Image Stabilize Your Binoculars!

Tilting the binos to fit the eyes - trying to image stabilize your binoculars
The author with 10x50 binoculars on his Image-Stabilizing Frame. By tilting the vertical slat back and forth as shown, the eyepieces can be comfortably fitted to your eyes for any viewing angle high or low. Click image for larger view.
Craig Michael Utter

For skywatchers like me, using binoculars is as much a part of life as a telescope. I can take my 10x50 binoculars anywhere, and it’s through them that I know the sky best.

But hand-held binoculars have one huge problem. They jiggle. You can’t see nearly as much in a jiggling view as in a still one.

Putting the binoculars on a tripod doesn’t work if you want to look much above horizontal. Special parallelogram-type binocular mounts let you aim all over the sky, but their bulk (and occasionally poor design) work against binocular observing’s handy, quick-look appeal. The modern breakthrough solution is the image-stabilized binocular, which uses electromechanical magic to calm the jittering with the push of a button. But it doesn’t come cheap. The runaway market leaders are the Canon IS series of imaged-stabilized binos, but the 15x50s that I lust for approach $1,000. Ouch!

However, I’ve discovered that you can add image stabilization to ordinary binoculars for practically nothing, with scrap wood and less than an evening’s work.

Image Stabilize Your Binoculars: Beating the  Jitters

Let’s consider the problem. Hand-held binoculars can move in six degrees of freedom (motion in all three dimensions, and rotation in all three dimensions). But only two of the six actually cause the image to move in your view: rotation of the binoculars around the two axes oriented left-right and up-down. A sailor or an airplane pilot would call these motions "pitch" and "yaw." Stabilizing the view means increasing the binoculars’ moment of inertia — resistance to rotation — around these two axes.

To achieve this, I first tried attaching my binoculars to a big, vertical plus-sign made of wood with weights on the four ends. This certainly helped, but it was awkward. I next tried a big wooden T, which had better balance but didn’t steady the view as much as I hoped. The most efficient design, I realized, would be a single rigid stalk extending straight in front of or behind the binoculars with a weight on the far end. But if it was in front, the balance would be awful, and if it was behind, my head would be in the way.

At this point my friend Eric Johansson of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston had a brainstorm: make a long, rectangular frame extending front and back with your head between the sides of the frame. Pictured above is my result: a frame 5 feet long, with a heavier piece of wood in back to increase the moment of inertia. This method to image stabilize your binoculars isn't pretty but it works! The binoculars ride on a tiltable cross-piece positioned so that the frame balances on the shoulders with the binoculars at comfortable eye height. I call it my Image-Stabilizing Binocular Frame.

It works! When my 10x50s are attached to it (either with a bungee cord as shown below, or better, with a ¼-20 bolt into the binoculars’ tripod socket between the barrels), the jiggles are greatly reduced. I can see much more, yet still have total, hand-held freedom of movement to aim anywhere high or low.

Eye view
With a bungee cord hooking over conveniently placed screws, the binoculars can be attached and removed in a moment. (Be sure the cord cannot snap loose and hit you in the eye.) The 2-by-6 that the binoculars are sitting on here is actually a bit too low. A better attachment method is to run a ¼-20 bolt through the vertical wooden slat and into the binoculars' tripod-mounting hole between the barrels, at the ideal height for your eyes. Click image for larger view.
Craig Michael Utter.

Construction Points

My frame is made with two 5-foot lengths of 1-by-2 pine with cross members at the ends. How long should yours be? A short frame is less awkward to transport, but the longer it is, the steadier the views. Five feet was my tradeoff between convenience (to fit in my small car) and good stabilization. The two long sides of the frame are held apart by an 8-inch-long piece of 1-by-2 in the front and 2-by-6 in the back. (Eight inches is about right for my shoulders while allowing a winter parka hood inside.) The rear piece also functions as a counterweight.

The binoculars sit on a pivoting crosspiece consisting of another piece of 2-by-6 with a vertical slat screwed to its front, as shown. But it might have been better to use a 2-by-8 instead; after the photos here were taken, I glued a piece of 2-by-3 on top of the 2-by-6 to add height so I wouldn' t have to hunch to look if the binoculars are held to the top by a bungee cord as shown. Better would be to attach the binoculars to the vertical slat at whatever is the ideal height for you, by using a ¼-20 bolt through the vertical slat and into the binoculars' tripod-mounting socket.

Make the crosspiece assembly, attach your binoculars to it, then slide the assembly up and down in the frame to find where the frame balances on your shoulders with the eyepieces comfortably at your eyes. You can hold the crosspiece to the frame temporarily with string or rubber bands while you make this balancing adjustment. I found that the frame handles best if it’s balanced to be just a little back-heavy.

Attach the crosspiece to the frame with a single screw on each side. The screw should go into the 2-by-6 close to its bottom, as shown. The vertical slat now serves as a handle to let you pivot the binoculars up and down a bit to position the eyepieces most comfortably to your eyes for any viewing angle.

For proper pivoting, drill holes through the sides of the frame big enough for the screws to slide through freely; the screws should bite into the crosspiece only. I put a split-ring spring washer under the screw head on each side to make it easy to adjust the pivoting friction by tightening or loosening the screws.

Brave New Views

With my 10x50s mounted to the Image-Stabilizing Frame, I can see the galaxies M81 and M82 in Ursa Major for the first time through my suburban sky. All four of Jupiter’s moons are much easier to see and hold, and I even glimpsed Saturn’s moon Titan (with difficulty) for the first time in binoculars. I can easily split once-frustrating double stars, such as the little 8th-magnitude pair Burnham 536 centered in the Pleiades, and resolve vague open clusters into swarms of points. Hundreds of formerly “telescopic” features hold steady on the Moon.

Testing showed that with the frame, I can see objects 0.5 magnitude fainter than with the same binoculars hand-held. This means that on average, you can successfully hunt down twice as many astronomical objects of any given type. (If you do the math, it turns out that seeing 0.5 magnitude deeper just about doubles the volume of space that you can examine for objects of a given luminosity.)

Pressing the back to a pole
Touching the back of the frame to something (such as the bird-feeder support pole at left) stops the last remaining image motion. The frame’s two sides extend about ½ inch beyond the back piece, to make it easy to catch and hold the pole (or other object) without turning around and looking. Click image for larger view.
Craig Michael Utter

Going Steadier

Nevertheless, some wavering of the image remained — and I wanted to get rid of it totally. Experiments revealed a law of diminishing returns: even a big, awkward frame nearly 8 feet long with barbell weights on the ends left some residual wavering.

The simple solution, I found, is to have something behind you, such as a wall, post, or car, that you can touch the back of the frame against once you've located your target. For this purpose, I stuck a pipe meant to support a bird feeder into the middle of my lawn. Merely backing up slightly and pressing the rear of the frame to the pipe makes the stars hold still! Using the Image-Stabilizing Frame this way increases the reach of my binoculars by about another 0.3 magnitude (increasing the number of observable objects by another 50%), makes Titan plain as day, and even begins to resolve the Trapezium multiple star in the Orion Nebula!

Nowadays I leave my 10x50s on the frame all the time. It stands by the door ready for a moment’s use. Okay, it won’t fit in a backpack. But it didn’t cost $1,000, and it doesn’t eat batteries.

Try making one for yourself, and see how much better a stabilized view really is.

Update: Here are some other people's versions.

Alan MacRobert, a Sky & Telescope senior editor, is proud of his geekitude and thinks do-it-yourselfing builds character.

18 thoughts on “Image Stabilize Your Binoculars!

  1. Stargeezer15601

    Bif astonomical binoculars are great for viewing because of their small footprint and weigh compared to a telescope. I solved the jitters problem when viewing the sky overhead (within a 120 degree circle centered on the zenith) by laying flat on my back on a picnic table. No gizmos needed…try it…you’ll be amazed.

  2. mtc

    I like to fiddle, so this looks fun. One aspect that looks like an added benefit is how this design seems to keep the authors hands away from the focus. Once you set the focus, you can move the binoculars around to different objects. I tend to constantly adjust the focus – a throw back to my birding habits.

  3. DieterBob

    I think it’s a great solution, but I also think that it’s ‘dangerous’ in the dark! When you turn to look at an other part of the sky, you could hit a telescope or a person standing next to you! But I defenitly will make one just to try out how it improves the jiggling!

  4. MJD

    Great idea; thanks for sharing. I recommend you add a shield between the bungee cord attachment points and your eyes- you could use a clear piece of plastic with two holes to fit around the binocular eyepieces.

  5. Tom - Sydney, Australia

    Thanks for the great idea! I just finished building mine, overall took me about an hour and a half. Have used a bolt instead of a bungee chord because I was abit worried about my eyes, plus I find the binoculars are more stable this way. As an amateur I am still using binoculars with a tripod. I still need to log heaps more time with my 10×50’s before upgrading to a scope. This will help me very much. Thanks for your help Alan, I am very excited about my new toy!

  6. Jono Lewis

    Brilliant! Despite overhearing my daughter giggling and asking her Mom, ‘why has Daddy got a ladder on his head?!?’ I love this! The difference it makes is just as Alan says, it makes a huge improvement, letting your eyes resolve so much finer detail. I also find it’s better for resolving detail than lying on your back (my previous method).
    I made mine lighter than suggested – thinner struts and less chunky counterbalance, and it works just fine.
    Really appreciate this – thanks, I’ve been wanting something like this for a long time!

  7. Curt Busch

    Have you (or anyone) done more trials with shorter overall lengths?
    I’d think that if you spend most of the time leaning against an object, you could seriously start to shorten the extending length. Maybe even short enough to just allow your back/shoulders to barely stay clear of the object you’re leaning against. Love your idea with the birdfeeder pole.
    Well, let us know. Anyway, with this design being so simple, it’s no big deal to switch out the two beams for different sizes – just wanted to read if someone tried it first to save time.
    Also, as my secondary option:
    Neither of my binoculars have a camera mount hole. Is there someone who makes an adapter that attaches? I’ve been using a standing, lightweight aluminum painter’s extension pole with an old mousepad folded on top, simply held into the crotch of the binos that gave some relief. But I’d much rather use my camera monopod with a swivel camera plate head I have. This works great with my spotting scope as well. For daytime as at night. I can’t remember the last time I used a tripod for my spotter (or photography). The speed and efficiency of a monopod is addicting.

    Thanks; Curt

  8. Bill Coull

    I have had good success useing a painting pole (or monopode) with a rubber ball screwed on to it (cut an X in ball or drill a hole {carfully!!!}in ball). I found this in the gizmo and gadgets section of the R.A.S.C. Journal a year or so ago and it works well for me and my kids.

  9. Jim Williams

    I built two of Alan M. MacRobert’s Designs, one short and one long.. the short one I use for level and near horizon viewing and the long one for high sky vewing, the design is brilliant and just what I needed to keep my Celestron 15 x 70 Binoculars steady.. thank you Mr. MacRobert!

  10. AbuMaia

    I’d be concerned using your stabilizer in its current form with other people around. Would it be less effective if the shoulder-frame section were only ~2 feet long, with a pivoting mount for the binoculars on the front, and another pivot on the back for a vertically-hanging weighted section? That would reduce the risk of striking something or someone as you turn around.

  11. Rhonda

    If I could afford image stabilized binos, I’d have already bought my telescope. As it is, this is a fabulously simple, elegantly effective solution to the binocular jitters. I had been pretty frustrated with trying to spot things in my 10 x 40 wide fields just due to the constant movement, even when I tried to prop them up. This frame cost about $14.00 in all and took about an hour or so to build. I used 4′ lengths of 1 x 2 b/c they came precut! This length seems to work well with my size binos. Thank you so much for this project plan. You have salvaged my observing sessions!! BTW, the printable planisphere is also great!

  12. Rhonda

    If I could afford image stabilized binos, I’d have already bought my telescope. As it is, this is a fabulously simple, elegantly effective solution to the binocular jitters. I had been pretty frustrated with trying to spot things in my 10 x 40 wide fields just due to the constant movement, even when I tried to prop them up. This frame cost about $14.00 in all and took about an hour or so to build. I used 4′ lengths of 1 x 2 b/c they came precut! This length seems to work well with my size binos. Thank you so much for this project plan. You have salvaged my observing sessions!! BTW, the printable planisphere is also great!

  13. Mircea Pteancu-Arad,Romania

    I built my device and I’m very happy with it.My thanks to Alan MacRobert for sharing his great idea.
    I adapted the design to my needs.The layout of my device is ”standard” but I’m attaching my three binoculars (Fujinon Mariner 7x50mm,Baigish 10x50mm and Sakura 9x60mm) via the the binoculars threaded hole in the hinge, provided for tripod attachment.
    You can see my device here:

    https://mail.google.com/mail/?shva=1#inbox/12fc721761c486b7

    or here:

    http://www.astronomy.ro/forum/viewtopic.php?p=71962#71962

    The holding arm is made of two overlapping strips of steel sheet while the screws are saved from old photo camera’s.
    The arm required only a bit of grinding and drilling,the same bolts are holding this arm on the back and the handle on the front of the adjustable wood plate.
    This way I get rid of the bungee cords.

    With binoculars attached to the image-stabilizer I’m able to easy split double stars like Albireo or 61 Cygni or Zeta Lyrae,while Niu or 16-17 Draconis are ”piece of cake”.
    Thanks to Alan’s device, my career of binocular double star observer is only now rising

    I would like to propose a name for this wonderful binocular image-stabilizer.Everybody know what was the very efficient ”Bazooka”.For Alan’s peaceful but as effective device I’m proposing the name of :

    ”BIZOOKA”.

    Bizooka for ever.Thanks,Mircea

  14. Dave

    Birders have been using this design for dozens of years. It works very well and the adaptation to night viewing requires no modifications to the birder design at all.

    Regarding the concern about striking someone else, I doubt that people looking at the sky will be wildly swinging around to follow an object, unlike birders do. The solution is simple: spread out just a bit.

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