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The magnifying glass

Consider an object that is observed by naked eye. Primarily, we deduce its size from number of receptors
which are activated at retina by photons coming from this object. Clearly, the higher overall number of
activated receptors, the more information, and thus more details, can be resolved concerning the observed
For extended sources of light, the linear extent y ′ of retina to get activated is given by angle ξ, under
which we observe the object; for distant objects one can write (cf. Fig. 1)
y ′ =f
˙ eye tan ξ.
For unaccommodated emetropic eye we can take the Gullstrand’s value φeye = 59.94 D, which brings feye =
1/φ = 16.68 mm. Consequently, in paraxial space, 1◦ of object angular size is imaged to approximately
y ′ = 0.29 mm of retina. Let us further (somewhat inaccurately) assume that individual receptors endings
are about 2 µm in cross-section. Near macula, where the receptors are closely packed, one obtains by simple
calculation about 145 activated receptors (bytes of information) for every 1◦ of the observed object.


Fig. 1: Observing an object with naked eye. (Note that for brevity of construction, the object is
placed ahead of punctum proximum)).

An object of true size 1 mm is imaged to 16.7 µm at retina (ie. taking about eight receptors) when observed
from distance 1 m. The same object observed from conventional distance d = 250 mm will take 66.7 µm at
retina (about 33 receptors). The increase of activated receptors for the closer look is tremendous.
The straightforward idea to further increase the observed size of the object by moving it even closer
to the eye is hampered by the existence of punctum proximum - the nearest point, that an eye can focus
(using full available accommodation strength). In the following, we will use the conventional distance d as
a convenient approximation of punctum proximum distance of generic eye.

Our goal is now to find a remedy to circumvent punctum proximum. To this end, we will need a positive
lens of suitable power - an instrument thus created is called the magnifying glass. Such positive lens can
be used in two basic regimes: one does not require accommodation, and is thus suitable for long periods of
observation, the other brings slightly higher magnification, if for the price of accommodation.

The first method is obtained when object is placed in the focal plane of the lens (cf. Fig. 2). In that case
the lens produces a parallel beam of rays, which can be observed without accommodating the eye. As a
consequence, the distance between lens and the eye is arbitrary (ie. can be high - people observe with the
lens in stretched arm).

F F′

Fig. 2: Using magnifying glass with unaccommodated eye. All rays behind the lens are parallel,
the goal is to reach higher angle to optical axis then with naked eye.

Note the ray passing through the center of the lens, its direction is not changed, as usually. This means,
that we will see the object under same angle as the lens does. Hence, if the lens gets closer to the object
than naked eye can, we will experience the ’magnification’ of the object. In addition, there will be no issue
concerning accommodation, as the rays form parallel beam.
The above consideration shows that, for a generic eye, there is no use in applying lenses with focal
distance longer than conventional distance (ie. weaker than 4 D). Let us now in detail compute the magni-
fication of the image, gained by use of the magnifying glass in this regime. The angular magnification β is
just the ration of the image sizes with and without the magnifying glass,

ylens feye tan ξlens
β= = .
′ feye tan ξeye

Using the triangles one can rewrite the last formula into

l/flens d
β= = = 0.25φlens,
l/d flens

where in the final expression the conventional distance was introduced numerically. We now confirm that
for lenses weaker than 4 D the magnification drops below unity, as anticipated.

The second regime in which the lens can be used as a magnifying glass involves the full accommodation
strength of the eye. The idea is to create a new optical system by placing the lens close to the eye (cf. Fig.
3.). As long as the lens is positive, the new system will exhibit higher optical power than the naked eye and
the punctum proximum will move closer to the eye. If we, consequently place the object in this new nearest
point, we will observed it under enlarged angle compared to naked eye.
As the lens is to be placed close to the eye, the overall power φ of the compound system gets

φ = φeye + φlens .

and the thin lens imaging formula brings

1 1
− = φ.
a ′ a
For the original naked eye one gets
1 1
+ = φlen ;
a′ d
note the change of sign of conventional distance (it is customary to keep the value od d positive). The a′ is
identical in both equations, as the position of retina within the eye does not change. Hence, using the two
formulas together, one arrives to
1 1
= − − φlens .
a d

Fig. 3: Using magnifying glass with accommodated eye. The virtual image is observed under
greater angle than it was without the lens.

It only remains to use the definition of magnification:

ylens (a′ /a)l
β= = ,
′ −(a′ /d)l

which finally brings

1/d + φlens d
β= = + 1.
1/d flens
It is seen that, involving accommodation, a given lens provides higher magnification of the image (eg. 6x
instead of 5x in the first regime) compared to the first regime. This allows to use weaker lenses and, as
a matter of fact, the last formula guarantees that any lens with positive power will produce magnification
higher than unity.
While possibility to use an arbitrary positive lens is convenient, one must keep in mind that prolonged
observation in this second regime unavoidably leads to eye fatigue.

In real life, both regimes are fine tuned by the eye-brain-hand cooperation. After short period of forward-
backward lens movement optimalisation the lens is placed into a position of highest available magnification.
The choice of either regime is carried out by initial placement of the lens - in stretched arm, or just touching
the head.