Updated: Oct 31, 2021
“You can’t comfortably hand-hold a 12 times magnification binocular ……. “
“12x binoculars are so heavy they can’t be used all day long ……. “
“The light gathering and field of view in a 12x binocular isn’t good enough for birding in
UK conditions…… “
How many times have we heard this sort of thing? And I have to admit, I’ve often said it too!! As a long-term user of optics for birding I have always favoured 8x binoculars. I find them versatile for all wildlife watching, good for light gathering, even in the sometimes less than ideal conditions that we get in the UK, and they have a good field of view as well. I have tried a few pairs of 10x42 bins in the past, but never got on with them at all, feeling compromised in one way or another compared to my 8x42s! So given the chance to test Swarovski’s (supposedly) revolutionary new 12x42 NL Pure bins I jumped at the chance. Surely a binocular of this size would not cut the mustard as a regular everyday optic?
Heading down to the Suffolk Brecks at dawn, I equipped myself with the Swarovski 12x42s and left my trusty 8x42 Swarovski SLCs behind; this was to be a true test with no going back. First port of call was a heathland site which I regularly visit. Here Stone Curlews were seen relatively close and, with the 12x bins, they were stunning even in the half-light of dawn. Their big yellow eyes stood out and I would even guess that I could see them as well as they obviously could see me. Undisturbed, they carried on feeding whilst I had impressively bright views through the Swarovski bins. Reluctantly dragging myself away from these fantastic birds I headed off to the main part of the heathland on the reserve that I was visiting. This was open access having no Stone Curlews nesting on it, so I was able to wander around at will and test the bins further.
The first big test soon showed a possible downside to the 12x42s. A Cuckoo flew across in front of me quite close and instinctively I raised the bins to find it, but the narrow field of view of the 12x42s compared to my usual 8x42s had me struggling at first. Could this be the larger magnification binoculars’ Achilles heel? A wee bit of correction and I was onto the Cuckoo and focussing was quick too - maybe they weren’t so bad. Over the remainder of the day I got used to getting onto and following flying birds, and I concluded that it had just been a case of adapting to these bins having a slightly narrower field of view than I was used to. In the end, I had to admit it wasn’t a problem at all and so ‘field of view’ gets a positive score after all. On the heathland, the luxury of a higher magnification made for enjoyable birding with frame-filling views of Woodlarks feeding and interacting with each other without them even noticing me. Similarly, Tree Pipits on the tops of nearby trees were watched with ease, and the salient ID features to distinguish them from their commoner brethren, Meadow Pipits, were picked out without difficulty.
My next destination threw up a few more tests for the NLs, being a lake based reserve and containing a different array of species to the heathland. The first birds seen, and in their hundreds, were Swifts, over the car park and then everywhere across the reserve. If ever a test was needed for the previously mentioned field of view then the Exocet-like Swifts were a proper challenge. But now that I was used to these bins, finding them in a featureless sky and then tracking them as they chased their insect prey was a piece of cake. Later a Hobby, another avian speed merchant, was watched catching St. Mark’s Flies over the main lake. Not only was it easy to track, but the 12x magnification allowed me to see the Hobby lift the insect grasped in its talons up to its beak whilst still in flight; all a good 300m away on the far side of the lake. This was very, very impressive and I was falling for these bins big time!
All too soon my day was drawing to a close, and the long journey back home ahead of me meant that I had to ‘hit the road’ again. The early start had given me plenty of time to assess these binoculars, and I felt happy that they had had a thorough test. In summary, this was a ‘real’ field test, and this report reflects my feelings about the bins, whether they could be a real alternative to the usual 8x and 10x bins that birders use. The ’Tech Specs’ for all binoculars are available on manufacturers’ websites, so here I don’t quote numbers for close focus, field of view etc., I just want to pass on what they are like for use in the field in real birding scenarios. Having said all that, folk who know me, know of my interest in invertebrates. I go out looking for all insects and especially butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies on my local patch and further afield. For this I am reliant on a good close focus from my optics. On this field test, I didn’t get the chance to watch inverts at all and so could not test the bins for ease of use for this part of my hobby. Having tried the close focus out subsequently, I can confirm that at 2.6m it is not really the best for watching inverts,. Ideally, I would like a minimum of 2m, even given the increased magnification. So, because of this, personally, I would see them as a winter binocular, more for birding, looking across lakes, out to sea, over estuaries, etc. In summer, I could see myself switching to my closer focus 8x42 SLCs for invert watching with less of an emphasis on bird ID at great distances.
Overall, I would say that I was impressed, well probably even stronger, I was blown away by the Swarovski 12x42 NLs. So much so, that I now think that I will be buying a pair of these to add to my ‘tool kit’ of optics. I will continue to use my Swarovski 8x42 SLCs, but with the addition of the 12x42s, including the optional headrest which really did help despite my initial reservations over it, for more specialist use.