My seven-year-old grandson has asked for a spotting scope for Christmas. He has an active interest in birds, but he doesn’t have a pair of binoculars yet, so a spotting scope is a bit of a reach. His mother agrees. She told me she’s been looking in a chain-store sporting-goods catalog at a pair of binoculars costing $35. That seemed to her like a reasonable point to begin. I told her, no. Not a good place to begin. First, $35 binoculars are very, very unlikely to be worth even that small cost. They’re almost guaranteed to have inexpensive plastc lenses, no brightness to the image, color bleeds on image edges, and fragile construction. Better to spend more and get binoculars that will please the user, inviting him/her to use them again and again. Shop in person, I told her, at a store where sales personnel know what they’re selling. Seven-year-olds have special needs – smaller hands, a need for lightweight equipment, and construction sturdy enough to take bumps and bruises. Look through the binoculars yourself, I suggested. Take your time, make an informed decision, and be willing to make a larger investment in encouraging this child’s interest in wild things. That kind of interest is too precious to handle casually. I recommended that she begin her search at one of the National Camera stores. I’ve shopped at their Golden Valley store for years for binoculars, scopes, tripods, and camera equipment. I’ve never been disappointed. Go in and ask to see the Nikon Action series, priced from $80 to $110. These are of metal construction, have coated lenses (true color, no flare), are the right size for a child’s hands, and are fully guaranteed forever, replaced for $10 and shipping costs. You can, of course, spend more money if you wish. Binoculars can cost two grand, and the high-end products are worth it. But the popularity of birding has pushed prices down and quality up. This is sort of a golden age for optics. Binoculars can be a wonderful present for children and adults, but an informed purchase is essential. Cheap binoculars are not a present. They’re a problem.
(Pictured are my first decent binoculars, Bausch & Lomb Elites, 8x42, almost 30 years old. The eye cups are gone, but I wear glasses, so that doesn’t matter. The neck strap is worn, the lens protector wrapped in Duct tape, tied to the strap with a piece of string. The image, however, is as good as ever.)