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Eye Candy

Optical instruments let you see the natural world in whole new ways, revealing secrets. These nine items, from binoculars to sunglasses, will give you uncommon vision.

By Steve Casimiro

Suss out your hiking route, search for rock art under a distant sandstone overhang, or eyeball an approaching rapid with the pocket-size Eterna Compact 8x25 binoculars by BRUNTON. The rubberized 12-ounce Eternas are ideal for stashing in your pack to have at the ready. They're rugged, waterproof, and fog-proof.

Despite modern cameras' many bells and whistles, it's the lens that's important for photographic quality and sharpness. The 12.1-megapixel Lumix GF2 from PANASONIC is the brand's smallest and lightest interchangeable-lens camera with a flash. You get a choice of one of three lenses when you buy it. A cutting-edge bonus: The GF2 also works with the company's new 12.5mm lens to produce 3-D photos. Price unavailable at press time,

Have you ever really looked at a ladybug? With the 1.1-ounce MicroMax LED from CARSON OPTICAL, you can zoom up to 100 times closer than the naked eye can. Its embedded LED is especially handy when inspecting larger objects, such as leaves and rock crystals, right up against the optical tube. $19,

The first time you place your eye to the BUSHNELL StealthView II night-vision device, you're struck not by the fact that you can see in the dark—but that what you're seeing is in full color instead of the ghostly green you've come to expect from CNN war footage. The StealthView can illuminate nearby objects with its infrared beam or reveal a critter up to 300 feet away. $415,

Full-size binoculars like the 25-ounce Monarch X 8.5x45 from NIKON deliver the brightest, most powerful view—sharp enough to discern individual feathers on a red-tailed hawk 300 feet away. An anti-reflection coating minimizes glare, and the lenses are built with Eco-Glass, which is made without lead or arsenic. $580,

Rock hounds might carry little loupes, but it's far more gratifying to wield a Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass. The five-inch Glass Magnifier from BAUSCH & LOMB has a small inset lens, is comfortable in the hand, and can be used as a fire starter in a pinch.

Makers of most photochromic sunglasses forget to mention that their lenses darken in reaction to ultraviolet light and are thus ineffective when inside a vehicle whose windows block UV rays. The innovative Zulue shades by JULBO, however, darken or pale in relation to all light the human eye can see. Drive into a glaring sunset, and the difference is clear.

Even with a star map, those countless points of light in the night sky can look mighty similar. But the MEADE LS-6 SC Telescope has GPS: Turn the thing on, and it calibrates to your location, then zeroes in on the heavens' most compelling objects. The six-inch scope resolves stars and planets with excellent clarity and contrast, but it's the built-in extras that make it great: recordings that describe what you're viewing, a camera, even an optional screen to show close-ups of nebulae and galaxies. $1,400,

The beauty of today's more sustainable materials is that they're often indistinguishable from the old: SMITH OPTICS' Evolve Prophecy fog-free snow goggles are made of recycled urethane and plastic derived from plant oils, and they perform in blizzard conditions as well as any of their non-eco competitors.

Photos: Lumix camera courtesy of Panasonic; Monarch binoculars courtesy of Nikon; telescope courtesy of Meade Instruments; all other photos by Lori Eanes

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