Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

December 2002

Question of the Month

What binoculars do we just LOVE?



For my fiftieth birthday (what a scary thing to write!), Mary Ann surprised me with a pair of binoculars I've been curious about for a long time -- the Canon 18x50 IS binoculars. We had been introduced to these binoculars on a Baja, Mexico whaling trip several years ago and I can still remember that introduction. The powerful diesel engines of the cruise boat were throbbing, creating a subtle vibration that was always present but one that we got used to and ignored. Someone on the boat had a pair of IS binocs (IS standing for IMAGE STABILIZATION), and as a test we tacked a sheet of newspaper across the galley.

I don't recall the magnification, but the binocs were around 15X. Without the IS function turned on my unsteady hand and the subtle vibration from the boat's engines created such an unsteady image that the headlines of the newspaper were barely legible. The IS binocs have a recessed 'on' button and, when I pressed that in and activated the IS motors, the entire image changed. The shaky view I had was gone and now, miraculously, I could read the smallest newsprint from across the galley! I was convinced IS worked.

Although I was tempted to purchase a pair at that time, the largish size of the binoculars kept me from buying a pair. I don't know whether the original Canon version of these binoculars were larger and heavier than the latest model, but when I unwrapped my gift and held the 18X version in hand they seemed to weigh about the same as my Zeiss binocs, and were not that much larger either. Actual weight was probably in the neighborhood of 1.4X that of the Zeiss, and the Canon are probably about a 1/4th larger, but in the scheme of things that difference wasn't much. Subsequently, everyone I showed (OK, bragged to) the binoculars to commented that they looked heavier than they actually were.

So, why do I love these binoculars so much?

At 18X, the binoculars have the magnification of many small spotting scopes which generally require a tripod or, at the very least, a sturdy shoulder mount. Even at 10X, there is some image shake, and I've found in the past that when I was really carefully studying a distant landscape, scoping for the tiny outline of lion ears above tall grasses or the slim silhouette of a cheetah a half mile away, this shake made careful study difficult. Imagine hand-holding a pair of binoculars nearly twice as powerful and dealing with that shake!

With IS, the shake was eliminated and I could handhold the binoculars for an extremely steady image. Imagine sweeping a landscape at 18X and seeing a view that was steady and sharp at that magnification. It was incredible. Without exaggeration I was spotting things from distances I never thought possible before -- and let me give three examples:

1. At a measured distance of 2.2 kilometers I spotted a family of cats that I thought were probably cheetahs, but could have been lions. They turned out to be a family of cheetahs we'd been looking for, and had I had to guess, I'd have bet that they were cheetahs.

2. Earlier that day I had spotted lions at an even greater distance, perhaps as far as twice that for the cheetahs. From that distance I could discern three cats, even making out the larger head of the male at that distance.

3. On another day I spotted a black rhino that was lying down, and that looked like a termite mound until an ear flicked. The distance -- at least one mile.

The above observations are not a brag about how great a spotter I am, because the binoculars did the work. The point is, I could see with a sharpness and clarity never possible before.

The IS binoculars are fluorite coated lenses, so they're extremely sharp. The only negative, at least with the 18X, is the relatively distant minimum focus, which is around 25 feet. If you are a warbler fan accustomed to using binocs up close, this might be an issue. However, if you plan on using binocs to spot distant game (how big a curl does that bighorn ram have?), hawk watching, whale watching, or whatever, that minimum focus is not an issue.

Before you run out and buy a pair, check to see if they fit comfortably in your hands. The 18X pair are too big for Mary, so she is not interested in a pair that large. Sometime in the future we might consider the 12X or 15X for Mary, if we find their size is scaled down (I haven't checked yet to see). If you wear eyeglasses, like I do, you might find the rubber eye cups need to be retracted so that the eyepieces aren't so far away from the eye glass surface, otherwise you'll get a tunnel-like view and obtaining one round circle (instead of two from the two objectives) will be difficult.

The IS is powered by 2 AA batteries, and Lithium batteries are supposed to last about 8 hours. In the field I was finding the batteries were lasting for a shorter period of time, but that may have been because the IS stays on unless you click the IS button to turn the function off. You'll know if the IS is on or not because a green diode lights up (right next to the on/off button) when the IS function is on.Once I paid attention to this my battery life extended, so I think, at first, that I stupidly just didn't notice that the IS was on when I slipped the binocs back into their carrying case.

Conclusion: The binocs are razor-sharp, as fine as my Zeiss I think, and with the IS function, I'm hand-holding binoculars with a steadiness I never felt possible. With them I've spotted game at distances that were simply incredible, while still being able to use the binocs for closeup work (Once I got used to 'sighting in' with the relatively narrow angle of view 18X provides). I've never been as happy with a pair of binocs, and the only thing that could make me happier is if Canon had given me the pair! They didn't -- so this is an unsolicited and unpaid endorsement. Darn them!


Do YOU have a Question you'd like addressed? If so, please forward your question to our email address, below, and title the subject of your email (in the Subject field) 'Proposed Question of the Month. Can't promise you we'll address your particular question but we'll do the best we can do.

Previous Questions of the Month

Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?   What the heck is a Plamp?
 How do we carry our film when traveling?  What do we really think about digital photography?
 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites?  What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?
 Why should you know Manual Mode?  Flash and Tele-flash Techniques
 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?
 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
What is the Best Composition?  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?
 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?   How do you shoot silhouettes?
 How would you meter these challenging images?  Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?
 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales? What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?
 How Easy is Whale Photography?  Is NANPA for you?
 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?
 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?  How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 Reciprocity Failure  Hyperfocal Distance

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