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)

Compound microscopes have different objectives that allow you to change magnification. Some compound microscopes only have one tube to look through (monocular, they are common in introductory microscopes) and some allow you to use both eyes (binocular). do not confuse binocular compound microscopes with stereo microscopes, because both allow you to use both eyes. You do not get a stereoscopic (3D) image with a binocular compound microscope.
More information about the differences between compound and stereo microscopes can be found here:

Microscope Type Overview

I have classified microscope into four different categories: Toy, Introductory, Mid-range and High-end. I have made this classification based on common features that the microscopes have. The following table gives an overview of the main features of different microscope categories. It is important to note that individual microscopes can deviate from the table, but generally it can serve as a guideline to categorize the microscopes that you find in different shops.

  • Eyepieces: Monocular microscopes have only one eyepiece, binocular microscopes have two. When sitting for a long time behind the microscope, binocular microscopes allow for a much more relaxed observation.
  • Maximum magnification: Regardless of what the advertisements and specifications say, the maximum useful magnification is determined by the magnification of the objectives. Toy and introductory microscopes have a highest magnifying objective of 40x (producing 400x total magnification with a 10x eyepiece). While it is possible to get a total magnification of 1000x when using the 25x eyepiece, the image is blurry and one would not see more details. Any magnification which is higher than 10x the objective magnification is called “empty magnification” and not useful. 1000x total magnification is the physical limit. Companies will often include a cheap 25x eyepiece so that they can advertise microscopes with the unrealistically high magnifications for marketing purposes (eg. 100x objective and 25x eyepiece to produce 2500x). High-end microscope companies never do that, however, and will only specify the numerical aperture of the objectives, which is a measure for resolution.
  • Focus knobs: Two focus knobs (a coarse and fine focus) are standard among compound microscopes. The coarse focus raises and lowers the stage quickly, the fine focus knob allows you to focus at different parts within the specimen.
  • Mechanical stage: A mechanical stage allows you to move the specimen slide by turning two knobs. This gives much more control. A small movement of the slide already results in a large movement when looking through the microscope. Stage clips are found on lower cost microscopes.
  • Full size objectives: These have the number 160 or an infinity sign written on it and they provide good image quality. These days introductory microscopes also have better optics even though they do not have the 160 standard.
  • Condenser: This is found beneath the stage and is important for controlling contrast and depth of field. It is especially important for the higher magnifications.
  • Köhler: Found on the better microscopes and important for reducing stray light and glare. Important for doing photographic work.

This video explains the different parts of the microscope.

Toy microscopes

These are small and come in colorful boxes with many (often unnecessary) accessories. These microscopes do not come with “proper” optics and the image quality is comparatively low. Often these microscopes are sold with unrealistically high magnifications. Instead of buying a toy microscope for a child, I recommend spending a bit more on an introductory microscope or a stereo microscope. I think that the difference in price justifies the improvement of image quality. I do also want to mention, that the quality of different toy microscopes also varies and that some of them might indeed produce useful results.

toy microscope
Toy microscopes are small and do not have full-sized objectives.
  • Characteristics: One focusing knob (and not one coarse and one fine focus), no condenser beneath the microscope stage, non-standard optics, many plastic parts (too light and small), stage clips (no mechanical stage), only battery operated, low-quality eyepiece, low cost, many accessories making children happy, easy access (can be bought in toy shops). Cost: significantly under USD 100.
  • Main disadvantages: Introductory microscopes do not cost much more than toy microscopes but provide a significantly better image quality, which is also more engaging for children.
  • Main advantage: low cost (USD/EUR 30), but I would spend more.

Videos on toy microscopes:

Introductory microscopes

These will allow you to observe most of the specimens that mid-range microscopes also allow you to see. For the price, the quality is surprisingly good, but there are some trade-offs that more advanced users would not like to miss out on. The trade-offs are a lower image quality and lower convenience in handling (small size and no mechanical stage) and only one single eyepiece. Due to the lower resolution, it is difficult if not impossible to see the more difficult specimens, such as live bacteria. The highest useful magnification of these microscopes is 400x, even if a higher magnification is advertised. Higher magnifications are achieved by exchanging the eyepiece which has been included for marketing purposes. These microscopes often come with a rotating disk beneath the stage, but they do not have a condenser. This disk is not able to replace a condenser and the disk is in my opinion quite useless. Due to the small eye-relief (low eye point), you have to take your glasses off and move the eyepiece close to your eye to see something.

Swift SS110
Introductory microscope and accessories. Left: dust cover and instructions. Center front: replacement LED and tool. Right: power adapter, 10x and 25x eyepiece. Set of prepared slides.
Swift SS110
Close up. Microscope model: Swift SS110 (National Optical SS110)
  • Characteristics: Monocular head (one eyepiece), no condenser, no full-size optics, eyepieces often of lower quality (smaller field of view and smaller eye-relief). Due to lack of a condenser it is not possible to do darkfield, Rheinberg and oblique illumination, which would produce visually impressive results, low cost entry into microscopy, portability of the microscope (due to battery operation), some have a power adapter (check product page).
  • Recommendation: Buy introductory microscopes if you want to have a low-cost microscope, either for yourself or for children. These microscopes might also be useful if you need a microscope for home-schooling, where microscopy is not in the central focus. Buy these microscopes also if you want to satisfy a first curiosity about microscopy and if you want to find out if microscopy as a hobby is something for you. If you are serious about amateur microscopy, then I would recommend a mid-range microscope or higher. Cost: USD 100-150
  • Main disadvantages: Lower image quality (low contrast and resolution) of the high power 40x objective. This is also due to the lack of a condenser. Not possible to experiment with darkfield and oblique illumination due to the lack of a condenser and filter holder. High magnification of 1000x can only be achieved by using a high-power eyepiece, which reduces the image quality. Only one eyepiece makes long-term observation more tiring.
  • Main advantage: Low cost to give interested people a taste of what amateur microscopy is about. Many amateur microscopists are perfectly happy with these microscopes.

Videos on introductory microscopes_

Mid-range microscopes

These microscopes are ideal microscopes to start amateur microscopy and they will keep you active for many years. Mid-range microscopes are generally manufactured in China (this is not a quality criterion), rebranded and imported. There seem to be many brands but even if these microscope might look different from each other at first sight, a closer inspection will reveal that many of them have the same objectives and eyepieces and other similar parts. This is because the parts are made by a central company and then sold to the different brands. Because these microscopes use the 160mm DIN standard, it is possible to exchange the objectives.

  • Characteristics: Affordable price, standard achromatic objectives (160mm standard), limited upgradability, often binocular, mechanical stage.
  • Main disadvantages: In comparison to high-end microscopes, these microscopes are not quite as modular. There are not so many options to upgrade the microscope, becasue the companies sell these ready assembled. More advanced techniques (such as phase contrast or DIC) are not offered and you need to resort to high-end research microscopes.
  • Main advantage: Generally good price/performance. This is all that most amateur microscopists will ever need.

Videos on mid-range microscopes

Microscope Recommendation (Amazon Affiliate Links)

  • Swift SW380T: This is a very solid microscope at a reasonable price. It is the trinocular version (phototube), which allows you to connect a heavier camera. The Swift SW380B is the binocular version, but becasue the difference in price is not that much, I recommend the one with the phototube.
  • Swift SW350T: This is the smaller brother of the SW380T. It is a bit cheaper becasue of two things: the optics are not quite as good (but still good) and the focusing system is not quite as precise. It is also a bit smaller. The Swift SW350B is the binocular version.

High-end Microscopes

The target group for these microscopes is the medical and research market and advanced amateur microscopists. These are microscopes manufactured by the big four companies Olympus, Nikon, Leica, Zeiss. These microscopes are highly modular, have a high resale value and the companies offer support. Several microscopic techniques (such as DIC) are only available from these companies. These companies also offer high-quality objectives, such as plan-objectives, apochromatic, fluorite objectives etc. If you want to buy high-end microscopes, then first look at the website of the company and then contact a sales person, who will then provide an individual offer.
Characteristics: Very high quality, high resale value, choice of many specialized objectives, support and maintenance offered by (authorized) companies, high modularity with much configuration, high cost.

  • Recommendation: I would only buy them after having gained some experience with mid-range microscopes. These high-end microscopes are significantly more expensive and therefore the choice of a particular model or brand should be well thought through. The initial cost of a mid-range microscope is negligible in comparison and it is better to learn the basics on a mid-range microscope first, before one invests considerably more on a high-end device. New high-end microscopes start at about USD 1200, but they will not offer additional features that better mid-range microscopes do not offer. Depending on configuration, the price can approach USD 30000 (thirty thousand) for a microscope with DIC and fluorite objectives. There are some companies (eg. Euromex) that also offers more advanced techniques at lower prices. If you want to have a microscope for life (and also one that your children will use) and one with resale value, then go for these. To give you an example: the Olympus CX23 microscope is very popular (cost about USD 1200). Here is a link to the product page so that you can see how they look like.
  • Main disadvantage: High cost. Sometimes very high cost. If you can afford these, then I would still buy these, because they are really good. Some say that the cost is not high due to the quality that you get.
  • Main advantage: high (resale) value, upgradability, best solution for photography (they have their own quality camera adapters for best results), company support.

Used microscopes

Used brand microscopes can be an extremely good deal. If taken care of well, microscopes do not age. Many of them are not made any more but still popular among hobbyists. The second hand market still has many accessories available.

  • Recommendation: Buy used microscopes if you are already more experienced or if you buy them from a shop which has serviced them. Due to the modularity of brand microscopes (used or new), it is possible that you get a microscope with accessories attached that might not be relevant for you, but which might also drive up the price. Likewise it is possible that you get a microscope with a much higher value because the seller does not know the market value of some of the attached accessories (or simply wanted to get rid of the microscope). If you put a microscope together yourself, then it might take much more time until you have all of the parts, and it might also cost much more than an new mid-range microscope. But at the same time you also learn much more…. Used mid-range microscopes I would avoid unless they are really offered much cheaper.
  • Main disadvantages: Experience needed in evaluating the specifications, time needed until you have all the parts together (if you self-assemble), servicing might be needed.

Which brand?

With the exception the large traditional microscope manufacturers, the brand says very little about the quality of the microscope. Much depends on the individual microscope model. Some brands sell microscopes ranging from educational microscopes all the way up to scopes that could be used in research. There are countless importers that sell microscopes using their own brand and in different countries different brands are more popular. Olympus, Zeiss, Nikon, Leica are old and established brands that target the research market.

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