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Cover glass thickness and resolution

Found in: Techniques, Theory

The thickness of the cover glass can have a significant impact on the resolution.

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The effect is highest with high-numeric aperture aperture (high magnification) objectives, and barely noticeable when using objectives of a low numeric aperture.

Types of cover glasses

Cover glasses come in all sorts of different sizes. I already wrote a post about cover glass size: Microscope Slides and Cover Glasses. In this post, we’ll now have a look at the importance of cover glass thicknesses. The table gives a summary of available thicknesses:


Number Thickness (mm)
#0 0.08 – 0.13
#1 0.13 – 0.16
#1.5 0.16 – 0.19
#2 0.19 – 0.25
#3 0.25 – 0.35
#4 0.43 – 0.64

Why cover glass thickness is important

Most microscope objectives have the optimum cover glass thickness engraved into them. For most objectives this is 0.17mm. Read the following post for more information on the engravings: About the numbers on the Objective. The correct cover glass thickness is important to achieve the best resolution with a given objective. But do not go out to buy the more expensive 0.17mm cover glasses, get the thinner and cheaper ones (will be explained below).

Generally speaking, the higher the numeric aperture of the objective, the more serious the loss in resolution if the wrong cover glass thickness is used. For some high-aperture objectives, a cover glass thickness of only a few micrometers can significantly reduce resolution. Therefore, some more advanced objectives possess a correction collar. This is an adjustment ring which can be turned to adjust the objective to the actual cover glass thickness which is in use.

Importance of the mounting medium

The optimum cover glass thickness of many objectives is 0.17mm. Now, why is it that the most commonly available cover glasses are of category 1 (0.13-0.16mm), which is thinner than the calculated optimum? The answer is a bit more complex: The thickness of the cover glass is not the only parameter which is important. The specimen is embedded in mounting medium. The thickness of this medium must be added to the thickness of the cover glass. A specimen which is located deep in the medium will have a larger “effective” cover glass thickness than a specimen which is located right beneath the cover glass. A calculated (ideal) cover glass thickness 0.17mm is therefore a good compromise, even if the “real” cover glass is thinner. And yes, the refractive index of the mounting medium also plays a role.

How to determine the thickness of a cover glass

Cheap cover glasses which are used for uncritical routine observations will show a statistical spread of different thicknesses. There are also assorted cover glasses available that show a much more narrow spread of thicknesses. Some people buy cheap cover glasses (with a larger spread) and then manually measure their thickness using a caliper to sort them. Is it worth the effort? When using low-magnification objectives with a low numeric aperture, the difference in cover glass thickness may not even be noticeable and the more expensive pre-selected cover glasses may only be necessary for specific applications where a high resolution is necessary and the objectives do not possess a correction collar. One should not forget that the thickness and refractive index of the mounting medium also has an impact on the resolution, and mounting medium thickness may be much more difficult to standardize.

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