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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Lesson 8: Make the Most of Your Vision with Magnification Devices

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Dr. Fontenot with patient using electronic magnifier

Want to read the ingredients on a cake mix at the grocery store? Want to put a hook on your fishing pole? Want to work a crossword puzzle? This lesson will describe a variety of near, distant, and electronic optical magnification devices that will make those tasks possible if you have any usable vision. Most of the devices described in this lesson use ground lenses, much like your glasses or contact lenses, which is why they are called optical devices. Optical devices provide stronger magnification and prescription strengths and higher-quality optics than the eyeglasses and magnifiers you find online or at the drugstore.

All optical and electronic devices are task specific and designed for either near vision tasks or distance viewing. For example, the near vision devices are designed for reading books, personal mail, computer screens, sewing, playing board games, etc. When scanning for a street sign or the sign over an aisle in the grocery store, you may find a distance vision magnifier called a monocular (described later in the lesson) quite helpful. Some distance vision devices are used for watching television or attending theater productions or sports events. Electronic video magnifiers use a camera to project text or an image on a screen. The large desktop models allow you to read a book, see pictures, and write a check under the camera. The smaller version makes it easy to read a menu, a concert program, or the hymnal at your place of worship. Because they are task specific, you may need to use several optical devices throughout your day based on your vision and life style. Professional training is necessary to learn how to use many of these devices efficiently.

Lesson Goals

  • Compare six types of near vision optical devices, giving advantages and disadvantages of each;
  • Compare three types of distance vision optical devices, giving advantages and disadvantages of each;
  • Compare two types of electronic video magnification devices/systems, giving advantages and disadvantages of each.

Click here to review the learning checks before reading the lesson.

Near Vision Optical Devices

Near vision optical devices are used for things like reading, writing, and sewing, putting a hook on a fishing line, or tightening a screw. The most common near vision optical devices include stand magnifiers, handheld magnifiers, magnifying reading glasses, clip-on magnifiers, and telemicroscopic glasses. Below are descriptions of each, with a brief discussion of advantages and disadvantages.

Handheld Magnifiers

Handheld magnifiers are portable and very helpful for spot-reading things like appliance dials, labels on items or in stores, insurance or credit cards, restaurant menus, and so on. They are easy to use, come in different sizes and shapes, are available in a variety of magnification strengths, and commonly have built-in lights. Some will fit in a pocket, a purse, or small backpack, and are not too expensive. Handheld magnifiers are not suited to long-term reading because finding and keeping the right focusing distance can be frustrating and holding the magnifier can tire the arm quickly.

Stand Magnifiers

Stand magnifiers are the simplest optical devices for reading. When placed on a page of text, this type of magnifier is automatically in focus. Most come with built-in lights that produce bright light. They can be used for extensive amounts of reading, but it's recommended that you use a reading stand along with the magnifier to see the text more easily and avoid bending over the magnifier. This type of magnifier is fairly inexpensive. Unfortunately, the typical stand magnifier is too large to carry with you outside your residence.

Lamp-Magnifier Combinations

Lamps with magnifiers attached come in a variety of styles and magnification powers and are found in catalogs of products for people with visual impairments. These lamp-magnifiers can be used at a distance of 10 to 14 inches, making them great for hand or machine sewing, knitting or crocheting, threading a fishing pole and attaching hooks, and other tasks that require both hands. In general, they do not provide as much magnification power (3X-8X) as several of the devices described in this lesson.

Magnifying Reading Glasses

Magnifying reading glasses can provide a wide field of view, allowing you to read a line of text more easily. Because they are portable and leave your hands free, you can use them almost anywhere. With lower-powered glasses, you can do handwork, read the computer screen, or read sheet music at the piano quite easily. With higher-power lenses, reading materials must be held closer to your eyes and kept very steady, which can become tiring.


Magnifiers called loupes clip on to your regular prescription glasses, increasing the magnification to read text or music, or to do handwork. Loupes are convenient—flip them up when you don't need them, then bring them down in front of your glasses when you do. The field of view through the loop can be somewhat small, which may be a disadvantage when reading for any length of time.

Telemicroscope Glasses

Telemicroscope glasses are designed for near vision tasks and can be used at a comfortable working distance. They provide a clear image for reading text or music, using the computer, doing crafts, and playing cards or board games. Unfortunately, there are several disadvantages. They are small telescopes that feel heavy on your nose and do not look like glasses if appearance matters to you. The field of view is very narrow and causes the image to appear dark. They are quite expensive.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on near vision optical devices.

Distance Vision Optical Devices

Distance vision devices are often used for spot-reading tasks or short-term viewing, such as reading a street sign, the number on the front of a bus or train, an aisle number in the grocery store, or bird watching. Other distance vision devices are helpful when watching television, looking for someone in a crowd, attending sports or theater activities, and viewing scenery. Like near vision optical devices, distance vision optical devices can be handheld, clipped on, or put in a frame to leave the hands free.


A monocular is a small handheld telescope that can help with a variety of short-range and distance tasks. A monocular is typically used for short periods of time to read signs, house numbers, menu boards, and the like. Monoculars are available in a wide range of magnification powers and are small enough to carry in a pocket or hang on a cord around your neck.

Lots of practice is needed to use a monocular for scanning the environment to locate your target. Slight hand movements or tremors can affect the focus and clarity of the image and your depth perception and balance can be distorted when looking through a monocular. Do not walk and look through your monocular at the same time.

Spectacle-Mounted Telescopes

Spectacle-mounted telescopes are permanently attached to a pair of eyeglasses, leaving both hands free. They provide a clear view for watching sports events or viewing television or movies for extended periods without any arm fatigue. Like telemicroscope glasses, they have a small viewing field and do not look like normal glasses. Like monoculars, these glasses are not safe to use when walking.

Bioptic Telescopes

Bioptic telescopes are a type of distance optical device mounted in the upper part of eyeglass lenses. The wearer looks through the bottom half of the glasses at objects in the distance and looks through the telescope in the top of the glasses to see a magnified image. Bioptics are used for reading, handwork, and other tasks involving detailed close work. A few states allow some people with low vision to drive using bioptic telescopes.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on distance vision optical devices.

Electronic Magnifying Devices

You may be wondering at this point, isn't there a low vision device that is powerful enough for me to read the print and also let me see the entire page? Unfortunately, as the magnification increases, the lenses get smaller, so there isn't any regular kind of magnifier that has a large viewing area and strong magnification. There are some options, though.

Electronic Video Magnification Systems

These magnification systems offer a variety of styles and sizes to fit your needs and wants. The desktop version displays a magnified image on a monitor the size of a computer monitor, allowing you to read books and magazines, view photographs, read handwritten letters, and even give yourself a manicure. Others are handheld and easily carried with a wide range of magnification powers. These portable systems can allow you to read restaurant menus, labels and coupons at the grocery store, the program at the symphony, or the text at your place of worship. Both types of electronic magnification systems can be helpful in the workplace or at a weekly volunteer activity; each has advantages and disadvantages depending on your vision and lifestyle.

CCTVs (Electronic Video Magnifier)

The desktop model of the electronic video magnifier, often called a CCTV (closed circuit television), has a camera that enlarges the image and displays it on the monitor. Not only can a CCTV enlarge anything placed under the camera, but it can improve the contrast and brighten the image displayed on the monitor. You can choose black letters on a white or light colored background or white or light colored letters on a dark background. The unit focuses itself with the push of one of the buttons on the front. Some newer ones will read aloud while you read the monitor. A CCTV will allow you to read a prescription label; manage your printed mail, including bills and bank statements; see a picture drawn by your grandchild; thread a needle; enjoy crafts; and on and on.

A desktop CCTV gives you the power you may need and, in some situations, the ability to see an entire page or at least large sections of a page on the monitor. And you can use a CCTV from a comfortable sitting position. Furthermore, reading is usually faster and less tiresome with a CCTV, resulting in better comprehension. These units are too big to be carried so that limits how and where you can use them. Another disadvantage is that they cost many times more than any of the optical devices discussed so far.

Portable Video Magnifiers

A portable video magnifier has a camera on the bottom that displays an image of text, pictures, etc. on a screen on top of the magnifier. Screen sizes range from 3.5 to seven inches. They can be used anywhere for almost any task. They provide a range of magnification powers and excellent contrast and brightness. Their advantages over other types of magnifiers include a more comfortable working distance, a wider field of view, and the ability to read with both eyes. Their disadvantages include expense, a smaller field of view than a CCTV, and on some models, the image can have faded edges.

Before you purchase one of these electronic magnification systems, it's recommended that you have a low vision exam and discuss all of your needs and options with a specialist. If possible, find an agency where you can get hands-on experience with a number of electronic magnification devices. Operating the devices is not extremely difficult, but it does take a little time. Getting familiar with several models lets you make an informed choice. Some low vision clinics, private and government agencies, and online resources have loaner programs or resale options for refurbished CCTVs at greatly reduced prices.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on electronic magnifying devices.


This lesson has described several low vision optical devices you can use to enhance the use of your remaining vision. Use all available resources to obtain any optical magnification systems you really need, but keep in mind that there are still some tasks that you can do more quickly by using your other senses and all the tools in the Toolbox discussed in Lesson 3, Lesson 4, and Lesson 7. For example, use a magnification device when needing to find the expiration date of your blood pressure medication but use your sense of touch to identify the pills on a daily basis.

Here is an example of how you can use both non-optical low vision techniques and a distance vision optical device to accomplish a task. If you are looking for a bus sign at the end of a block, use the monocular to scan the distance looking for the bus stop pole. Then, as you walk toward the pole, use color contrast to visually track along the grassy edge of the sidewalk until you get close to the pole or the intersecting sidewalk. Using your vision or monocular, track up the pole to locate the bus stop sign. Finally, use the monocular to scan the sign to read the bus schedule.

Don't ever hesitate to use all the tools—senses, techniques, and devices—you learn in this course to help you live a successful, independent life.

Learning Checks

Which of the following distance vision devices would you use to read street signs, house numbers, and menu boards in restaurants?

  1. Monocular
  2. Telemicroscope
  3. Bioptictelescope
  4. Hand-held magnifier

Answer: a

Which of the following is a disadvantage of a hand-held magnifier?

  1. Fits in a pocket or purse
  2. Task specific
  3. Inexpensive
  4. Long term reading

Answer: d

Which magnification device enables you to read a book or note from your grandchild, see photos, write a check, and thread a needle or fishing hook?

  1. Stand magnifier
  2. Monocular
  3. CCTV
  4. Bioptic telescope

Answer: c

An advantage to several devices described in this lesson is leaving both hands free to work. Which of the following does not permit that advantage?

  1. Stand magnifiers
  2. Spectacle-mounted telescopes
  3. Lamp-magnifier combination
  4. Telemicroscope glasses

Answer: a

Click here to return to the beginning of the lesson.

VisionAware Resources

The following links will take you to VisionAware online resources that support this lesson. Please be advised that information in these links may go beyond the scope of this lesson or this course.

What Is Low Vision

Low Vision Optical Devices

Near Vision Optical Devices

Distance Vision Optical Devices

Electronic Magnifiers and Magnifying Systems

Bioptic Driving with Low Vision

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