11.06.2008

Canon image stabilizing binoculars rule!

My family is into casual astronomy. My weapon of choice is a Celestron 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain scope with a reducer (I like a big field of view), while my wife prefers binoculars.

Binocs are my recommendation for all amateur astronomers, because they let you look at the sky. Big telescopes are good for looking at objects, but most objects aren't very interesting, not until you want to look at planets, galaxies, clusters, nebulae or double/triple stars. Everything else is a point of light. Points of lights are boring.

In binoculars, you learn your away around the heavens and can enjoy the wonders and patterns and constellations. Start with the Mark I Eyeball, then go to binoculars. Most people don't need telescopes.

Our default astronomy binoculars are a pair of inexpensive Celestron Skymaster Giant 15x70 binocs. They're pretty good, once you get them collimated correctly, so you get a single image. Definitely worth the price; we paid a couple of hundred bucks, but these days you can get 'em for under $100. (Quality isn't too great, and color correction is terrible, but what do you expect in the price range?) We also have a pair of Russian 10x50 binocs I picked up in Berlin, and a 7x35 pair for birding.

I don't recommend binoculars bigger than 15x70 for casual stargazing. In fact, 10x50 binocs would be even better for most people, and 8x56 binocs are better still. Magnification (the first number is the magnification factor) is not the goal with binoculars or with telescopes. Instead you want a good combination of light gathering (the second number is the diameter of the fat part of the lens in millimeters) and light weight. So, the 8x56 binocs have brighter images and a wider field of view than a10x50 binocs. You get less magnification, but as I said, that's not very important.

Binocs in the 30-56mm range are light enough to hold comfortably. Bigger ones, like our 70mm Celestrons, are tiring to hold. Plus, you need to put them on a tripod to keep them steady.

To make a long story short, for my wife's birthday, I bought her Canon's 10x30 IS image-stabilized binoculars. They are incredible.

When you're just looking through them normally, they're a decent set of 10x30 binocs. But when you push the image stabilizer button, all the little jittering you get when you hand-hold binoculars disappears. It's like you just bolted them to a tripod... but can still move them around. I've never seen anything like it.

With the new binocs, you can really see craters on the moon sharp sharp sharp. Jupiter is a definite oblate spheroid, and its four major moons can be seen clearly. But because they're low-magnification binocs with a wide field of view, you can make out the Pleiades and really enjoy the full panorama of the star cluster.

The binocs are equally good at terrestrial viewing. They've made bird-watching and airplane-watching a lot more fun. How many times have you looked through binoculars and begged the object you were looking to stop dancing around? The IS binocs solve that problem, so you can read the plane's tail or identify the bird.

Canon offers its IS binoculars in a variety of sizes, ranging from 8x25 to 18x50. Why did I choose 10x30? Because I wanted something lightweight, which could be held for a long time; at 22 ounces, the ones we purchased are about as heavy as I wanted. The 50mm binocs are nearly twice as heavy, and 25mm lenses don't gather enough photons for stargazing. The other good choice would have been the 12x36 binocs. Either would be perfect for this application.

Bottom line: Strongly recommended.

If you're interested in stargazing, here's a great book to get. It really teaches you the way around the sky: Exploring the Night Sky with Binoculars.

An even more essential book for the casual astronomer is Turn Left At Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope — and How to Find Them. It's just as good for anyone with binoculars. If you don't have it, buy it.

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Co-founder and editorial director of BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. Founder of SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference, AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference, and Big Data TechCon. Also president and principal analyst of Camden Associates, an IT consulting and analyst firm.