I liked the previous (version II) iteration of Canon’s 12×36 IS binoculars, but the stabilisation was too slow and clunky. Recently, they’ve released an updated IS III version. In this review I find out if it’s any better (spoiler alert: it is).
Canon 12×36 IS III Review
The first pair of Canon’s 12×36 IS I owned were great in some ways, but flawed in others. I sold them, with some regret afterwards, almost a decade ago. Since then I’ve flirted with another pair, because I recall them being excellent for astronomy. So recently (2020) I decided to get a pair of the latest spec’ (IS III) to see if I still liked them and what (if anything) has really changed.
I’ve left the original review for reference or for those shopping used. You can read it here.
At A Glance
Actual Field of View
Apparent field of view
Width x Length
150 x 174mm
Weight (my measurements)
650g w/o batteries (~700g with)
Data from Canon/me.
What’s in the Box?
The packaging for the IS III version has changed subtly. It’s still a depressingly basic box, though, if you’re used to deluxe packaging from Swarovski and Zeiss. Good for the environment, I guess.
Design and Build
The Canon IS range has no less than five different groups:
· 8×25, 10×30 and the 12×36 on test here, which share a similar non-waterproof design, are light weight and fairly cheap
· Premium 10x42s which are fully waterproof, have special lenses and are mainly aimed at birders
· Larger, more expensive binoculars of semi-waterproof design, with ED lenses: 15×50 and 18×50
· Recent small and light-weight ‘pocket’ binoculars in 8×20 and 10×20 sizes
· A new range of 32mm models featuring a different type of IS derived from their camera lenses
Both these and the 18x50s I reviewed a few years ago are still made in Japan; I don’t know about the others.
It might sound as if Canon have parked the existing models and these 12x36s do look the same as my original pair almost a decade ago. But close examination reveals that these say ‘IS III’ whereas the originals ‘IS II’: there has been a whole new stabilisation release since my last pair. As we will see, the stabilisation on these is indeed much improved.
All Canon’s original IS binoculars (like these) work on the same principle: a computer detects movement and alters the shape of a special flexible optical element to compensate and cancel the jiggling your hands induce. You activate this system by simply pushing a button. The most recent 32mm models have a different system derived from their cameras lenses that features a dual-action stabiliser with an ‘IS light’ option; I haven’t tried them yet.
All the Canon IS binoculars use a type of porro-prism (not the roof prisms more commonly found on high-end binos), but their design looks nothing like other porros, partly because these are Abbe-Porros (Porro II).
Not only do the Canon IS 12x36s look different from other porro-prism binoculars, they work differently too. Instead of the whole body pivoting to accommodate different eye spacing, just the eyepieces pivot. The hinge-less plastic body has the appearance of an electronic gadget rather than fine optics, more like a Canon camera in fact.
I weighed the 12x36s at just less than the claimed 660g dry (~700g with 2xAA batteries): a little heavier than the Canon 10x30s and about the same as Nikon’s conventional 10×35 EIIs. This is in 32mm birding bino’ territory and is a big plus point.
The 12x36s are some 24mm longer than the 10x30s, too – due to the longer objective housings to accommodate their longer focal length lenses. Nonetheless, like the 10x30s, these are a very compact binocular, as compact as many 10x42s.
Unlike the more expensive models, these don’t offer any special sealing against water ingress (the 50mm models are basically splash-proof, the premium 10x42s fully waterproof). Their composite body is covered with a thin black rubbery armour that helps grip, but isn’t a fluff-magnet like some.
The objective housings are rubber and so should offer good protection for the glass.
Stabilisation is powered by two AA batteries which should last several hours of continuous use.
Focuser is small, but smooth and fast!
Dioptre adjustment is simple but effective.
Most porro-prism binoculars like these focus by means of moving eyepieces, but on these it’s the objectives that move. The focusing action is super smooth, light and accurate, though: better than most binoculars, but not quite as fast as some birding roofs. There is plenty of travel past infinity too, to cater for diverse prescriptions.
Close focus is a real weak point at 4m or more. That’s much more than almost any decent birding bino’. You wouldn’t buy these for insects, flowers or watching birds at close range. However, close focus to infinity is much less than a turn.
To adjust dioptre, you just twist the right eyepiece, but it is (and has to be) quite stiff to avoid moving it by accident.
Optics – Prisms
As I have said, the Canon 12x36s use porro prisms, albeit with a slightly different geometry Canon refer to as ‘Porro II’ (aka Abbe-Porro). These are basically the type in your Grandad’s old binos’, but they have serious advantages over the roof prisms found in most modern birding binoculars. For one thing, porro prisms don’t need mirror coatings, so they transmit more (and scatter less) light. For another, porro prisms don’t need special phase coatings to deliver high resolution. Thirdly, porros typically deliver tighter star images with fewer ‘spikes’ than roofs.
Despite poorer coatings (see below), the Canons are actually brighter than a pair of premium 12x birding binos I reviewed recently – Meopta’s 12×50 HDs – during the day, due to those high-transmittance porro prisms.
Optics – Objectives
The objectives look to be conventional air-spaced doublets, with no special dispersion elements, combined with a focusing lens.
Canon boasts of its ‘Super Spectra’ coatings and this is supposed to be an area of upgrade over the old IS II model. The coatings – of a bluish green hue – do deliver a cool, neutral tone to the view, but are simply more reflective than the best (see comparison with premium Meopta coatings below).
Behind those objectives, though, lies all the IS magic – the real-time-deformable lenses that work by altering the light path to provide image stabilising.
Canon’s ‘Super Spectra’ coatings look more reflective (i.e. worse) than the Meopta’s.
Internals feature concentric ridges to provide baffling against stray light. No anti-flare baffles in front of the lens rings though.
Optics – Eyepieces
The eyepieces are a fairly simple design, but they do incorporate a doublet field-flattener. They have a pretty standard field of view of about 5° true, 55° apparent – same as Nikon’s 12×50 SEs – but it’s pretty flat and usable to the edge thanks to those flatteners. Modern premium birding 12x50s usually have about another half degree field width.
Eye relief is stated by Canon as 14.5mm, which is what I measured from the rim of the eyeguards. This is enough to make them quite comfortable if you view with specs on, but perhaps not enough for everyone to see the whole FOV with glasses.
Unfortunately, the fold-down rubber eyecups are less convenient for glasses-wearers than the click-stop type, especially if like me you share them with someone who doesn’t wear glasses. They are also a magnet for fluff.
Those pivoting eyepieces may also be less accommodating for eye separation than more conventional designs. If you have a narrow IPD (inter-pupillary-distance) you should try before you buy.
Rubber eye cups are fiddly to fold, absolute magnets for fluff and dust.
The 10×36 IS come with a decent zipped fabric case and a thinner-than-most strap. There are no objective caps, just individual ones for the eyepieces.
A couple of niggles. Those strap lugs making fitting the strap near impossible: I had to use medical tweezers in the end. Meanwhile, the strap for the case isn’t removable at all.
The required two AA batteries are included and supposedly last about four hours in continual use.
Accessories are pretty basic at this price point.
In Use – Daytime
Ergonomics and Handling
The Canon 12x36s are surprisingly light weight and generally very easy to handle, once you get used to the unusual, all-in-one, body shape. I found them much easier and less tiring to use than the big and weighty 18x50s.
The focuser falls easily to finger and though the knob is quite small, the action is very smooth and fluid. Focusing is perfectly accurate with no slop or play, no nasty shifts when changing focus direction. Focus ‘snap’ is probably the most absolute I’ve ever experienced in a binocular – optical quality is supreme (this is Canon, after all, makers of some of the finest camera lenses and the objectives for Takahashi telescopes).
The binoculars are easy to hold and with the eyecups folded away they are comfortable for me with glasses on. Like many longer eye relief eyepieces, they are a bit sensitive to blackouts as you shift eye position, but not as bad as the Nikon SEs, for example.
These aren’t a big pair of binoculars, but their black-plastic Sony Walkman looks aren’t going to get you any compliments at the local hide.
No admiring glances for these Canons 12x36s when I’m out birding on the local prom’, but they’re unobtrusive to wear.
Canon’s 12×35 ISIIs are great for wildlife viewing and long range birding, whilst for those of an ‘aeronautical’ inclination, they’re are an amazing tool for plane spotting and … err … similar activities:
The canons deployed at a scenic overlook not far from White Sands, NM 😉
Blue Origin’s rocket test facility near Van Horn, Texas: snapped through the Canon 12×36 ISIIIs with my iPhone.
Initial impressions (before pressing the magic button) are pretty good: a sharp, bright, flat field of view with good contrast and excellent resolution, even without the IS. The field of view is a bit narrow compared with Alpha 12x50s, which can make tracking birds on the wing difficult, but is as good in other ways. Flare is well controlled, false colour less so (more on that later).
To delve into further into the view, we need to press the button …
To activate stabilisation, you have to press a button on top and keep it pressed (some of the other models just need one press for on and another for off). It takes a few seconds for the stabilisation to really kick-in, it’s not instant. Then, miraculously, all the micro-jiggling stops and you suddenly see more detail, lots of it.
Compared to the smaller 10×30 model, my previous 12x36s IS IIs took longer to settle after hitting the button. But this IS III stabilisation seems much less intrusive, certainly less noisy, than my original pair with IS II. Now the stabilisation settles within a second or two.
The original 12x36s didn’t take well to being panned, making a chattering noise and giving a strange jerkiness to the edges of the view. Those faults have now been rectified. These are mostly silent, so much so that the stabilisation no longer gives an aural cue at all.
The previous version suffered from some fade in and out of focus and cyclical blurring, not these. Once settled, the stabilisation is close to perfect – magically it’s like they’re tripod mounted, they’re that good. Only the occasional slow drift or click reveals the IS in action.
Those few remaining quirks are the price you pay, though, for much-improved resolution – beyond anything hand-held 12x binoculars would reveal without a support. Don’t under estimate this: resolved detail improves dramatically when you push the button. You think you’re seeing all the detail, then when you hit the button you realise how much you were actually missing. Some examples:
There’s a flock of small birds in a tree 200mm away, no idea what they are. Press the button and they’re Goldfinches, showing all their plumage detail – orange heads and yellow wing bars – far more clearly even than with unstabilised bino’s at 18x.
I can spot some birds way out on the bay sands and floating in the bright water. They’re at least 500m away and I can’t make any kind of I.D. Hit the button and they’re Pintail ducks.
A plane glides slowly past the crescent Moon in black silhouette against a twilit sky. It’s an aggressive delta in a steep turn, canted over. Looks like an old Saab Viggen. Love that plane. But really? No, I push the button and now I see the canards up front are small and the delta is a simple triangle without the Viggen’s change of rake. So it’s a Euro Fighter.
A plane flying in the airway at altitude overhead is a passenger jet of some sort, I can just see that. Hit the switch and the orange and white livery, big engines and wing shape clearly identifies it as an Easyjet Airbus.
The doublet field flattener means these do have a fairly flat field and the central sweet-spot is large. The very edge does soften a bit after 70%.
The field of view is a bit narrow at 5°, but the field flatteners mean it’s all usable.
By modern Alpha standards, false colour is the 12×36 ISIII’s only real Achilles Heel.
High-end Canon IS models use ED elements to control chromatic aberration. The cheaper models like this one don’t. Consequently, under some circumstances, they do suffer from significant purple and green colour fringing around the edge of high-contrast subjects.
Under normal use in temperate climes, it’s mostly only visible when viewing things silhouetted against a bright sky (e.g. birds in high branches). But then I took them to Yellowstone in winter to watch wildlife. In brilliant snow-and-sun conditions – watching buffalo rootling in snowy meadows – the purple blur became quite serious and very distracting.
If you’ll be using binoculars for wildlife viewing in snowy conditions, or maybe birding over bright water, you might want to choose a different pair.
The false colour comes from both the objectives and the eyepieces and seems a little worse with stabilisation active.
In Use – The Night Sky
Despite their small aperture, Canon’s 12x36s work amazingly well for astronomy. You expect them to be dim, but they’re just not.
The flat field is great for extended objects and star fields. Stars do become distorted by astigmatism, but only from 80% field width and not before; even then the distortion is limited and asterisms are still recognisable at the field stop.
Compared to a premium pair of 12×50 birding bino’s these are just gonna be so limited on deep sky, though, right? Uh uh. I carefully compared them with Meopta’s excellent Meostar HD 12x50s by looking for the faintest stars I could see in both the Pleiades and Orion’s sword. In both cases, the Meopta’s went deeper with the Canon’s IS off (though not by as much as I was expecting). But press the magic button and the 12×36 went every bit as deep, maybe … and here’s the thing … deeper.
The 12x36s show more detail on the Moon than about any other hand-held binoculars I can think of (except the Canon 18x50s!) In some ways these show you more than premium 12×50 or even 15×56 birding/hunting binoculars, such as Leica’s 12×50 HDs or Zeiss’ Conquest 15×56 HDs. Resolution is way better, but so too is contrast. Mainly this is because the view is so much less jiggly, but don’t discount the effect of the extremely sharp and high-res porro-prism optics.
There I was, writing a review for some big scope when a three-day crescent winked at me through the window. So I switched off the lights, settled back in my armchair and set about learning some new crater names with the 12x36s.
Sure, like you I knew the big names – Petavius and Langrenus with their central peaks on the southern limb, the mountainous edge of Mare Crisium with Cleomedes and Macrobius nearby. Atlas and Hercules and dark floored Endymion in the north; huge Janssen in the south. But what about Isidorus north of Mare Nectaris? Or Vlacq and Rosenburger south of Janssen? If you love the Moon, but live in a city with nowhere to set up a telescope this is exciting stuff: real exploration from a warm armchair.
A few days later, I easily resolved the bright-rayed 27 km crater Menelaus. And unlike normal hand-helds, I didn’t need careful breathing to do it. Honestly, the clarity and detail astonished me.
To be clear: the available detail was much more than with even the highest powered hand-held, non-IS binoculars and felt like much more than just 12x.
If you want to take an occasional peak at a planet with binoculars, Canon’s 12×36 IS IIIs win over un-stabilised designs, even premium ones. You can just about make out Venus’ crescent phase (usually a tall order for binoculars) and the brilliant platinum crescent generates no nasty flare or ghosts and just a trace of false colour.
Near the 2020 opposition at about 20” in apparent size, a brilliant and high Mars surprised me by showing an obvious disc, again with no nasty flare or ghosts.
The Canon 12×36 ISIIIs pass the “Jupiter test” with no flare or prism-spikes whatever. Near opposition, the slightly flattened disc is perfectly sharp and surprisingly large, just like the view through a small telescope. A suggestion of a dark equatorial band marking the cloud belts? Maybe.
The four Galilean moons are incredibly easy to follow as they change position from night to night – way easier to track than with any ordinary hand-held binos.
You can make out Saturn’s rings as ‘handles’ (the way Galileo drew them) and easily find Titan, which to my eyes has a more golden hue than a silvery white Jovian moon.
Theory suggests 36mm objectives are too small for deep sky, but even with the IS off the Canons did well, finding all the Messier objects I’d expect to find with 12x50s. But with IS enabled, they were actually better than a conventional pair of high-end 12x50s in most cases, something that really surprised me.
The Auriga clusters and M35 nearby all showed their bursts of individual stars with direct vision, the Starfish revealing its unusual shape. The Double Cluster looked beautiful too. The 12x36s gave one of my best ever binocular views of the Great Nebula in Orion: the extending arms of nebulosity, the rear dark lane and the other patch of misty nebula around Nair al Saif. The Pleaides were full of stars, both bright and glittering, faint and shimmering. Stars are particularly point-like and intense.
Even the Andromeda Galaxy looked good and only its neighbour M33 was a bit dimmer and less distinct than through the 12x50s.
Overall, though, I preferred the Canon 12×36 IS IIIs to just about any other higher-powered hand-held binocular for astronomy. Say goodbye to shakes and trying to steady the view, say hello to rock-steady high-resolution views like a small telescope. And unlike the previous version, there just aren’t the IS-downsides either.
Viewing the magnificent dark skies at McDonald observatory with the 12x36s.
Canon 12×36 IS vs Canon 15×50 IS
If you want a pair of stabilised binoculars with a middling magnification that’s more general purpose than the 18x50s, you’ll probably consider these two options. Let’s compare them point by point:
· The 12x36s are much smaller and lighter to carry or travel with
· The 12x36s are a lot cheaper
· The 12x36s use ‘ISIII’ which feels more fluid and less intrusive
· The 12x36s have more eye relief for spec’s wearers
· The 15x50s claim waterproofing, whilst the 12x36s are just splash-resistant
· The 15x50s have an ED element in their objectives and suffer (slightly) less from false colour fringing
· The 15x50s have a very useful permanently-on mode; the 12x36s don’t – you have to keep the button pressed
· 50mm objectives do capture a lot more light for deep sky than 36mm ones
If you own other bino’s and just want a single-minded extreme distance viewer, buy the 15x50s (or the 18x50s). For general use, the 12x36s are much more user friendly – I regularly travel with them and use them as my only bino’s, taking them hiking and sight-seeing as well as to dark sky sites (see above); I wouldn’t do that with the 15x50s.
Canon 12×36 IS III vs Meopta Meostar 12×50 HD
The Meoptas are in some ways state of the art for high-power birding bino’s and are close to the best in most areas. I’ve mentioned them many times in this review. Direct comparisons with the Canons are surprising.
· The Canons’ field is narrower but flatter
· The Canons are a little brighter by day, probably due to the higher transmittance of their porro prisms (Canon’s coatings appear worse)
· Resolution is equal without IS enabled. With IS enabled, hand-held resolution is enormously higher in the Canons
· The Canons have slightly too much false colour in some circumstances, the Meoptas almost none under any and all.
· The Meoptas focus much closer
· The Canons are about 430g lighter and shorter too
· The Meoptas are fully waterproof, the Canons are not
· The Meoptas offer a more conventionally lovely view by day and offer a macroscopic function the Canons can’t
· The Meoptas have a 30 year transferable warranty. The Canons are an electronic appliance and have only two (but will reportedly take some 10 years of hard use)
For general birding and nature viewing, the Meoptas would likely be your choice, especially over snow or water due to the Canon’s false colour problem. For long-range birding, wildlife, spotting and especially for astronomy, the IS gives such a giant advantage you’d choose the Canons.
The previous-version 12×36 IS IIs were an excellent binocular compromised by stabilisation that was sometimes slow, jerky, noisy and intrusive. Not this new IS III model. Now, the stabilisation is as subtle yet effective as the 10x30s, perhaps more so. It’s also completely silent in most cases. Activation is immediate and there is none of that intermittent fuzziness you used to get. It just works, seamlessly and near perfectly.
In terms of the basic optics, it’s good news too: sharp, bright and very high-res, with good suppression of stray light. Their only real fault is more false colour than the latest HD designs.
Handling is good too. They are light and very wieldy; the focuser is super-smooth and accurate. The eyepieces offer a reasonably wide flat field and plenty of eye relief, with the old-fashioned fold-down eyecups the main negative point.
For me these 12×36 IS IIIs are now the best compromise between the slightly under-powered (for astronomy) 10x30s and the much heavier (and costlier) 50mm models with their clunkier stabilisation.
For birding I would be hesitant to recommend them, though, despite their huge power to ID at distance: they aren’t waterproof, don’t focus close and have too much false colour for birds in high branches or on the wing, or when viewing in the snow or over bright water.
But for astronomy (or spotting), they are simply outstanding. If I had to be without a telescope again, I would rely on a pair of these for quick looks at the Moon and planets; surprisingly (given their modest aperture) for DSOs too.
The only troubling thing for me is just how unappealing the shakes are in normal bino’s once you’re used to these. I find myself reaching for a button on every pair now.
I was so impressed I’ve kept the Canon 12x36ISIIIs for myself, mainly for travel, but for quick looks between the clouds too.
Despite too much false colour in very bright conditions, the Canon 12×36 IS IIIs get my highest recommendation for outstanding ease of use and resolution. No un-stabilised hand-held binoculars come as close to a telescopic view. This makes a difference by day, but is a killer-app for astronomy.
OR Buy Canon 12×36 ISIII from Wex here:
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