Brandon Eyepieces

Before commencing my little review, I should establish my connection to the subject. Brandons have been a presence throughout my astronomical career for the simple reason that Candor, New York, site of Don V. Yeier's humble little shop, lies only about thirty miles from my home town, where I've lived for all but eight years of my life. When I was a kid just getting into astronomy, all the coolest local amateurs used these eyepieces, which were then widely considered the best in the world. And so they probably were. I would only embarrass myself if I tried to fully describe the aura of awesomeness which these sleek black marvels possessed. Even the name, Brandon, had a numinous quality. If I think back hard enough, I can still summon a little of that feeling.

Thus when it came time for me to acquire my first substantial telescope, it was only natural that I too join this exalted group. Back then, Don sometimes held special sales and auctions right there at VERNONscope, beneath a party pavilion. It was the summer of 1972, I needed eyepieces, Don was having an auction, and there I was, in Candor.

For me, the best feature of this event was the sale of Don's Brandon "seconds". I suppose today's equivalent is the TeleVue "blem" sale sometimes held at NEAF. Don's seconds mostly consisted of engraving errors or cosmetic flaws on the barrels...I'm not aware of any that involved the glass. My budget (barely) accommodated the initial purchase of two eyepieces. I was building a 3" f/15 refractor. I chose an 8mm for high power and a 24mm for a low/medium power. I forked over my money to Don's wife and held these fantastic objects in my hands. They were mine! I was now a serious amateur astronomer, because I had Brandons! Black volcano-top eyepieces, each protected by one of those neat screw-on aluminum cans, a cool amenity which I still think Don should bring back! The 24mm was particularly impressive because of its huge eye lens, unlike anything else I'd seen. I thought of it as the "TV Screen Eyepiece." I was lucky. Without that sale and the proximity of VERNONscope, who knows what eyepieces I would have wound up with? Kellners from Edmund, maybe?

BrandonsHow much money were they? $18.00 each! I don't know what the price was for "firsts" back then...maybe $30 or $35?

Yes, those were different times.

Over the next year or so I accumulated more Brandons as my feeble finances permitted. First a 16mm...then a 32mm...and finally a 12mm. Somewhere in there I also picked up a 2X Dakin Barlow (also in a can!) and five or six filters. For many years, Brandons were the only eyepieces I used.

Eventually I was seduced away by newfangled optics like Naglers, Ultra Wides, Radians, and Panoptics. The Brandons saw less and less light. Their reputation faded in the general amateur community. I rarely heard about them anymore, especially as they shot up in price to over $200 each. No doubt they still had their loyal fans, and they still do. Today they're undergoing a resurgence of popularity due to the enthusiasm of highly vocal fans: eyepiece purists who ascribe to the Brandons such nigh-supernatural qualities as a 3-D quality to the view, making the sky look "alive", not to mention claims of superior sharpness, contrast, and color rendition.

As a guy who has a set of Brandons lovingly tucked away and many fond memories of them, I sometimes wonder what I'm missing, and whether I'm ignoring actual superior performance in favor of the wider fields and generally better eye relief of more modern designs. So, I occasionally haul them out to make comparisons. What follows are my own observations and opinions of Brandon quality.

First, their physical characteristics. I've measured the apparent field of my Brandons by timing star crossings and also by measuring their field stops. They are all in the range of 42-45 degrees. The Brandon apparent field is generally stated to be 50 degrees, but this is a "round numbers" approximation at best. All my Brandons date from the 1970s. It's likely that the field stops have varied in size over the years, meaning that modern Brandons might have bigger fields than mine. If so, that larger field comes at a price. Brandons are not terribly well corrected for astigmatism around the edges, as I can see when using them in my apochromatic refractors. Increasing the field only brings more of this astigmatism into view. There's a good reason for limiting them to 42 or 43 degrees. After all, Don could easily make 65 degree Brandons just by using bigger field stops, but the periphery of those fields would be a mess. This would be particularly evident when using them in fast reflectors, a kind of telescope not in wide use when Brandons were originally designed. They are better in slower telescopes, and are meant to be used in them. Naglers, Radians, and their relatives are simply better corrected at the edges of their wide fields, no matter what telescope you're using.

Some observers are put off by what they perceive to be the tight eye relief of Brandons, but this concern seems exaggerated to me. I wear glasses, and I can see the entire field of all my Brandons with my glasses on, except for the 8mm. Admittedly, my glasses are thin. Actually the eye relief of the 32mm is huge, and I can't imagine anyone struggling with the 24mm either. The 8mm is the only real eyelash-brusher in the set (unless your set also includes a 6mm). This relatively decent eye relief is also partially a product of the small apparent field. If you increased the apparent field of the 12mm, for example, you'd have to squinch your eye in closer to see the whole thing.

As for their optical performance: on axis, I see very little or no difference between Brandons and other high-end eyepieces. I'm sorry. I wish I did. It is tempting to suppose that an eyepiece with fewer elements and what's claimed to be higher standards of manufacture should present cleaner, crisper, brighter views than today's multi-element wide-field eyepieces. But I see only the tiniest differences, so small I have no real faith in their reality, or no differences at all. Some observers claim that Brandons have a whiter, more neutral color rendition than some other eyepieces, which they go so far as to call "coffee-colored." If that's true, the difference is so minute that I've been unable to discern it in any convincing way. Others claim that Brandons have higher light transmission. I haven't been able to verify that in tests of limiting magnitude.

So, maybe it's me. Maybe my observing skills are too coarse to perceive differences which thrill others at first glance and induce Brandon loyalty to the exclusion of anything else. Maybe.

They are certainly very good eyepieces. They have features that I like. For one thing, because of their thin aluminum barrels and minimal glass, they're weightless. I think my entire set, plus the Dakin, plus the filters, all in their cans, and in a metal box, weighs less than a 31mm Nagler. This could be valuable in cases where telescopes are very delicately balanced. They'd also be very good binoviewer pairs, adding almost nothing to the weight of a hefty bino. I like them in small telescopes such as my Questar (where they're very much at home) and my PST. Their axial performance, while not vaulting dramatically beyond that of other high-end eyepieces, is certainly equal to any of them, and could easily be all that many observers would ever need. I also appreciate that they're still made in the United States. They're expensive, true, but it's nice to encounter proof that somebody in this country still knows how to make things and do it very well. Finally, I think the black volcano-top versions could well be the best-looking eyepieces ever made.

My hope is that Don Yeier, who doesn't seem to be getting any older, will continue to satisfy his fans with Brandon eyepieces and other products for a long time to come. After all, Candor needs some reason to be a little bit famous. The ice cream stand and the mini-golf course aren't enough by themselves.

Addendum: Alas, as Time continues its relentless offensive against all that is good in this world, Don has retired and sold off the VERNONscope business. The eyepieces are still available to their devoted fans, but now without the charm of that cluttered little shack in Candor.

Copyright by Joe Bergeron.