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Image Stabilized vs. Standard Binos

February 2024
Author: Garth Jenson

Image stabilized (IS) binoculars are not new. They have been around since the early 1990s in the hunting world when Zeiss produced the 20x60 with image stabilization capabilities. Canon was the next major player in their chase to allow more clarity without the use of a tripod in 1995 with the release of the 12x36 IS model. While this technology was very impressive, it was also new, bulky (especially with the Zeiss model), expensive, and very temperamental. I am almost positive that the reason Zeiss charged so much for their 20x60s is because they built in the cost of constant repairs that were going to take place throughout the life of the binos. Enter the present day and with years of advancements and tweaking to this technology, there are a lot more companies dipping their toes in the IS binocular category and the price and size of them has come down (except Zeiss). I will dive into some of the pros and cons with these binos and when I prefer them over my standard binos.

One of the biggest cons to IS binos has been the weight and bulky design of them. Since there is obviously more going on with them than just lenses, prisms, and housing, it requires a bigger housing for the motors and sensors that allow for IS to work its magic. While the bulk and weight have been rectified in large part with tech advancements, still, most lightweight, compact options have smaller objective lenses, which are inferior in extreme low light conditions. A 42mm objective is about as big of an objective as you can get and still maintain a sleek, lightweight platform.

Standard binos are still superior in the lens clarity category, but only if we are talking about high-quality coated lenses with 40+mm objectives. The reason for this is that no high-end bino manufacturer (Swarovski, Leica, Zeiss, Vortex) has manufactured IS binos using their highest quality glass and lens coatings, with Zeiss being the only one that is currently producing IS binos. However, with glass and lens coatings coming a long way from the 1990s, the gap between the highest quality and mid- grade quality is very slim. This low light capability con is a small one for most hunting situations. It might give you an extra 10-15 minutes on the front and back ends of the day, but typically, these timeframes are even going to be tough for standard binos with larger objective lenses to pick out fine details.

The last con to IS binos is the price. With rising cost in standard binos to support the advancements in the above-mentioned lens and coatings to provide a higher quality product, the cost comparison is non- existent. I am certainly not referring to the 10k Zeiss IS binos as they are definitely on an island of their own. I am referring more to Sig Sauer and Canon IS models. The average price for IS binos for these brands is around $1,200 MSRP. The average price for high-end 10x standard binos is north of $2,000, with mid-grade binos coming in around $900- $2,000, depending on brand. You can see that this con isn’t really a con anymore and is more of a pro for IS binos.

Now for the pros for IS binos. Most of the pros have come about with technology advancements to the IS system, but the first pro is the fact that I do not need to pack a tripod if I am not running a spotter on my hunt. This is actually a big deal for me in that after hauling everything around in your pack for days on end, every ounce shed can have a positive mental effect.

This pro is more of a personal preference, but I do a lot of hunting off mules and there isn’t much that is more frustrating than trying to take a quick look up a canyon while you’re heading up the trail off the back of a mule or horse. Even if they are standing still, there is still way too much movement to be able to accurately assess what you’re trying to look at. With IS binos, I can get a great look at the animal before I climb my lazy butt down out of the saddle. The same thing can be said on my Alaska boat-transported hunts. I can focus on an animal from a rocking boat and accurately judge if we should anchor up or keep moving.

Another pro for IS binos I have used (Sig Sauer Zulu 6) is the compact, lightweight profile. This is a factor that isn’t the same across the board, however. Canon IS models are slightly heavier and definitely bulkier than the Sig models. Zeiss is heavier and a lot bulkier as well. The Zulu models range from 19 to 22 ounces and have an overall length of 5-7". Compare that to the popular Swarovski EL models in 10 and 12 power range from 30 to 35 ounces and 6-7" in length and you can see the weight savings. As I stated above, the objective lenses can get to 50mm, with Swarovski and Sig Zulu models topping out at 42mm, so you will lose a little light transmission during twilight hours with IS binos.

Given all the pros and cons we have gone through, it probably looks like I am leaning towards IS binos over standard binos, and you would be right to a certain extent. The exception is on hunts when I am packing a tripod anyways for use with my spotter and I will be on vantage points glassing for hours at a time. Typically, these will be mule deer and Coues deer hunts. I have found that that little window during twilight hours when mature bucks are more active is far more crucial for these species than others and warrant that little edge of higher objective lens. The other reason for this is I run high-quality Swarovski binos, and if I am looking through glass for hours on end, the strain on my eyes is less than looking through lower quality glass. Although I think most people would be surprised how clear and crisp the image is through the Zulu 6 binos.

I like running IS binos on run and gun hunts like archery elk or when I am riding mules. Most elk hunts I go on are not what I would consider trophy elk hunts, and I really just need a decent view of his frame and tines with no reason to have a spotter on the hunt. They are really handy for one-handed viewing when you have your other hand on your bow or rangefinder. I recently exclusively used my Zulus on an antelope hunt and left my Swaros at camp because they were so beneficial pulling up to a glassing point and giving a quick scan to the region. Plus, glassing in twilight periods isn’t as critical for antelope.

IS technology has opened my eyes to a whole new lightweight realm of glassing capabilities. I encourage anyone who has not yet looked through a pair to pick one up and give it a look. I can almost guarantee that you will be surprised at just how much you gain from image stabilization. The only problem for me was these were a “must have” item in my hunting arsenal and consequently my hunting budget is a little bit leaner this year.