Some eight years ago my friend and fellow nature enthusiast, Mark Baldwin (who also happens to be Director of Education for the Roger Tory Peterson Institute) introduced me to a little tool that opened up all sorts of new insights and discoveries into the realm of insects and flowers -- the hand-held magnifying lens.
The first lens he introduced me was a folding jeweler's loupe with clear plastic lens and opaque case that doubled as a handle when opened. This was a very useful tool at the time and, thanks to the innovative addition of more powerful lenses and a LED light source, is even more useful today.
The second hand-held magnifier Mark introduced me to was a more economical, non-folding two-lens model. By adding a simple lanyard cord it can be worn about the neck -- freeing up your hands when you don't need it and avoiding the possibility of accidentally misplacing it.
The third magnifying device I became familiar with is ideal for field sketching the really small details of insects, flora, or mineral samples -- an illuminated, hand-held microscope not much larger than a US 25 cent coin but sporting a remarkable 45x magnification!
For the nature journalist these tools all make magnificent (better still, essential) additions to any field kit. With them you can see the detailed workings of joints, antennae, eyes, mouth parts, petals, stamen, gills, fins, feathers, et al. Without them we are left to guess at the true nature of the the flora and fauna around us.
Unfortunately, there is one dilemma to the hand-held magnifier that nagged me for the better part of eight years. If I held a specimen in one hand and magnifier in the other I was one hand short for sketching my observations! The solution (observe the bugs or plant, fish or fowl while storing as many details in my short-term memory as possible, put down the magnifier, pick up my pencil and draw what I remembered, put down my pencil, pick up the magnifier, begin the process again) was labor-intensive, time consuming, and sometime quite frustrating. So, the search was on for a hands-free magnification system.
The first hands-free solution I found worked wonderfully for insects and other small objects: a small acrylic "bug box" with a magnifying lens integrated into the lid. I could study a subject at length, even take it back to the studio if necessary, and both hands were free to deal with sketchbook, pencils, pens, and brushes.
But the bug boxes could offer when sketching something too large to fit inside was the use of the lid as a hand-held magnifier. The search was still on for a magnification system that could be used sans hands and could deal with larger specimens -- and I found it while fly fishing (my other labor-intensive, time consuming, and sometime quite frustrating pastime).
If you happen to be a fly fisherman, and have ever found yourself trying to tie a size 22 dry fly to a 7X tippet in low light (especially if your eyes aren't quite as young as the use to be), you know the real challenge of seeing fine details. Fortunately, Cabela's sporting goods stores have the solution for optically challenged anglers and (by extension) two-handed nature journalers too: the Firefly Magnifier. Just clip the Firefly onto the brim of your baseball cap, flip the lens up, and forget it! When you have a sketching subject in hand, place your journal in your lap and flip the lens down. Then it's an easy procedure to go from taking in details to simply lowering your eyes to your sketchbook, and back again. There are even two models to choose from: one with magnifier alone, and one with a tiny but quite powerful LED light source (powerful enough to help you find your way back to your car if you stay too long on the river at dusk). And an added plus, the Firefly has two parallel lenses, thus offering journalers binocular vision for greater depth perception and less eye fatigue.
At $24.99 for the no-light Firefly clip-on and $39.99 for the LED Firefly (battery included), I was concerned that this might be a bit pricey for most budgets. Fortunately, over time the price for clip-on magnifiers has come down as the magnification options have gone up.
How the Trick Works: To use the hand-held magnifier, hold it approximately 3-4 inches from your dominant eye with your drawing hand. Hold your specimen in your free hand and gradually move the specimen toward the lens till it is in focus. Use the smaller/higher magnification lens for observing the finest details on stationary subjects. And use the larger/lower magnification lens for insects and other moving subjects.
Sneak Peek: I currently have several product tests and evaluations well underway and will publishing reviews in coming weeks -- and, thanks to the generous support of some of our manufacturers and distributers, I have some nifty product giveaways planned for the very near future. (Hint: it involves pens and accessories.) So, please stay tuned -- or better still, choose one of the 3 subscription methods in the sidebar and the latest articles will come to you.