I’ve been “microscoping” for about six months now. Prior to that, I spent most of my free time as a fine art photographer. I also directed music videos and produced a few films. If there’s one thing that microscope hobbyists have in common with photographers and filmmakers, it’s this: there’s a clear division between gearheads, and enthusiasts. It’s not to say that gearheads aren’t enthusiasts; it’s that the focus of their enthusiasm tends to lean towards the gear itself, whether it be lenses, camera bodies, or in this case, microscopes and microscope accessories. And let me be very clear on this: there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy a hobby, or to pursue a profession. Being a gearhead isn’t wrong, and not caring so much about gear isn’t wrong either. It’s just something that I find very interesting!
And I find it interesting because, like in photography and film, gearheads tend to dominate the conversation when it comes to microscopes. This especially affects beginners, particularly in large group settings (Facebook groups come to mind) because they’re led to believe that they must buy a brand-name scope (Olympus, Nikon, Motic) and other expensive gear in order to get started. The belief is that one should invest in quality right away. While I wouldn’t disagree with this if a microscope was crucial to one’s profession, or used in scientific pursuits, I heavily disagree with this when it comes to beginners who just want to get started in this world.
In fact, I would argue that you don’t need expensive gear to do amazing things with your imagination, even in the context of dealing with the natural world. I saw this happen way too often in photography circles, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. My best pal is a bit of a gearhead, but even he has enough sense to encourage beginners to start with whatever it is they can afford. Unfortunately, that’s often not the norm in many hobby communities. In fact, when I was a photographer, I worked with just one mirrorless camera, one lens and ONLY available light. I also never used Photoshop. Not even once. It was a great way to place constraints around my work, and in the end, those constraints only helped to make my work even more creative than ever before! It also enabled me to develop a style and techniques to create effects “in-camera” (as in, not manipulated digitally) which in turn led me to be able to work with the most talented performers, actors, and models all around the world. There’s a lot of truth to the idea that if what you do is unique, the world opens up to you.
The world of microscopy (for hobbyists) is still very young. Some people just want to do this out of sheer enthusiasm, some people want to use scopes for art, and some people don’t even know yet! And I wanted to write this to encourage beginners to work with the cheapest and most minimalist equipment they can. Start cheap, and work your way up if you want to. If you’re an artist, I can tell you from experience: this will make you more creative. You might even pioneer new ways of looking at the microscopic world. Forget expensive filters, attachments and add-ons. Try your own way of doing things. Modify the light source with gels or with your fingers. Just move the filter tray around and you can get all sorts of different lighting. Constantly ask yourself, “what if?”.
Also, because microscopes have been a scientific tool for so long, there’s this belief that one has to approach the microscopic world as a scientist. And, you totally can! If you want to learn everything there is to know about ciliates or amoebas, do it! But, I also want you to know that you don’t have to. You don’t have to know what you’re looking at, just like a nature photographer doesn’t really need to know what bird species they’re photographing to get a beautiful photograph of a bird. You can distort images for fun. You can create music videos with floating spices in water in a petri dish. There are so many ways to explore with microscopes that nowadays, I just see them as an additional tool to make art, to be creative, and to have fun.
Before it starts to sound like I’m shitting on gearheads, let me explain to you why I think they have an important to play in the community. Without gearheads, we wouldn’t get honest reviews of the gear that’s out there. When I want to upgrade, I turn to the gearheads for their knowledge and experience. They’re the ones who really care about quality, craftsmanship and ease-of-use. Many of them have blogs, and while they might get free products to review, the really good ones still give users honest feedback. You just have to find the good reviewers, first!
I am really, really hoping that microscopes become more popular. I’m hoping that microscope companies learn from Canon, Sony and Nikon: create an affordable consumer product, market it well, send freebies to reviewers, and people will buy them. What currently bothers me about brand name microscope companies is that they don’t really have anything that great or easy to use in the $1000 range. I see people using Motic and Olympus gear worth at least $5K all the time on social media, which leads newbies to believe that they have to buy this expensive gear to see the microscopic world clearly.
That’s why I’ve committed to using OMAX, Celestron and Amscope products, all worth less than $800 each, until the brand names start catching up with either new, affordable products, or with a decrease in prices for their current lineups. Would I say ‘no’ to a free Motic microscope? Heck no! But, I’d still keep using my cheaper microscopes to create content for people to enjoy, and to encourage them to get their own microscopes. I would never try to persuade a beginner to get an expensive scope.
Lastly, I’ve never been one to believe that there’s always just one way of doing things. But, I have been turned off by those who do think that way. And I’m really hoping that as the microscope consumer market expands, we can stay away from the kind of divisiveness that we see in the photography and filmmaking worlds. In the end, photography is simply about “seeing”, and no tool can change that. Even great gear still needs to be in the hands of a photographer who can “see” for that work to stand out from the all of the other crisp images out there. I think that there’s potential for creatives to see and record the microscopic world in new ways – in ways that we’ve never seen before. It just calls for a different way of thinking, and there’s room for gearheads, and enthusiasts, to contribute to this world, regardless of how much their equipment costs. You don’t need to get fancy – you just need to get curious.