In Praise of the Pentax Papilio

Back in 2008 I was in search of a lightweight pair of binoculars to use on hill-walking and backpacking trips when carrying my big beautiful Swarovski 10x42s felt like too much of a neck-aching burden.  I tried out a number of models and having grumbled about their limitations, particularly their inability to focus on objects closer than about 3m, was eventually pointed in the direction of the Pentax Papilio (thank you Owain, blessed be thy name).  As their name suggests, these are aimed primarily at butterfly-watchers rather than birders, and they can focus down to about 50cm.  This makes them absolutely unique – effectively you have a combination of a conventional pair of binoculars and a low-powered binocular microscope that you can use to examine insects, flowers etc in detail without having to catch or pick them or crouch down in discomfort.  Moreover this in-depth observation can be done without disturbing small creatures.  It isn’t surprising really that the presence of a massive and potentially hostile object looming over it should have an inhibiting effect on the behaviour of your typical invertebrate.  However what did come as a revelation was the remarkably short distance one has to move back to release these inhibitions.  At 0.5 – 1.0m distance most invertebrates seem to have the self-confidence to ignore you as a potential threat.  I guess time is pressing, life is short and it isn’t worth wasting valuable minutes through stopping what you are doing when the world is full of massive objects most of which are indifferent to your existence and pose you no direct threat particularly if they keep still and, even if they move closer, can probably be evaded.  So, instead of freezing and trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves, these little creatures carry on with their normal activities – exploring, feeding, grooming, stalking, signalling, courting, egg-laying, fighting – and do so with energy, flexibility and character.  An undisturbed insect or spider has an expressiveness in the way it waggles its antennae, cocks its head, drums its feet etc that is hard to reconcile with the robotic, knight-in-armour rigidity it has when trying not to be noticed.  This is the magical world that the Pentax Papilio opens up.

The secret of its magic is that as you focus in on objects close to you the objective lenses move away from the eyepieces and move closer together, thus maintaining the stereo view.  The smoothness of this movement is ensured by housing the objective lenses within the body of the binoculars, protected from the outside world behind a single fixed oval sheet of plain glass.  If ever you have a spare moment, it is very satisfying to turn the Papilios around, play with the focus wheel and watch the slickness of this operation!

Apart from this, they also function as perfectly decent lightweight travel binoculars, and they are great for surveying aquatic mammals too as you can scrutinise pawprints and droppings without having to slither down risky riverbanks or contort yourself into undercut tree root plates and bankside cavities.

Papilios are available in two magnification – 6.5x and 8.5x. Normally I would think 6.5x was not powerful enough but given that the diameter of the objective lenses is only 21mm (small even by pocket binocular standards) I opted for these rather than the 8.5s because of concerns that the higher magnification would not give a bright enough image.

Earlier this year, one of my nearest and dearest expressed an interest in having a pair of Papilios for herself, so I went back to the Internet to check out current prices.  At £66 my Papilios had been an absolute snip in 2008, but prices have doubled since then.  However Pentax were also claiming advances in the construction sufficient to justify badging them as Papilio IIs.  The main difference seemed to be that all the lenses were now multi-coated.  I am no optics nerd, but I gather that the practical implication of this is that the image should be brighter and clearer.  Given the slickness of Amazon’s return procedures these days, I ordered both the 6.5s and the 8.5s so I could try them against each other.  The 8.5s were noticeably more powerful and gave a more detailed image at distance and, in very good light, at close range also.  However I felt that at close range in anything other than very good light, the 6.5s had the edge as the greater brightness of their image more than offset the lower magnification.  There was less difference in the width of the field of view than I would have expected, but it did seem as if the depth of field of the 8.5s was slightly less than that of the 6.5s so it was a little trickier to keep them in sharpest focus.  Ultimately then, while I felt I would be happy with either model, I plumped for the 6.5s again because so much of my use is likely to be in less than ideal light – the gloom of cloudy Britain or of dawn, dusk and overhangs.  If I was living in sunnier climes I would probably go for the 8.5s.

The Papilio IIs were noticeably brighter and seemed sharper than the original Papilios, so I hoped my nearest and dearest would be happy with my well-loved used pair while I relished the new ones (she was!)

Two pairs of bins!

(PS Amazon’s returns procedure wasn’t that slick after all – initially they refunded me for the slightly cheaper 6.5s I had kept, not the 8.5s I had sent back!  Also, at the time of this re-posting, there are some available on-line for just under £100 – grab ’em quick!).