Affordable Binoculars for Whitetail Deer Hunting

Until now, buying good binoculars for deer hunting has been somewhat of a dilemma: You can spend $100 for a pair that will only be useful as a paperweight in five years, or skip a mortgage payment to buy ones that will last several lifetimes. Fortunately, a recent spate of excellent midpriced models provides a more moderate option. For less than $500, you can own high-quality binoculars that are nearly as bright, sharp, and durable as those costing twice as much. Here's what deer hunters need to consider when shopping:

Size and Weight: For all-around deer hunting and scouting, get full-size binoculars. These typically stand between 5 and 8 inches tall and weigh roughly 18 to 30 ounces. If you do most of your hunting from a stationary position, you can get away with the larger, heavier models. If you're more active, go smaller and lighter. And if you're a very active hunter who's considering compact binoculars, understand that these models very rarely offer as bright an image, and that some of the newest full-size optics come in near-compact sizes.

Magnification: Despite the popularity of high-powered optics, less is often more for deer hunting. All else being equal, increased power decreases field of view, brightness, and your ability to hold the image steady. For all-around use, 8X is a good choice; 10X is fine if you hunt a lot of open terrain; and 6X is not too small if you still-hunt big woods.

Brightness: This is an especially important consideration for deer hunters, who are apt to do a lot of glassing in the dim light surrounding dawn and dusk. Though the quality of the lens coatings plays a role, brightness is largely a function of the exit pupil, which is determined by the size of the objective lenses divided by the power. For example, 8x32s and 10x40s both have an exit pupil of 4mm, and therefore have the same relative brightness. The 8x32s, though, will be slimmer and lighter. Again, this is a good reason not to overdo magnification. To match the brightness of 8x42s, for example, a 12x model would have to have 63mm objective lenses--which would make for a binocular few deer hunters would want to lug around.

Sharpness: Also called resolution, this is another important factor, as deer hunters commonly scan the woods for the smallest details, such as an ear twitching or an antler reflecting light in the midst of thick brush or dense woods. Generally speaking, the larger the objective lenses, the sharper the image. But the quality of the glass and the prism is important, too. Your best bet is to compare several models with one another while shopping by focusing on some fine lettering on a distant object.

Prism: Theoretically speaking, a porro prism is optically superior to a roof prism. In the real world, however, most porros are cheaply made and too bulky for deer hunting. With few exceptions, your best bet is to buy roof-prism binoculars. Just be certain that the prism is phase-coated, which corrects a problem particular to roof prisms by realigning light waves and thereby significantly improving contrast and resolution. For deer hunters, nothing could be clearer.

Pentax DCF HR II

(800-877-0155; pentax.com) Power & Objective Lens Size: 8x42 • Height: 6.9 inches • Weight: 27.5 ounces • Price: $300 • Comments: Though just a tad on the heavy side, these binoculars are sharp, very bright, and waterproof to 1 meter with long eye relief and twist-up eyecups--all for an exceptionally low price.

Alpen Apex 493

(909-987-8370; alpenoutdoor.com) Power & Objective Lens Size: 8x42 • Height: 6 inches • Weight: 24 ounces • Price: $375 ($400 in Mossy Oak camo) • Comments: The Apex 493 is wonderfully bright and very sharp, providing long eye relief with twist-up eyecups.

Bushnell Legend

(800-423-3537; bushnell.com) Power & Objective Lens Size: 8x32 • Height: 4.9 inches • Weight: 24 ounces • Price: $380 • Comments: The company's patented Rain-guard coating protects against fogging and beading. The Legend is a rugged performer with solid optics.

Zeiss Conquest

(800-441-3005; www.zeiss.com) Power & Objective Lens Size: 8x30 • Height: 5.6 inches • Weight: 17.5 ounces • Price: $499 • Comments: The lightest pair here, the Conquest is bright, exceptionally sharp, and a great choice for still-hunting big woods.

Nikon Monarch ATB Camo

(631-547-4200; nikonusa.com) Power & Objective Lens Size: 10x42 • Height: 5.6 inches • Weight: 21.5 ounces • Price: $320 • Comments: Lightweight for 10x42s, this model offers very good optics at a very low price.

Leupold Wind River Katmai

(503-526-1400; www.leupold.com) Power & Objective Lens Size: 8x32 • Height: 4 inches • Weight: 18.9 ounces • Price: $390 • Comments: Ideal for active hunting and scouting, the Katmai carries like a compact but delivers sharp, bright, full-size views. Also available in even brighter 6x32s.

For more information on hunting optics, go to fieldandstream.com.