The eyes have it for Ben Cartwright as he gets the low down on his vision with a little help from Ed Lyons – after all, you can’t hit what you can’t see.
I need a new pair of eyeballs! Is it any wonder my eyesight is deteriorating after 54 years of constant use? My eyes are the first thing to start working when I wake up, and they function non-stop throughout the day, only getting some respite when I go to sleep.
When I first started clay shooting in early 2017, I had no idea my biggest challenge would be eye performance. I was in my forties when I first realised I needed spectacles – my arms weren’t long enough to hold the newspaper where I could read it anymore. And in low light it was even harder.
For about two years I had been eating restaurant meals that bore little resemblance to what I thought was on the menu. Blur, blur, beef?… with… is that, pomegranate?
During my introductory 50-shot experience I wore my everyday varifocals. I was too busy absolutely loving the experience to give much thought to the fact that the clays were going from blurry to clear to blurry. With my head down on the stock, I was often not looking through the portion of the lens I needed.
Springing teals that launched near my feet were a particular problem. By the second or third week, I realised that varifocals were not going to cut it. My instructor suggested I buy a pair of glasses for distance only.
The most cost effective solution appeared to be Specsavers. When I asked the young shop assistant if she had any experience with eyewear for shooters, I got a blank stare.
I wasn’t sure if this was because the millennial was still recovering from a Friday all-nighter, or if she perceived me to be some sort of psychopath. In the end I chose a pair of aviator style glasses. Not because they suited me, but because they had the largest lenses (with free variable tint, no less!). My shooting improved steadily for about 9 months.
By early 2018 I realised my progression had stalled. I now had my licence and was shooting regularly at Hereford and Worcester Shooting Ground. I arranged a shooting assessment with Ian Butler, the senior instructor, who was puzzled by my poor performance.
He suspected an eyesight issue lay at the heart of the problem, and recommended a reputable local optometrist.
The optometrist’s approach was to de-tune the weaker left eye a little to allow the very dominant right eye to do the majority of the work. He only stocked a small selection of generic sports glasses, so I chose a Progear pair with a yellow tint.
My logic was that the UK only has two seasons these days: miserable and slightly less miserable. I could see how I got on with them until summer arrived. They weren’t cheap at £230. I sensed a small mortgage looming if I needed more pairs with different tints. And if I needed new prescriptions? Ouch!
When I donned the new sports glasses everything in the distance looked sharp, but as soon as I looked down and started walking, it was if I’d downed five pints of Thatcher’s.
Over the next six months my brain and eyes gradually adjusted to them; the lurching around decreased, and my shooting improved. But in the back of my mind I had a recurring thought that these were only an interim solution.
By the time I made the appointment to see Ed Lyons in the summer of 2018, I’d come to a number of conclusions about what I needed: firstly, a cost-effective long-term solution, in all probability contact lenses; secondly, an optometrist with an understanding of clay shooting and its visual complexities; thirdly, a choice from a broad range of specialist shooting glasses with modular lenses, such as the much favoured Pilla brand.
Ed Lyons: the optometrist’s view
Studying my case records from the past nine years, one variable is consistent – the top shooters have superior eyesight to the sub-elite.
It’s useful to establish what ‘eyesight’ means. I use it as an umbrella term to cover a myriad of skills such as visual acuity (sharpness of vision and detail perception), contrast sensitivity (the ability to distinguish a target from its background, especially in poor light conditions), peripheral vision, tracking, reaction time and more.
It is also important to note that having excellent eyesight does not automatically create a proficient shot, as there is a lot to learn across the different disciplines. In Ben’s case, his development was being held back by his vision – or rather, the tools he was using to help him see weren’t optimised for shotgun shooting.
Varifocal glasses can be extremely useful to help us see at different ranges. They become more powerful at the bottom two thirds of the lens. Once we hit our mid-forties, the lenses inside our eyes begin to lose flexibility and our focal efficiency begins to diminish.
The downside is many varifocals have a narrow band of sharp focus in the centre and are subject to blur and distortion in the periphery. Better quality lenses can minimise this effect. When our head is on a stock, our eyes are often vertically and laterally decentred away from the most optically pure part of the lens.
As a clinician in everyday practice, I find ‘light-reactive’ lenses useful for some of my clients, however they don’t actually react to visible light! The reactive pigments in the lenses are affected primarily by UV, and to a certain extent, temperature.
This means they can go rather dark even on a dull day, which can be somewhat frustrating when shooting in changing light levels. With this type of product, I feel the glasses control the user, rather than the other way round.
In Ben’s case, he felt they didn’t go dark enough for strong sunlight. So again the benefit of only needing one product was outweighed by the compromise he was making on lens performance.
Ben’s next issue was managing his eye dominance – a topic which could span a series of articles all by itself! His sports glasses had a ‘downtuned’ left lens in order to solidify the dominance of the right.
In theory, this method can be of use if refractive error is the root cause of the issue – but it quite often isn’t. When manipulating a prescription lens in this way, I like to make the smallest effective change. This minimises the detrimental effects on binocular vision and depth perception.
When I assessed Ben, in each of the three tests he demonstrated strong right eye dominance, and thus in my opinion, no modification to the left lens was required.
As he had been shooting for a while with a downtuned left lens, it was likely that he had begun to learn sight and lead pictures ‘monocularly’ and would need to adapt to a true binocular picture.
In order to make this transition as smooth (and economical) as possible, I suggested fitting full-power daily disposable contact lenses. If we needed to tweak the power here and there, we wouldn’t have to discard costly prescription shooting lenses.
Shooting with contact lenses also gives a much truer picture of the world, as the minification or magnification effect of prescription spectacle lenses is reduced to near zero.
Modern materials mean contact lenses can be healthier and more comfortable than ever. However, lenses for astigmatism (called Torics) can cause some residual sensation due to the curvature of the lens itself, as Ben discovered.
If a client reports the lens sensation to be excessive, I may decide to change the material or the entire design of the contact, but in Ben’s case a little bit of perseverance was all that was required. The more the lenses are worn, the more natural they feel.
The final stage is for the brain to adapt to this new way of seeing. Again, increasing lens use in both sporting and social situations will aid in the laying down of new neural pathways in the brain and developing enhanced hand/eye coordination.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Ben is able to improve his shooting over the coming months.
Ben picks up the story
I had my final consultation with Ed in early 2019 after a three-month break from shooting. I had had an inordinate number of failed attempts to insert my contacts, so I was forced to admit that some re-education was in order.
My family were greatly relieved that their Saturday and Sunday morning lie-ins were no longer interrupted by the choice language emanating from the bathroom.
I shot the day after seeing Ed, complete with a set of Pillas (how many tints?). It’s no exaggeration to say my shooting was a disaster. I really struggled with depth perception.
I put a call into Ed and we talked it through. I will persevere for the next 6 months as my brain adjusts to these new contact lenses. I’ve seen a steady improvement already.
The more I use them, the quicker my brain will adjust. I translated this to my partner Melanie, as “Darling, Ed says I have to shoot three times a week”.
Well, I wasn’t going to cop the flak for that was I?