Nikon 12x50 SE CF Review
As ScopeViews has grown over the last five years, a lot of gear has passed through my hands. Inevitably, I find myself missing some of the optics that move on; Nikon’s 12x50 SE CF binoculars are a prime example. It is true that since owning the Nikons I have tested several pairs of higher-power binoculars that are slightly better in some way, but in all cases only very slightly. Meanwhile, considering price and value alongside ease of use (including weight and eye relief), build quality and optical performance, the Nikons still shine.
If money were no object, then I would probably choose Swarovski’s 12x50 ELs as my own astronomy binoculars, even though they are heavier than the Nikons. But in reality, the near £2000 asking price is more than I care to spend on binos for my own use. You may well feel the same. So I thought a proper review of Nikon’s excellent, but sadly soon to be discontinued, 12x50 SEs was long overdue.
At A Glance
17.4mm (like other manufacturers’ 20mm+)
Actual Field of View
Apparent field of view
Dimensions (L x W)
182 x 202 mm
What’s in the Box?
One area where Nikon can’t compete with Leica, Zeiss and Swarovski is packaging, but then again that case is real leather.
Design and Build
If you asked most professional binocular repairers to name the best made binoculars of all time, Nikon’s SE’s would likely come up. I have used several pairs of SEs over the years and they have all been superbly made of the best materials. They are conventional, nothing-fancy porros of course, but with porros so out of fashion, they are now likely to remain the most advanced and refined porro-prism binoculars ever. And what many don’t realise is that porro prism binoculars remain, in theory at least, the best design from an optical standpoint because they use fewer lenses (focusing lenses aren’t needed) and no lossy mirrors.
Body and ergonomics
The Nikons use the same slim prism housing as the others in the SE line (8x30, 10x42s), but add much longer barrels. This does mean that the 12x50 SEs magnify shakes if you hold them around the prims; instead, grasp them around those long barrels!
The body is a conventional centre-focusing design, but made out of magnesium for lightness (something only the very most expensive roofs boast nowadays). The body is coated in textured armour with a quality feel, though it’s not as pretty as leatherette. The objectives are protected by rubber bumpers on the barrel ends. Weighing just 900g, the Nikon SE 12x50s are lighter than any of the premium competition I have tested in this size.
Nikon don’t claim waterproofing, but it is clear that the only place water is going to get in is through the objectives or the eyepieces (which have an ample cover), so in reality these will probably survive rain but not immersion. Overall build quality is very high and reminiscent of the High Grade line of roof prism binoculars from Nikon. Interestingly, the bridge bears the designation “HGP”, so I suspect that Nikon view these as a porro-prism equivalent to their “high-grade” roof-prism line. Overall, the SEs have a very solid look and feel, but they don’t have the unrivalled elegance of Leicas.
Optics – Objectives
Subjectively, the coatings on the SE objectives remain among the best I have ever seen on any binoculars. They don’t have the dirt-shedding properties of the latest coatings from Leica, Zeiss and Swarovski, but none of the others appear quite as transparent as the Nikons’.
I have no idea what optical design the Nikon objectives use, or whether they employ ED glass, but chromatic aberrations are well controlled in all the SE models, much better than in most other designs from the days before HD lenses. I suspect a simple SD doublet design, but don’t quote me!
Looking behind the objectives, the barrels have ridges machined in and are super-flat-black coated inside. The prism housings have proper machined-in baffles. Internal construction generally appears to be of the highest quality.
The simple combination of doublet objectives, mirror-less porro prisms and premium coatings make for the best possible overall light transmission at around 95%.
Baffles machined into the barrels and prism housing do a good job of limiting stray light
Nikon SE’s coatings are among the very best.
Optics – Eyepieces
The eyepieces are large and are reputedly a complex multi-element design. They incorporate a field flattener and so provide a reasonably wide (60 deg), very flat field with long eye relief. I’ve warned before that eye relief can’t be compared across manufacturers and the SEs are a case in point. Nikon’s official figure of 17.4mm is less than Swarovski claim for their Swarovision ELs, but in reality the Nikons have more and so are super-comfortable with glasses. The downside with all that eye relief is spherical aberration of the exit pupil – kidney bean blackouts; as you move your eye around, the view will suddenly disappear for a moment, but you quickly ‘learn’ to avoid this.
Unfortunately, Nikon opted for “traditional” fold-down rubber eyecups on the SE. The problem is that with so much eye relief and only two adjustment positions, up or down, these are neither as convenient nor functional as twist-up eyecups, but if you wear glasses like me, you’ll just roll ‘em down and keep ‘em that way.
Nikon SE’s folding rubber eyecups
One other minor source of nit-picking frustration is the objective caps. These are not stay-on like many premium makers now employ and they have been incredibly difficult to prize off on both new pairs of 12x50 SEs I’ve owned. The used 10x42 SEs were better though; maybe they loosen with use.
The SE’s objective lens caps aren’t stay-on, but are a real pain to prize off, at least when new.
In Use – Daytime
The light weight of the Nikons makes them easier to handle than most 12x50s, though for best results you need to hold them around the objectives, in which case the focuser is no longer to hand, as my daughter pointed out.
The focuser is slower than the latest roof prism models, but loses nothing in precision or smoothness. Some Nikon SEs I have tried suffered from a stiff focuser, but not these: the focuser is buttery smooth and perfectly weighted. The dioptre adjustment isn’t centralised: you twist the right eyepiece in traditional style; but again, it’s smooth and just stiff enough to prevent accidental movement.
Nikon’s 12x50 SE look big and geeky hanging around your neck
The view through the 12x50 SEs is immediately impressive in the daytime, unlike many high power binoculars: sharp, flat, bright and detailed.
Brightness is up there with the very best as expected from its design and excellent coatings; in full daylight it is as bright as any you put it up against. Why is this test important? In bright conditions, your contracted pupil stops down the exit pupil of almost any binocular. You can then compare, say, a 7x42 with a 12x50 to find out which transmits most of the light it gathers, regardless of objective size. Tested in this way, the 12x50 equals my Zeiss 7x42s – one of the brightest binoculars around – and is brighter than most others.
Colour rendition is excellent and neutral. Resolution appears very good and the optics snap to a perfect focus in a way only the finest binocular optics do. Looking at autumn leaves in the trees across the way is an immersive experience due to the sharpness and resolution and the widely spaced porro-style objectives that give a greater 3D effect than slimmer roof-prism designs.
In daylight, it is very hard to produce flare or ghost images, even viewing into (but obviously not directly at) the Sun. Contrast is superb, so picking out white Egrets far out on the bright bay sands, is easy.
In daylight, the field flattener delivers a sharp field right to the edge, so you can view things right on the field stop, unlike many binoculars that have a curved focal surface or show other aberrations near the field edge. After using these, you really notice the curved field of of Zeiss’s Victorys, for example.
Chromatic aberration is not as perfectly corrected as in the latest HD designs, but to notice this you need to look at something dark silhouetted against a bright sky on a cloudy day. Then you’ll see some traces of green and purple fringing that isn’t there in the latest Swarovski 12x50 ELs. Generally, though, chromatic aberration is not a problem with these binoculars and you don’t notice it in ordinary use.
Overall the Nikon 12x50 SEs still come close to the latest and very best higher-powered designs from premium makers in the daytime.
In Use – The Night Sky
In the centre of the field star images are very tight. Careful examination reveals that coma increases gradually off axis from about 60-70% field width; but compared with many binos, off-axis coma is well controlled. The whole field appears well corrected in general use with a dusting of fine stars under dark skies that attest to the high light-transmittance of these binos, whilst stars generally have a pleasing intensity and sparkle. The very brightest stars do however show a bit more spiky flare than they do with fine roof-prism binoculars, something I’ve noticed before that may be inherent to porro prisms.
The Moon looks good through the Nikons: pin-sharp and grey-white (not the yellow tint you sometimes get), with no flare and great resolution, it’s a bit like the low power view in a good astronomical telescope. At 12x magnification, significant detail becomes visible and you could explore the major features with these and a Moon map (or app).
The best light throughput, flat field and great contrast make the Nikons good for deep sky. The chain of clusters running up through Auriga (M35-M38) look large and bright and begin to resolve into stars. Finding the Dumbbell Nebula is easy, as are the larger globular clusters like M15 and M13. The Pleiades sparkle and M42 shows its curving arms of nebulosity and bright core.
The 12x50 SE’s high contrast seems to work particularly well on larger galaxies, like M31 and M33, which look better than in almost any other binocular I can think of, with sufficient power to darken any sky glow, but enough field width to take in the whole galaxy.
Star colours are very intense through the SEs, making them pleasurable for casual sweeping as well as ‘serious’ DSO hunting.
Jupiter’s Galilean Moons are easy to pick out, even when close in. Jupiter itself shows a tight disk with just a little flare and minimal chromatic aberration. Venus flares enough to obscure its phase, as it almost always does through binoculars. Overall, planets do show a little more flare than with the very best roof prism models.
Comparison with Swarovski 12x50 EL
Swarovski’s 12x50 ELs are the most perfect high-power binoculars I have tested to date. A summary of the (mostly quite subtle) differences between these two fine 12x50 binoculars follows:
· The Nikons are 10% lighter at 900g, compared with 998g for the ELs. This weight difference is noticeable in use.
· The new ELs actually have several mm less eye relief than the Nikons, but less blackouts to compensate.
· The ELs have a significantly wider field at 5.7°vs 5° for the 12x50 SEs.
· The ELs’ field is even flatter than the Nikons’.
· The ELs have a slightly cooler colour balance that is even noticeable if you project the exit pupil onto white paper.
· The ELs have slightly less chromatic aberration.
· The Nikons may be a tad brighter, in keeping with their greater light throughput.
· Both are equally well-controlled for ghosting and stray light, but neither is quite class leading in this respect.
· The Swaros control spiking and flare a little better, delivering planetary views that are more like a telescope.
· The ELs focus much closer.
· The ELs are fully waterproof, the Nikons are not.
· The Swarovskis cost three-four times as much as the Nikons.
· Build quality of the Nikons is every bit as good as the Swarovskis’.
Comparison with Swarovski 15x56 SLC
The Swaro’ 15x56s have been my main astronomy binoculars for a few years now and the comparison is interesting. There is no doubt that the Nikons, with their lighter weight, wider, flatter field and lower power (hence less shakes) give an easier view; their greater eye relief helps too. They also seem to give stars more sparkle and perhaps stronger colours (though a little more flare as well). If the aesthetics of star-field sweeping is your thing, you’d choose the Nikons.
However, there is also no doubt that finding faint fuzzies is much easier in the bigger binoculars. The Ring Nebula (M57) is easy in the 15x56s; much tougher to pick out in the Nikons. Likewise, the Dumbbell is easier to find in the bigger binos, as are smaller globular cluster, like M56. Turning to the Double Cluster, it is just more populous seen through the Swarovski 15x56s, whilst dimmer open clusters, like M38 in Auriga, are more easily resolved into stars. So if you like popping out for an impromptu Messier Marathon, you would choose the big-eye Swarovskis.
Discounted, this pair of Nikon 12x50 SEs came in at exactly a quarter of the real-world price of Swarovski’s wonderful 12x50 ELs. Yes the Swarovski’s are slightly closer to optical perfection, but they are still heavier and slightly dimmer; you could never say they were worth it, unless you need waterproofing for serious nature viewing or birding as well (or unless money is no object).
So whilst the 12x50 SEs are not a state of the art design, they remain a superb binocular: light, bright and sharp, with a flat field, minimal chromatic aberration, lots of eye relief and a fairly wide field. For hand-held astronomy, that overall package is still amongst the very best. Unless you are prepared for the weight and shakes of a 15x56, the peculiarities of high-power image stabilisers, or need full waterproofing, these old Nikons remain a best buy.
My father was a Yorkshireman, a breed of men renowned for being “careful” with their cash. Perhaps that’s why the premium quality at modest cost of Nikons’ SEs really appeals to me. If you’re the same, rush out now whilst you can still get them.
Nikon’s 12x50 SEs remain very highly recommended and are an astronomy binocular best buy.