Electron Microscopes vs. Optical (Light) microscopes
Found in: Microscopy Basics, Theory

SEM of pollen grains

Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of various Pollen. Public domain image reference: Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College

Electron vs. Light Microscopes: Basic Differences

There are not many things that these two microscope types have in common. Both electron and light microscopes are technical devices which are used for visualizing structures that are too small to see with the unaided eye, and both types have relevant areas of applications in biology and the materials sciences. And this is pretty much it. The method of visualizing the structures is very different. Electron Microscopes use electrons and not photons (light rays) for visualization. The first electron microscope was constructed in 1931, compared to optical microscopes they are a very recent invention.

>> Read more about different microscopes <<

Electron microscopes have certain advantages over optical microscopes:

  • The biggest advantage is that they have a higher resolution and are therefore also able of a higher magnification (up to 2 million times). Light microscopes can show a useful magnification only up to 1000-2000 times. This is a physical limit imposed by the wavelength of the light. Electron microscopes therefore allow for the visualization of structures that would normally be not visible by optical microscopy.
  • Depending on the type of electron microscope, it is possible to view the three dimensional external shape of an object (Scanning Electron Microscope, SEM).
  • In scanning electron microscopy (SEM), due to the nature of electrons, electron microscopes have a greater depth of field compared to light microscopes. The higher resolution may also give the human eye the subjective impression of a higher depth of field.

Electron microscopes have a range of disadvantages as well:

  • They are extremely expensive.
  • Sample preparation is often much more elaborate. It is often necessary to coat the specimen with a very thin layer of metal (such as gold). The metal is able to reflect the electrons.
  • The sample must be completely dry. This makes it impossible to observe living specimens.
  • It is not possible to observe moving specimens (they are dead).
  • It is not possible to observe color. Electrons do not possess a color. The image is only black/white. Sometimes the image is colored artificially to give a better visual impression.
  • They require more training and experience in identifying artifacts that may have been introduced during the sample preparation process.
  • The energy of the electron beam is very high. The sample is therefore exposed to high radiation, and therefore not able to live.
  • The space requirements are high. They may need a whole room.
  • Maintenance costs are high.

When should one use optical (light) microscopes?

One big advantage of light microscopes is the ability to observe living cells. It is possible to observe a wide range of biological activity, such as the uptake of food, cell division and movement. Additionally, it is possible to use in-vivo staining techniques to observe the uptake of colored pigments by the cells. These processes can not be observed in real time using electron microscopes, as the specimen has to be fixed, and completely dehydrated (and is therefore dead). The low cost of optical microscopes makes them useful in a wide range of different areas, such as education, the medical sector or for hobbyists. Generally, optical and electron microscopes have different areas of application and they complement each other.

Different types of electron microscopes

There are two different types of electron microscopes, scanning electron microscopes (SEM) and transmission electron microscopes (TEM). In the TEM method, an electron beam is passed through an extremely thin section of the specimen. You will get a two-dimensional cross-section of the specimen. SEMs, in contrast, visualize the surface structure of the specimen, providing a 3-D impression. The image above was produced by a SEM.

Different types of light microscopes

The two most common types of microscopes are compound microscopes and stereo microscopes (dissecting microscopes). Stereo microscopes are frequently used to observe larger, opaque specimens. They generally do not magnify as much as compound microscopes (around 40x-70x maximum) but give a truly stereoscopic view. This is because the image delivered to each eye is slightly different. Stereo microscopes do not necessarily require elaborate sample preparation.

Compound microscopes magnify up to about 1000x. The specimen has to be sufficiently thin and bright for the microscope light to pass through. The specimen is mounted on a glass slide. Compound microscopes are not capable of producing a 3D (stereoscopic) view, even if they possess two eye pieces. This is because each one of the eyes receives the same image from the objective. The light beam is simply split in two.


This site uses cookies. By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. For more information more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.