A Beginner Guide to Microscopes!
Here’s a little guide for complete beginners! For now, it includes info on buying a microscope and how to use a compound microscope. But, I will be adding lots more to it over time!
BUYING A MICROSCOPE
So, you want a microscope, but you have no idea where to start? Been there! First, let me start this guide by saying that I’ve written this for adults who aren’t scientists. That being said, I’ve received a lot of messages from scientists, lecturers, clinicians and doctors who know how to use a microscope, but aren’t sure what kind of scope to buy for home-use. If you’re in that category, ’m hoping this guide will be helpful to you as well. And finally, if you’re looking for something for your kids, this guide might be helpful, but I would also recommend reading reviews on products on Amazon, on blogs or on forums, such as Reddit. There are “toy microscopes” out there that are great for younger children, and it’ll help gauge their interest in it before you spend more on something more sophisticated! But, like any toy, reviews are helpful and I have no experience with microscope for kids – so, best to look elsewhere for info on that.
TYPES OF MICROSCOPES
There are two main types of microscopes in the consumer market: the compound (or “light”) microscope, and the stereoscope. The stereoscope is used to observe larger objects and creatures, like minerals and insects. However, it can also be used to observe a sample of tiny microscopic creatures on a petri dish in order to isolate them on slides so you can view them on a compound microscope. Stereoscopes come with a light above and a light below the subject. That’s why they’re so handy for things like rocks and bugs because you can view all the cool details on them from above!
The compound microscope has stronger magnification than the stereoscope, but the stereoscope is easier to use! So, for a complete beginner who has never used a microscope before, I tend to recommend a binocular stereoscope, or an entry-level binocular or trinocular compound microscope. It’s best to keep it really simple for your first microscope, get the hang of it, and then maybe move on to something more complex later on!
In terms of brands, it really depends on your budget. Celestron makes consumer-level scopes, but most of the affordable microscopes are Chinese brands like Amscope and OMAX. In the UK, Swift tends to be an affordable alternative. Amscope, OMAX and Swift microscopes can easily be ordered online on Amazon. You can get a decent compound microscope in the $100-$3000 range made by these brands and they’ll have a lot of the same features as the namebrands. However, once you get into advanced microscopy, you’ll likely want to start looking at offerings by Olympus, Motic, Zeiss, Nikon and other manufacturers. Unfortunately, these brands haven’t broken into the affordable consumer market yet. For example, I looked at a Motic BA310 microscope at a local scientific store, and with all of the attachments that I wanted, it was going to cost me $5000CAD. That’s not very affordable for the home enthusiast. But, if that’s affordable for you, and if you already have experience with microscopes, I highly recommend something from a namebrand. Their objectives are far superior to the Amscope, Swift and OMAX products. Personally, I have an OMAX binocular scope, an Amscope trinocular scope and a Celestron binocular stereoscope.
HOW DO COMPOUND MICROSCOPES WORK?
So, why are compound microscopes so complicated? Well, compared to stereoscopes, they have more parts! Most compound scopes will come with three or four objectives (they’re the “lenses” that provide magnification). They also usually come with removable eyepieces. The eyepieces themselves have some magnification (10x or 20x, in most packages). Some have what’s called a “mechanical stage” – that’s the thing that holds your slide, and when it’s “mechanical”, it means that you can move it around with knobs instead of moving the slide yourself. Let’s just say that this feature is REALLY handy! If you can afford a compound microscope with a mechanical stage, do it.
Then, there’s the condenser. That’s the unit that sits under the stage. This is where things get complicated. If you’ve ever done any photography, you’ll know that light and shadow is what makes or breaks the picture, right? Well, it’s the same with a microscope. You need light to view your subject, but what’s really cool is that you can modify the light itself to view and light your subject differently. A condenser can come with a variety of features. Your condenser also moves up and down to provide you with a different ‘depth of field’ (as in, what will be sharp and not sharp in the image). The condenser essentially takes the light source and concentrates it, filters it, and provides you with an array of options for viewing specimens.
Below the stage, you’ll also find the filter tray, where you can change the colour of the light with various filters. There’s also an iris or or a disk diaphragm that allows you to make the beam of light smaller or bigger. Modifying this helps with focus and depth of field – most of all, it’s just fun to play with! And next, you’ll likely have the light source, either halogen or LED.
SOME TIPS FOR THE COMPOUND MICROSCOPE
It took me a few months to really learn how to play with the condenser and all of the other cool parts of a compound microscope, so give yourself a chance to learn at a reasonable pace. Don’t expect to know everything about how your scope works the minute you get it! That being said, it’s pretty easy to get a hang of how it all works once you allow yourself to experiment with all the parts of your scope. Don’t be afraid to turn the knobs and ask “what if”. Do read the manual, or watch YouTube videos on how to use it. There are few things you should know:
- Treat your microscope objectives as you would a camera lens: don’t let them get scratched, don’t dip them in water, don’t let them touch your subject. Compound microscopes are made to be used with slides and cover slips. However, if you’re like me, you’ll maybe experiment with petri dishes and if you do, be very very careful – it’s easy to accidentally zoom into a petri dish full of pond water since there’s no cover slip to protect your objective!
- Protect your microscope from dust and pet hair – use a dust cover for your scope, and get yourself a good cleaning kit, or at the very least, some Kimtech wipes and an air blower duster (the little rubber ones that you have to manually pump to create air). That will get rid of most dust particles that tend to contaminate your eye pieces and objectives.
- Your condenser or other pieces might become misaligned. You can learn how to fix this yourself through youtube videos or you can take it to your local shop to fix it for you. You’ll start to notice that the light isn’t coming in like it used to, or you might see weird shadows and artifacts when it’s not aligned properly.
- You shouldn’t unscrew any objectives and leave them out. Same with the eyepieces. If you do unscrew them, put them in a small ziploc baggie or a pill bottle to protect them from dust.
- There are a LOT of cool hacks and DIY ways to modify light, to create filters, to make your photography and videos more interesting. I’ll post a section on this later, but before you buy an expensive attachment, make sure to check youtube and/or do a google search on it to see if there’s a cheaper alternative!
It’s important, I think, to treat your first microscope as an experimental playground. You WILL say “oops” a bunch of times and that’s ok! The more you play with it, the more you’ll learn how to “see” with it. You might use it for art, or you might learn that you prefer to look at bigger creatures, in which case you might want to buy yourself a good stereoscope instead. You won’t know for sure what you’ll love the most until you try it. This is why I HIGHLY recommend going with a cheaper microscope at first – this way, you won’t be scared to experiment with it, and you’ll learn more about what your interests are before you buy a more expensive one with more bells and whistles.
ALTERNATIVES: FOLDSCOPE AND POCKET/FIELD MICROSCOPES
In terms of other options, there’s a unique and extremely cheap product out there called “Foldscope”. It’s actually made out of paper, and you assemble it yourself. It’s a very inexpensive and low-tech way of observing the microscopic world. There are also all sorts of pocket microscopes and field microscopes. I recently purchased a Celestron Kids Pocket Microscope for $20 and it works really well! So, go ahead and explore the options out there.
You can also purchase used microscopes. Have a look through the Facebook Marketplace or your local used forums. You might also find some on ebay. And, if you’re really ambitious, you could build a microscope from various parts! You can also check with your local college or university to see if they’re selling or giving away any used equipment. If you’re in Canada, you can also check government auction sites like this one: GC Surplus. (Thanks to Hannah for this suggestion!)
Most cities have some sort of scientific or hobby shop that sells microscopes. I’ve had good experiences with a local shop in my town, but it should be noted that they almost always sell namebrand products only. This shouldn’t dissuade you from checking out what they’ve got, but do make sure to compare what they sell with what you can find online. Also, check to see if they happen to have used equipment! I found a really old but still functional OMAX trinocular scope at a local shop just the other day. Your local shop will also help you with things like microscope cleaning and supplies.
ONLINE FORUMS AND COMMUNITIES
Luckily, we live in an era where there’s a wealth of information being shared in online forums, and on social media, every single day. That being said, you should be aware that the microscope community is a bit like the photography community. There are a lot of gearheads and purists in online forums and in FB groups. This means that some people will give you a hard time if you happen to use cheaper microscopes or they’ll try to convince beginners to buy expensive equipment they don’t need. Do your research but take their advice with a grain of salt.
The best part about the online science and microscopy communities is that you’ll get a lot of help with identification, and you’ll get plenty of cool tips and tricks. I’ve learned a bunch of DIY hacks from people I’ve met online and the scientists I’ve met on Twitter and Instagram have been really generous with their knowledge. So, once you’re all setup, go ahead and start sharing photos of stuff you’re looking at with your microscope. Don’t worry about image quality! Most people are just photographing this stuff with their phones! 🙂
I really hope this guide has been helpful! I’ll be adding to it on a regular basis. Contact me with any questions, or any edits that you think might be useful! Most of all, have fun and welcome to the microscopic world!