How to buy a microscope

Welcome to the world of hobby microscopy! The first step into this educational and exciting pastime is first to gather some information and then to buy a microscope. In this article, I want to give you a short overview of different microscope categories and types, so that it is easier for you to make a buying decision. When looking at product pictures, it might not be evident at first sight, which type of microscope you are looking at, and this guide should give you some help in categorizing the different microscopes.

Good News and Bad News!

The good news is, that the cost of starting microscopy as a hobby is not expensive! The bad news is, that making a purchasing decision can still be complicated for the beginner, because the different specifications on the product pages are difficult to understand. The good news is, that there are now many resources available that help you navigate the decision process.

The steps of buying a microscope

Many people who want to buy a microscope either for themselves, their children or for home schooling or a classroom, will go online and then search for microscopes. There seem to be so many different kinds of microscopes around (actually there arn’t) that this might result in a confusion and ultimately a buying block. I often get emails from people who ask questions like these:

  • What is the best microscope for me to choose?
  • What brand is the best?
  • Can I see X or Y with the microscope?
  • Is this microscope a good microscope?

Answering these questions is almost impossible, because these questions are very general and depend very much on the individual expectations. I suggest that you put these questions aside and rather focus on the following points:

  • Who is the microscope for? Is the microscope to be used mostly by children, or are also adults (parent!) using it? Microscopes for children have to be more portable and should be simpler to use so that they are not overwhelmed. For children I recommend introductory microscopes or stereo microscopes. For adults I recommend mid-range microscopes.
  • What do you want to look at? If you want to put everyday object directly under the microscope, without preparing specimens, then I recommend stereo microscopes. These are suitable for observing relatively large objects that do not fit on a glass microscope slide. If you already have a hobby like stamp or coin collecting, mineral collecting, etc. then I recommend stereo microscopes because you can then observe these objects directly. If you want to look at microscopic water life or individual cells, then I recommend compound microscopes. If you can not decide, or do not have any specific observation preferences, then I also recommend compound microscopes, unless you want to buy the microscope for smaller children. The reason why I recommend compound microscopes in this case is because compound microscopes allow you to hunt for microscopic water life, which is a very popular activity.
  • What is your budget? There is no upper limit for the cost of microscopes and the price goes up extremely quickly for additional features. I generally recommend to spend less money at the beginning and then buy more expensive microscopes later. If you decide to seriously pick up microscopy as a hobby, then you have to put aside about USD 300-400 for a mid-range microscope. If you do not want to invest this much money at the beginning, then you have to budget about USD 100 for an introductory microscope. These will allow you to see almost all of the specimens of mid-range microscopes, but at a lower image quality.
  • How often will you be using the microscope? If you intend to use the microscope more often, then I recommend mid-range microscopes, which have two eyepieces (binocular microscopes). This gives you much more relaxed viewing, and often the quality of the eyepieces is also better in these microscopes.
  • How important is taking pictures and videos with the microscope for you? Pictures and videos allow you to participate in the microscopy community online. If you want to take pictures frequently, then buy a mid-range microscopes with a trinocular head (a phototube that is extending vertically). It is possible to take pictures also without a phototube, but it is less convenient and less stable.
  • How much space do I have? Microscopes can be quite small and portable (introductory microscopes) to quite large (high-end research microscopes), which can not be moved at all. Do consider space requirements.
  • Do I want to start microscopy as a long-term hobby? or do I want to satisfy a short-term curiosity? If you want to satisfy a short-term curiosity, then I recommend to buy introductory microscopes. These do not cost much and there is a low entry barrier. They will keep you busy.

You might have noticed, that I did not include toy microscopes in the above list. Why is that? I have to admit that my experience with toy microscopes is not the very best, considering that the price difference to introductory microscopes is not quite large. Low-cost introductory microscopes, which work quite well for the price, have appeared during the last few years, and I think that these introductory microscopes definitively justify the slightly higher cost. I found toy microscopes to be generally difficult to focus, the eyepiece is small and gives a limited field of view (difficult to observe) and the image is dark (low light intensity). The magnification is often advertised as unrealistically high (1200x), which produces a very blurry image.

Stereo and Compound microscopes

You first need to decide between stereo and compound microscopes. The two different microscope types allow you to observe different kinds of specimens. If you want to do microscopy with young children (6-8 years), then I recommend stereo microscopes because they are easier to use, give an upright image and not not require specimen preparation. You take an insect that you find and directly place it under the microscope. This allows for uncomplicated nature observation. Kids love to observe the dirt under their finger nails or the fur of animals.

If you want to see how objects look like under the stereo microscope, then watch some of the videos in this Youtube Channel here: Microscopic Mysteries

Left: Stereo microscope. Center: Compound microscope (binocular). Right: Compound microscope (monocular)