Canon 15x50 IS image stabilized binoculars review
Image stabilized binoculars have been all the rage lately and I finally decided to take a dive. After doing some research on the internet I have selected Canon 15x50 as most suitable for my observing style and conditions.
The Canon 15x50 IS binoculars appeared to be well built but with lots of plastic (to save weight presumably). The size is within the range of similar aperture none-IS binoculars. Listed weight is 2.6 lb, right in between my Nikon Action EX 16x50 (2.3lb) and Orion Little Giant II 15x70 (2.9lb). However, when I held them for the first time, they felt heavier. I think this is because one has to apply more force compared to plain binoculars to achieve a good grip on the fat oval body with slippery smooth plastic. In fact, holding them with one hand feels unsecure and considering the price my first resolution was to always keep the binocular strap around my neck. :)
It took a bit of time to adapt but by the end of first session they felt comfortable with two hand grip and not too heavy for prolonged observing. The focuser is smooth and play free, easy to operate with left hand while the right hand is pressing on IS button. The IS button is well positioned and does not take too much pressure to hold.
Binoculars run on two AA batteries, which supposed to provide a few hours of continues IS operation. According to reports they can operate on lithium rechargeable batteries as well. Since battery leakage was reported, it is good practice to take the batteries out between the uses.
Even without IS engaged I was pleasantly surprised with the views. I thought my selection of binoculars is good, but Canon easily superseded them all, delivering sharpest views with pinpoint stars and ultra-flat field. I was somewhat concerned that with all additional optical elements the views will be not as bright as in traditional binoculars. However, they were bright, of high contrast, and even my light polluted home sky looked refined. The only complaint is that I saw ghosting on Jupiter, but I need to make sure that it was not because of UV filters installed. I did not notice any CA on Vega and Jupiter. There was a bit of blue on the edge of lunar crescent though, but not distracting in any way. Listed eye relief is 15mm, however I don’t have any issues seeing full FOV with eyeglasses on.
The objectives are threaded for 58mm filters. Brief search on the internet shows that Wratten Hoya filters are available in this size which is a good start. If anyone can point me to the nebulae filters in the same format that would be great. :)
I was a bit warried because reports on the larger Canon IS models are mixed but IS works like a charm. The catch is that it does not cancel larger movements of your body, so you need to learn how to keep binoculars steady, which I had plenty of practice with traditional binoculars. What IS does and does superbly is to cancel target shakes. The views are so steady it is unreal. And because they don’t cancel larger body movements slow panning across the sky is pure pleasure. Hundreds of faint stars become visible and DSOs and bright stars are sitting within star fields steady and beautiful like in photos. I saw some reports that IS efficiency diminished when you look up. It did not happen to me. I also see reports of visual artifacts created by IS but have not encountered any yet. There are two ways to engage IS on this model. For quick views one can press and hold IS button, IS will stay ON as long as you are holding it. If one wants continuous IS operation, one can softly click and let go the IS button. IS will stay ON until you click the button again. I find this setup very useful and have used both modes while observing.
I had two sessions, on a new moon night of 01/03/2022, and the other on half-moon night of 01/09/2022 at my home suburban location, Bortle 6.0.
My favorite observing style with binoculars is either hand-hold, or on monopod. This makes my observing sessions fast, easy and simple, with high degree of movement freedom which I value a lot. To give conventional binoculars a fighting chance for this shootout against Canon IS 15x50 I decided to go with Orion Little Giant II 15x70 on monopod. The details will follow, but to sum up IS 15x50 were as good in terms of reach and resolution, and often even better than conventional 15x70 on monopod. It mirrors feedback from other observers.
Planets and Moon
I used twilight hours to catch planetary and lunar views. Was expecting a bit more resolution from the Canon on planets, but both binoculars delivered identical details: small empty disk of Jupiter with 4 moons and smaller Saturn with ears. On the second night I believe I saw a hint of the gap between the ring and the Saturn glob, but only with Canon. Previously on good nights I saw the gap with 15x70 on monopod as well, so both binoculars are capable of resolving it. Even with monopod Jupiter and Saturn were dancing a bit in 15x70, but with Canon the views were rock steady. Mercury was near greatest elongation and easy catch with both binoculars. It appeared as elongated oval, which would reflect ~50% phase, except I don’t believe 7.3” is within resolving power of both binos.
Moon looked sharp in both binoculars. However, steadiness of IS image reviled extra layer of small craters. Lunar image in IS was as still as in photos and with enough fine details to spend hours identifying one lunar feature after another.
M78 appeared very similar as small faint oval in both binoculars. The Orion Nebula looked nice in 15x70, M42 clearly separated from M43. However, the wing structure was better defined in the Canon and of cause the view was steadier.
M36, M37, M38 in Auriga were easily spotted in both binoculars, as round and oval fuzzies with brighter centers. Despite little shakiness in 15x70 I found the views pleasant and very similar in both binoculars.
Pleiades and Double Cluster were a different story. The views in the 15x70 were very nice, but the views in the Canon were truly magnificent with sharper stars, ultra-flat field, many well-defined faint stars, and absolute steadiness. They were of the same quality as I have gotten with my small APO scopes on good quality mounts.
On the second night the bright Moon was out, so for DSOs I have focused on star clusters and skipped comparison with 15x70.
M29 in Cygnus appeared as faint oval patch with a few dim stars resolved. M39 looked great: large dense triangular patch of many stars.
M15 globular in Pegasus was small but bright snowball.
M52 in Cassiopeia was resolved with averted vision as small round faint fuzzy next to a star. M103 was a small patch of faint stars. Stock 2 was simply gorgeous, the best view I ever had of this cluster: large dense patch of many stars, with star chains running across, in a rich field with background glow. The steadiness, sharpness and contrast I am accustomed seeing in APO refractors, but not in binoculars, until now.
I always enjoyed observing DSOs with binoculars and don’t mind a bit of shakiness. Doubles are a different story, trying to resolve two close stars doing poi dance is somewhat painful. I had high hopes for the IS binoculars, and they surely delivered. It was such a pleasure getting sharp steady views of close pairs in wide ultra-flat fields. Therefore, for this portion I skipped traditional binoculars and split doubles with Canon IS only.
Albireo (STFA 43 AB) – I have resolved this showcase, yellow-blue pair with binoculars many times but never with such finesse. The components were sharp, colorful, and steady with well-defined dark gap in between.
SHJ 314 AF – similar separation to Albireo but plain white pair.
Omicron Cygnus (STFA 50) – beautiful wide triple of yellow, blue, and white stars.
61 Cyg (STF 2758 AB) - similar separation as Albireo but yellow pair.
STF 855 AB – unequal white pair, clean split.
STF 747 - a close pair of white stars with faint silvery spec on top.
The Trapezium (The1 Ori) – too tight for complete split with 15x, but the group looked like oval star, so partial split.
3 Peg (STFA 56 AB) – close pair of white and silvery stars.
STF 2840 AB – white unequal pair, hair split. This is so far the tightest double I was able to split with IS 15x50.
I am omitting a few wider pairs, which were no challenge to observe but looked good in IS 15x50. In fact, just slowly scanning the sky with these binoculars was pure joy.
Canon IS 15x50 are definitely keepers. Among the binoculars in my collection, they have delivered the sharpest and flattest views with image stabilization on top of that. They provide unique and unachievable by other means observing experience, combining steadiness of mount-stabilized binoculars with complete freedom of hand-hold experience. They are also well made with reasonably good ergonomics. Aperture and power are large enough to put many targets within the reach, even under light polluted skies. They also have enough eye relief for comfortable observing with eyeglasses. This is the largest aperture available in image stabilized format, which makes it attractive for people in light polluted locations or those who like to push deeper with hand-hold binoculars.
Weight and body shape is something getting used to. After a break-in session I concluded that they are comfortable enough for me to keep but may not be for everyone. Canon should have placed rubber or structured plastic grips for more secure hold with less effort. I would say that the IS 15x50 are more suited for advanced users with experience of holding steady none-stabilized binoculars of similar size. The Canon IS cancel shakes, but not larger body movements, so you have to work together with binoculars to achieve the best result. If this is a concern, smaller Canon IS binoculars could be better choice.
Heaving objectives more reset would be nice. Lens hoods are merely a few millimeters above the objective glass which makes me nervous using them without UV protection filters.
The main con and potential deal breaker is the high price. While IS binoculars can outperform larger hand-hold none-IS binoculars, for a fraction of IS binoculars cost one can still get a good quality large aperture conventional binoculars which when properly mounted will reach deeper on DSOs and offer better resolution for planets and lunar. However, if you are big fan of hand-hold observing, or hike/travel to observe, or contemplating premium binoculars as your next purchase, you should consider image stabilized.
Canon IS model selection
When I started looking for IS binoculars, I found Canon offerings somewhat confusing. There are multiple models on the market, some seems nearly identical. I spent some time trying to make sense of it and I hope that what I learned will make your selection easier.
There are 11 Cannon IS binocular models currently offered. I feel that 8x20, 10x20 and 8x25 are mostly suitable for daytime observing, so I will not include those into consideration. This leaves 8 models with apertures from 30mm to 50mm. From what I gather they all have good quality optics and IS, so your choice will be based on the technical specs, features, and price. All summarized in the table below. The prices are from the Canon USA web store. They will certainly change with time and location, and listed here just for relative comparison between different models.
The eight Canon IS models suitable for astronomy could be split in three groups. The first group includes three largest aperture models 10x42 L IS WP, 15x50 IS and 18x50 IS. In my opinion, this group is the best suited for astronomy. They offer largest apertures, and 15x50 and 18x50 also offer highest powers in the Canon IS line. These models feature ultra-low dispersion (UD) glass (Canon equivalent of ED) to reduce CA on bright targets. They are water and fog resistant, and offer continuous IS operation mode, ideal for cruising along night sky. However, these three models are also heaviest and most expensive. To me 10x42 is somewhat less attractive out of the three since it does not offer significant price or weight saving compared to the other two but has the smallest aperture and lowest power. Still, it is a good option for someone looking for widest field of view and large exit pupil in somewhat smaller and lighter package.
Second group includes 10 x 30 IS II and 12 x 36 IS III. They have sharp and well corrected optics like larger models, but without UD glass, weather proofing, or continuous IS operation. The lack of these premium features is compensated by lower price, smaller size and weight, and wide field of view. Very attractive group for astronomy. For those interested in 10 x 30 IS II here is a great review from TSS team member John Baars.
The third group includes 10x32, 12x32 and 14x32. They are priced higher than the second group and close to the first group, but lack large aperture, UD glass and weather proofing. My understanding that they are priced higher because of the different IS system. Binoculars in groups one and two employ Vari-Angle Prism IS, while models from the third group employ lens element shifting IS (same as in Canon IS photo lenses). This IS offers faster reaction times, which I am sure sport spectators and bird watchers would appreciate, but for astronomy I would rather go with group two for cost, weight, and size savings, or with group one for aperture, power, and UD glass.