Canon 8x25 IS Binoculars - practical or pointless?

 

I must confess to being something of a binocular purist. Over the years binocular design really hasn't changed that much (unlike the constant advance of digital goods), so aside from the occasional reduction in weight and tiny improvements in optical quality, a great pair of binos bought 10 years ago are likely to be just as good today. After all, binoculars are essentially just tubes and lenses - no bells and whistles required.

But Image Stabilized binoculars have been around for a while and continue to be very popular in their own right, so clearly this technology is more than just a gimmick. While other stabilised binos exist, Canon have been at the forefront of this particular optic niche since it came into existence and currently offer a range of binoculars with image stabilizing in different sizes and magnifications.

[caption id="attachment_7276" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Canon 8x25 IS binoculars"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_7277" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Canon 10x30 IS binoculars"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_7279" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Canon 12x36 IS II binoculars"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_7280" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Canon 15x50 IS All Weather binoculars"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_7281" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Canon 18x50 IS All Weather binoculars"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_7278" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Canon 10x42L IS Waterproof binoculars"][/caption]

To see just what a difference Image Stabilising makes I was loaned a pair of Canon's 8x25 IS binoculars for a weekend in the Lake District. Along with my WEX colleague and trekking buddy Daniel, we were taking a couple of people who had never been to the Lakes before, so it was to be a weekend of new experiences. This would also be the first time I had spent any quality time with a pair of image stabilised binoculars, so I was interested to find out what I would make of them.

The test

The 8x25 model is the smallest in the Canon Image Stabilised binocular range. Binoculars with a magnification of 8x and an objective lens size of 25mm are common - it's a standard combination for compact binoculars and nearly all manufacturers offer a model in this specification. As with all these compact binoculars, the Canon 8x25s are a compromise between magnification, brightness of image and the physical size of the binoculars. Looking at the spec-sheet alone it's clear to see that the Canon 8x25 IS binos are larger and heavier than other, non-IS binoculars of a similar performance. Although the dimensions aren't vastly larger in comparison with other porro-prism models (roof prisms are smaller and more compact by design), the weight is more of an issue, with the Canon's being around 200g heavier than many of their 8x25 rivals.

The Canon 8x25 IS binoculars are larger and heavier than other 8x25 models

Of course, the reason for this extra bulk is obvious; not all binoculars offer image stabilising. Canon's image stabilising was developed with photographic lenses in mind and this IS technology can now be found in many pro-photographer's kit bags. The Image Stabilising in Canon's binoculars offers the same advantages as the lens IS, namely that it makes it easier to hand-hold the image steady for extended periods of time, helping to capture a blur-free photograph in the case of lenses, and making viewing easier and far more comfortable with the binoculars.

Canon says...
Almost everybody who has ever used binoculars at sporting events or concerts has experienced how much the images shake, and you feel that the binoculars are useless. The main complaint of users has been image shake. The higher the magnification, the larger the image shake.
Vari-Angle Prism type: Two sensors detect horizontal and vertical shaking respectively. The two Vari-Angle Prisms in both the left and right telescopes are controlled by a microprocessor to instantly adjust refraction angle of the incoming light.

Canon is the worlds first maker to use an active optical image stabilizer for IS series. Because two Vari-Angle Prisms are controlled by a microprocessor, hand shake is eliminated. As a result, a tripod is not needed. And they can even be used while viewing from a moving car or train! In addition to the light weight, there is no eye strain to make you tired, so it is possible to use these binoculars for a long time.

 

The downside of this clever technology is that it requires a battery - a single CR123A lithium battery, to be precise. However, one of these batteries will provide up to 6 hours of continuous image stabilising, and as the IS is only activated when the button on the top is held, it's possible to get months of use out of the binoculars before the battery needs to be replaced. A small LED next to the button lights up while it is pressed, so even if you don't notice the difference in viewing when the IS stops working (which you will), when the light no longer lights, it's time to replace the battery.

So is this image stabilising just a gimmick? In a word, no. In two words, absolutely not. In several words, the image stabilising on these 8x25 binoculars is so good, so impressive, and so genuinely useful that it makes using non-IS binoculars seem like hard work.

I'd been using the binos quite a bit when I passed them over for Daniel to try. We were in the Ennerdale valley (near Black Sail Hut for those in the know) and I'd been looking at Pillar Rock and Robinson's Cairn up on Pillar mountain, the location of one of our previous adventures. As I handed Daniel the binos he remarked "I'll have a go, but I don't get on with binoculars." He held them up to his eyes and pointed them at the mountain. "Oh yeah. I can see it." I then suggested he try pushing the IS button to activate the stabilising, which he did. "B****y hell! That's really good!" He let go of the button, then pressed it, then let go, then pressed it again. "That's really very good - I didn't expect that." Like me, Daniel, who has used IS in cameras and camcorders before, assumed that in binoculars, image stabilising was just an unnecessary addition and an excuse to charge more. And like me, he had to admit he was wrong.

To be fair, this is quite a difficult review to write for one very simple reason; the image stabilising function that makes these binoculars so special is a rather difficult thing to describe unless you've seen it in action and used the binoculars yourself. Stuck in a valley in the Lakes, the best I could do to recreate it for you was to hold by digital compact up to the eyepiece and record the IS being turned on and off. It's not great, but it gives an idea. However, if you get the opportunity for some hands-on time with any of canon's IS binoculars, I highly recommend you try them.

It goes without saying that however good the image stabilising system is, if the binoculars are lacking optically, then the rest is really irrelevant. Lucky then that optically the Canon 8x25 IS binoculars are excellent - as you would expect from a company with such a reputation as Canon. Although they binos weren't tested at night (you really wouldn't use a pair of 8x25s for that purpose) the weather in the Lakes was, as is often the case, far from perfect. At various points it was dull, cloudy and raining, but even then the view through the Canons was excellent. When searching for a path on a distant autumnal fell-side, the browns of the vegetation and the mud and the paths vary little and telling one from t'other is not easy. However, the lenses on the Canon binos provided great colour reproduction, contrast and brightness - something that cheap pocket-sized binoculars often fail miserably at.

Verdict

As you can probably tell, I liked the Canon 8x25 IS binoculars. But are they perfect? Well, no - not by a long shot. The fact of the matter is that as far as compact 8x25 binoculars go, these Canons are big, heavy and expensive. For the same amount of money, if you're prepared to lose the IS then you can get an incredibly lightweight and pocket-sized binoculars with optics so sharp that they'll cut your eyes. This is perhaps more important if you're looking for a pair of binoculars to take along with you on walks in the countryside where you want to have them in your jacket pocket just in case you see something worth viewing close up. In that scenario, the Canon's are going to be too much of an effort - their bulk means that you'll only be likely to carry them if you're sure you're going to use them.

That said, if you taking a trip like out weekend in the Lakes, your priorities might change slightly. Sure, a lightweight and compact pair of binos is preferable, but if, like me, you're already carrying a rucksack with a 2-man tent, a sleeping mat, a 3 season sleeping bag, waterproofs, thermals, 4 litres of water, 2 days of food, a camping stove and gas, a change of clothes, 2 torches, a camera, a first aid kit and other accessories, the small matter of 200g difference between IS and non-IS binoculars really doesn't make much of a difference.

Likewise, if you keep binoculars in the car, or want a pair specifically for sporting events or similar, then the extra weight really isn't going to affect you, whereas the obvious benefits of image stabilising probably well.

And let's go back to that Image Stabilising one last time - it really is phenomenally good. With a magnification of 8 time the Canon binos were perfectly acceptable without the IS turned on. Most people can manage to hand hold binoculars at 8x magnification, and it's only when you get higher than 10x that image shake becomes a real problem. But even at 8x, with your subject insight, pushing the IS button results in a small click, a slight jerk of the image and suddenly everything is calm. The image is serenely still, and the additional comfort in viewing images like this really can't be overstated.

Ratings

Build 8/10 Feel solid, but no waterproofing.
Handling 9/10 Nice in the hand, better on the eye.
Performance 9/10 Great little(ish) binos - sharp and clear.
Value 8/10 Reasonably expensive, but the IS is worth it.

Overall score: 8.5
Sorry Mr Stevens, but Shakin's dead; long live IS.

Click here to see the Canon 8x25 IS binos on the Wex Photographic website.