grip but also limit the available range of comfortable hand positions somewhat. Twist-in, twist-out eyecups are nearly as good as in the Nikon, but the eye-relief is not as great, and one of the testers also would have liked to be able to twist the eyecups out a little farther than they come. Diopter adjustment is done by pulling out the focus wheel and turning it, and was difficult to set while looking through the binoculars. The focus wheel is as good as that of the Nikon, and did not call attention to itself during use. The body armoring of the binocular is relatively hard and feels thin, but has a pleasant texture and provides a sure grip. However, there is an area of unarmored metal between the objectives which the fingertips touch, so a birder using a Swarovski might have to resort to gloves a bit sooner than others in cold weather. The carrying strap is excellent, as are the strap-on objective lens caps. The eyepiece rainguard is otherwise good, but a little too snug--you have to push, not just drop it in place. The image quality of the Swarovski is of the highest quality: it appears particularly bright and is sharp, contrasty, its colours are clear (a shade of a greenish bias) and peaceful. The relatively wide field of view and reduced need to focus due to the surprisingly good depth of field made the Swarovski the most pleasant to use among the tested group of binoculars.
Zeiss Victory 8x40
Score: optical quality 32, ease of use 15; technical properties 11, total 58
The size of the Zeiss is comparable to the Nikon and the Swarovski, but it is lighter by a clear margin (710 g). Its body is slender and would fit the hands very well except that the quick-release attachments for the carrying strap are placed directly at the sides of the binocular body and so far from the top that they poke unpleasantly between the forefinger and the thumb unless one holds the binoculars so far towards the front that it becomes difficult to reach the focus wheel. The eyecups are of a twist-pull type, but since they are slanted, it is not possible to set them in intermediate positions. Diopter adjustment is done by pulling out the focus wheel and twisting it, but was more difficult to set than the similar design in the Swarovski, and very difficult while looking through the binoculars. The focus wheel is of a good size and texture, but at least in this specimen it was a bit stiffer than in the Nikon and Swarovski models. The armoring of the Zeiss feels good to the hands and provides a secure grip. However, the binocular gives a somewhat plasticky general impression. The carrying strap is excellent, soft and nicely contoured, and with a binocular as light as this one, your neck should have an easy time. The eyepiece rainguard is otherwise good but also here it is too snug. The case and an adapter for a monopod/finnstick must be purchased as accessories. The brightness, sharpness, contrast and colour rendition (only a shade of bluish bias) of the Zeiss are of the highest quality. However, the image of the Zeiss was clearly more uncomfortable and tiring to look at than the others and featured much more prominent disturbing reflections. The restless image was also manifested by our feeling more of a need to tweak with the focus setting or the dioptric adjustment while viewing through the Zeiss. The field of view is adequately wide, and is identical to that of the Leica.
The final ranking of the tested binoculars is thus 1) Swarovski, 2) Nikon, 3) Leica and 4) Zeiss. The test team felt that the top two are both excellent and the Leica is very good. However, the unevenness of the Zeiss' optical performance and the bothersome nature of the flaws it exhibited caused a little wonder in the test team, as we have traditionally considered Zeiss binoculars to be of very high quality. Perhaps Zeiss has brought this model to market too quickly. The ranking between the Swarovski and the Nikon hinged first and foremost on the better depth of field of the Swarovski and the narrower field of view of the Nikon. All in all, however, the differences between the two were so small that personal preferences could well turn the rankings around for some people. The test team also considered the Leica to be worthy of a recommendation especially to those who value small size and light weight. At least on the basis of this test, the owner of a small Leica does not need to rush to the store to upgrade his/her binocular to a newer and larger model.
It is also good to keep in mind that there are optically excellent binoculars which were not included in this test. However, most of these are either significantly bigger than the present four (50-56 mm models from Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss) or smaller (for example the Swarovski SLC 8x30 and Nikon 8x32 SE porroprism). One should also avoid extrapolating the results of this test to apply to the ranking of the 10x binoculars by the same manufacturers. What we can say, however, is that the winners of this test undoubtedly represent the absolute best of the 8x binoculars available today.