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5 Rules of buying a microscope

Found in: Buying Advice, Microscopy Basics

I’ve been repeatedly asked for advice concerning the purchase of microscopes of hobby and amateur purposes. The following rules should help you in your choice.

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Rule 1: Be weary about “department store” microscopes

Enthusiasts who want to pick up the hobby frequently encounter their first microscopes in department stores and toy shops. If you are serious about microscopy as a hobby, then I have to disadvise you from purchasing these devices. Microscopes are precision technical instruments and the low cost of toy microscopes simply does not allow them to keep up with the demands of the more serious enthusiast. The resolution of the optics is lower. Stability can also be an isue. It’s better to invest a bit more. You have to contact a retailer which is specialized for microscopes and who sells microscopes to hospitals, schools or research organizations.

Rule 2: Consider carefully if you want a stereo microscope or a compound microscope

Consider your areas of applications. Do you want to observe large or opaque specimens (stereo microscope) or are you more interested in observing small, transparent objects (compound microscope). If you want to do microscopy work with young children, then I would recommend stereo microscopes. See the other post for more info: Which Microscope for Children?. Compound microscopes allow you to observe much smaller specimens, but require you to engage in sample preparation (unless you purchase ready-made specimens).

Rule 3: The magnification is one of the least important criteria

Resolution, stability, extensibility, light intensity etc. also play a significant role. Get the big picture and look at the whole device. Do not get bogged down simply on magnification. Getting a high magnification is the easiest thing to achieve. Simply add a stronger eyepiece, or take a picture and enlarge it on the monitor. Magnification without resolution is meaningless. And a shaky plastic microscope will produce such an unsteady picture that you won’t be able to see much anyway.

Rule 4: Go for standards

Make sure that the microscope has exchangeable objective lenses manufactured according to the “160mm” standard. In this case you have a wide selection of different objectives available from different manufacturers. Infinity corrected optics are an alternative, but there is no universal standard. Some microscopes are not modular in design (“closed system”) and it is not possible to exchange parts later on. When choosing the microscope make sure that you also consider possible future interests and uses.

Rule 5: Consider your current interests

Microscopy does not have to be an entirely new hobby, it can also be a valuable extension of one of your existing pastimes. You may want to evaluate your current hobbies to see which type of microscope fits best.

  • Choose a stereo microscope if you are collecting stamps, minerals, rocks, coins, trading cards, smaller antiquities, insects or other objects that are small enough to be placed directly on the stage. Also choose a stereo microscope if younger children should have access to the device.
  • Choose a compound microscope of you are keeping a home aquarium, if you want to make specimen preparation (microtoming, staining, etc.) as part of your hobby.
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