Zeiss 8x40 SFL Binoculars
The saying goes that in Spring a young man’s thoughts turn to, well to put it politely, frisks and frolics! If I may paraphrase that, when Spring turns to Summer my thoughts turn to invertebrates, or creepie crawlies, bugs, whatever you want to call them! Call me weird for this, and many do, but I look forward to this time of year with excited anticipation. The temperatures go up and the sun comes out, the cue for the cold-blooded beasts in our countryside to emerge and become much more evident to nature watchers such as myself. I like nothing more than to get out in the sunshine armed with my binoculars and camera-phone (which allows me to take surprisingly good macro shots!) and seek out these mini-beasts. Again, to use an old chestnut, no stone goes unturned, as I look for beetles, bees, butterflies and bugs of all shapes and sizes to identify and photograph.
Until now I had been happy using my current binoculars, a pair at the top end of the range, which gave high resolution images and would focus down to about 2.1m with an 8 times magnification. In most situations this would do fine, but just occasionally I found myself stepping backwards to get that minimum focus, a little bit further than I had wanted to see some tiny detail on an insect crucial for accurate identification. When distinguishing the ‘blue damselflies’ comes down to seeing a mark c.0.5mm long on the insect’s abdomen then the closer the better really! I had never thought of changing my binoculars to improve my invertebrate watching as the alternatives in the market to my excellent current bins were good for close ups but failed to match up to mine when using them to view distant birds or for use in low light levels such as woodlands or at dusk and dawn. BUT…….. I was astounded when I tested out the new Zeiss offering in the binocular market, especially as they were priced at about £1000 less than all the current top models from Zeiss, Swarovski and Leica. Here suddenly was a binocular with the specifications that could have been written for me!
The model in question is the Zeiss SFL, coming in an 8x40 and a 10x40, both having excellent technical specifications but as always, I favoured the 8x model as I always do in all binoculars. The first thing I noticed looking through them is the bright image and true to life colour. It’s just like switching a light on when you put them up to your eyes. But my old bins are similar, to be honest, so that alone wouldn’t give a reason to change. The depth of field is superb too as is the width of field, both features really useful for birding, which allied to their high light gathering capacity makes them a usable tool for all year round. As I tested other functions the ‘killer punch’ hit me, the close focus! I was able to focus right down to just under 1.5m or just under 5ft in old money! I could actually focus on my toes looking straight down being over 6ft tall, my thoughts immediately were that for me this could be a game changing optic for insect watching. From that first viewing at Focalpoint Optics, of the first pair that arrived in stock, I wanted them. Finally, a binocular existed to give me optimum insect watching but still giving all the elements required as a top birding binocular too. The two halves of my wildlife watching could be united with just one optic without their being any compromise for these two parts of my hobby.
Now onto the techy stuff, very relevant when comparing what binoculars ‘can’ do but in my opinion looking through them to see what they do for you, the user, is the real acid test before purchasing.
First, why 8x40? Zeiss have chosen to reduce the objective size to allow the use of thinner lens elements which can be more closely spaced and as such reduce the weight, length and volume of the binoculars resulting in their compact design and feel. Compared to all the other top end 8x42 binoculars they feel so light and comfortable to ‘lug around’ in the field. They actually weigh only 640g, which is more like the weight of an 8x32 than a 8x42 binocular, especially comparing it to the other top-end choices. Length is 114mm, again more like an 8x32 binocular. Now lifting the binoculars up to your eyes, the brightness and true colour of the image hits you immediately. The bins have a 90% light transmission and a 17.9 Twilight Factor and so are excellent even in low light. The field of view (f.o.v) is excellent too with 8 degrees being exceptional and especially as the image is sharp to the edges unlike lower-end optics which claim a similar f.o.v but have ‘fall-off’ at the edges and so focus isn’t sharp across the whole viewing field. The ease of use is facilitated by the small number of turns to go from close focus to infinity, only 1.4 complete turns to do so. This gives a tremendous depth of field meaning that the need to refocus is minimised. The next feature, and the one that really sold these bins to me, is the close focus, as I mentioned before. The official ‘Tech Spec’ gives a close focus of 1.5m but I think it may be a tiny bit less than that. Like all other top-end options these bins are ‘washable’, being Nitrogen-filled and sealed to resist underwater pressures of 400mBar. This means that to clean off fine dust or salt spray they can be washed in a bowl of water or run under a lukewarm tap, a really good feature to keep them as pristine as possible for the longest time. These bins are made with Zeiss glass with T* and LotuTec coatings to reduce light loss in transmission and to help rain run off the elements more readily.
With the tech stuff out of the way it was time to give the binoculars a proper test, out in the field birding and wildlife watching and by leaving my usual bins at home all my reliance would be on the SFLs. Would they stand up to the test?! My first trip out was predictably on my local patch in Cheshire, a good test since a lot of my observations would be of invertebrates there. As I had hoped, the extra-close focus of the SFLs made them perfect for the job. Tiny ‘blue’ damselflies were easily assigned to species by looking at the first abdominal segment and a black mark less than 0.5mm long!! The day's star invertebrate was a bit bigger, but I still benefited from the ability to get close when focussing, the Bog Bush Cricket. This speciality of my patch, and a species I personally discovered here, was as usual tucked away in deep heather but the bins made light work of giving me fabulous views. Other invertebrates were equally stunning when viewed close up through the SFLs, butterflies, dragonflies and whatever I could find. They were definitely ‘up for’ the job that I had wanted them for. Next, looking out over the two main lakes here I was relieved that the birds on the far side were easily identified, and the bins proved to be as good for general birding as for close up ‘insecting’! In fact, just a week or so later this paid dividends when I scanned the ducks out across the lake and saw a familiar silhouette. It was unmistakable a female Smew, a scarce diving-duck species that I had had before on my patch. The regular female had not been seen for a good 18 months so this was an unexpected but pleasant surprise. As it happened, she only stayed for 3 days and then her carrier flock of Tufted Ducks departed taking her with them, but at least by having the Zeiss SFLs at hand I didn’t miss her brief visit back.
As well as taking these stunning optics out locally I wanted to test them on another aspect of my hobby - twitching! This is when I would travel to another part of the UK to try to see and photograph a bird, usually a rare one, that someone else had found and then news had been released on various media to allow others to also see it. These days with an environmental conscience and awareness of my carbon footprint my twitching usually involves shorter journeys, mainly limited to the NW region of the UK in which I live. Following this ideal my first trip out was to the NW coast of Lancashire to an area called Hest Bank, near Lancaster. The relatively short drive was easy and as I arrived a couple of other birders present confirmed that my quarry was still present. I was soon looking at the first-year Turtle Dove that had settled here to feed up in autumn prior to migration to warmer climes. The bird was easily picked up using the Zeiss SFLs, the colour clarity showing off the delicately patterned wings and back of this fast-declining UK breeder. Several shots were digiscoped and then I carried on watching the bird feed through my Zeiss bins.
Other cracking birds that I saw in Lancashire over the autumn all were shown in the best light using the Zeiss SFLs and included a Red-footed Falcon in Blackpool. The pictures were taken as it perched near a footpath but the wide field of view of the Zeiss bins made it child's play to follow as it sped through the air overhead performing aerial gymnastics. Later in the year a Lesser Yellowlegs dropped in at Leighton Moss RSPB so a trip with the trusty Zeiss was planned and luckily, I arrived in the hide just 5 minutes before it flew off, departing for good not being seen again. I was rapidly onto the bird with the Zeiss and managed to watch it for the whole of the time I was in the hide as it walked closely past us before flying off high and distant.
Another trip out was even shorter, being just up the road in Greater Manchester, Bury to be precise. Here my destination was Elton Reservoir, which I found easily having visited many times before. Against me was the weather as it absolutely hammered it down with rain the whole time I was there. I got drenched, the Zeiss got drenched but again I saw the bird that I had come to see, a Ruddy Duck, a massive rarity in the UK now due to a controversial DEFRA cull of this introduced species. Even in these dark and gloomy conditions the Zeiss SFLs worked well, and the image was clear, bright and sharp. The Zeiss Lotutec coatings helped shift the water off the lenses so again enhancing my view. My pictures show the rain bouncing off the surface of the reservoir but don’t really show just how dark it was, but with quality optics, like Zeiss, that isn’t a problem.
Unsurprisingly in the end I decided that the Zeiss SFLs were so good that I would buy a pair. As prices change all the time an exact amount here is pointless but suffice to say that they come in around a thousand pounds less than the top models of Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss and this price differential will probably remain constant. For that price they are unrivalled and must represent possibly the best value binoculars in the whole UK market. I bought them intending them to be my ‘summer’ bins when I would be watching insects more than birds, but with the performance and weight I am still using them on birds in November and can see them being my all year-round choice from now on.