Binoculars are THE essential piece of equipment for bird watching. Comfortable shoes and a good identification book are good ideas, but you must have binoculars. You want the best you can afford, and you want to buy them from someone who can visit intelligently with you about your particular needs, and then help you make a good choice.

You can buy binoculars in many places, in sporting good stores, in stores specializing in hunting equipment, from catalogs and on the Internet. I wouldn’t choose any of those sources. I want to buy from someone who understands what I need, and can help me choose binoculars that fit my activity, my hands, and my budget.

Optics have improved much in recent years, and prices have come down as quality went up. You can spend $2,000 for super binoculars. You can get good ones that will serve a casual birder well for years for a few hundred dollars, perhaps as little as $200.

Again, it’s important to buy from a vendor that understands optics and a birder's particular needs.

Magnification is important, obviously, but so is the ability of the glass to gather light and to present it to you without color distortion. Weight is a factor; I think lighter is better. Binoculars hanging from your neck can become heavy pretty quickly. And the binoculars should fit your hands. 

If someone were to ask me, as that reader did, where to go for good service and good equipment, I’d say National Camera, which has several stores in the Twin Cities. I use the Golden Valley store, and have for years. My binoculars and all of my camera equipment have come from there. They are knowledgeable about what they sell. You have a 30-day return period. It's a good place, with a wide selection of equipment from many manufacturers.

Binoculars come with two numbers. My Swarovski bins, for instance, are 10x32s. My two pair of Bausch and Lomb Elites are 8x42s. The first number – 8 or 10 – refers to magnification. The larger the number, the greater the magnification. Also magnified is any motion while you have the glass to your eyes. Some people have an unsteady grip, and find a wavering image a problem. At my age, this could be a problem. It isn’t.

The second number – 32 or 42 – refers to the light-capturing quality of the lenses. A higher number means the lens gathers more light. This makes the image brighter. Details, particular in shade, are easier to see. Think of a thrush beneath a bush.

The Bausch and Lomb bins are heavy compared to the Swarovski. The Swarovski pair is smaller, fitting my hands well.

Why do I have three pairs of good bins? Before my first real birding trip, with a tour group heading for Arizona, I bought the first pair of B&Ls. The binoculars I had been using were so maladjusted, so out of alignment that the eyestrain was palpable. I used them for a long time because, I guess, I didn’t know any better. A few years later, B&L discontinued the model I had purchased, and National Camera was selling them for half price. I bought another pair for “just in case.”

When I held and looked through the Swarovski bins about 10 years later, I had no problem deciding to take them home. To me, they’re worth every dollar they cost.

I’m certain there are other retailers who are knowledgeable about binoculars, and who give good service. One thing I wouldn’t do is buy via the Internet from a dealer out of town. Prices might be better on some Web sites. Post-purchase service can be another thing.