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Review of Optics

Nikon 8x32 HG DCF versus Swarovski EL 8x32

 

In issue 4/2000 of ALULA we tested four of the premium 8x binoculars. The winner was Swarovski's 8.5x42 EL, which has also fared well in tests elsewhere. Its high esteem among birders is readily visible in the field: if you happen to meet a fellow birder with new, top-class binoculars, chances are they are the Swarovski. The EL's stellar image has thus served as our reference whenever any really good new binoculars have come for evaluation, and it has usually held its ground easily.

Recently, however, the EL has met with some tough challengers from among the mid-sized, 30-32mm binoculars. The first new binocular against which the EL no longer looked superior was Nikon's 8x30 E II porroprism binocular. Soon, Nikon followed with an even tougher challenger, their new mid-size High-Grade series model 8x32 HG DCF. Late in the summer of 2003, Swarovski answered the challenge with its new 32mm EL binoculars.

In this report, I shall concentrate on the Nikon 8x32 HG and Swarovski EL 8x32, though I also provide a short summary of the E II at the end of the review. With these mid-sized binoculars, manufacturers are attempting to offer birders the perfect compromise: optimal size and handling combined with absolutely top-notch image quality. The results show that it is possible to design a binocular in this class which is compact and easy to hold, yet has features and image quality of the very highest level. Compared with the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 and Nikon 8x42 HG, which fared best in our earlier test, the new models are smaller, lighter, and in Nikon's case also have a significantly wider field of view. As of this writing, the price of the 8x32 HG seems to be comparable to that of the Leica 8x32, while the EL 8x32 costs nearly as much as its big sister.

A word about the comparison table

Astute readers will notice that the comparison table has changed from the one used in Alula 4/2000. I have combined ease of use and technical properties into a single category, adding items on weatherproofing and eyeglass use, and field of view is now presented under optical quality. For optical quality, maximum points are now given only for performance which is unsurpassed by any binocular I know of, or else for performance so good that improvements would not matter. Also, I have deducted two points from the EL 8.5's focusing, now that I have had more experience using it and comparing it with other binoculars.

Optical quality

Resolution: in our tripod-mounted resolution distance test, the Nikon 8x32 scored the best result I have thus far obtained with an 8x binocular. A Swarovski 8.5 EL tested alongside the Nikon got a distance which was longer by exactly the ratio of their magnifications. The EL 8x32 was not quite as sharp, although the measured difference to the HG was only 15cm at a distance of about 4.5m. Through a 3x "booster," both the Nikon and the EL 8.5 could resolve twice as well, and the EL 8x32 1.8 times as well, as the binocular alone. Also, in the field in normal use the Nikon 8x32 HG looks extremely sharp, and in direct comparison seems even a tad sharper than the EL 8.5. The EL 8x32 is about as sharp as high-quality 8x binoculars typically are, but in direct comparison with the HG or its bigger sister its sharpness leaves a little to be desired. In the field with the EL 8, I periodically found myself wishing for a sharper image. The slightly larger magnification of the EL 8.5x42 brings viewed objects closer, and may in some cases - even when hand held - help you see detail which 8x magnification would not make visible. Any reasonably high-quality 10x binocular, in turn, would allow you to see more detail than the 8.5x magnification provides.

Contrast: The Nikon 8x32 HG has the best contrast I have ever seen in a binocular. In direct comparison, it has higher contrast than the excellent EL 8.5. The EL 8x32's contrast is good, but not quite on the level of the EL 8.5's.

Colour rendition: The image of both Swarovski's has a slight yellow-green bias which one quickly becomes used to. The Nikon looks almost totally neutral, and only under closer scrutiny can a very slight reddish bias be discerned. The Nikon also shows all colours very vividly and vibrantly, and differentiation of subtle colour shadings is superb. Colour fringing around high-contrast objects (chromatic aberration) is very low. With the EL 8x32, colour fringing is low in the centre of the field, but towards the edges it increases rapidly and at the very edge the colouring is pronounced, but on the other hand its field of view is also wider than the HG's.

Brightness: Bigger objectives make the EL 8.5x42 somewhat brighter than the other two in low light. Considering their size, the EL 8x32mm and the Nikon are exceedingly bright, and their image remains good in twilight and near-darkness. The small EL is a little brighter than the Nikon, but as the Nikon has better contrast, their performance in twilight and darkness was equally good. When light was down to a level where colours were difficult to discern, it was slightly easier to see colour and detail with the EL 8.5. For a younger viewer (one whose pupils dilate more than those in my 45-year-old eyes) the difference may be more pronounced, but I found it exceedingly small. It is also worth noting that in twilight and darkness, I could see noticeably better still with my pair of similarly high-quality 10x42 reference binoculars.

Flare and backlight properties: All three binoculars were excellent in this regard, and no objectionable reflections were visible. Views of bright points of light were also notably free of aberrations. With the EL 8x32, when light was coming from the side or from behind, some reflections were caused by light getting past the eyecup and bouncing between the eye and the eyepiece lens. With the Nikon and the bigger Swarovski this did not happen nearly as much.

Image quality near the edge of field: In the Nikon 8x32 HG, field curvature (an aberration which causes the edges of the field to reach focus closer to the viewer than the centre) is corrected better than in the Swarovskis. Thus its image is sharper at the edges, and even small birds flying in the distance can be seen at the image periphery. Both EL's have adequate edge performance, but on balance, the EL 8x32's field is also somewhat wider than the Nikon's. In all three, the sharp area around the centre is pleasantly wide.

Ease of viewing: The large EL has excellent depth of field and one can quickly and without effort find the optimal image and best focus. I believe that the most important reason for its popularity among discerning birders is just this ease of viewing which makes you forget the binocular and concentrate fully on whatever it is you are looking at. In this respect, both the Nikon and the smaller EL come very close to the 8.5, but do not quite reach its level. Both have excellent depth of field and are easy to view with. When focused carefully, the Nikon's depth of field is the same as the small EL's, but the HG's very fast focus means that one easily focuses past the optimum point. Since objects towards the edges, especially the bottom, of the viewfield are often closer than those in the middle of the field, the Swarovskis' more pronounced field curvature can make their depth of field appear better than the Nikon's. The smaller EL's ease of viewing was compromised a bit by its slightly softer image, which made me fiddle for the best focus more. Surprisingly, the Nikon image looked less three-dimensional than the Swarovski image. Measurements revealed the cause for this: in the ELs, the centre-to-centre distance between the objective lenses was four millimetres greater than the interpupillary distance, while in the HG it was three millimetres smaller.

Technical properties and usability

Handling is always a subjective matter, but in my view the new EL 8x32 is the ideal size and weight for a binocular, and its overall shape and feel are superb. It weighs about 620g, the slender tubes of the open body design fit the hands naturally, and there's enough space for your thumbs between the tubes. With this smaller EL, I also began to believe Swarovski's slogans about one-handed usability! The focus wheel is sized well and falls naturally under your forefingers. The only negatives for me were the rather hard-edged eyecups which are a bit small for my face and could extend out a little more, and bare black metal between the tubes which, while undeniably stylish, feels unpleasant against your fingertips in cold weather. The feel of the focus wheel is similar to that in the bigger EL - a little rough and plasticky. When focusing, you can hear a faint song of metal springs from within the binocular, a consequence of the EL's mechanical design which does not mean that something is broken inside. The EL 8x32's focus speed is just right - neither too fast nor too slow. Focusing from 10 metres to infinity takes about a 105° turn of the focus wheel. This is twice as fast as the EL 8.5, whose focus many have considered too slow. The eyepiece diopter adjustment has 1/3 diopter steps, which in my view does not allow for quite precise enough adjustments.

The Nikon 8x32 HG is a little shorter than the EL 8x32, but is not as slim or as light. Its body is fully rubberised with a thick armour which is pleasant to the touch. The body is well shaped, but since it is not open between the tubes and is very narrow, there isn't much space for fingers around it. The HG weighs 715 grams, which is light for a binocular, but considerably heavier than the small EL. The rubber-covered rotating eyecups work well, but there is a bit of play in them in the extended position which lessens their quality appearance compared to the EL eyecups. By contrast, the HG's focusing mechanism feels better than Swarovski's. The wheel is large and nicely rubberised and moves very smoothly and evenly. The focus ratio is very (excessively?) fast. Focusing from 10 meters to infinity takes only a 50° turn of the focus wheel. In fast situations when looking at birds, and especially butterflies, at short distances, the Nikon is thus significantly quicker to use especially compared to the larger Swarovski, since a single movement of the finger is almost always enough to bring it into focus. At longer distances, however, fine-tuning the Nikon's focus requires exceedingly small movements of the focus wheel. In the HG series, diopter correction is done by pulling and twisting a ring around the right eyepiece barrel. The adjustment works fine and the 1/4 diopter click-stop increments are just small enough, but I feel that with friction instead of click-stops the adjustment would work just as well and your settings would not be limited. The closest focusing distance for both the EL 8x32 and the HG is about 2 metres. The HG's real field of view is 7.8° and the subjective field is 62.4°, while with the EL 8x32 they are 8.0° and 64°. The EL thus has a wider field than most 8x binoculars, and the Nikon is now fully competitive in this respect as well. The 8x32 HG and the EL 8.5x have rather ample eye-relief for eyeglass wearers, the EL 8x32 has nearly as much, and all three have more than the Leica 8x32. If you need more than 4 diopters of positive correction, you should check at least the EL 8x32 to see that you can focus it to infinity, since it has less focus travel than the other two. The EL 8x32 comes with a nylon case, a good padded neckstrap, objective caps and an eyepiece rainguard. The objective caps are excellent, but the eyepiece rainguard is a pretty tight fit and does not drop into place easily or come off with a simple push of the finger. The Nikon comes with a semi-soft case, an adequate strap and an eyepiece rainguard which - I am glad to say - is loose enough to easily drop over the eyepieces and off again. Nikon has not deemed it necessary to offer usable objective lens caps. Both the 8x32 EL and 8x32 HG are water- and fog-proof and nitrogen filled. The EL comes with a 30 year warranty; Nikon's warranty is 10 years.

Summary I

The Swarovski EL 8x32 offers unprecedentedly good handling and usability with a very good image quality, but its resolution and contrast are not quite at the level of the best. The Nikon 8x32 HG DCF in turn offers superb image quality and very good handling and usability, and takes its place alongside Swarovski's 8.5x42 EL as the best all-round birding binocular on the market today. If you value quick focusing and small size, the Nikon is the better choice. For those using their binoculars a lot at large distances and in deep twilight, the EL 8.5 is your choice. However, those who wish to have a real twilight binocular might be well advised to consider 10x magnification and/or full-size 50-56 mm binoculars as well.

Summary (E) II

The 8x30 E II is the most recent incarnation of Nikon's traditional porroprism birding glass. With the exception of edge resolution, it offers image quality fully on the level of the 8x32 HG, and everything I have said about the HG's optics is true about the E II as well. In addition, the E II features an exceptionally wide 8.8° field, which means that its subjective field comes all the way up to 70°. Although image quality at the edge of the field can best be described as acceptable, it is nevertheless much better than in the ultra-wide-angle binoculars of yore, and there are no particularly disturbing carousel effects in the image. The edges of the E II image are softer than in the EL's or the HG, but the sharp area around the middle is pleasantly wide. At the image periphery you can still see the larger flying or swimming birds at relatively long distances. Other advantages of the E II are a much more three-dimensional image than in roof-prism binoculars, a lower price and very light weight (575g.). However, the E II is not suitable for really rough use, since it is not waterproof or nitrogen purged, and is probably also less shock-proof than the roof-prism models. The focus speed is reasonably fast since it takes a 90° turn of the wheel to go from 10 meters to infinity, and the feel of the rubberised wheel is good. The eyepiece bridge is exceptionally sturdy for a porroprism binocular, meaning that focus and diopter correction don't shift on their own. Eye-relief is scant for eyeglass-users, but ample for the rest of us (roughly the same as in Leica 8x32 or Swarovski 8x30 SLC). The wide, angular design, black metal/leatherette body and rubber fold-down eyecups remind me of my very first binoculars. At short distances (2-10m), the wide spacing of the objective lenses makes viewing harder since the object falls too close to the "inner edge" of the image. At larger distances, however, the extremely wide field and strong three-dimensional feel of the E II 's image are very impressive. The Nikon 8x30 E II offers highest available image quality for "50% off" for those who can keep their binoculars out of the water and take care of them properly.

Binocular

Nikon 8x32 HG DCF

Nikon 8x30 E II

Swarovski EL 8x32

Swarovski EL 8.5x42

Optical quality

Sharpness (1-10 p.)

10

10

9

10

Contrast (1-5 p.)

5

5

4

4 1/2

Brightness (1-5 p.)

4

4

4

4 1/2

Colour rendition (1-5 p.)

5

5

4 1/2

4 1/2

Viewing against glare (1-5 p.)

5

5

5

5

Field of view (1-10 p.) (objective/subjec-tive, points for subjective)

6 (7.8°/62.4°)

10 (8.8°/70.0°)

7 (8°/64°)

7 (7.4°/62.9°)

Quality near edge of field (1-5 p.)

4 1/2

3

4

4

Ease of viewing (1-5 p.)

4 1/2

4 1/2

4 1/2

5

Total (8-50 p.)

44

46.5

42

44.5

Ease of use and technical properties

Focusing (1-8 p.)

7

6 1/2

7

6

Close focus (1-5 p.)

5 (ca 2 m.)

5 (ca 2 m.)

5 (ca 2 m.)

5 (ca 2.5m)

Diopter adjustment (1-3 p.)

3

3

2

2

Comfort in hands (1-5 p)

4

2

5

4 1/2

Weight (1-4 p.)

3  (725g.)

4  (575g.)

4  (620g.)

2 (820g.)

Waterproofing (1-5p.)

5

2

5

5

Eye-relief (1-5p.)

4

3

3 1/2

4

Total  (7-35 p.)

31

25.5

31.5

28.5

Overall Score (15-85)

75

72

73.5

73

Explanations of points criteria:

-Field of view: 70°or more = 10; 67.5° = 9; 65° = 8; 62.5° = 7; 60° = 6; 57.5° = 5 etc.

-Close focus: under 3 m = 5p; 3-4m = 4p; 4-5m = 3p; 5-7m = 2p; over 7m = 1p.

-Weight: < 650g = 4p; 650-800g = 3p; 800-1000g = 2p; > 1000g = 1p.

-Waterproofing: Water- and fogproof (nitrogen purged) = 5p; Waterproof but not fogproof = 4p;

Water resistant etc. = 3p; No promises but seems reasonably well sealed = 2p; No promises and seems poorly sealed = 1p.

-Eye-relief: Eye-relief ample for nearly everyone = 5p; ample for most = 4p; sufficient for some = 3p;  insufficient for viewing with glasses = 2p; short even without glasses, eyeglasses soil the eyepieces. = 1p.


 

Kimmo Absetz