Nighttime has a certain fascination. It is a time of mystery -- mostly because human eyes cannot see what's out there.
Since the end of the Cold War there has been a real easing of military technology, and night-vision devices are flooding the market, most of them from Russia and other Eastern Bloc nations raising hard currency through the sale of military surplus.
Now Bausch & Lomb has entered the market with a pair of night-vision products (developed for Operation Desert Storm) that seem a little more sophisticated. They carry far more sophisticated prices, too. These are supposed to give the wildlife watcher, boater or the simply curious tools to turn night into day. They are similar to TV cameras: They capture an image, enhance and amplify that image, and send it to your eye.
The Night Ranger monocular lists for $1,800, the binocular version for $3,600 -- although the "street price" is somewhat less, if you shop around. For that you get a Generation II intensifier from ITT that offers "exceptional performance and clarity in very low light conditions."
How intense? Plenty. Used over heavy snow cover on a moonlit night you might find yourself blinking back tears. It may be the sample tested, but I found in those conditions that slipping the cap over the front lens and viewing the scene through the pinhole in the end of the lens cap made things plenty visible.
On truly dark nights you get a ghostly greenish image that is bright enough to determine the species of critter you might hear rustling around out there. Optical nuts will want to know that the lens is an f 1.4 covering 40 degrees angle of view -- that's rather like a fast "normal" lens on a 35 mm camera. The monocular is powered by a pair of AAA batteries. The binocular is powered by a 6-volt lithium camera battery, so frugal shoppers should probably look at the one-eyed unit: Not only does it cost half what the binocular costs, but batteries are cheaper and far more readily available. The binocular has motorized focus, however, while the monocular requires some fiddling with the focus ring on the eyepiece.
But as neat as these are for owl-spotting and nocturnal neighborhood snooping, they do not magnify the image the way normal binoculars or monoculars do.
To get magnification (to draw that wildlife closer) you need to add accessory lens sets. One set offers a fish-eye adapter for a smaller image but a far wider view, and also a 1.5 or 2x magnifying lens. Another kit offers 2.2x magnification. You can combine both sets to get up to 6-power enlargements. There's also an infrared light source for total-dark situations and a lens adapter to allow standard screw-mount camera lenses to be used instead of the lens supplied with the unit. All of those bells and whistles combined will add a mere $800 to the cost of either unit.
Using the monocular (which we tested) is easy, thanks to its ergonomic shape. Wrap your fingers around the rubberized barrel, press the switch, and you get a circle of brightness that lets you see what the dogs are doing out there by the back fence, what that strange rustling creature is up in the pine tree, or whether that dark shape is an intruder or your college-aged son, slinking home after a night on the tiles.