I have traditionally NOT been a binoculars guy when it comes to astronomy. If I’m totally honest, I’m even a bit judgey for those who respond to newbies questions about what type of telescope to get with “get binos, great way to get started” advice. It’s a common refrain, by experienced amateurs, and I think it can be amongst the worst advice to give anyone.
Why NOT recommend binos to newbies?
First and foremost, the learning curve is enormous for the sky. Yes, you can look at stuff easily and pan quickly, but almost EVERYONE starts with hand-held binos. Which shake in your hands. It is VERY hard to get decent sized binos to stay solid unless you are naturally still OR you rest against something with your harms. But they don’t tell people that, they just say “buy binos”.
Second, for many people learning, sometimes the best aspect is sharing it with others. Like kids. Can kids hold the binos steady? No. Not easily. So tell them to look at X, pan sideways and down a bit, blah blah blah….aaaand they’re gone. You’ve lost them. If you have a telescope and you set it on the object and say, “Here, look through here”, they will see what they’re supposed to see, generally speaking.
Binoculars combine low magnification with the highest degree of unsteady viewing and the worst learning curve to find objects. What could go wrong?
There are TONS of people who start with binos, get bored, and give up. Because someone knowledgeable told them that starting with binos was good, and if they find it wasn’t for them, they decide astronomy overall is also maybe not for them. Let me give you an example of why they might struggle.
If you want to find the Hercules Cluster, a small globular cluster of stars, and assume that you have dark enough skies to find it and see it, then you will likely have to start at a nearby known star, follow a small trail of stars by hopping from one star to another to work your way down the sky, and BAM, there’s your cluster.
Yet here’s the thing though for a telescope. You can find the first star, look at a map, look back at the eyepiece, look again at the map, figure out what the first “hop” is, make the hop, look back at the map, look again, etc. It doesn’t run away from you when you look at the map. It stays on the target.
If you’re using binos, and as I said, most people do NOT attach to a tripod initially, then you have them in YOUR HANDS, look up, see your starting point, put your hands down, look at the map, look again at your starting point, look up, put the binos down, look at your map again, etc. You’re “losing” your spot each time. If any of those markers are small or faint, or if you have to do three jumps, the first time star-hopping is going to be REALLY frustrating to figure out.
Binos CAN be good, I’m just not sure they come with enough context or caveats. Your big advantage though is that in binos, you see a HUGE swath of sky at a time, so the likelihood is that your telescope might take 3 jumps to do what in your binos only takes 1. But, again, it is less magnified, and you can’t see as much detail.
Making a choice
For me, though, I’m working on a personal guide to introductory amateur astronomy. If I’m going to write about binoculars, I have to know how to use them and the parameters I’m considering. Including owning a pair, trying various setups, etc.
Recently, famed Canadian astronomer Alan Dyer wrote an article in Sky News about the best binoculars for beginners in Canada, and he listed a number of choices. His cut-off was $300 and ones that are generally available in Canada, which is a pretty good starting point for me. One of my complaints about a lot of bino lovers is that when asked about bino models, they frequently recommend binos that cost $500-$1500. The RASC Observers Handbook has a similar snobbyness in it towards only high-end binos, well out of the price range of most beginner astronomers. For the same price, they could have a telescope that would kick butt three times over. But I digress.
Dyer covered 13 choices, I worked through all the configurations and bought a pair of 8×42 Vortex Crossfires HD. (If you want to read my thought process, you can find it at https://polywogg.ca/choosing-a-pair-of-astronomy-binoculars-for-beginners/).
Am I potentially “complicating my life” by expanding? Absolutely. But I’m also simplifying somewhat. Right now, for example, Comet Neowise is all the rage. I could go down to the river, set up my telescope, do all that work, OR I could just look through the binoculars. I do want to get good at using them. Yet I was still on the fence.
Until a webinar like the one I mentioned yesterday on astronomy answered me a different way, which is a bit similar to the original advice of astronomers. If you’re using 8x42s, it’s a good way to learn your way around the sky pretty fast.
Not a good tool necessarily for getting into astronomy, but a good tool to use when learning the night sky, star hopping, and constellation mapping. That’s a more practical bit of advice, and not limited to newbies.
So today I choose to expand my astro gear with binoculars.
What choices are you making today?