Sat Jan 9 18:17:06 CST 2010

Selecting Marine Binoculars

The classic image of the Grizzled Seafarer invariably includes a "spyglass" (along with a peg-leg, earrings, or these days, excessive eyeliner). The spyglass is just as important for use on the water now as it was then, in its modern incarnation of marine binoculars. This tool is one of the few critical items that tends to live in the cockpit of cruising boat, and is frequently used when under way, or even lying at anchor. It becomes critical when entering uncertain harbors in failing light, while trying to determine whether the bleached buoy ahead is "white" and marking some sort of wreck, or "used to be red" and should be passed on the appropriate side. In the times before AIS we would peer nervously through binoculars at distant lit ships, during night passages, evaluating the risk of collision. Due to the many environmental risks that surround boating (Is that a submerged log? Are those little objects ahead some floating flotsam, or birds standing on a sandbar?), having a good quality set of binoculars can be considered a critical safety item for even casual boating, let alone serious cruising.

The "Best" Binoculars

Like every other product ever made, there is no such thing as the "best"; simply the best match to a series of different tradeoffs of expense, design and other topics specific to the particular usage. However, if you mention the "best binoculars", you invariably hear names like Zeiss, Leica, and Swarovski (and in certain rarified air, Takahashi Fluorite, or even the old Bausch & Lomb 7x50 Wide Field Mark 41). For the sake of argument, I won't be discussing any of these. Glasses from the first three can cost more than a nice (used) 25-foot sailboat. If money is no object, feel free to check out Zeiss Victory and Leica Ultravids and the like, but I will be mostly discussing binoculars between $60 and $600.

Marine Binocular Design

There are several important design elements to a quality marine binocular:

* They must be very rugged and sturdy, standing up to shock and rough handling.

* They must be waterproof and fogproof, so during the above rough handling you don't end up with moisture in your binculars. As they often live in the cockpit, they frequently must exist in the same intense salt spray, rainstorms and freezing/hot conditions as the sailor. They need to be accessible, one-handed (while at the helm), without requiring removal from elaborate protective bags and the like, thus they need to live in the elements.

* Relatively low magnification is desirable (usually 7x, the first number in a binocular specification: "7x50" means 7x, "6x30" means 6x, and the like). Boats move (a lot), and keeping binoculars steady can be difficult enough with low magnification in a serious seaway, let alone high mangification. I don't personally favor digitally-stabilized binoculars for serious boating use, due to their reliance on electronics and their added complexity (more complicated things break more quickly, electronics do not like salt environments). Binoculars are too fundamental for me to trust to complex technology, but to each their own.

* They must work well in relatively low light. This is a function of both aperture and exit pupil size. Aperture is simply the size of the far end of the optical system, which determines the maximum amount of light it can collect (this is the last number in a binocular specification, in a "7x50" the aperture is 50mm. In a 6x30, the aperture is 30mm, and so on). Exit pupil size, however, determines how much of that light can be effectively transmitted into your eye. A very dark-adjusted human pupil will dilate to about 7mm (although this can decrease with age). The design of the binocular determines both the aperture and the exit pupil size. A 7x50 design is usually considered best for low-light at low magnification, as it has the best mix of large aperture along with an optimal exit pupil size of around 7.1mm.

* Long Eye Relief can make viewing more comfortable, and may permit the use of eyeglasses. Eye relief is the distance the eye must be from the eyepiece to see the entire field of view. This is critical for eyeglass wearers, as they will need to fit their glasses between their eye and the binocular eyepieces. Some binoculars have integrated corrective dioptres that allow you to "preset" correction of one eye or the other, however this then customizes the unit to a single person and requires them to remove their glasses before usage. Marine usage often requires really quick access and immediate assessment of a distant risk or concern, and the binoculars may be shared among several individuals in a cockpit at once.

* They should have good optical characteristics. Although we are not as demanding as the bird-watching and astronomical set, the better the optics the better the safety. With good optics you will be better able to read the distant sign saying something about submerged rocks, or pick out half of an unlit range in failing light (a range is two distant objects that must be vertically aligned to pass through a reef or similar situation).

As a result of the above requirements, marine binoculars are commonly built as 7x50 Porro Prism designs. Porro prism binoculars have the classical angled shoulder look, while roof prism designs look more like a pair of straight tubes attached together. You can read the various tradeoffs between roof and porro-prism designs on the previous link, but basically porro prism designs were traditionally brighter and easier to keep properly aligned (collimated) under high-shock scenarios. These days, the benefits of one design or the other are more questionable, demonstrated by Zeiss and Leica and Swarovski now mostly manufacturing roof prism binoculars. However, they mostly do this to create more light-weight and compact products (not the most critical for marine usage), and creating high-quality and sturdy roof prism binoculars is still significantly more complex than comperable-quality porro prism designs. For the sake of this discussion, I will only be looking at porro prism types, but again, if money is no object feel free to check out the higher-end roof prism designs (but make sure they have phase coatings, and are made by a manufacturer who really knows how to build them to be sturdy and shockproof).

To Compass or Not To Compass?

Marine designs often have an optional integrated compass, allowing bearings on distant objects. Opinions on this vary. I personally use non-compass binoculars, with the option of a hand-bearing compass if needed, but that was mostly a choice made by happenstance and expense more than anything else. I think the integration of a compass is potentially a very good idea. Before the advent of GPS, it was often necessary to take bearings on distant objects to make determinations of whether to approach a given harbor (avoiding reefs) and so on. These days, I would still consider it a useful safety item, as long as one is not bothered by the compass and rangefinding marks in the view. People outside the nautical arena (birding, astronomers) find these annoying, as they have no use for them, but I expect any sailor will acclimate to them quickly and potentially find them occasionally useful. I've used many Steiners with integrated compasses, and never found the integration objectionable. For a single-hander, the compass might be that much more useful, as a single accessible tool that includes both hand-bearing compass and binocular could be of greater convenience and benefit. The rangefinding marks can help you to determine distance from an object of known height, such as a lighthouse or hill; something else that can be useful in a pinch.

Given the choice between an integrated compass and quality of optics, I would choose optics every time. Get the best rugged optics you can afford, but if adding a compass is only a slight cost increase, I'd consider it a worthwhile upgrade. Also, be advised that on low-cost binoculars, the compass may be poorly designed and failure prone; always seek reviews on the individual model. Serious marine binoculars (Fujinon FMTRC, etc) will have quality compasses, and as long as it isn't too distracting, having a second compass is never a bad thing. Especially if one's main compass should be repolarized by a lightning strike or fail for other reasons.

To sum up, if it doesn't cost much more, it's probably a good idea, but not nearly as critical as the optical quality and overall longevity (ruggedness) of the individual design.

Binocular Cost

As I mentioned earlier, you can spend a hilarious amount of money on quality binoculars; and as elsewhere in life, there is a certain degree of "you get what you pay for". But, this does not mean that vast sums are required to find a quality set of marine glasses, nor does it remove the options of smart shopping on the used market and a generally thrifty outlook. Brand new marine binoculars of high quality will often range between $250 and $600, but finding used units on Ebay or elsewhere can drop this considerably. Then there is the option of older units, such as 1970s Japanese binocs from the "golden age" of Japanese lens and optics importation. These often show up under all sorts of oddball names, and some are of good quality (some are also bad). A lot of research is required to find diamonds in that particular world, but if low-cost is critical, one can turn up quality 1970s 7x50s for as little as $20. I'll discuss some specifics later in the article.

Under no circumstances, at present, do I recommend going and buying the $15 brand-new things sold at many discount stores, like Walgreens ("Vivitar") and Target and the like. These binoculars are of often horrific optical quality. It's too bad, really, as they probably wouldn't be if the manufacturers spent a little more time on quality control or matching their designs to their available glass. But, even beyond QA issues and awful coatings, these units are not likely to be rugged enough for dependable use. Binoculars are a safety item, like a liferaft or PFD. If you're going to depend on a liferaft to keep your family alive should your boat sink offshore, you would probably not buy the cheapest, most questionably-unreliable thing available. Being thrifty is commendable, being cheap is ill-advised. Research any binoculars you buy, and read (hopefully unbiased) opinions of others who have owned or used them.

Binocular Reviews

Finding places to read relatively-unbiased opinions of these safety items can be a bit of a chore. I will mention some specific products towards the end of this article, but given the nature of product lines and the internet, they'll all probably be quickly obselete, and regardless it's best to confirm reviews with a wider data sampling than One Guy's Article. The two groups I find most useful for reviewing the optics of binoculars are birdwatching enthusiasts and amateur astronomers.

Astronomers can be found at the forums on Cloudy Nights. They are probably the most empirically critical group, being familiar with astronomical star testing and sometimes grinding their own lenses and building their own binoculars and telescopes. However, most astronomical people are interested in higher magnification, larger-aperture binoculars, often that cannot be hand-held (even on land). Still, there are a lot of great posts and articles on there, like this four page thread on the "Best 7x50 binoculars". The binocular forum in general can be a good resource.

Birding enthusiasts can be found at BirdForum, which has a whole forum dedicated just to binoculars of varying brands. Birding people are very critical of optics, but will tend towards "compact" and "mobile" binoculars, since they actually have to carry them around. This isn't as important for marine usage where we only hold them up for a few moments to study something, before hanging them back around the binnacle or replacing them in a binocular box. 7x50 is generally not their biggest interest (specific to night/evening usage for them), but there are still many useful posts about 7x50s and marine binoculars to be found there.

Both sites can be easily searched with google, by specifying:

..followed by your search query. So, giving google (without quotes) " 7x50" will yield a variety of threads about 7x50 binoculars. Some of these may be good for marine usage, some not so much (not waterproof, for instance).

Excelsis is another review site, frequented by astronomy geeks like myself, which also contains a binocular-specific section. You might also consider checking out Better View Desired, although this site appears to not be updated anymore. In general, I think the forums (Cloudy Nights, BirdForum) are the most unbiased opinions of enthusiasts.

There are, of course, boating sites and the like, such as SailNet or CruisersForum, but honestly I've found the most useful feedback on the above sites. With the aggregation of people on the 'net, there is a strong tendency towards big groups of people who think whatever they bought is great, simply because they bought it and have no other experience. The above two groups (astronomers & birdwatchers) are both widely familiar with a variety of optics, and are both pretty critical for their particular usages. Their common use cases may be a little different, but good optics are good optics.

One other reviewing group worthy of mention is a little unusual: military snipers. This group frequently uses optics for rangefinding under demanding conditions that are not unlike intense offshore marine usage (more with the dirt, a bit less with the water, similar shocks/impacts). However, they almost always want compact binoculars (7x50s are awfully big to carry on foot for many miles). That all being said, there are some useful reviews out there, such as this one of the Tasco Offshore OS36.

Specific Binoculars

I'll start out with the brand-new, high-priced and move down towards inexpensive and older units. Some of this information is based on personal experience, but a lot of it is aggregated from much review reading or brief personal use. So, feel free to take it all with a grain of salt and do your own comparisons (something I recommend doing anyway).

* Fujinon Polaris FMTRC-SX 7x50

If someone were to ask me "I don't care how much they cost, I just want a really great set of binoculars for boating or long-term cruising", I would just tell them to buy these. The United States Navy agrees, as they're the standard binocs carried aboard ship. They are widely regarded as very rugged, well-built units with very high quality optics that are pristine to very close to the view edges (or even up right up to the edges). Unfortunately, they cost about $600. Here are the excelsis reviews of the FMTR-SX (optically identical, without compass).

* Captain's Helmsman 7x50C with Compass

I have never personally used these, but they are quite well regarded, particularly by astronomers. "Captain's" is a nautical supply company, and they have these custom made for them by some unknown OEM, possibly Japanese. They also include a good guarantee. Around $330.

* Nikon Ocean Pro 7x50, Sports & Marine 7x50, Action Extreme ATB 7x50.

Nikon has a great rep for binoculars. Some of their top-end astro units (ProStar) are even considered to best the top offerings of the Germans. Their commonly-available marine binoculars are not in quite the same class (see further down for a discussion of the IF WP HP Tropical series), but are considered very high quality, especially for the money. The Japanese-sourced "Sports and Marine" 7x50s are often cited as the best of the mass-market "marine" line, but have apparently been discontinued (may still be available on Amazon or from Adorama) . The "Ocean Pro" are still made, albeit in China, and considered very solid performers. They're polycarbonate-bodied units, making them light weight (good if you're staring at a remote object for extended periods of time), and include a 25-year warranty. Around $300 with a compass, $250 without. I personally purchased a little-used set of Ocean Pro 7x50s (sans compass) for around $80 on Ebay. The "Action Extreme ATB" series round out the bottom of Nikon's waterproof units in 7x50, at around $125, and are usually considered a good value (just don't confuse them with the normal "Action" series, which are not waterproof).

* Steiner 7x50 (Marine, Navigator Pro, Commander V, etc).

Steiner has a.. mixed reputation amongst modern reviewers. During the 80s we ran across plenty of other liveaboards who used Steiner glasses with good success, and they were the first "integrated compass / rangefinder" units I ever used. They always seemed nice to me, but my memories are not fresh and my testing was not particularly critical. They do have a good rep for being sturdy and lasting a long time, and they are still (I think) the "standard issue" military binoculars with a number of Western armies.

These days you seem to either find people who love them, or people who are really not impressed with their optics for the price. Some of the Steiners cost over $1000, but none of them command the widespread rep of Fuji's less-expensive Polaris line. The ~$330-range "Marine" series may not stand up to Nikon Ocean Pros optically, and at a higher price; your mileage may vary.

I can't honestly say if these reviews are accurate or whether this is some sort of "gear snob" type issue that periodically crops up on the 'net. Steiners are one of the oldest "rugged" binocular brands out there, so I would say they should be considered, but with careful comparison to other offerings (and even a visual comparison in a store).

* The Quality Chinese 7x50s

Unlike the horrible "ruby coated!" and "Vivitar" chinese binoculars I said to avoid earlier, there are some who have good reputations (unfortunately, they don't cost $15). After all, practically everything is made in China these days, even by the big manufacturers like Nikon. Some of the companies they contract to make their optics will also create their own "home-brand" products they resell to other import companies, while maintaining good quality control. These include the William Optics 7x50 EDs, Orion Resolux 7x50s, and others. Unfortunately, the WO units have been discontinued, but these sorts of units are worth keeping in mind if you find a good price and are sure the specific units are of good quality. Also, working with a reputable retailer becomes more useful for units where the risk of a "bad one" is higher.

* Tasco OffShore OS36

Tasco has a historically spotty rep for optics. Some of the older Japanese-made stuff was ok, but then a lot of the later products were rather poor. Saying the name "Tasco" in optically minded company does not often elicit good reactions. However, their "OffShore" series OS36 glasses, which appear to be Chinese knockoffs of Steiner glasses, have a reasonable rep for their price range. They are inexpensive for "new" binoculars, at around $140, but this is getting into a price point where one might find some quality Nikons or even (if lucky) Fujis on the used market. If "new" was the issue, I'd look hard at the Nikon Action Extreme ATBs for around the same cost. Here is another link to the review of the OS36, mentioned earlier.

* Others..

This was only intended as a quick list of some options. There are many other manufacturers of quality marine-grade binoculars out there, far too many for me to keep track of. The Swift SeaWolf, Olympus Magellan, Pentax's current Marine offerings (all Roof prism, I know nothing about them), Weems & Plath Navy One, Bushnell's Marine series, Oberwerk Mariner, various (uncertain?) Chinese companies like Zhumell.. I leave such research to the reader.

The Old School

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes old binoculars can be nearly as good as new ones, and with some smart shopping on sites like Ebay, can be found for a fraction of the price. There are a couple of tradeoffs:

- They tend to be heavier. In the 70s and 80s, serious binculars were made out of metal. Aluminum, usually, but these things are no polycarbonate lightweights.

- The coatings will not be quite as good as the latest and greatest. Chances are, you will never notice, and this isn't really something to obsess over too much, but contrast and total light throughput can be higher in more recent products. However, optics in older products (glass selection, etc) can sometimes be so good that "old stuff" can best "new stuff". Generally, the latest and greatest optics usually represent the state of the art, but if you can find 95% of the quality for 1% of the cost.. that's a pretty good deal.

- They are not all waterproof and nitrogen-purged. If you end up with a really inexpensive but optically-nice set of Tascos from the 1960s, be sure you have backup pair as well. They may fog, or succumb to internal fungus, where a completely purged and waterproof modern binocular will not. If all you can spend is $15, then this might be a worthwhile tradeoff for you, but be aware of the possible downside. Note: classic high-end "marine" binocs like 1970s Pentax BIFs and Nikon "Tropical" series are probably just as waterproof as anything made today.

Here are a few notable oldies-but-goodies:

* Pentax Marine BIF and PIF 7x50

We had "Asahi Pentax BIF 7x50s" on the boat as our primary binoculars during our decade living aboard, and used them extensively. They're still in use today, and have held up well. They aren't pretty to look at anymore, but looking through them still provides crisp views. The "PIF" units were more recent, supposedly even better, and were discontinued at some point in the late 80s (I think).

Both units are considered somewhat "legendary" by the astronomy and birding lovers, due to their superb optics. According to Pentax, they were descended from a military contract binocular, and it shows. They are quite heavy, but extremely rugged (despite the lack of external rubber armoring that became in vogue later). They do not show up often on Ebay and other sites, but can be relatively inexpensive when they do. Here's a link to a BirdForum thread discussing them.

* Nikon 7x50IF HP WP Tropical

Even though this is still (kind of?) a currently-made binocular, I think it merits a bit closer research and attention than their usual mass-market models mentioned earlier. The binoculars are pretty expensive, and while well-regarded, a buyer should be a little careful as some versions may be better than others, and the current-retail version may not be as good as certain older models. Products have been sold in the 7x50 "tropical" line since the 1940s, so the era may be important. Still, for those who get the "right" set, these are supposed to be very good, perhaps among the best ever made.

* Celestron Ultima 7x50

These Japanese-made binoculars were discontinued in the late 90s in favor of (apparently) inferior Chinese "Ultima DX" units. The original Ultimas are still much vaunted as excellent binoculars by the Astronomy world. I don't know how rugged they are, but their optics are apparently very good.

* Oddball Japanese 1960s-70s bonoculars: Tasco, Bushnell, Focal, Sears, etc.

If low cost is a real factor, it can be worthwhile to look at certain odd brands that were created by US-based retailers during the 70s and 80s to import products from Japan. Some of these products were of very high quality, some even being made by names that became "big" (such as Nikon, Olympus and Pentax). Most were probably made by optical contract operations, like "Sun Optical" and the like, but nonetheless, many were built to high standards. Focal was the house-brand of K-Mart, and on the camera side of things they would often purchase quality cameras and lenses from companies like Ricoh. I have seen Focal 7x50s on Ebay that appear very similar to Japanese-made Swift binoculars; but figuring out an OEM for certain can be challenging, and there is the risk that you may end up spending money on a crappy product. Also, most of these binoculars are NOT waterproof or fogproof, so they're really only useful as backup binoculars for boating, or for those who are on an extremely limited budget.

This is an area that requires a lot of research, to reduce the risk of wasting money. Of any given "brand" (say, Tasco), a few products may be great during one decade, and horrible a few years later. One site I recommend is Fan's Binocular's Collection, a site by a guy who apparently has a truly impressive collection of older binoculars. He has good things to say about the 1970s "Bushnell Custom" 7x50s, and others, under his "Japanese" section.

Seriously older binoculars can bring with them a whole family of other potential issues. Collimation problems, lens fogging, fungus problems, prisms becoming detached, and other issues can plague these older units, especially when purchasing binoculars that were really "inexpensive, consumer-grade" in the first place and not intended to be sealed against moisture. Binoculars can start out great, but end up pretty hellish after 30 years in someone's dank basement. There are some great bargains out there, and some real hidden optical gems.. but be prepared to deal with more lemons as well, or put in some time in learning how to repair binoculars if you choose to go very far down this road. Older binoculars can evolve into much more of a "fixer-upper hobby", rather than just a way to find some inexpensive optics for boating. If you just want something inexpensive that works, staying on the more modern side is a good idea (at least don't go any older than the 80s, but the newer the better), and make sure the seller has thoroughly tested them and provides photos through the lenses, etc. At this price point it may wiser to just look at some brand-new inexpensive optics, like the "Celestron UpClose" series and others.

* Old Zeiss, etc

This is a whole other world, and can be costly, as Zeiss and Leitz/Leica stuff is "collectable" (ugh). So, it isn't necessarily any more cost effective than just buying some used (modern) Nikons or some such (which are also more likely to be sealed). But, it's something to keep an eye out for. Be advised that there are such things as "fake" classic Zeiss binoculars being sold on Ebay.

Posted by Incarnate | Permanent link | File under: boating

Sat Sep 26 23:08:47 CDT 2009

This site and its author.

My name is John Bergman. From the age of four to fourteen, I was raised on a 35-foot sailboat, as a full-time cruising liveaboard (mostly in the Atlantic). After we moved off of the boat, I became a computer geek and, by the mid-90s, was involved in a successful ISP startup, as a unix-systems/network engineer and security guy. This allowed me, in the late 90s, to found my own software company, which makes an online game (Sci-Fi MMORPG). As of this writing (2009) I've been running the company for a little over a decade, and am in my early 30s.

Normally, I'd be a little reluctant to post this kind of personal information on a public site, but in this case it's already out there in various news articles and interviews.

Like many geeks, I have somewhat varied interests and a tendency towards obsessive research. As a result of this and some of my experience, I seem to get a lot of questions from friends, acquaintances, and total strangers. I like to help people, such as I can, and I also like to be thorough and "rigorous" in my explanations; this has led to quite a number of lengthy emails to various people, often covering the same subjects many different times. For instance, I'm frequently asked how to get a job in the videogame development industry (a question I feel kind of unqualified to answer, since I started my own company and have never been "hired"), and I've answered dozens of emails from random students, sending them very similar advice.

This site is all about answering these questions with general articles that I can update periodically, and direct people to read, instead of writing lengthy, personalized emails. Basically, a big FAQ that touches on some of my interests. Plus, I'm sure I'll also post other random opinions and vague ideas, since that's what the blog-o-tubes are seemingly all about. I make no promise that anything I say is of any great accuracy, it's just what I happen to believe based on my own experience. I will try to relate the nature of my experiences, and cite references when I can. Caveat lector.

Anything gleaned from this site should (like the rest of the internet) be taken with a grain of salt. The great benefit of the 'net is the aggregation of vast amounts of data from many sources. If, as one of those sources, my input can provide some small help to someone, then I'm happy it was of use.

The name "Incarnate" comes from my own handle or nickname, which I've had since the BBS scene, circa 1991. I used to release music under the name in 92-98 or thereabouts (the precursor to my game company was a demo group), and since then the moniker has become well known to the userbase of my game, as it's my administrative handle there as well.

This site currently has no comments or other feedback mechanics, for a couple of reasons. One, Nanoblogger does not include a comments system by default, although it does have a plugin available. Two, comments systems tend to be a pain, as they require lots of captcha and other mechanisms to prevent spam and abuse. Even with these systems, abuse is common. I don't have a lot of free time, and I prefer zero-maintenance when possible. Finally, I selected Nanoblogger because it produces completely static content, without any need for PHP or other languages; this allows higher margins of both security and scalability. I think it's pretty unlikely that my little site will ever be popular enough for the latter to be an issue, but I am a scalability-nut, as I used to do that for a living (and still do, in game-engine land). So, considering the positives and negatives of comments, I don't have any for now. This site is really a place for me to post static articles, rather than a true blog in the common sense of the term.

The frequency of articles on here is also very low. If I even post something once a year, that'd be great. Again, the goal is for the articles themselves to stand on their own in some way, not to create any kind of "website destination".

Posted by Incarnate | Permanent link