If you often spot airplanes flying over your area or if you enjoy a good airshow, then binoculars are a great companion to have. A good pair of binoculars will allow you to see the aircrafts up close and in much better detail. This guide explains what type of binoculars work best for plane spotting and which features to look for when buying them. We’ve also listed our top 3 binoculars for plane spotting.
When shopping for binoculars, you will notice that two numbers accompany every model name. For example, 8×42, 10×42, 10×50 etc. The first number is the magnification of the binoculars (also referred to as power or zoom). The second number is the diameter of their lenses. 10×42 binoculars, for example, mean that they have 10x magnification and 42mm lenses. The trick is to find the perfect balance between magnification and lens size for your intended use.
Best Magnification for Plane Spotting Binoculars
Binoculars normally have a magnification (zoom) of 8x to 20x times. As planes can be quite far up, you will obviously need sufficient magnification to see them in detail.
On the other hand, it is important to understand that handheld binoculars with too much magnification can provide an unstable image. They will prove to be too frustrating to use and even impossible to actually see the planes in motion. This is a very common issue with high-powered binoculars. While looking at planes you will be pointing your binoculars upwards, so the image stabilisation issue becomes even more noticeable.
Most viewers can easily achieve a stable view with 10x magnification binoculars. Other viewers can comfortably use up to 16x magnification binoculars as long as they keep a steady hand. We find that for airshows or low flying planes, 10x magnification is ideal. 10x Magnification can also be used for spotting highflying planes, but in this case, you will benefit more by using 16x magnification binoculars.
We do not recommend anything stronger than 16x magnification for plane spotting. The only exception is if you intend to always to use a tripod (an extremely difficult skill to master when plane spotting).
Size and Weight
As mentioned, the second number on the binoculars refers to the size of their lenses. Binoculars are normally compact (20 to 25mm), mid-size (30 to 42mm) or full size (50mm or larger). The larger the lenses are the more light the binoculars can gather. This results in brighter images and better viewing in low light conditions (cloudy days, fog, bad weather, early mornings, dusk, etc.) – on the downside larger lenses mean bulkier and heavier binoculars. So you need to find the best balance.
We find that compact models (20 to 25mm) are simply NOT suitable for any kind of plane spotting. Their image tends to be too dark to see details and their field of view too narrow to spot the planes in motion. If you are spotting planes during daytime or going to airshows, then 32mm binoculars are fine to use, and 42mm binoculars are even better. 8×32 or 10×42 binoculars in specific are ideal for the job. They provide enough magnification and enough brightness in low light conditions. On the other hand, if you are often spotting highflying planes then 42mm to 50mm work best. Specifically, 16×50 binoculars are ideal.
If you need a good all-around pair of binoculars for both plane spotting and general use, then 10×42 binoculars are highly recommended. This is a great balance between good magnification and a relatively light, portable design. 10×42 Binoculars will work great for airshows and spotting low-flying planes. They are easy to use and stabilise. They can also be used to spot higher-flying planes.
Alternatively, if your main use is spotting high-flying planes, and you don’t care about size or weight then the best choice would be 16×50 binoculars. Their stronger (16x) magnification will allow you to see the planes in more detail. Their larger (50mm) lenses will achieve even brighter images when used in poor light conditions.
Our Top 3 Plane Spotting Binoculars for 2017
** Note: All 3 binoculars recommended below are suitable for eyeglasses users **