Hand-lenses for Exploring Nature

The spider and the fly. With a hand-lens or loupe, you can observe dramas that are otherwise invisible.

I once wrote about taking a “mini hike” using a hand lens or loupe to entertain young Boy Scouts.  The idea was to give each boy a hand-lens (a smaller more powerful version of a magnifying glass) and have them crawl around on hands and knees looking at anything they found with the lens.

Truth be told, I probably enjoyed the experience as much or more than they did.  Magnifying mundane everyday objects such as a blade of grass, a bit of bark or even the skin on your fingertip leads to a magical new world. Mountains form from the tiniest sand grains and the smoothest of surfaces are suddenly revealed as rough and complex. If by chance you take a magnified look at an insect, you suddenly realize where Hollywood gets its monster creations!

A hand-lens has been one of my favorite nature tools since I first used one to study insects in college.  I use one frequently to closely examine all sorts of things and now own four or five, including two with battery operated lights, one that functions as a tiny microscope and several with two lenses for more options in magnification. They range from 10X to over 60X magnification.

This is a sampling of hand-lenses that work very well. The far left black one is the eye-piece of an otherwise broken rifle scope. The silver one on the left is a straight 10X loupe. the back one with the blue light is a mini "microscope" that can power up to 100X. The white one in the center and the long handled one in front are both lighted and that is a big help. In the back on the right is a 55mm lens from a camera. The two in front are both from old movie cameras and are very sharp and powerful.

I pack one with me just about everywhere I go.  They are particularly useful in boring meetings where even the magnified fabric of my shirt has more appeal than the speaker. 

The list of things to look at is literally endless and is as close as your skin or desk top.   However, my favorite subjects are found outside.  Butterfly wings, hairy caterpillars and horsefly eyes top my list but just about anything looks unique and fascinating under a hand lens.  The unseen detail that comes to life is incredible to say the least.  Even plain old dirt can be fascinating when you look close enough to realize what it is made of.

You can order a hand lens from  Acorn Naturalists or from Amazon and sometimes you can find them in camping stores, office supply stores or college bookstores. Bear in mind that you get what you pay for. Less expensive lenses are not as sharp and may have a very small portion of the lens that is useful. Jeweler quality lenses can run from $60-200 but I have never spent that much. 

You can also make your own by using a lens from an old camera (a 50 mm lens from a 35mm camera will give you at least 10X magnification) or movie (film) camera.  Look through the lens not as the camera would but as the subject would ("backward"). I have also used the eyepiece from a discarded riflescope. These can be very powerful lenses when used this way.  

Whenever I encounter an optic, i give it a little test to see if it will work as a hand-lens. Not all lenses work though and I cannot explain why so you might have to try several.

A nifty trick for an impromptu hand-lens is to look backward through one side of a  binocular. This works very well and yields a high magnification. However, there may be some porro prism binoculars (the ones where the eyepiece looks to be offset from the tube) where this will not work.  However, it does seem to work with all roof prism (straight tube) binoculars. Give your binoculars a try and see how they work. I am betting you'll be impressed.


All these binoculars work very well as impromptu hand-lenses. They are all very powerful and sharp. The two on the left are roof prism types, the one on the right is a porro prism.

I’ll end with a word of caution.  Once you enter the close-up world, you may be hooked for good.  Any given moment may find you studying a spider on your desk or the wood grain of the pew in church.  People may think you strange and leave you alone--not a bad deal at that.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), The Best of Nature is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

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