Accessories and Gadgets


Stereoscopic Microscope

Does the stamp you are looking at have an inverted groundwork on it?  Is the printing lithographed or typographed?  Has the stamp been "improved"?  What is the date on the stamp that is partially obscured by a postmark?

If you're interested in the answers to any of these questions, or if you just want to see your stamps bigger and better than normal, there are perhaps three ways to achieve this.

Hand Held Magnifiers

The least expensive is to buy a magnifying glass.  Magnifying glasses can be found with various magnification capabilities, typically ranging from about 2x to 6x, and with high powered ones going up to 10x or 15x.

A comparatively low powered magnifying glass is a great way to see the entire stamp conveniently and a little larger than normal.  Plus the cost is minimal.  A simple $10 (or thereabouts) magnifying glass can open up a huge added dimension of appreciation and understanding of your stamps, and can aid in identifying some of the rarer variations that are occasionally to be found.

Note that many people mis-use magnifying glasses by holding them too far away.  The correct way to get best use of a magnifying glass is to bring it very close to your eye, as if it were part of a set of spectacles.  And then, of course, adjust the distance between your eye and the glass, and between the glass and the object you're examining, to get best focus.

However, after a while, you may also come to appreciate some of the limitations of a regular hand-held magnifying glass.  Yes, it makes things "bigger" but it doesn't necessarily always make them "big enough", and while it increases the detail you can see on a stamp, you'll start to realise that there is still more detail that you can not yet fully appreciate.

How to get more magnification?  Well, you can get one of the specialised "pocket microscope" type viewers - sometimes they look a bit like a thick pen - and this will increase your magnification up to perhaps 20x or even 30x, but you can see only a very very little piece of the stamp at a time, and the image is usually not of a very good quality.

Computer Scanner

Some creative people use their scanner as a magnifier.  If you scan a stamp at the highest optical resolution your scanner can handle, then display it on your computer screen, it can appear to be substantially enlarged, and, best of all, is easy to view.  For example, if your scanner can scan at 600dpi resolution, an image can appear to be as much as eight times larger (your screen has a resolution of about 72 dpi) - if it goes to 1200dpi, then it can create the perception of a sixteen fold enlargement.

There are some problems with this approach, however.  The first problem is that the quality of the scanner has, of course, a bearing on the quality of the enlargement.  And remember the difference between "optical" resolution and "interpolated" resolution - anything more than the true optical resolution of the scanner actually starts taking away from the quality of the enlargement, rather than adding to it.  Most scanners have true optical resolutions in the order of 300-600dpi, and a few go to 1200dpi.  Furthermore, if your scanner cost only $99, then no matter what the claimed resolution capability, it just isn't going to product a high quality clear image.

Another problem is that there are lots of changes to the image and its colors as it is scanned, created into a computer file, and then displayed on your screen.

A more subtle problem is that although the image is big, it isn't actually very clear.  Your computer screen has a resolution of about 70-80dpi - it doesn't have much picture information in each square inch.  By comparison, most photos in a printed book have a resolution of 200-300 dpi, which is as much as almost twenty times more picture information per square unit of measurement than on the screen.  And even that isn't very high quality.  A good quality photo or a photographic slide can has as much as the equivalent of 3000 dpi resolution, which generally represents what is thought to be the high end of most resolution scales.

Lastly, scanning a stamp to look at it isn't always convenient.  You have to go to your computer, turn it on, load your scanning and viewing software, scan the stamp, etc etc.

Regular Microscope

It is possible to buy a regular microscope - perhaps one with three lenses offering different magnifications - for not much money.  However, these typically suffer from several limitations from a philatelic point of view.  The first limitation is that often the image in the microscope is upside down or reversed (or both) compared to what it is like in real life.  This doesn't matter much in some applications, but when examining stamps it is a definite drawback!

The second limitation might sound curious, but is important.  Many times regular microscopes magnify images too much for philatelic purposes.  The more the magnification, the less of the object you can see at a time, and while there may be times when you need very high power magnification, most of the time you want to be able to see a fair amount of the stamp, and in such a case, you want only moderate (5x-50x) magnification.  A microscope proudly offering 100x or more magnification is almost worthless for our purposes.

Stamps are not Flat

Now for an interesting thing.  You've always thought your stamps are flat, haven't you.  Nice little flat pieces of paper with printed images on top of them.

This impression has been reinforced any time you have seen a photo of a stamp, or looked at it through a magnifying glass, or seen it on a computer screen.

All of these processes are two dimensional only.

But, believe it or not, your stamps are gloriously three dimensional.  Okay, so there isn't a lot of the third dimension, but what there is can be very interesting, very useful, and very significant in determining issues like how a stamp was printed, and trying to make some judgments about whether a stamp may have been "improved" or faked.

The importance of being able to see the whole three dimensions of your stamp increases the more you magnify your stamp.  As more and more detail becomes apparent with larger magnifications, the relevance and importance of the "depth" dimension increases, too.

Only a true stereo magnifier can let you see the depth of an object as well as its length and breadth.  This is something that has two lens at both ends - at the end that you look through and at the end which points towards the thing you are looking at.  A set of binoculars gives you stereo/depth vision, but a telescope does not.  Similarly, a magnifying glass usually only gives you 2D vision, and the same is true of a scanner and screen.

If you are considering a stereo microscope, be certain to check that it has two lenses at both ends of its assembly - some have two eyepieces but feed into a single lens that views the object, and these do not give any 3D depth perception.

How Much Magnification do you Need

Well, yes, size does count.  But it is also possible to be 'too big' as well as 'too small' - all in a strictly philatelic sense, of course!  :)

Normally, you will want to be able to view the entire stamp with your magnifying system.  It might be acceptable to view half or two thirds of the stamp (and of course you can move the stamp about to variously see each part), but plainly the best solution is to have the entire stamp filling the image at once.  This limits the amount of magnification - the more the magnification, the bigger the image and the less you can see at one time.

For most philatelic purposes, you probably want to have something that offers two degrees of magnification - one sufficiently powerful as to enable most of a stamp to be seen at once, and one more powerful that enables a close and careful scrutiny of a specific part of a stamp.

In approximate terms, a general medium power/broad view level of magnification is about ten times.  A higher power can, of course, be anything more than that, but remember the bigger the magnification, the smaller the image, and so, as a practical measure, you probably want to limit the higher power to something in the range of about twenty five to forty times.

Throwing Some Light on a Dark Subject

It is an over-simplification, but as a general rule of thumb, if you are magnifying something by a certain factor, then you need to increase the amount of light on the object by the same factor so as to keep its enlarged image clear and well lit.  In other words, if you are looking at something that is magnified ten or twenty times, it will not be satisfactory to just have ordinary daylight illuminating it - the image will be hopelessly dark.

You should ensure that your stereoscopic microscope comes complete with lighting.

Now to make it even more complicated.  The better units have two types of independent lighting - lighting that is underneath the object, that shines through it, and lighting that is above the object and reflected off it.  Better still, both types of lighting should have dimmers or different brightness settings, enabling you to experiment with different combinations of brightness.  You'll find that by using different settings you can make various aspects of the stamp much more clearly visible - sometimes one setting or another will help to highlight the underlying paper (is it laid or wove) or any watermarks; other lighting will highlight more the 'three dimensionality' of the stamp and its postmark and printing.  Experimenting with the lighting can reveal huge amounts of additional helpful information when you're trying to determine if a stamp is real or faked, truly in excellent condition or 'repaired'; with original gum or regummed.


This page last modified on May 15, 2010