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review: pentax papilio binoculars

The fundamental tools-of-the-trade for a field ecologist are pretty basic: good boots, “Rite-in-the-Rain” notebooks, and binoculars. For a long time, I only had two pairs of binoculars: my good Leica bins and a cheaper pair I wear bird banding (a lesson I learned when I had to send my Leicas in for professional cleaning when errant bird poop finally froze up the eye pieces). Soon I felt the need for a little travel pair to keep in the car.

Then, middle age rudely diminished the close-focus range of any binocular I owned. As I started doing more grant work involving insects, especially dragonflies, I found that I needed not only a good insect net, but bins with really good close focus. Late this summer, I picked up a pair of Pentax Papilio 8.5×21 binoculars.

They* rock! Advertised close focus is 18 inches, easily obtainable. I thought that sometimes I could get even closer. This is achieved through some sort of optics magic. The blurb at the Pentax web site explains it is via “new design technology that automatically compensates for the misalignment of right and left image fields at close ranges.”  I read that the close focus amounts to holding something ten inches from your face and looking at it with a 5x hand lens. Since I do a lot of insect surveys, this is extremely worthwhile. The image is bright and clear. When I took a look at my first fly in the yard, it reminded me of when I first got glasses as a kid — a kind of “wow” experience.

Whereas good high-end birding binoculars only take a half turn of the focus knob to go from at-your-feet to in-the-next-county, the Papilios offer sharp focus at close range through many swipes of the knob. Switching back and forth between my birding bins and the Papilios is a little challenging because they are so different. The Paps are adequate for casual birding, but the need to paw at the focus means a bird flying by you as you are examining a Monarch will likely go unidentified. It just takes too long to get on a moving object and focus.

The Papilios are very lightweight (10.2 oz) and small (less than 5 x 5 inches). I typically kept them tucked in the front pocket of my camera bag when I was doing serious field trips, but often had them around my neck in the yard, where they were easily forgotten. The strap attachment is the most hassle-free I have encountered in neck-dangling optics: a post-in-groove locking arrangement. It’s not only quick and secure, but allows very free swiveling movement. While it eliminated the tedious process of having to thread a strap through a little potentially-fragile loop on the bin body, it also prevents replacement of the rather standard webbed nylon strap with anything else but another strap with the same attachment. However, at this light weight, a padded strap isn’t necessary.

The bins have a rubberized coating, but are not waterproof or fogproof. I did have them on our rainy Panama trip, and had no problems, although admittedly there were not a lot of insects out in the rain to look at.

Other features include fully multi-coated lenses, 15 mm eye relief, and a threaded hole on the bottom for tripod attachment.

I’m really pleased with these binoculars (this binocular!), especially at their very reasonable price. I’d recommend them to anybody who likes to look at insects, if you need a spare pair of travel bins, or even for casual or beginning birders, who often start out looking at close-by birds anyway.

Cross-posted at Urban Dragon Hunters.

*A pair of binoculars is really an “it.” This sounds weird to me. I am usually a technically-precise writer. It’s one reason why I quit writing this blog for awhile. I have to write publication-quality material all the time and my own internal editor made me do it here, too. I’m going to try to let my hair down.

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