As an avid nature photography enthusiast, I've come to appreciate the benefit of a lightweight pair of binoculars that I can have with me when out and about. While there are a number of specialist areas where a particular style of binocular can be useful, casual observers and professionals alike can really benefit from a pair, whether it's for occasional spotting or long-term viewing. The most densely packed market has to be general nature observation and bird watching, for which an 8x42 or 10x42 pair is the obvious choice due to a good balance between the magnification and front objective size.
Vanguard's Spirit XF binoculars fall squarely into the middle of the company's current line up, and offer a number of key features that help them stand out in this crowded sector. The model I tested was the 8x42, a specification commonly recommended as an ideal all-rounder for nature and general observation, and in my experience this certainly holds true. I find the 8x magnification sufficiently powerful while being easy to hold steady, and 42mm front lenses mean the image is nice and bright, even in dim or cloudy conditions. Some prefer a 10x magnification but as I'm 5’8’’ tall and of small build I find an 8x magnification easier to steady and less nauseating in windy conditions!
Vanguard may be relatively unfamiliar as a binocular manufacturer in the UK, but the company is long established within the photographic industry. It has consistently impressed with innovative approaches to tripods and bags, and this is now evident in its approach to the nature binocular market, with a couple of standout specifications which I have found pleasantly surprising.
Starting with the overall design, the Spirit XF's have a lot of characteristics typical of this range, so they tick all the boxes here. They offer a solid yet stylised ‘outdoors’ design which I find suits their usage. The tactile rubber coating is comfortable to hold too; even in the recent summer rain I found them easy to keep a good grip. I’m confident that the rubber will also protect from light knocks and bumps, and, I think you'll agree, they certainly look the part.
The Spirit XF have an open bridge design, so are comfy to hold for long periods as you can hook your fingers around the optical barrel. The waterproofing and nitrogen filled barrels also help to prevent fogging, and they come with a nice padded case and comfy strap, and very decent stay-on lens caps too (above). Personally I normally chuck lens caps for sports optics or camera gear straight in a box at home because I know they are inevitably going to get dropped in a stream or left on a rock, never to be seen again, but the stay-on design allows then to stay in place on the front of the bins without getting in the way (and the protection they offer may give some users peace of mind).
I found the coatings very good, resistant to condensation on the front and rear outside surfaces, which is mighty useful in the humid conditions we’ve been experiencing lately. Optically the Vanguard Spirit XF show very good contrast and a natural colour rendition, with very little chromatic aberration (or ‘fringing’) around high contrast subjects when compared to similar models in this price range.
All of this sounds like fairly common fare for this sector of the market, but there are a couple of features of these that in my experience are standout points for recommending them. The first, and in my opinion the most important, is their field of view. The typical field of view for most 8x42 binoculars tends to be around 115m at 1000m, but for the Vanguard Spirit XF it is a very wide 136m. This means that if you are viewing something 1km away you can see approximately 20% more across the frame.
These statistics all sound very nice as a selling point but in real-world usage this really does make a difference - as I found out recently when making a day trip out to a local nature reserve with the family (who have no real experience of using binoculars regularly). Handing my small 8x32 binoculars and a much cheaper old 8x42 pair I already own to my mum and dad, they struggled to get up to speed quickly. With the fairly narrow field of view these have you have to ensure these binoculars are held very straight; the moment you move your eyes around without moving the binoculars you are met with complete darkness. The description my dad gave of “looking down a long thin tube” is pretty apt, and for anyone unfamiliar with binoculars this is a useful way of describing it. Switching over to the Vanguard ones, with their excellent 7.8 degree angle of view, both were instantly skipping around the sky with comments on how much easier it was to locate subjects. The ability to quickly hone in on a subject for the purposes of identification or behavioural monitoring should not be underestimated, and these really deliver on that.
Another benefit of a wider field of view is comfort for anyone such as myself who has a very narrow IPD (Inter-Pupillary Distance, or the distance between your eyes). Larger binoculars tend to cause me some discomfort as the optical barrels are farther apart, so they have to be fully squeezed together to get lined up with your pupils - which can squash your nose! - and in some cases with very large binoculars the bridge just doesn’t have sufficient rotational movement at all, rendering them a very heavy monocular. With the Vanguard Spirit XF, even with the tubes slightly further apart they are clear, bright and comfortable even for 15-20 minute stretches with no feeling of strain.
Another thing I very much like about these, and something that sets them apart, is their very handy close-focus ability, as they will allow focus to just 2m (6.6ft) away. This is a sensible viewing distance for wildflowers or insects, allowing close enough viewing to observe your subject comfortably. Although there are products on the market which will allow closer focusing than this, they tend to be optimised just for that purpose; the close focus capabilities of the Spirit XF's mean that for most situations they cover all bases. Focusing itself is smooth and easily adjusted with one hand using the index finger, and seems to be racked slower toward the close-focus end, which allows very accurate fine-tuning where you need it most.
All of these characteristics add up to an excellent, easy to use pair of binoculars, that I’d be happy to recommend to friends and family alike. Given the price point they offer superb value for money for those specifically looking for a great all-rounder.