Before You Buy a Microscope

Compound Microscope. Credit: Chris Ryan/Caiaimage/Getty Images

Before You Buy A Microscope

Before you purchase a microscope there are several factors that should be considered. How should the microscope be constructed? What type of lighting is best? What kinds of specimens are you interested in viewing with the microscope? Do you want to view bugs, stamps, cells, or fossils? Should you buy a compound or a stereo microscope? Answers to these questions depend on your specific needs.


Sturdiness is an important quality when considering a microscope. The microscope you purchase should be solidly constructed and composed of a sturdy metal alloy. Plastic microscopes do not last so it would be best to avoid them.


Most microscopes that have a built-in light source use either a tungsten, fluorescent or halogen bulb. Fluorescent bulb systems are more expensive than tungsten systems, but the quality of light is brighter and they produce much less heat than either tungsten or halogen systems.


Microscope lenses are what magnify objects so that they can be seen in greater detail. A light microscope, such as a compound microscope, has two lenses. The ocular lens is located near the eyepiece, while the objective lens is located near the object that is being viewed. The ocular lens typically magnifies an object 10 to 15 times. Compound microscopes typically have multiple objective lenses that can be rotated and usually include four levels of magnification: 4x, 10x, 40x, and 100x.

In combination with a 10x ocular lens, an object viewed under a 10x objective lens would be magnified 100 times.

Beginner Microscopes

Introductory microscopes are especially designed for younger kids. They have controls that are large and simple to use. Features include low magnification, one eyepiece for viewing specimens and usually a mirror for illumination.

Most beginner microscopes are constructed with plastic. Look for microscopes that include metal for durability.

  • AmScope M30-ABS-KT51 Metal Frame Kids Compound Microscope Kit

Compound Microscopes

Compound microscopes are light microscopes that use a single light path. They can either have a single eyepiece (monocular) or a dual eyepiece (binocular). Compound microscopes have low depth perception, but high resolution and magnification. They are used for viewing very small specimens, such as animal cells, plant cells, pond life samples, bacteria and other microscopic life forms. These specimens are mounted on glass slides for viewing.

Stereo Microscopes

A stereo microscope is a light microscope that uses two different paths of light. This allows you to see a specimen in 3-D. Stereo microscopes have high depth perception, but low resolution and magnification. Cells would be too small to be viewed with this type of microscope. These microscopes are great for dissecting, as well as for viewing fossils and insect specimens. Unlike compound microscopes, which have multiple objective lenses, compound microscopes typically have a single objective lens.

The best models have a built-in light source and zoom capabilities.

Digital Microscopes

Digital microscopes may be compound or stereo microscopes that enable you to capture still images, as well as video images. These images can be displayed on your computer monitor. Digital microscopes also contain imaging software that enables you to zoom, edit, create special effects and time lapse images.

  • OMAX Digital Lab LED Binocular Compound Microscope with Built-in 1.3MP USB Camera

Advanced Microscopes

Advanced microscopes are those that provide the high magnification and high resolution images. These microscopes have a hefty price tag, costing upwards of fifty thousand dollars. Examples of advanced microscopes include scanning electron microscopes (SEM) and transmission electron microscopes (TEM).

Scanning electron microscopes utilize electrons, which hit and bounce off of specimens that are stained with gold. The images are in black and white, but color can be added to the images. SEM images allow specimens, including insects, tissues, and bacteria, to be viewed in great detail. Transmission electron microscopes are also electron illuminated and are used to view thinly sliced specimens, including cells and viruses.