Home   News   Tools of the eXtreme botanist’s trade #1: the hand lens

Tools of the eXtreme botanist’s trade #1: the hand lens

Dr M has been asked by his public to make a video about the hand lens – surely the main tool of the botanists trade, certainly for the field botanist. The video will be issued as soon as Dr M can find time to finish it, meanwhile here’s is a summary of Dr M’s handy hand lens hints and tips…

So what is a hand lens? What type of lens should you buy? And how do you use it?

Well, a hand lens is exactly what the name says, it is a magnifying lens which is hand-held. It is sometimes called a jeweller’s loupe because jewellers use them to read gold and silver hall marks and to examine precious gem stones, also used by watchmakers and stamp and coin collectors, while geologists also use them for examining the crystals in rocks etc.

Of course botanists use them pretty much all the time for examining plants and especially for looking at the details of leaves, stems and flowers for important ID characters which are difficult to see with the naked eye.

magnification x10

x10 magnification

Price can be a good guide, a cheap (i.e. less than £10) x20 lens is very unlikely to be a true x20, but the only sure fire way is to check the lens yourself.

So, do you need x10 or x20?  For vascular plant ID a good quality x10 is enough, though the emphasis is on a “good quality” don’t be fooled by advertisements for cheap x10 lenses they will often be barely more than x3 or x5 in reality and will not usually do the job.

If you are working on lower plants – mosses for example – the whole plant can be tiny maybe just a few mm and the leaves obviously even tinier, so a good x20 lens can be really helpful for deciding e.g. if the often minute moss leaves have a nerve or if the leaf has a border of different cells.  The serious bryologist will confirm moss ID in the lab with a microscope, but for moss ID in the field in addition to your standard x10 lens a x20 lens can be really valuable.

Some hand lenses come with their own built in lamp so you can illuminate the subject, this is great in low light conditions, for woodland mosses for example and on dull days.  Dr M doesn’t use this himself but colleagues do and speak very highly of them!

One other practical point, look in the mirror, have you got a screw loose?  This is not an insult but a common fact of many hand lenses, the screw which holds the lens to the lens holder often works loose and can detach and get lost.  Dr M keeps a small screw driver to hand to tighten this, alternatively apply some superglue to the fixing to prevent this from happening.

hand lenses

A diversity of hand lenses

And finally, where to purchase? This is up to you and the size of your wallet.  Here are a few suggestions from a vast array of hand lenses and companies on the web.  Google “hand lens” and “jewellers loupe” and be overwhelmed by the result!  If you have special favourites please contact Dr M and tell him all about it.

NHBS The Natural History Book Store 

The Loupe store 

Summerfield books




  • Karen

    Is there such a thing as a x30 lens and what would you use it for?

    • DrM

      Karen hello and yes there is such a thing as a x30 lens but a real x30 will be a such a thick lens with very narrow diameter it is difficult to get enough light on the subject to use in the field. Also you rarely need x30 magnification in the field and if you do you need to take the object home and use a microscope. A good x10 is suitable for most botany!

  • mrs Holmes

    Is it best to keep my reading glasses on when using a x10 botany field lens, or change to a x20 without glasses?

    • DrM

      Hello, it’s a matter of what works for you. I wear reading glasses and usually prefer to take them off when I use the lens and put them back on if I want to look at the plant without lens! The x20 again is a matter of preference, if you have a good x10 this could be fine for almost everything. If you are working with small plants or small plant parts then x20 can be useful, but again I wouldnt wear the glasses when using the lens. But others might choose differently! Dr M

  • Kristen Kinyon

    Can you tell me what is best for viewing the internal parts of wild flowers.

    Everything I have x10, x15 and x20 doesn’t do the job.

    Thank you, K.Kinyon

  • M


    I am currently debating whether a 10×12 or a 10×20 lens would be better. Does the diameter make a difference in viewing the plants, or is it just up to personal preference?

    Thank you, M

  • DrM

    Hello M, the diameter is important because the bigger it is the more you see (bigger field of view), so I would go for 10 x 20 if by 10 x 20 you mean x10 magnification and 20mm diameter. But you also need a good quality lens (good optics – you get what you pay for!) personally I find the opticron range reliable, which manufacturer are you looking at? Dr M

  • DrM

    Ok M, I haven’t see either of these before but I know the company Quicktest and they are reliable. Of these two I would definitely go for the 10×20 the other one is way too small! The 10×20 is sold for examining silver and gold markings but will work just as well with plants! You will need a lanyard too so you can wear the lens round your neck and not lose it! Good luck and happy botanising! Dr M

  • Lois

    It looks like the small hand held lenses you are talking about are ones that require shutting one eye and looking closely through the small lens with the other eye. Are lenses that have a handle and can be looked through with both eyes a possibility for examining mosses in the field?

    • DrM

      Lois, Hello, you mean the Sherlock Holmes type magnifying glass? Yes these are fine, they are especially good for looking at small communities of mosses in the field. For looking at the details of a single small moss, however, the one-eye shut variety are better as they let you focus in and look at the features of the small object to the exclusion of all surrounding, confusing clutter! Good botanising! Dr M

  • Gail

    Hi which is best for lichen in the field? 10x or 15x? I’m looking at the opticrons. Thank you.

  • Marsha Berenson

    I like the idea of a “Sherlock Holmes” magnifier because the diameter is large. What magnification will I need to see interiors of wild flower disk heads, and the reproductive parts?

  • Marsha B

    Thanks for this helpful article. Another good review is from Penn State University in the United States. https://extension.psu.edu/a-brief-guide-to-hand-lenses

  • Belle

    Hi Dr M

    I’m wanting to get a loupe (my first one) to look at plants and count tree circles in their trunks (to get an idea of tree age). I enjoy drawing plants and I’m interested in capturing a new level of detail.

    Could you recommend a good quality loupe (a link would be handy), what kind of magnification would you recommend. Would one that illuminates be good? (I know you mentioned this in your blog above).

    Thank you

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