Binoculars - Two Eyes Can Be Better than One...

When one sees the sophisticated equipment used by some so-called ‘amateur’ astronomers it’s easy to become disheartened and feel that even the most basic kit will be prohibitive in cost.

This is not actually the case and some very useful equipment can be bought for surprisingly reasonable money – cheaper if you are happy to go with pre-owned or second-hand items. Of course, as with any hobby, the sky’s the limit in terms of what one can pay for the ever-more technically sophisticated optical apparatus available.

So, let’s start at the base-line. Can you enjoy astronomy without any equipment at all? To a degree, you can and elsewhere on this site you’ll see a list of some of the wonders of space that can be enjoyed with the naked eye.

And, of course, if you join your local astronomy club you will have access to some pretty impressive equipment along with a library of information on CD and in books – all backed up by the wealth of knowledge accrued over the years by the members of that club.

However, if you really want to explore the beauty of the heavens in your own time and in your own place some magnification is going to be necessary so let’s take a look at what you can use.

Choosing your Binoculars

The most basic and the most easily accessible item with which to start are binoculars – and many people may well have a pair in the house already. Although they won’t provide the magnification – and therefore the detail – of a telescope they can be something of a revelation when it comes to the night sky.

Firstly, because you are using two eyes you have a field of view that can provide a superior experience to that of a telescope. For instance, the beautiful star cluster known as the Seven Sisters or Pleiades (in the constellation of Taurus) is actually better seen in its glorious totality through binoculars rather than through a telescope.

Binoculars will also show you the craters on the Moon, the four large satellites of Jupiter, a more detailed Andromeda Galaxy and a wealth of star fields. Just sweeping the Milky Way with binoculars on a dark night will take your breath away.

You will tend to see binoculars advertised and described as 8 x 40 or 10 x 50 etc. What does this mean? Well, the first figure is the magnification factor while the second figure is the diameter of the objective lens – that’s the big one at the front – which actually gathers the light. Therefore, a pair of 8 x 40 binoculars means that they will give you eight-times magnification through a front lens of 40mm.

There are two points that need to be made about binoculars for astronomical use; the first is that bigger magnification is not always the best thing because the larger the magnification the smaller the field of view becomes and the more the objects you’re observing will tend to leap about within that field of view.

Also, while larger objective lenses are useful for watching the night sky you need to remember that larger lenses need larger casings and that can lead to binoculars being heavy and uncomfortable to hold – unless they are mounted on a tripod. Tripods are good but they do involve more cash outlay.

In summary then, for start-up equipment the best binoculars will probably be a pair of 8 x 40 or 10 x 50 glasses. Both will give you a decent sized objective lens with reasonable magnification. However, it’s important that the binoculars are classed as ‘wide field’ or ‘extra wide field’ because that means they’ll give you a wider field of view for the magnification level of the glasses. In other words, you’ll see ‘more’ as well as ‘bigger’.

Names to look out for? Canon, Zeiss, Pentax, Nikon and Leica have all been household names in respect of optical equipment for many years and are as good it gets – but there are other brands on the market which are worth investigating. Do your homework: quality optical equipment can be good value-for-money but it is unlikely ever to be cheap.

There are second-hand options, of course. It’s worth noting that before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the East German firm Praktica, of Dresden, made excellent optical equipment – binoculars included – which sold at cheaper prices than, for example, the equivalent items made by its West German or Japanese rivals. Such items still turn up periodically in small-ads and at boot fairs and should always be considered.