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    Categories: Gear

Choosing the Right Optics

An assemblage of optics, some ideal, some less so.

Seeing well is vital to hunting well. If you can’t see it, you won’t kill it, and most importantly you won’t eat it. There are lots of variables that go into successfully spotting game animals, but one of the biggest sets of variables in this equation are the optical tools hunters use. Prescription eyewear, sunglasses, binoculars, spotting scopes, riflescopes, and rangefinders each enable (or disable) a successful hunt.1 In a earlier post I mentioned that the choice of optics for hunting is worth its own post. So, in this post I break down our experience with optics, what we wish we had known when we started, and what we think are the best strategies for purchasing optical equipment. The advice can be summed up succinctly: buy once, cry once.

By “buy once, cry once” I mean that the wisdom we’ve gleaned over the past few years is that it makes sense to buy a pricier (quality) optics tool the first time, and ‘cry’ at the price rather than to buy a middling quality piece of equipment and then discover that it just isn’t cutting it, having to ‘cry’ again when you upgrade. Unfortunately, we’ve cried too many times over the past few years… here’s to hoping you can avoid our mistakes via this advice.

Prescription Eyewear

In breaking down the details, let’s start closest to your face. There are a few lucky people out there that don’t need to wear prescription lenses of some sort. Robyn is one of those people. I envy her for that. However, I do need prescription lenses, and that means that I need custom eye glasses (or contacts) and prescription sunglasses. On this front, there are three key points. First, you need to make sure that your prescription is up to date. If you haven’t had an optometrist appointment in the past few years, make sure to schedule one. Second, be aware that wearing glasses will make your choice of binoculars and spotting scopes somewhat more limited due to the distance your eyes will necessarily be from the eyepieces of those tools — more on this below. Third, if you are traditionally a contact wearer, but will be going on longer duration backpack hunts in less than ideal conditions, just make sure that you’re comfortable keeping your contacts clean and that your eyes don’t dry out too badly when staring at something for long periods. (You will be staring through your optics for very long periods, sometimes all day.)

Sunglasses

After prescription lenses come a good pair of sunglasses. My sunglasses are prescription, but Robyn (due to her acute vision) has a regular, non-prescription pair. On the sunglasses front, we’ve learned a few tips. First, make sure that the sunglasses are well polarized, regardless of lens color. This helps to reduce glare. Second, an amber or copper lens color can really help increase contrast and dimensionality; she loves her copper toned lenses. Third, you will face a choice between poly-carbonate (plastic) versus glass lenses. The advantage of poly-carbonate is that it is a bit cheaper and is also impact resistant. However, it tends to scratch more easily and be less optically pure than glass. Because there are lots of things to scratch your sunglasses in the wild, and because you’ll be spending hundreds of dollars on other optical lenses — detailed below — it makes good sense to go with glass. Or that’s what we decided at least. Robyn owns Costa 580G sunglasses that we got on a steep discount online. Finally, make sure that your sunglasses do a good job of wrapping around your head… aviators may look cool, but sunlight infiltrating from the side can be a real distraction when trying to look through binoculars.

Binoculars

After prescription lenses and sunglasses, your binoculars will likely be your next most used and important item. There are lots of options for binoculars and a far greater number of opinions on which is the best for a given hunting task and environment.2 For densely wooded environments, it seems that the consensus is that an 8x zoom with a 42mm objective is a fairly ideal setup, as it produces an exit pupil of around 5 and has a level of zoom that allows for pretty easy image stabilization while hand-holding the binos. These dimensions also allow for a relatively lightweight setup.

For a blend of wooded and open hunting, many people prefer a 10x42mm binocular, which seems to do OK in both scenarios. And for wide open expanses — like the southwestern deserts we hunt — binoculars with higher magnification are useful for spotting game out at distance. I have used a pair of 15 zoom binoculars with 56mm objective lenses that performed well but have settled on a pair of 12x50mm binoculars as they have the (limited) ability to be hand held where the 15x binoculars were too shaky to be handheld. Both of these pairs of binoculars do best when placed on a tripod, though this holds for basically all levels of magnification. We use a lightweight tripod, though there are many excellent tripod options out there.

I started out with a pair of 8x42mm binoculars, but quickly realized that the distances I was trying to spot at I would require greater zoom. The 8x42mm binoculars’ quality was pretty good for the money, but if I were to do it again I would probably pursue a higher quality optic. From 8x zoom I jumped to 15x but then realized that the heft and zoom of the 15x made them impossible to wield by hand, which is important when moving into and out of backpack hunting spots.

In addition to the zoom and exit pupil considerations, you’ll want to note the eye relief and interpupillary distance measurements on your prospective binoculars and on your own face. The maximum eye relief of a lens is the max distance that your eye can comfortably rest from the surface of the lens while still viewing the whole image. The aptly name ‘interpupillary distance’ (IPD) is the distance between your two pupils… basically the spacing of your eyeballs. Both eye relief and IPD will determine the comfort of a pair of binoculars on your face. If you wear eyeglasses like I do, your eye will be forced to be further away from the binocular eyepiece, meaning that longer eye relief is very useful. I’ve found that a minimum eye relief for me is about 15.5mm, and that’s just on the very edge of comfort. Binoculars with 18-20mm are much nicer for eyeglass wearers.

As an anecdote related to IPD, at first both Robyn and I tried to switch off using the pair of 8×42 binoculars we purchased. Robyn really hated them, while I thought them to be quite decent. Well, it turns out that because of her relatively petite facial features (and closely spaced eyes) she was able to only produce an image for one eye at a time, unwittingly blanking out her non-dominant eye, leading to a substantial relative loss in depth perception and visual acuity… no wonder she hated them! Once we realized the problem, we tried to find a pair of binoculars that would fit and quickly (and unfortunately) realized that the only binoculars that would fit her petite features are the ones made for children… ones that don’t exactly come in the highest echelons of quality. In fact, the quality is notably lower than the 8x42mm pair, but Robyn thinks they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Good thing she can’t render an image in both eyes with my 12x50mm binos, or she’d learn what she’s missing!

So, two key points 1) measure your face for your binoculars to ensure a good fit, and 2) choose the right zoom and objective for your hunting situation.

Spotting scopes

Because of Robyn’s inability to fit full sized, quality binoculars, she’s been relegated to the duty of manning the spotting scope — a cyclopean task if ever there was one. Next to the binoculars, spotting scopes are probably the most useful optic, especially in open country. Spotting scopes, like binoculars, come in a variety of zooms and objectives. The smaller zoom and smaller objective options are the lighter ones, typically weighing under two pounds, while the high zoom, large objective options can weigh in excess of five pounds…quite hefty. The bigger the objective lens, the more light can be let in, and so the brighter the image will be at any fixed level of zoom.3 Because we are conscious of the weight in our packs, we decided to opt for a lesser zoom, smaller objective size spotting scope.

First, we decided to go with a very light, but, in retrospect at least, lower quality spotter. It was under a pound and was a fixed 20 zoom with a 50mm objective. Its clarity and brightness were severely lacking (though I didn’t know that until I tried a better spotter), but most troublesome was the insufficient eye relief of around 13mm. I just couldn’t handle it with glasses on. So we sold that one and decided to upgrade to a high quality but still lightweight scope. At around 1.5lbs, it’s super light but provides a good degree of clarity to the levels of zoom that we need. While a bulkier spotter would be nice, we (read: Robyn) just don’t want to pay the weight penalty to lug a heavier scope around.

Robyn behind her spotting scope. Note the use of a Buff to block out sun glare from the side.

Like with higher zoom binoculars, having a good tripod to rest your spotting scope on will be vital, as any vibration can really distort an image. This can become an acute problem in high winds. And, as I unfortunately found out with our spotter purchase, the eye relief of a spotting scope can vary, so be sure to check this if you wear glasses. Finally, Robyn has found that wearing a traditional, pirate-like eye patch significantly reduces the eye strain from glassing long periods behind the spotter. So if you plan on long glassing sessions, I’d highly recommend one. Just raid your Halloween costume box.

Riflescopes

For rifle hunters, a good riflescope is an invaluable tool, and probably tied for importance with the spotting scope for hunting open terrain. You can’t take a shot at an animal you’ve never found. Riflescopes have even greater numbers of variations and options than do binoculars and spotting scopes. There are fixed zoom, variable zoom, multiple different types of reticles (the crosshairs, for the layman), different ways to adjust for bullet drop over distance (trajectory) and the effect of wind on the bullet flight (windage), and — like the other optics — variable eye relief distances. There are electronic scopes, red dot scopes, highly ‘tactical’ scopes, and then the regular, Plain Jane scopes.

I’ll put it out there right now, riflescopes are my least well researched optic… there’s just so many options and variations out there and I haven’t put in the time to learn them all. In light of this overabundance of choice, we decided to stay with the simple options at first for two reasons: 1) we really don’t expect taking shots longer than say 300 meters on an animal any time soon, and 2) the less ‘fancy’ options are somewhat cheaper. We have a 3-9x zoom, 40mm objective scope on Robyn’s rifle that gives us a decent blend of magnification power in a relatively lightweight package. The 3-9x40mm scope seems to be the default choice among regular riflehunters, as it covers many situations quite nicely. However, at some point in the future when I decide to rifle hunt again ( I’m focused on the bow now) and buy my own rifle, I’ve picked out a lighter weight option that seems to be a very good scope.

So, for general purpose hunting, a 3-9x40mm scope will get the job done. There are reasons you would want something different — such as a 2-7x or fixed 4x zoom for hunting dense timber — so certainly look into your options. Make sure that the eye relief will work with your rifle setup. Also, after bashing around the stock scope covers that came with Robyn’s rifle last year, I strongly recommend looking into a set of flip up scope covers that will be a bit more durable and enable quicker access to the scope. Finally, if you would like to really read up on riflescopes in more detail, I recommend checking out Long Range Hunting as they have loads of material to peruse.

Rangefinders

Once you have glassed up your game animal, and gotten close enough to take an ethical shot, you need to know the distance between the animal and you to adjust your shot placement accordingly. This is crucial with a bow. It is also crucial with a rifle once past around 200 yards. If all of your shots are under 200 yards with a high powered rifle on a big game animal, you could get away without a rangefinder. However, because people — myself included — can be such horrible estimators of actual distance, I’d argue for the conservative approach: always know the exact distance to your target.

In order to know this distance, a product exists called a ‘rangefinder’. These are a combination of a monocular with a laser and sensor. You look through the monocular, press a button to activate the laser, it shoots out, bounces off the target and back to the sensor, and the monocular will show the readout of the distance to your target in yards or meters. Some rangefinders compensate for angular drop, too.4 Having these precise readings is very useful.

There are a number of features important to look for in a rangefinder. One is optical clarity through the monocular. It’s important that you’re able to find the object again in the rangefinder once you’ve found it with your binoculars.5 The rangefinder that we purchased — prior to having a better understanding of optical clarity — notably lacks in this dimension.

A second feature is the ranging distance. Ours ranges to around 500 on reflective surfaces, and around 300 on less than ideal surfaces like bushes or animals. If you don’t ever plan on taking longer than around a 300 yard rifle shot, this is fine. However, once people become proficient marksmen (or markswomen) they are often comfortable taking upwards of 500 yard shots. We’re not even close to that yet, but it’s certainly a consideration for the future. The best rangefinders can go all the way out to a mile, though it seems that 1000 yards would be more than enough for just about all hunters.

Finally, in addition to the distance, the reliability, consistency, and precision of the rangefinder are important. A rangefinder should consistently range the same object with the same distance, be able to range that object each time you depress the button, and give you an exact reading — 200 yards should actually be a true distance of 200 yards.

Our current rangefinder is sufficient for our purposes, though it’s lack of optical clarity is certainly a pitfall. When we finally decide to upgrade, we’ll probably spring for a Leica 1000-R, though we’ll certainly wait for a sale on it. It seems to be the best option out there for us… if only we’d saved up and purchased it first.

Quality

That thought brings me back to my opening ‘buy once, cry once’ line. We would have saved many hundreds of dollars if we had been able to more quickly sift through the mounds of information on optics out there, strip away the advertising BS, and decide on the best optics for us the first time. We bought multiple pairs of binoculars and multiple spotting scopes and will probably upgrade our riflescope and rangefinder sooner than we’d ideally like. If we had known what to look for, and known that ultimately we would want the performance of the better optics, we could have bought the higher quality optics first.

Optical quality comes in multiple forms and from multiple companies. Swarovski, Leica, Zeiss, and — to almost the same extent — Vortex all provide excellent options. It seems that the mantra ‘you get what you pay for’ is indubitable for optics. The best are incredibly expensive. The really good, still very expensive. When I was just starting out as a hunter and saw that someone would pay around $1,000 for a pair of binoculars, I thought it was the most absurd lavishness possible. I’m pretty frugal by nature. But, I’ve come to understand the imperative to have good optics when hunting: if you want to succeed, good optics will go great lengths to enable that.

The clarity, purity, and precision of the optic is certainly the biggest consideration when purchasing. Try out many, many different optics from the best companies to the worst before you buy, and pick the one that best optimizes the view constrained by your budget. Don’t skimp.

However, secondary to the optical quality consideration is the warranty that the optics have. Hunting is hard on things, especially precision pieces of gear. So while you should take good care of your optics (make sure to clean them regularly!), sometimes the unavoidable happens. In the optics business, the best warranty out there is provided by Vortex Optics. While their quality may be slightly lower than the other ‘big three’ companies, their no-questions-asked lifetime warranty made me opt for their product. Once I figure out the best optic for me, I want to stick with it for a very long time.

Choosing the Right Optics

So, if you take away nothing else from the above, please take away the decision to spend ample time researching and testing optics before you buy any. Save up your money and buy the pair that will best fit your needs, first. This will save you money and time in the long-run. If don’t own binoculars but want to get into the field, by all means pick up a cheap pair to get going. But don’t spend a hefty sum. Save that for the binoculars you’ll have for a decade. Buy once, cry once.

Hopefully this post has aided you in choosing the right optics, but if you have any questions or thoughts, please post up in the comments!

Note: I in no way claim to be an expert in optics. So if there are readers out there who know more than I do or who have better advice, please feel free to chime in with your ideas in the comments. These are just some of the lessons I’ve learned in trying to optimize my optics. There are many, many more details to be found on each of these topics on the web, but I’ve tried to condense the most important bits into one post. Finally, and again, I’ve purchased all the items that I own with my money, none of these thoughts has been sponsored in any way.


  1. Cameras could be considered another optic. We’ll save them for another post. 
  2. I found this non-hunting site to contain a wealth of information about binoculars and spotting scopes. The reviews are technical and detailed and the wealth of knowledge is vast; I highly recommend reviewing it for any specific optic you’re interested in. 
  3. This holds up to a point (typically around an exit pupil of 5 or so). Beyond that point, the exit pupil diameter is larger than your eye can take in, making additional increases in objective lens size relatively useless. That’s how I’ve come to understand it at least. 
  4. Thinking back to your high school trigonometry class, if you’re shooting at an upward or downward angle towards a target, the distance that your arrow or bullet has to travel will be less than the simple linear distance between you and that target. In order to account for this, some rangefinders measure the angle of drop, and produce the corrected distance. This is a very handy feature. 
  5. They make binoculars with built-in rangefinders. The higher quality pairs of these binoculars have outstanding reviews, though the price is prohibitive for most. We will continue to run a separate binocular and rangefinder combination, as we can trade-off the rangefinder between us depending on who’s hunting. 
Nick :

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