The Care and Feeding of Binoculars

How to keep your binoculars bird-worthy and free of pizza sauce, beer, and puke.

OK, so I am a bit OCD. OK, so I love my binoculars a bit more than I should. In my defense I hasten to point out that compulsive behavior can sometimes be a good thing. Allowing a fastidious impulse to rule a small part of my life ensures that my binoculars will continue to provide the same brilliant image that inspired me to plunk down my hard earned money to buy them and that the silky smooth focus will stay that way until I pass my cherished bins on to their next owner.

But, oh the things I have seen. Lenses so filthy that one could hardly see through them. I watched one seemingly sane person throw a brand new pair of Swarovski ELs into a canvas boat bag (no case or lens covers) with all kinds of other gear, and a leaky sandwich. I have seen orange juice spilled on binocular lenses. Ketchup! Dorito crumbs! Pickle juice! I have even seen more than one pelagic trip participant (forgive me gentle reader) throw up on their binoculars. This kind of abuse has been going on for so long that Lady Macbeth was rendered near speechless. She could only say: “Oh horrible, oh horrible, most horrible.”

I know that binocular abusers aren’t all bad people. Some seem to feel that taking a casual approach to binoculars conveys the status of a veteran birder who is more concerned about birds than equipment. Gunked up or bashed up binoculars are no more a status symbol than is a wheezing, smoking, rusted 1970 Chevy Nova. In fact, you will see more birds, have more fun, spend less money, and fuss less with your binoculars if they are well cared for. Here are a few tips to extend the useful life and enjoyment of your binoculars.

Keeping your lenses clean. The best way to clean your lenses is not to clean them at all – or to clean them as infrequently as possible. Your binocular undoubtedly came with a cover for the eyepieces. Most manufacturers call this thing a “rain guard.” Think of it as a “food guard,” because rain won’t hurt your binoculars nearly as much as food will. Use the food guard any time that you eat or drink while wearing your binoculars. The best way to keep them clean is to keep pizza sauce, Cheese Wiz, Pepsi, Gatorade, salad dressing, and potato chip crumbs off the lenses.

Be sure to use your food guard on pelagic trips -- especially if you tend to get sick. Vomit on your lenses should be dealt with immediately by rinsing the binoculars in fresh water (assuming they are water proof). You won’t feel like attending to your binoculars while you are still green, but do it anyway. Keep in mind that, if you don’t rinse your binoculars immediately, you won’t feel like using them at all when you feel well enough to continue birding.

How to clean your lenses. Despite our best efforts, lenses do get dirty sometimes. Here are a few tips on cleaning them. The first thing you need to know is that all binocular lenses are coated with exotic materials which prevent light from reflecting off the polished glass surfaces. Lens coatings are absolutely crucial to the quality of the image you see through your binoculars. Coatings are the thickness of only a few molecules and can only be applied under controlled factory conditions. They cannot be re-applied. I am telling you this because the lens coatings are the most delicate part of your binoculars. They are easy to damage with careless cleaning.

If your binocular lenses get smudged or dirty, do not clean them with any of the following articles: your tie or handkerchief, the tail of your shirt, paper towels, facial tissue, toilet tissue, newspaper, T-shirts, saliva, Windex, Glass Plus, or ammonia.  All the paper products mentioned above contain wood fibers which will scratch your coatings. Tissues and paper towels may also contain lanolin which will make a terrible mess on your lenses. As for your tie or  handkerchief, I have no idea what’s in them, so don’t use them. I also have no idea what saliva may do to your lens coatings, but it can’t be good. Windex, Glass Plus, and other household cleaners contain ammonia which will absolutely dissolve your coatings.  NEVER use detergent on lenses.

Clean your lenses only with the soft cloth that came with your binoculars or with a good lens cleaning cloth purchased in a camera store. I also like the paper lens cleaning towels sold by Lens Crafters.
As for lens cleaning liquids, only use lens cleaners which are isopropyl alcohol based. Make sure the label says that the product is safe for coated lenses. Several optics companies (such as Zeiss) put out lens cleaners under their name.

If you want to blow dust off your lenses, hold the binoculars up over your head and then blow on them. Gravity should keep you from spitting or dribbling on the lenses.

To clean your lenses, first brush or blow away the loose dirt with a soft camel hair brush or compressed air. Then lightly spray the lens cloth (never spray the binoculars) with cleaning solution and gently clean the lenses.

Other Tips:
1. Don’t leave your binoculars on the car seat while you are driving. Sooner or later you will stop short, but your binoculars won’t. They will go flying and hit you, or some hard part of the car, before they hit the floor and get knocked out of alignment. Since your bins will eventually wind up on the floor anyway, why not put them down there to start with and avoid the wear and tear. If you are going a short distance to your next birding stop you might consider keeping them around your neck, but they may make a permanent indentation in your chest if you hit something that causes the airbag to deploy. By-the-way, birding in a car caravan (say on a bird club field trip) is a really good way to learn about your airbags.
2. If you have poro prism binoculars set the focus on infinity (with the eyepieces full retracted) for travel or storage.
3. Similarly, if you have solid twist-up eyecups, I suggest keeping them retracted when storing or traveling with your binoculars. A bump or knock can cause the eyecups to become cross-threaded and stuck in place, which will mean a trip to the repair shop.
4. If your binoculars start to feel heavy at the end of a day’s birding, consider switching to a shoulder harness to take the weight off your neck. Never dangle them in your hands by their strap. Swinging them from their strap while strolling is NOT cool.

OK, now that you have received the knowledge you have a responsibility to pass it along. So, the next time you see someone abusing their binoculars, don’t call the binocular police. Don’t ridicule. Befriend the abuser. Show them the way. Enlightenment will win out.