Friday, 3 May 2013

Optivisor: The Review

Have you ever seen one of these in your local hobby / craft shop?:

These have been around for a long long time, and while I've often given them a quick glance, I've always dismissed them out of hand.  After all, my eyes were pretty good (the last time I took an eye exam, I shocked the nurse when I was able to read everything on the other side of the room, even the copyright date at the bottom of the eye poster), and I figured that if there was a detail I couldn't make out on a miniature, it was fairly likely that few other people could discern that detail either.

Well, two things happened to change my mind.  First of all, my eyesight is not as good as it used to be.  I'd say it's still better than most, and I'm not likely to need glasses any time soon, but as I approach 40, I have to admit that it's not going to get any better.  It seems to take my eyes fractionally longer to adjust to different light conditions, and it takes fractionally longer to focus on fiddly little things.  Nothing's blurry... yet, but my eyes do get tired during a long painting session, which never seemed to happen before.

The second thing that happened is the Internet.  Well... that, and the advent of really nice digital pics, and super-sized computer monitors.  Once upon a time, we viewed miniatures at life size, or perhaps only a little bit larger than life size.  Either we saw the model in hand, on the tabletop, in a display case, or perhaps in a print magazine picture that was perhaps only slightly larger than the real thing.

Nowadays though, we're used to seeing high quality digital pictures of our 28mm tall miniatures blown up to the size of our tablets or monitors.  Suddenly, it's no longer good enough to be able to paint pupils on the eyes of our models... we need to paint the colour of the eyes, a small dot of light reflecting off the iris, and the red veins around the edges of the eye. Okay, perhaps that's a slight exaggeration if you only plan on cranking out tabletop quality paintjobs for your 3000 point Warhammer 40K army, but if you aspire to hit the top 10 miniature paintjobs of the week on Coolminiornot, then you've got to treat that tiny model as if it was the size of your forearm.

In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that that's why more and more painters are finding themselves favouring 32mm and 54mm models nowadays... because it's easier to get an impressive final product to view on a larger screen.

Anyway, the combination of the two is a bit of depressing state of affairs for me.  Not only do I have to step up my game, but my most important tools (my eyes) are blunter than they've ever been.  During Mathieu Fontaine's painting clinic, I remember him advising his students to avoid optivisors if at all possible, but out of desperation, I decided to give one a try.

I picked up this one at Burnaby Hobbies, a nearby hobby store (the non-gaming kind... lots of R/C cars, model tanks, tons of tools and modelling supplies) for a tad over $30.  I can't recall the brand, but there are similar makes and models from all kinds of companies out there, and they all looked the same to me.  I'm sure there are nicer ones out there, but I'm not willing to spend that kind of money on an experiment.

So... what did I get for $30?

The visor itself is a rigid plastic, as are the lenses.  However, the strap is a more flexible sort of plastic, and it adjusts in size with a velcro strip.  Wearing one isn't all that uncomfortable, and I was able to get it snug enough to keep it in place on my head.  Seeing as I still have almost all of my hair, I can't say how comfortable it would be if you were bald, but I don't think it would be all that bad.  This is in part because of just how light the whole contraption is.  For a guy who wears a ballcap all the time, and occasionally uses a LED headlamp when I paint away from my home studio, I didn't find this visor to be uncomfortable at all.

The interesting bit is that this particular model actually has three lenses.

By flipping each up and down, you can "set" the visor to different magnifications.  A great feature for some people, but I found anything more than a single lense to be massive overkill.  I needed a magnifying lense, not a microscope!

Anyway, I tried it out, and it did a great job of effectively bringing the model closer to my face, while still maintaining a nice crisp view of it.  I was also suprised that I still retained a degree of depth perception.  I once owned one of those artist desk lamps with the magnifying lense in the middle of it, and I never used the magnification because it robbed me of any sense of depth... and the whole thing was pretty awkward to paint under anyway.

While painting with the Optivisor, I was able to make out the details on my models better, which helped when I was painting pupils on some infantry models.  While working on some freehand designs, I didn't find myself squinting, and was able to hold a more precise line.  In effect, I was able to see what my model would look like when viewed on a large screen monitor, and it did help.

However, there were some pretty major drawbacks as well.  It has a really shallow focal depth.  That means that when you try and look at something other than your model, it goes out of focus.  I would be working on a freehand line on a cloak, but then my brush and hand would go out of focus when I reached for my palatte or wash water.  At first, I just flipped the mag lense down whenever I needed the extra magnification, and then flipped it back up, but that got tedious.  I ended up keeping the lense down, but tilting my head back so I could look under the lense whenever I needed to look at something other than the model in my left hand.  It was sort of what people do with bifocal glasses, only in reverse.  It worked, but after awhile, my neck got sore from leaning my head back and forth so much, and my eyes got sore from adjusting from magnification to natural vision over and over again.

So will I continue to use an optivisor?  Only in rare instances, I would think.  The hassle of flipping my head back and forth like Zaphod Beeblebrox in the last "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" movie is considerable, and I worry what the long term effects of constantly refocusing my eyes is going to be like.

That being said, I thought detail work seemed to be a bit easier, and my results were slightly better.  I think what I'll do is paint without it 99.9% of the time, and only break it out when I'm doing the finishing touches on a competition piece.  If it's tabletop quality, I won't even bother.

However, I may change my tune in another decade or so.  If my vision is ever shot so bad that I have a hard time "reading" a model with my unaided eyes, I'll probably find myself using the optivisor more and more often.

And let's hope that we don't ever end up looking at pics of our 28mm models on wall sized monitors in the future...


  1. Great detailed write-up on the pros and cons. It matches my own experience and conclusions, with regards to using an optivisor. I like your point that it gives you a preview of what the model will look like on a monitor. That's a good checkpoint while painting the model, without having to actually take a WIP picture and upload it to the computer.

  2. In a way, using the optivisor was a bit humbling. What I thought were smooth blends and transitions looked like pre-schooler art projects when viewed under magnification. However, I think I'll stick to what I said: I'll use the optivisor on the final touches of competition pieces, but it's just too much of a pain for me to use regularly.

  3. *Update* I'm now 40, and I'm having to cope with the realization that my eyesight will never be as good as it once was (and I used to have very strong eyes!). I still have no problem at long distances, but my eyes just don't want to focus on anything up close any more.

    As such, I've started to rely on the optivisor more and more. I simply use the one magnifying lens (no need for the drop down additional ones... yet), and I flip my head back and forth like Zaphod every time I need to refocus on the stuff on my desk, rather than the model in hand.

    The plastic headband gets sweaty and slippery though. Thinking of gluing a strip of felt or terrycloth to the forehead portion. Might help.

    For the times when I'm taking my painting on the road, and don't want to carry my lamps with me, I'm considering jury rigging a LED lamp to it. Perhaps one of the ones that normally clip on to the front of a hunter's ball cap? I used to use a LED headlamp all the time for this purpose, but the two don't seem to work well together (maybe if I had a forehead like a Klingon, but I don't).

    Anyway, I took a look at some of Einion's recommended forum threads on CMoN, and it seems that others are using these more and more as well (especially us old folk!). The other alternative seems to be cheap low powered reading glasses. Might have to give those a try too.

    Anyway, check out the following link for more information. Einion's post has a few good threads about the subject:

    As for mine, it's still going strong. The plastic is not super durable though... it's got one or two cracks now (around the screws), and the bottom edge of the lens has been bumped by my brushes a few times when I wasn't paying attention (I now lick my brushes to sharpen the point and condition the hairs with spit mid-project... disgusting, but useful!).

    Anyway, for you young guys, I still advise that if you get one, use it sparingly in case it prematurely fatigues your eyes. For us old farts with already shot eyeballs, this may be the ticket to keeping up with the younger generation.

    Man, I hate getting old...

  4. *Update*: My first optivisor is now dead. Both lenses broke off... first one a few months back (and so I flipped down the other one and used that for awhile), then the other. The plastic tabs are not very big, and so they eventually just gave out. Granted, I really abused my optivisor... they travelled with me on many occasions, and even around the home studio, they got dumped on the desk, the floor, and generally banged around a bit.

    Luckily I bought another one recently, and this one has a built in LED light which works pretty well. The only issue is that the flip up visor joints keep loosening up. I liked the feature where I could flip the whole unit up atop my head when I needed "regular" unobstructed / unmagnified vision. This one keeps flipping back down. I may have to disassemble the thing and put some teflon tape on the threads there to give it a bit more friction.

    Alternatively, I have also been using reading glasses I purchased at the drug store, and they seem to do the trick fairly well. Much more portable, less dorky looking, and lighter. But for some reason, they keep sliding down my nose, so I have to periodically push them back up every so often. But I guess it's all worth it... I like to think that I look like a sexy librarian while wearing them ;)