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Getting close to the on the water action at major events with Fujinon 14x40 TS-X binoculars

by Richard Gladwell/ 22 Aug 12:52 NZST 26 August 2022
Keeping pace with an AC75 is always a challenge - America's Cup 2021 - Auckland © Richard / nz

With the help of a photographer's media pass, Sail-World has been privileged to get on the water, and into the best seat in the house, at many major regattas over the past 15 years - including the last four America's Cup and Olympic Regattas.

Despite being up close, there are always restrictions on where photo boats are allowed on the course. Even on a good day, for example, we'd only get to shoot 60% of the mark roundings at an America's Cup and less at an Olympic Regatta.

As one of a small group of international photographers who are also sailing journalists, ours is a dual role of writing race commentary from an eyewitness perspective and shooting news images of the action to support the key points in that commentary. We have to see and shoot where the race was won or lost, see the off-camera action, and also what happened after the TV feed was cut away at a crucial point.

TV viewers who weren't there on the water, don't know what was missed by the cameras. Part of the photojournalist's role is to fill in those gaps, if possible. The task is becoming increasingly difficult for several reasons but can be remediated to some extent by technology.

We don't have a TV on the photo boats, so there's no instant replay. Even with PJ Montgomery's excellent radio commentary utilising several feeds, some significant knowledge gaps must be filled before heading into the media conference soon after stepping ashore.

Often the quickest and easiest solution is to phone home, between races or just after racing has finished for the day to get a short explanation of any knowledge gaps.

Yes, it does feel weird to call 9,000nm back to Auckland from an America's Cup race course in Bermuda to ask a few questions about something that happened about 0.75nm away from your photo boat. But sometimes it is the best and quickest way.

A case in point was in Race 3 of the 2017 Challenger Final in Bermuda, when Artemis helmsman Nathan Outteridge slid overboard during a tack, as ETNZ and Artemis approached the final windward mark with the Kiwis in hot pursuit and chasing a vital race win. From our position in the photo boat waiting at the finish, we saw that Artemis was at best leading by a small margin, and then suddenly slowed and dropped back. With a pair of 7x40 binos, it was impossible to see what had happened, but with double the magnification of the Fujinon 14x40s plus better optics, it could have been a different story. So it was another phone call back to NZ from the race course to find out what had happened so we could set up for the finish.

Same song, second verse in the three capsizes in the last two America's Cups. In American Magic's situation in the last Cup, and as with Emirates Team NZ's nosedive in Bermuda, we were a couple of hundred metres away, but we can't get in close when there is a rescue operation underway. Binoculars are essential be able to hang back and see the nuances of what is happening in the recovery and to have a good look at the damage - so you know what to shoot. Plus, you get a perfect look directly into the boat's cockpit in a view that was not generally available.

It's only after going to the media conference and then arriving home at a late hour, reviewing video (graphics, two onboard cameras/audio, and the two video broadcasts) and also looking at some very magnified still images to understand what had actually happened, in an incident, or more usually just how a race had unfolded. Typically teams will only talk openly about any negative incidents in a very guarded way, pending their own debriefs, opening up maybe a few days later, when the storyline is stone cold.

Similarly, at the Tokyo2020 Olympics - the combination of course marshalls and the rules they enforce often stopped photo boats from getting within several hundred metres of a rounding mark. At the Sailing Olympics, there are no on-demand replay facilities available in the media centre - and if you miss an incident, then hopefully you can pick something up in the Mixed Zone, or otherwise it's a case of waiting until you can see a replay once you've returned home - or in our case at Tokyo2020, whiling away the weeks in MIQ after arriving home.

The easy way to short-circuit these time-consuming workarounds is to see it on the water with the assistance of binoculars, get the shots you need and start working out the storylines, plus get a good long look at rigs and a lot of other vital points that aren't seen on TV.

The latest model of Fujinon's 14x40 TS-X binoculars seem to be an excellent solution to some of the coverage issues which are expected to become even more fraught in future.

The very attractive features of Fujinon's 14x40 TS-X binoculars were double the magnification, image stabilisation, and brilliant optical technology from Fujinon. From the testing we have done over the past few months, the Fujinon 14x40 binoculars tick all our boxes.

A couple of years back, we added a new pair of marine-grade, German-manufactured 7x30 binoculars to get better visibility of the racing. But at the 2021 America's Cup and Tokyo2020, it was obvious that they were only a partial solution.

In a typical pair of sailing binoculars such as 7x30, the first figure indicates the magnification, while the second denotes the diameter of the front lens, or objective lens, in millimetres.

On the water with the 7x30s, the magnification was similar to what I could see through a 600mm camera lens - helpful for working out when to start shooting, but not the best available option.

With that seven times level of magnification, you can only see about halfway up the race course (about .75nm) to a reasonable level of detail. Beyond that, listening to PJ Montgomery on a live radio commentary was more informative.

Of course, the Fujinon 14x40 TS-X takes viewing to a whole new level if you are trying to watch sailing or rowing from ashore. As the model number indicates, it is double the strength or 14x magnification, and the diameter of the front lens is 40mm, so the view width is slightly larger.

Binoculars with an unstabilised magnification of 8x are generally reckoned to be the maximum viable strength when handheld and less when the boat is underway.

An electronic stabiliser, also used in a top camera lens to give image stability, means the greater magnification of the Fujinon 14x40 TS-X is always usable - even when underway at speed.

In one test we ran during the Oceanbridge Regatta, running into a modest head sea at 15-20kts, it was possible to keep a 49er being sailed on a parallel course in full view on the Fujinon 14x40. With a 7x30 also handheld in the same sea-state but without any lens stabilisation - holding the image in view was impossible.

For safety and navigation reasons alone, the Fujinon 14x40 offers a significant advantage over conventional binoculars because of its ability to be used on a moving, unstable platform/boat and with double the usual magnification.

The electronic stabiliser is activated by pushing two buttons on the upper surface of the binoculars, with a slight vibration as it starts. When panning with the Fujinon or raising them to your eyes, there is a subtle but perceptible period of 1-2 seconds while the stabiliser adjusts in the new position. This is similar to the delay experienced with stabilisers in a zoom or prime lens when shooting in auto-focus.

The benefit of the stabilisers is easily gauged by using the binoculars with image stabilisation switched off. Handshake makes them unusable unless supported on a tripod or similar. One of the surprising aspects of the testing was the degree to which binocular stability was affected by windage - not just the binoculars themselves but added to the windage of your hands and arms body - even on land. On a moving boat in a seaway, the movement is significant - stabilisation is not just a nice to have but is essential.

A comparative test with 7x30's and the Fujinon 14x40 on land in a 25kt breeze proved the value of stabilisers. The 7x30 suffered severely from being buffeted by the wind - due to windage on the binoculars and my body. Turning away from the wind with the 7x30's helped, but at all angles, the Fujinon 14x40s were rock-steady - a remarkable contrast in performance in conditions that were more stable than marine use.

The Fujinon uses four penlight batteries for power. The manufacturers say that with the four included AA batteries, the stabilisation system works for about 18 hours, with rechargeable AA NiMH batteries for up to 22 hours.

However, we used them for a lot longer, over three months, without losing function, and replaced them when the warning light flashed. The stabiliser powers off after 10 minutes without use as an energy-saving measure.

An unusual but useful feature of the Fujinon 14x40 is the firmness of the adjustments. Fujinon says the firmness of the adjustments is due to the weather sealing. Whatever the cause, it is a nice adjustment and means that the Fujinon 14x40 retains its settings when not in use - and is ready to go without resetting. Just turn on the stabiliser, and they are good to go.

Swivelling the eyepieces requires a more substantial than expected pressure, but once set, don't need to be altered. The focus control is also quite firm but has a nice locating stop with each movement, making for easy manual adjustment and reference. The diopter adjustment on the right eyepiece is also pleasantly firm. Both eyepieces have an easy stop-controlled adjustment system. The firmness of the adjustments is due to the weather sealing.

The significant benefit of the firm controls enables the Fujinon 14x40s to hold their adjustment. So if they are roughly put down or pushed into their case, no readjustment is required. In the subsequent use, aside from powering on the image stabiliser, they're good to go without needing readjustment.

Read the manual to understand how to correctly focus the binoculars for your eyes. The method is different from your intuition, but in practice is excellent and underlines the thought that has gone into the Fujinon 14x40 design and ease of use.

As expected from a manufacturer of high-quality camera lenses, the Fujinon technology has crossed over into their 14 x 40 binoculars, giving superb optics and providing a clearer than expected image over and above the increased magnification.

In another test, from the land, the Fujinon 14x40 provided an excellent view of Division 1 keelboats rounding a mark 3nm distant in good light and minimal haze. It was hard to tell one boat from the other through the camera viewfinder with a 600mm lens (equivalent to a 7x30 binocular). That is a significant gain, and we expect to have excellent visibility over the entire Olympic/America's Cup course length with the Fujinon 14x40 rather than the current half-course view with 7x30s.

The optical theory says that you won't see further with binoculars; however, what you can see will be magnified, and objects will appear closer.

That is true up to a point. But the combination of the 14x magnification and clear optics in the Fujinon 14x40 gives a very clear view of objects on the horizon which are invisible to the naked eye. For offshore racing, they would be an amazing asset.

At other sports events, concerts and similar, where your position is more than 75 metres from the action, the Fujinon 14x40 should come into its own.

If you are watching sports at a distance, such as rowing and sailing, Fujinon 14x40's greatly improved the viewing experience.

The Fujinon 14x40 comes in a semi-rigid case. However, for added protection, they are a tight fit into a standard Pelican 1200 case - so they can be tossed into a bunch of wet gear in a kit bag and get protection from a harsh sailing environment. The documentation with the binoculars says they are water resistant but can be washed.

According to other tests, the Fujinon 14x40 is waterproof to a depth of 1 metre for five minutes and will float if dropped overboard. That was one test we didn't do.

The Fujinon 14x40 TS-X are not inexpensive, but the quality of viewing is undeniable and unforgettable. They will be an essential part of our kit at the big regattas.

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