In January I took delivery of a new pair of binoculars as part of Lesvos Birding partnership with Swarovski Optik. This was the first pair of non-Leica binoculars I had had since 1989. For 20 of those 27 years I was also a member of Leica’s Optical Innovation Team which meant that since the ’90s I had used only optics which I had personally helped design. So moving from Leica after such a close relationship was, for me, both a big deal and very personal.
But I knew the time was coming. Since I stopped working with Leica I’ve followed the optics market keenly making sure I tested many new products which not only interested me as a birder, but also from the design and technological perspective too.
The open-bridge style of binocular is nothing new, it’s been around for over 100 years, but the reinvention of the open-bridge binocular we’ve seen over the last 15 years has revolutionized the optics market. Around 50% of all models sold are now open-bridge, so if you’re a manufacturer without an open-bridge model you’re not only lagging well behind, but you’re also losing sales.
When I started birding in the ‘80s, I yearned for a pair of Zeiss Dialyt 7×42 binoculars. This elegant semi-open-bridge model remains a design classic and combined superb optics, superb handling and great design (shame they aren’t waterproof – the only thing that stopped me buying a pair). I was privileged to use a pair only last month and they still held their wow! factor despite now being an optical and industrial design which is over 30 years old.
Despite my love of the Zeiss 7x42s I wasn’t a fan of the new generation of open-bridged models which have flooded the market over the last 15 years. It wasn’t until I held Swarovski’s new EL 8x32s, and recently became reacquainted with the Zeiss 7x42s I realized why – handling.
I always know when I like a binocular just by picking them up. How they handle is primary to my using experience. They have to feel innate, natural, both in the hand and when held to the eyes. And we’re all different as we have different sized and shaped hands and different eyes – even more different if like me you’re a spectacle wearer so the binoculars have to fit your glasses too.
Since closed-bridge models have dominated my birding life they’re familiar in the hand and feel right. So when new designs come out they don’t necessarily feel as natural. So as the new generation of open-bridged models arrived on the market I didn’t get on with them. Despite some having superb optics, they just didn’t do anything for me in the hand. And this began to grate with me as I knew in recent years my birding binoculars of choice (my Leica Ultravid 8×42 HD and Ultravid 8×32 HD) were being superseded and I was no longer looking through the best optics.
So when I got to look through a pair of the new (2015) Swarovski EL 8×32 W B binoculars I was swept away. Here, at last, was an open-bridge model which felt completely natural to me. Based on a previous model, the relatively minor design tweaks (including reduced weight) had produced a binocular that I could now use and, importantly, had the best optics out there.
Having small hands for a bloke I’ve never been keen on larger binoculars with many of the new 42mm models being too large or too long for my hands. And some of the 32mm models are just a tad too small. I used the Leica Ultravid 8×32 HDs daily on my dog walks, but despite being petit and light (540g) they remained my second choice as they were just a little too small, even for my smaller hands, and for my birding proper I preferred the larger Leica Ultravid 8×42 HDs. Although significantly larger and heavier (790g) than the 8x32s, they handled better and had the optical edge.
The Swarovski EL 8x32s now delivered for me the best of both worlds – the right size (being only slightly smaller in the hand than my Leica 8x42s) and lighter weight at 570g – and the optics – wow!
For my small hands the size and handling is just terrific. They’re supremely comfortable, the strap lugs are in the right place, the reach to the focus wheel spot on, the improved hold the open-bridge provides with your fingers wrapping more around the open barrels provide a more secure grip, especially when picking the binocular up off a table – one of the most likely times you’re ever going to drop them! The minimal thumb recess on the back isn’t as restrictive as some grooves/ridges (including the Leica 8×42) so provides a much more comfortable hold when held to my eyes.
The image is natural, bright and wide (the latter when wearing glasses as I do). They say the field of view is a market leading 141m at 1000m but this is hard to see over my existing Leica models (the 8x32s are 135m at 1000m) and both models have a comfortable and wide image, just the Swarovskis are brighter and more naturally coloured and just have an overall punch and depth to the image the Leica models lack. The Swarovski also has a flatter field, and although this took some getting used to at first, it’s no longer apparent unless I look for the very minor barreling when panning from side to side. Likewise, chromatic aberration is something you have to look for at the edge of the field of view against a bright sky, and in everyday use is never noticed. Watching a brightly backlit Short-toed Eagle in Lesvos last month posed no problem, still rendering the subtlest of plumage detail on the pale undersides easily discernible.
Despite enjoying my new bins since the moment I got them, it wasn’t until I spent my annual spring month on Lesvos (from the middle of April) that I felt completely at ease with them. Until my arrival on the island I found I was always looking to find fault in them – only natural when they’re the first model you’ve owned in over 20 years which you haven’t personally help design. But on arrival in Lesvos I relaxed and just started to simply enjoy my new optics soon realising that they are simply superb and quite simply the best binoculars I’ve ever used. Whether watching migrating raptors, waders across the open expanse of the saltpans, warblers flitting high in the canopy or skulking in the ground scrub, or insects less than 2m away, they are just superb to look through and hold. And the reduced weight (570g) from my Leica Ultravid 8×42 HDs (790g) I use on all my trips was very welcome both in the hand and around my neck after a long day in the field.
Design features, be they aesthetic or supposedly functional, and accessories, have long been a bugbear of mine as they are so important to the overall use of a binocular. When I worked with Leica we used to spend what the designers told me was a disproportionate amount of time working on what they saw as relatively minor features, detail and accessories – and that’s because the designers were not users like me, and they constantly over-designed some items only to have them reined in by myself and others – sadly sometimes not always reined in enough.
So as much as I love my new bins there remain a few niggles (show me a binocular that is perfect!). Minor, often personal things do make a difference.
The new Swarosvki strap, despite looking superbly designed, is not for me. I don’t get what all that loose cord stuff is about – and not being one averse to taking scissors or a knife to something to improve them, I couldn’t see how I was going to get something I wanted out of this strap. For me they’ve over-designed what should be the simplest of accessories. Once you’ve set a strap’s length to your liking there should be no more too it. You don’t need fancy adjustment because you should never need to adjust it. So I selected the simplest of the Swarovski straps because once fixed to length, it will never be altered again (I have a second longer strap to use in extreme cold weather (e.g. in winter in Iceland) when I need a longer strap to use with my winter parka which has a much larger neckline).
The new rotating strap lugs don’t do it for me. They look fantastic and refreshingly different, but when I put my bins down I find that around 50% of the time one or both of the lugs have rotated more than 180 degrees causing the strap to twist. So I find I’m having to check this every time I pick them up – not something I have to do with the good old fashioned simple lugs we’ve all grown up with.
Are these two features symptoms of trying too hard to be different from their competitors? My 20 years with Leica would say yes. For me they go with thumb grooves and ridges which were in vogue some years back, and which are slowly being designed out as manufacturers realise that such features aren’t for everyone and these are over-designed features that worked perfectly well and didn’t need changing.
The rainguard however is spot on. I can’t remember a Swarovski rainguard that I would have used in the recent past as they used to be over-designed, but the return to a simple, no-nonsense design means I can use the one supplied (with only the merest of modifications shaving off the tiny raised bumps on the inside of each eyepiece cover to reduce the grip on the eyecups to ease slipping them on and off) – not something I’ve done with any of my Leicas for many years (I used a Duovid rainguard on my Ultravid 42s and an old Trinovid 32 rainguard on my Ultravid 32s as can be seen on the picture above). With attachment loops on both sides the rainguard can be used on the left, right, or attached to both sides (I’ve always found it odd those manufacturers that make you connect the rainguard on a fixed side – what if its not your preferred side?)
The case supplied with the Swarovski EL 8x32s is nice and large and easily houses the binoculars and folded strap.
Your choice of birding binocular will always be a compromise of optical performance, handling and budget. Even at the top end of the market you can find models with a brighter image, a wider field or better close focusing. But are they a neat, lightweight package like the Swarovski EL 32s? Do they handle as well as these EL 32s? For me, no, because these Swarovski ELs are the ultimate bird and wildlife 32mm binocular. Congratulations Swarovski.
More information including technical spec on the Swarovski site – view
I’ve had a long association with the optics trade including as a member of Leica’s Optics Innovation Team for 20 years, helping Leica to deliver all of their birding optics in the 1990s and 2000s, as described in this Leica brochure page from 2001.
30 May 2016