For the serious watch enthusiast, a good loupe should be as essential an accessory as a selection of high-quality straps or basic tools. Why? Because a proper loupe opens up a new world of watch appreciation that would otherwise be difficult to capture without expensive camera gear and a rather high level of expertise in photography. The Loupe System was designed from the ground up to blow its competition right out of the water – ahem, claiming to be “The best hand-held loupe you have ever looked through!” – and, more importantly, it was from the get-go engineered to be used specifically to inspect and photograph watches. Today, we take a look at how the Loupe System fairs as a loupe and how well it performs as a camera lens when mounted onto an iPhone 6S Plus. //Nerd alert!//
Allow me to set off on a personal note by saying: I have never liked using loupes. The utter majority of them are a pain in the neck (literally!) to use; it takes way too long to get in focus what I actually want to see; and once I achieve that miracle, the loupes more often than not reward me with a distorted and heavily magnified, but not very informative view of whatever I was trying to look at. This is probably why I have a bunch of branded loupes laying around somewhere on the shelves, gathering dust: most of them are useless!
What Makes A Good Loupe?
What you ideally want from a loupe is all of the following: a magnified, but not distorted image; a lot of light (which, if you are familiar with lens design, you will know is not that easy to achieve); accurate colors with minimal aberration; and last but not least, a wide viewing angle that allows you to see more of what you are looking at and hence get a more three-dimensional understanding of its structure. The main issue with cheap loupes lies in their primitive construction: they comprise just one single lens which, on its own, is not nearly enough to tackle all those issues linked to distortions, color aberrations, sharpness, and depth of field.
There are more complex and better-designed loupes out there, referred to as doublets and triplets, for the use of two or three lenses, with the additional ones serving to cancel out those aforementioned, undesired distortions… And yet, many of these are still not entirely free of noticeable compromises.
About Loupe System
Loupe System – surprise, surprise – set out to overcome all of these issues. The Hong Kong-based company was established by a watch collector who, after searching for the perfect loupe to no avail, decided to create a new company that would design and make a loupe ideal for scrutinizing the finer details of timepieces.
Ultimately, the Loupe System’s lens construction ended up being based on a 1980s camera lens design that contains five elements (or lenses) split into three groups. Technically, the Loupe System is a standard loupe with two doublets mounted above and below it, which are specifically designed to correct the image enlarged by the central element. Once modified for the first Loupe System model, that optical system provided a clear 40mm-wide viewing field with 6x magnification, free from most chromatic aberration and image distortion.
Model Variations And Build Quality
Today, the Loupe System is made available with three different levels of magnification – 3x, 6x, and 10x – with different external decorations, ranging from silicone rubber (priced at $525 for any one of the three magnifications) through carbon fiber ($625 each) to alligator leather-wrapped pieces ($800 each). The ones we will be taking a closer look at in this review are the 3x and 10x, with silicon rubber wrapping on the former and a carbon fiber band around the latter.
Regardless which one you buy, Loupe System loupes are always shipped in a waterproof ABS case that you can actually transform into a four-watch, dust-proof, waterproof, and crush-proof watch transport case using the second inner foam set that’s included. A nice, thoughtful idea. The loupe is placed in a high-quality hardshell zip case, made and sized perfectly for peace of mind when you are carrying it around, keeping the loupe safe from knocks and perhaps even from a bit of water and humidity. A microfiber cloth and a carrying pouch complete the package.
Every external part of the loupe feels high quality, in line with what you would expect after paying over $500 for the most affordable of the three versions. The silicone rubber feels soft but very durable, and not at all like the horrendous cheap material that you can often find elsewhere. One gripe I have with this black rubber is that it also works brilliantly as a lint-magnet. It is impossible to keep it clean: a brief contact with a shirt or any other surface with any lint on it, and it all ends up sticking to this black silicone surface. Fit and finish is good all over.
At the end of the loupe’s central element is a recessed edge that allows for the removal and replacing of the rubber frame closer to the user. The loupes come with two different types of rubber pieces with different thickness so as to adjust the distance of your eyes to the lens, ultimately resulting in a different field of view.
The standard one, which gives a 40mm-wide viewing field for the Model 01 with the 6x magnification, places the eye at the optimal distance to take advantage of the best optical performance the loupe can offer. The alternative, thinner top rubber element places the eye closer to the loupe, thus providing a wider, 50mm viewing field.
The least amount of distortion, unsurprisingly, is delivered by the 3x magnification piece, so let’s talk about this model first. It is convenient to use for its low distortion and it really is a fantastic piece for taking a closer look without getting lost in details too much. This 3x magnification shows the subject in a way you wish you could see when simply lifting something close to your eyes. Nice and easy, with great viewing angles and vast sharp areas, allowing you to have an overview that is rich in detail and lacking in distortions. Great viewing angles become an issue when using it on the phone mount, but more on that a bit later.
At the other end of the spectrum is the 10x magnification model – here, wrapped in carbon fiber. It is ever so slightly but noticeably heavier than the 3x version, for it has to contain more glass to get to this increased magnification. It allows you to get much closer and scrutinize much finer details, thanks to its greater magnification. It is not per se sharper than the 3x version, but the amount of detail you can see truly is an eye-opening experience (pun intended).
One compromise that comes with this greater magnification is a higher level of chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration, in essence, is color fringing that you can best see on the edges of bright, contrasting areas, but it is also something that can affect fine detail. Distortion is also considerably more noticeable than on the 3x piece. With all this noted, this high magnification loupe is still incredible for closeups and, just as importantly, the most user-friendly of its kind that I have ever used. It makes “diving into” the movements and dials and even cases great fun, as it allows you to discover minuscule, never-before-seen details in each and every watch.
Using The Loupe System As iPhone Camera Lens
A superb additional feature to the Loupe System is that you can purchase mounts made to perfectly fit the iPhone 4/4S, 5/5S, 6/6S, and Plus models – a universal version for Android phones is promised but appears to not be available yet. The mounts are not cheap, with prices ranging between $80 to $90 – with the black iPhone 5S case standing out at an bewildering $150, while the white version goes for $80.
On the topic of the mounts, I will say that while the fit on the tested iPhone 6S Plus is excellent and allows for an extremely accurate fitting of the loupe to the camera, it is also made from an unusually hard plastic with minimal flexibility anywhere around the edges. This rigid construction makes getting the mount on or off the iPhone difficult until you get the hang of which side and corner to put on first and last. Also, its uneven and hard surface has made me feel concerned about scratching the sides of the phone. In essence, the mount works well, but its material could use some more refinement, especially with the hefty additional price tag in mind.
Once the mount is on the phone, all you need to do is remove the rubber top piece from the loupe and slide it onto the mount, so that the loupe now functions as a camera lens for the phone. Start up the stock camera application (or any other, for that matter) and, when using the 3x magnification loupe, you are greeted with the sight above. As you can see on this screenshot, there is massive vignetting on the edges of the frame, forcing you to crop into the center of the image to get rid of it.
What you see above is what you get with the 10x magnification loupe mounted. It fills up the entire picture beautifully, but then again, it forces you to get extremely close to the subject. When photographing the Ploprof – our stunning model for this specific shot – at a slight angle, because it has such a thick front crystal, you have to more or less touch the rubber outer edge of the loupe to the crystal to get what’s underneath it in focus. That is how short the focusing distance is.
This extremely short focusing distance of the 10x lens creates another issue, that of getting a sufficient amount of light in that tiny space between the loupe and the subject. In bright sunlight this is far from ideal, your best bet is to get in a room that has lots of artificial lighting, with ample amounts of “soft,” scattered light that can find its way in there. This way, you get minimized reflections and abundant light to take the picture or video.
Speaking of lighting, Loupe System has developed and is now selling an additional LED light ring that goes around the subject-end of the loupes, allowing you to get more light to where you need it most: on what you’re taking pictures of. Priced at $300, it is a costly addition, but one you may want to consider getting if you don’t want to always spend time on fiddling with whatever light options you have at any given moment. If you go for any one of the silicone rubber wrapped loupes and the LED ring pre-installed, price is $775.
The 10x lens, as noted above, suffers from more noticeable distortion. In photographs, it shows how it is quite sharp in the center but gets really quite soft in the corners, with more color aberrations being present in those extreme areas as well. It, nevertheless, is capable of producing fantastic images, the kind of stuff that will surely make all your fellow watch lovers envy your watch – and your photography skills, if you manage to get the lighting right. The image taken above was one I took with the iPhone 6S Plus and the 10x magnification Loupe System, which I ended up cropping into: from the 12 Megapixel original file I created a 3.5 Megapixel image.
How good is it when compared to, say, a “proper camera?” To find out, I took out my Nikon D810 with the 85mm PC-E Micro Nikkor lens, a setup that retails for north of $5,200. Because the Nikon lens’ reproduction ratio is a mere 1:2, compared to the 10:1 of the loupe, I couldn’t get nearly as close to the subject as I wanted to, and had to crop heavily into the DSLR image.
Ultimately, I could replicate the Loupe System + iPhone 6S Plus image and, as you would expect, the Nikon did do better when it comes to fine detail, even if I did have to crop very heavily into the image. While the iPhone image’s resolution remained 3.5 Megapixels after cropping, the 36 Megapixel file from the D810, because of the extreme closeup required and the long focusing distance, ended up being 1.6 Megapixels.
And while we are comparing 3.5 to 1.6 Megapixels, the Nikon still is considerably sharper at 100% crop and at a much greater area (thanks to the f13 aperture that I set), has much better dynamic range, and incomparably more eye-pleasing falloff (bokeh) in the out-of-focus areas. Goes to show that resolution is not everything.
Yet, with all this in mind, the Nikon required a tripod, a lot of setting up and adjustments, using a manual mode and absolutely spot-on focus (which is only manually adjustable on this 85mm PC-E lens). Add to that the inconvenience of getting the large files out of the camera, cropping them, exporting, and getting them on your phone, only to finally be able to share them via social media such as Instagram.
Compare that to tapping the screen and the shutter button a few times after finding the right angle and lighting with the iPhone. Once I had the image, I opened the Instagram app, made some minor adjustments (keep your filters for hungover selfies and unattractive images of food) and posted it right away.
To be fair, you can get a lot closer with the 85mm with some extension tubes, and at that point you’ll get images that will be worthy of other uses that go beyond social media posts – you can more beautifully edit them and then have them printed in larger sizes while, to be frank, no smartphone picture taken today can possibly be printed and look even remotely as good at comparable sizes.
We could slip deeper into the infinite depths of nerding-the-heck-out over photography, but the point to be made here is that the Loupe System works well enough to come very close to what you can get out of a high-end DSLR setup unless you go pixel-peeping… and with the added convenience and the imaginable use scenarios – again, sharing on social media and/or with friends or clients – the Loupe System really is all the tool you need.
With prices starting at $525 and with additional accessories costing a considerable amount as well, the Loupe System is not a low-budget option to bring your watch appreciation to a new level. It is a premium product with premium pricing to go with it, and once you compare this outlay to the prices luxury watches are commanding nowadays, you end up spending not a negligible, but still a reasonable amount. What you get in return is a new dimension opening up, as you do get to see watches in a way you would never ever be able to with the naked eye – and only with much greater struggle and expertise when using a DSLR setup. Portable, well-made, and sporting impressive optical performance, the Loupe System is a pricey watch accessory that we can highly recommend to those wanting to get a better look at what they’ve been wearing all these years.