What advantages and disadvantages does amateur microscopy have?

Advantages of microscopy as a hobby

The advantages are, naturally, subjective, but might include:

  • At home: You do not have to leave your home to do the hobby. There are no long driving times, and it is very convenient.
  • Not much time needed: Turning the microscope on to observe a few specimens can be done quickly and you do not need much preparation time.
  • Take along: You can take along small portable microscopes or collect specimens during your holiday visit. I have never done that but know of a few people who do this. Introductory microscopes don’t cost much and they are small enough to take along.
  • Weather: You are not dependent on good weather and on any season.
  • Specialization: There are several sub-branches of amateur microscopy: observation, collection of slides, collection of vintage microscopes, photography, etc. and you can specialize in your area of interest.
  • Teach yourself: You can teach the basics of microscopy yourself.
  • Costs not high: The entry barrier into the hobby is not high. The costs are not high and it is not a complicated hobby.
  • Independence: You are not dependent on others to do the hobby. If you want to play a competitive sport, then you have to agree on an appointment to meet each other.

Disadvantages

In my view, there are not many disadvantages. If you enjoy what you are doing, then you do not place a strong emphasis on disadvantages. Here is a list of possible drawbacks.

  • Solitary: Microscopy can be a solitary activity, as microscopy clubs are not very common. You may have to network over the WWW with other interested people. Some people need external motivation and need to talk to others in order to stay interested. I recommend that you become active online.
  • Microscope purchase: Beginners may have problems choosing the right equipment if they have no microscope retailer around who helps them. Shopping for a microscope is not like shopping for a TV set.
  • Abstract images: The images produced by compound microscopes are sometimes a bit abstract. You will see interesting patterns and shapes, but you might not be aware of their significance, unless you have a basic biological understanding. You might see regular circular structures with a dot in the middle, but might not be aware that you are seeing cells with their nucleus. You must therefore be prepared to read up a little.
  • Difficult to contribute to science: There are few possibilities for amateurs to contribute to increasing scientific knowledge. Amateur astronomers are able to make discoveries to which they can have their name attached. An advanced amateur astronomer who discovers a new comet, for example, will have the comet named after him/her. These possibilities do not exist in the field of microscopy because there are no quick ways in which to confirm a new discovery. You must already be a very good expert to be able to have reached that point. While there are certainly many things to discover in nature (most species have not been discovered yet), microscopy alone is rarely enough to justify the description of a new species. Genetic studies must also be done and the biological knowledge required, equipment and literature access is beyond the reach of many amateurs.
  • Non-competitive: The quest for new discoveries also has a competitive nature, which is almost missing entirely in amateur microscopy, but which might be an important motivating factor for some people.
There are many possibilities in trying to improve the microscope. Here is a selection of home-made filters.
There are many possibilities in trying to improve the microscope. Here is a selection of home-made filters.