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How to Choose a Microscope You’ll Love

Last Updated on September 29, 2020

Light microscope closeup

Remember the microscopes we used to use in high school biology class? At the time, we thought of those as the only type of microscopes. But if you’re looking to buy a new microscope, you’ll quickly discover that the variety of available microscopes is as diverse as the specimens you can view with them.

So, which microscope should you choose? Well, that’s a tricky question. Each type of microscope has its strengths and drawbacks. Depending on what you plan to do with your microscope, a particular type might be best-suited while others might not even be viable options.

To help you decide which microscope will best serve your needs, we’re going to break down the specifics of the main types of microscopes. We’ll talk about how they work, when you might use it, and what important features you should look for in each type of microscope. Let’s take a closer look.


What Are You Using It For?

Though all microscopes help you to see specimens that are too small to observe with the naked eye, the way they do so and how small of specimens they’ll allow you to view varies with each type.

Microscope for Kids-Omano-Amazon

Those microscopes from science class were great when you wanted to view a small specimen living or dead. But they have limitations as to how small of a specimen you can view. What happens when you need to view something that’s smaller than those microscopes are capable of, such as a bacteria or a single protein?

When picking a microscope, it’s vitally important that you choose a microscope that’s viable for your needs. Let’s take a brief look at the common uses of microscopes as well as the different types of microscopes that are available.

A Short List of Uses for a Microscope

  • Quality control
  • Coin collecting
  • Animal dissections
  • Examining cells and bacteria
  • A variety of medical uses
  • 3-dimensional rock
  • Wastewater treatment
  • Pathology
Want to learn more about microscopes? Check out our in-depth guide to 11 Different Types of Microscopes

Light microscope hooked to computer

The 3 Main Types of Microscopes

There are many types of microscopes on the market and they are all meant to serve specific purposes. However, there are three main classes of microscopes you’re likely to come across.

  • Compound Microscope
  • Stereoscopic Microscope
  • Electron Microscope

Compound Microscope

The compound microscope is one of the most common types of microscopes and it’s the one that most people visualize when they think of a microscope. It utilizes light sent through a specimen on a slide to allow detailed viewing of specimens that are too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Light microscope diagram

How Does it Work?

A slide is prepared with a specimen. The slide is then placed on the microscope and a light is shined through the specimen from underneath. Above the specimen, a set of selectable lenses provides magnification to enlarge the image of the specimen for the viewer.

microscope slide with hand in glove

Image credit: Witia, Wikimedia

Once the image is multiplied by the lenses, it is once again further magnified when the image reaches the eyepieces, allowing the user to get a detailed view of their specimen.

Features

One great thing about the compound microscope is that its slides can be prepared very quickly. It only takes a few minutes to a couple of hours to prepare a slide for a compound microscope. Moreover, you can prepare dead or living specimens and view them with this type of microscope.

celestron biological inverted microscope

Compared to some other types of microscopes, the compound microscope is small, compact, and portable. They’re also easy to set up, so it’s not difficult to move one to a new location and set it up for use there.

Because they’re so commonplace, there are also many affordable compound microscopes available, making it possible for everyone to get interested in microscopy.

Lenses & Magnification

Compound microscopes today are usually equipped with between three and five lenses of varying magnification levels. By rotating through the lenses, you can get a more detailed close-up of the image, or a more complete but less detailed image if you lower the magnification.

Most modern compound microscopes use binocular eyepieces, providing an eyepiece for each eye for comfortable, easy viewing. Some do still use a single monocular eyepiece, but it’s not as common. There are versions available with three eyepieces as well. These trinocular eyepieces allow for both eyes plus a camera.

There are other lenses you can use with your microscope for different effects, such as a Barlow lens. This lens will multiply the magnification of your microscope by as much as 2x or 3x.

lenses & magnification

 

You can also add a darkfield lens to provide contrast, allowing you to see samples that don’t work well on a normal slide without killing them with stain. 

RELATED READING: Our reviews of the best microscopes for students

Do You Wear Glasses? Eye Relief is Important!

Microscope eyepieces are designed to be viewed with some space between the eyepiece and your eye. That space is called eye relief. Some eyepieces even have enough eye relief to allow for wearing glasses.

Eye relief diagram

The eyepieces also add some magnification, often 10x or 15x. When combined with the various lenses, this gives compound microscopes a general range of about 40x to 2,000x. However, without special lenses, most magnification over 1,000x isn’t really usable.

When to Use It?

Compound microscopes are the go-to choice for a detailed, close-up view of something too small to observe with your naked eyes, the compound microscope is a great choice.

It’s the perfect option when you want to view a living specimen such as a cell or bacteria since some other types of microscopes can only view dead specimens.

Compound microscopes are also a great choice if you want to do your viewing on-the-go. If you need a portable microscopy solution, compound microscopes can be very compact and they’re simple to set up once you’re in a new location. They’re also great if you’re new to the hobby since they’re affordable and easy to use.

But keep in mind, you can only view flat specimens with a compound microscope. There’s not much space between the specimen and the magnifying lens, so you have to keep the slide flat.

RELATED READING: Our reviews of the best compound microscopes

Stereoscopic Microscope

The stereo microscope isn’t as powerful as the compound microscope. Generally, stereo microscopes are well under 100x magnification with 40x being the norm.

Stereo microscopes are best for viewing larger objects than you might with a compound microscope, like coins, plants, rocks, circuit boards, or even use them for watchmaking or microsurgery.

Stereoscopic microscope

The unique thing about a stereoscopic microscope is that it allows you to see a three-dimensional view of your specimen.

How Does it Work?

Stereo microscopes work by reflecting light back from the specimen, rather than sending light through the specimen like a compound microscope. The light on a stereo microscope is usually on a gooseneck that allows you to move it around and point it where you would like to change the view you’re getting.

Stereo microscope light

In a stereo microscope, the magnifying lens, called the ocular lens, is also the eyepiece. This means your magnification is in the eyepieces and can be adjusted by changing eyepieces.

When you look down the eyepieces, you’re viewing the specimen through two different optical paths that are at slightly different viewing angles. Because each eye gets a slightly different view of the specimen, the image you see is three-dimensional, unlike the two-dimensional image that other microscopes provide.

Features

The number one feature of a stereo microscope is the ability to produce a three-dimensional image. They’re perfect for seeing small items that aren’t quite microscopic.

One great thing about these microscopes is the amount of space between the base and the lens. With so much space, you can do things like fixing a watch, solder a circuit board, or just move the light around until you find the perfect angle.

 

white microscope

Like many compound microscopes, some stereo microscopes are very small and compact. This means you can easily take them with you for doing fieldwork. For instance, viewing geological samples on sight or using the microscope to view a live insect for a better view.

Lenses & Magnification

Though you might see a stereo microscope with 100x magnification, it’s not common. Most of the time, these top out around 40x. But most often it’s just a 10x eyepiece that comes on a stereo microscope. This is a great size for most uses of this type of microscope.

With a stereo microscope, the magnifying lenses are in the eyepieces. All you have to do to change the magnification is to change the eyepieces. This can also change the eye relief if you’re not comfortable with your current eyepieces.

When to Use It?

Stereoscopic microscopes are an excellent choice anytime you need to get a detailed view of a specimen that’s too large for a compound microscope. Since compound microscopes need the specimen to be nearly flat, stereo microscopes are great for anytime your specimen is not flat.

how to clean your microscope

This type of microscope is also the best choice when you need to see a three-dimensional representation of your specimen. Most microscopes only return a two-dimensional image, but a stereo microscope will let you see your specimen exactly as you would normally, just magnified for better detail.

Stereo microscopes are used in watchmaking, microsurgeries, botany, and inspecting insects. They’re great for quality control purposes, building or inspecting circuit boards, examining the surfaces of rocks, textile analysis, dermatological examinations, and plenty more uses as well.

RELATED READING: Our reviews of the best microscopes for dissecting

Our Favorite Compound & Stereo Microscopes

Table could not be displayed.

Electron Microscope

Compound microscopes are great for viewing things too small to see with the naked eye, but they have their limitations. When you need to see the smallest things, the compound microscope isn’t going to cut it.

Electron microscopes are large, heavy, and expensive pieces of highly-complex machinery. Their slides take days to prepare and must be prepared in a vacuum. They can only view dead specimens because the process would kill any live specimen you tried to view.

Huge electron microscope_Jem-4000ex_wiki

Image credit: Jem-4000, Wikipedia

Despite the expense and impressive technology, electron microscopes only see in black and white. But they can also have magnification levels as high as 2,000,000x! These are the microscopes that allow us to see the smallest things on earth.

How Does it Work?

In a compound microscope, light is passed through a specimen and sent to a lens. An electron microscope works in much the same way, but without light. Instead, a beam of electrons is sent through a vacuum to go through the specimen, acting as a short wavelength form of radiation.

Electron microscope diagram

As the electrons pass through the specimen, interactions will occur inside the sample. These interactions are then used to form an image once they’ve been captured by the lenses.

Instead of being picked up by lenses like the light in a compound microscope, the electron beam passes through a set of coil-shaped electromagnets. These magnets bend the electron beams in the same way that optical lenses refract light to produce magnification.

Finally, the result is formed as an electron micrograph, which is basically a two-dimensional, black and white photo on a screen.

Features

The number one feature of an electron microscope is its magnification. With incredible magnification levels up to 2,000,000x, nothing can let you see smaller specimens. You can see things with an electron microscope that are a million times smaller than the smallest specimens you could view with the best compound microscopes.

The size of things on the nanometer scale v2

Lenses & Magnification

Electron microscopes don’t have standard lenses like the other types of microscopes. They also don’t have eyepieces since you’re not looking into the microscope like you are with a compound or stereo microscope. Rather, you’re viewing the image on a screen.

Most electron microscopes top out around 1,000,000x magnification. This is plenty to view most of the tiniest objects in our world, like individual protein strands and tiny bacteria. But some powerful versions of this microscope have even more magnification.

When to Use It?

Electron microscopes are only used when you need to see the tiniest objects we can view. They’re mostly used in science and medical labs because of how expensive and technical they are.

Electron microscope in a lab

These microscopes are perfect for examining the detailed structure of cells, tissues, organelles, bacteria, proteins, and more. They can also be used to examine biopsy samples, the internal structure of metals or crystals, and they’re even used for quality control purposes.


What About Microphotography?

Microscopes have long allowed us to observe things on a microscopic level, but they haven’t always allowed us to capture those observations for repeated use or sharing. Today, microphotography can open up a whole new world, enabling you to share and re-examine anything you see in your microscope. And it doesn’t stop at just pictures; you can easily take a video of what you’re viewing through your microscope and capture it in full high-definition glory.

Microphotography drips of water on a leaf

If you have a very basic microscope, you can always capture images and videos by simply holding your camera lens up to the eyepiece of your microscope. But today, many microscopes have a trinocular eyepiece that has a third optic specifically for your smartphone or camera. These are the perfect solution, allowing you to get clear shots of your specimen.

You can go one step further with microscopes that connect to your computer via USB. These will allow you to project the image you’re seeing directly to your computer screen where you can see it much larger and more clearly than through your microscope’s eyepieces. Plus, you can then screen capture what you see for later use.

Is Microphotography the Same as Digiscoping?

In a word, yes.

Digiscoping microscope

RELATED READING: Our reviews of the best microscope cameras

Price Considerations

There’s no question about it; microscopes have become considerably more affordable for the average person. What was once a tool for labs is now available for home use. But that doesn’t mean that all microscopes or even all types are affordable.

Generally speaking, basic compound and stereo microscopes can be found for very reasonable prices. You can even find them well under $100 to give you a good starting point for microscopy as a hobby.

SEE ALSO: Our reviews of the best microscopes under $200

Still, some microscopes, even compound and stereoscopic ones, can still be very expensive. Microscopes with high-end optics and good glass can cost considerably more than basic, entry-level microscopes with cheap glass.

You can also assume that for the most part, electron microscopes are out of the question. Unless you’re extremely wealthy, you’re not going to want to shell out seven figures on a microscope. Most people couldn’t afford to do that even if they wanted to!

Quick Reference Guide to Microscope Uses

What You Want to See
Type of Microscope to Use
Food Stereoscopic
Biological Specimens Compound
Medical and Clinical Analysis Compound or electron
Circuit Board Repair Stereoscopic
Coin Appraisal Stereoscopic
Dissection Stereoscopic
Forensics Compound or electron
Gems and Minerals Stereoscopic

Conclusion

The three main types of microscopes will allow you to see anything in up-close detail, from a coin you’re examining for your collection to the tiniest bacteria and proteins just a few nanometers across. But which microscope you choose will depend on what you plan to view with it.

Compound microscopes are great for scientific or medical use. They’re perfect for viewing cells, blood, and other things too small to see with the naked eye that can be prepared on a flat slide.

Stereo microscopes are perfect for viewing slightly larger items since they generally have 40x or less magnification. This makes them the ideal choice for geology, viewing coins, watchmaking, dissection, and more.

Electron microscopes are large, cumbersome, and extremely expensive. They’re the only choice for viewing the tiniest specimens that are smaller than light photons. But you can only view dead specimens and the image is in black and white. Still, with up to 2,000,000x magnification, they’re as powerful as microscopes get.

Header image credit: pxhere.com

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.