Optics are an enigmatic mystery to me. I never appreciated their use until I realized the potential in animal observation. Not from a far off distance either. Do you know how hard to bring a lens on an insect that is in the process of evading you? I never thought of using binoculars until a buddy told me about a pair of close focusing binoculars from Pentax.
My blurry optics view needed an update, and Ben Bouchard turned me onto a pair that was just what I, a bug and reptile nut, needed for a great set of compact binoculars. Ben informed of the Pentax Papilio (Latin for butterfly) 8.5 x 21, a small binocular that is designed for up close focusing as well as far off magnification. Why would one want to focus on something so close to them? As an Entomologist and Herpetologist, I constantly find myself attempting to get up close to animals. Inching closer to a critter to get a better look, only scaring it off and missing my chance; it happens often. Reptile enthusiasts, Bird watchers, Entomologists, and other field zoologist have something called a life list. This is a list of species that they have observed throughout their life. Scaring a potential life-lister can be aggravating. Some animals need a positive identification to distinguish them from other specimens. For myself, my problem comes with water dwelling animals and weary butterflies, both being commonly skittish. Whether water dwelling or airborne, both needed astute observation, the Pentax binoculars came in to save the day.
The real proving grounds for these binoculars came on a few occasions. The first one was during a trip to Peru with Randall Adventure Training, RAT. It was a survival course designed around a downed pilot scenario in the tropical jungles of the Amazon rain forest. During the trip, there were many hours spend on a motorboat to get to the proper training destinations. These water excursions are where the binoculars came in handy, and I used them to get an up close view of each side of the river and the occupants, both human and animal. After that course, I took a canoe daytrip in the Florida Everglades, where sneaking up on weary crocodilians outstretched on banks proved to be a task and the optics were there when I needed them. The other proving area was during hunting season in the mountains of North Carolina, where I used the optics in deer stands, on roof tops, and in the tops of trees to help identify possible targets and get an idea of their habits. Through these situations I found myself really appreciating the unique design of these binoculars.
The Papilio binoculars posses a reverse porro prism, available in 6.5×21 and 8.5×21 models. They call it reverse because the objective lens is much closer than the ocular lens. Most reverse porro prism designs are extremely compact, and the Papilio is no different with a length of 4.4 inches and a width of 4.25 inches. Its weight is minimal as well; at about 10.5 ounces they ride in the BDU pocket comfortably. During the Amazon boat trip, I had to remind myself that the binoculars were around my neck. The lenses are fully coated to exploit light transmission and reduce any light distortion. Edge distortion is also curtailed with the high-refraction Bak4 glass prisms and the aspeherical optical elements. With the optimal light transmission, these still aren’t the type of binoculars to use in the dark. That isn’t the real design of the binoculars though, and they prove themselves as a handy piece of field equipment for its intended daylight usage.
Compared to many other optics I’ve used, the Papilio has a small focus knob on top. The knob is raised just high enough above the central binocular housing to still be easily accessible but not be in the way. It has large deep ridges and easily turns even with a wet finger. When focusing the optics, they move very smoothly and easily. These focus different from other optics in the fact that the objective lenses move at the same time, and on different tracks. Pretty unusual for a pair of field binoculars, and partly why they can focus on such close objects.
The outer housing of the Papilio features a two-wing design that fold on a central hinge, where the focus knob is located. The outer housing has a dark rubberized heavy-duty coating that adds for a secure grip, and helps reduce impact damage from a small drop. In Peru, the rubberized grip was nice while hanging off the sides and front of the small boat. I was also reassured with the nylon strap, but the rubberized coating still gave a tacky feeling to add peace of mind in the hand. The bottom of the housing also has a spot for a tripod in case you are looking at an object for a long time. I’ve used this feature before to try and take a picture through a spotting scope, and if you are savvy enough you may be able to pull it off (and let me know the secret). The Papilio also comes with a rain guard eye cap, yet it does not come with a lens cover for the front of the binoculars. It features two eye cover lens cups, connected together by a bridge that allows for the binocular to move with both lens covers connected.
The piece I borrowed from Ben also came with a nice compact pouch designed for the Papilio, and it gave extra protection. The compact feel of the binoculars was re-assuring, yet unique given the power that optics have demonstrated. I normally don’t carry binoculars on trips, but on the adventures that I took these optics on, I was glad that I had them. The binoculars came with a webbed strap, which attaches into special recessed grommets on each side of the housing. They fit extremely close to the outer wings of the binoculars, and I didn’t notice them until I used another pair of binoculars and noted how the strap attachments got in the way. The grommets make it so that the Papilio can swing around the straps, keeping entanglements to a minimum. The strap fits outside the pouch so you can still carry them protected around your neck or over the shoulder. That is especially handy in muddy situations, which happened often on the rain forest trip. The case also comes with a belt loop, and with the compact nature of the optics it would sit very nicely on the side of a hiker or avid bird watcher.
One thing I noticed right off the bat, is that when compared with other smaller field binoculars the Papilio has a relatively large field of vision. This is quite desirable on the long trek in Peru where I was looking into the binoculars for 3 hours at a time. For eye comfort, there are eyecups that extend out towards the user. I find with other small field binoculars that my eyes get stressed after a long period of time, but with the eyecups, I didn’t find myself fatiguing around the eyelids like I have on other small optics. While in the tree stand, this was extremely important too as I was using the field optics exclusively for exceptionally long periods of time. The colors inside the optics did not bleed together and remained crisp. While looking for animals, I make a habit of paying attention to the color change in my optics. Different shades of color are important for some of the situations in which I’m spotting an animal. This is true especially in the identification of color phases of certain types of reptiles. The color change through the optics can happen when it is extremely bright out and a creature is sunning itself on a bank. The Pentax binoculars showed no change in color even on the mud-baked crocodilians in the Florida everglades. This can also benefit a hunter who may have trained their eye to look for different shades of brown on a bright day.
The Papilio 8.5x 21 proved to be the perfect companion for me on many of my outings. Before, I never really thought through the use of binoculars and how they could help identify animals, but now that I look back on the various herpetology related trips that I have taken, there is no doubt in my mind that the close focusing high powered super optics would have proven themselves as an indispensable tool for animal observation. Every field entomologist who enjoys close observation would do well to get themselves a pair of these fantastic binoculars. I have a special field pack dedicated to gear for Entomology and Herpetology, and these binoculars will become a standard part of it. The compact feature makes them easy to store in a daypack, in the car, or in the canoe pack when you are out in the field. All this for a modest price of $150 (I think that is outstanding for binoculars) the Pentax Papilio is hard pass up.