I often receive emails with the question on which brand of microscope I recommend. This question cannot be easily answered. I am inclined to say that microscopes from the “Big Four” manufacturers Olympus, Zeiss, Leica and Nikon are probably of highest quality, but this does not mean that I automatically recommend microscopes from these brands (also because of the generally high cost). You see, quality is a relative thing and depends much on the individual expectations and individual satisfaction with a particular microscope. It is about matching the expectations and needs of the microscopist with the microscope. And often this is independent of a particular brand and depends more on the individual microscope and personal preferences.
The Big Four: Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Zeiss
There are 4 big name microscope manufacturers around (alphabetical order): Leica, Nikon, Olympus and Zeiss. They produce microscopes of high quality and, of course, the cost is much higher. You can often find these microscopes in research, university, forensics etc. These companies have also a network of maintenance and repair. The microscopes are very modular and if one part should break (which is unlikely) or if you need to upgrade the microscope (which is more likely), then all you have to do is contact the sales representative, and they will send you what you need. There is also a decent second-hand market and it is not unusual for people to put together their own microscope from spare parts that they scavenged on Ebay.
High quality and support: Among these microscope manufacturers, the quality difference is small. Much is a question of personal preference and taste. If you choose to buy from these manufacturers, then you can expect outstanding mechanical and optical qualities, good support, many accessories, comparably high resale values, and a comparatively large second-hand market. Accessories are readily available and there is a wide range of specialized objectives to choose from (should you even need them).
Target group: These companies primarily target the research market, but some lower-end models are also for routine laboratory, for doctor’s offices and – yes – even amateur microscopists and for education.
Modularity: In contrast to many other brands, these “big four” all produce infinity corrected optics these days, so their parts are not compatible with each other. If you are interested in upgrading your microscope to different techniques, such as phase contrast, then you will find it much easier with microscopes of these companies. The reason is that their microscopes are much more modular and spare parts are also more readily available also on the second hand market.
Buying microscopes: When buying a microscope from these brands, then you will have to contact the company directly to get an offer or you can try to find a second hand dealer who specializes on these microscopes. The company will ask you what objectives, eyepieces etc. you would like to have. They will then put the microscope together based on your own needs. It is possible that they will not send you a readily assembled microscope, but all of the parts separately. It is then up to you to put the microscope together. If you are interested in these microscopes, then I recommend that you visit the company’s website to download some pamphlets of the microscopes that they offer. You will then be able to see a list of all of the components that can be attached to the microscope. These components are proprietary. This means that it is not possible to interchange the parts between the manufacturers.
Why they are so expensive: Microscopes from these top brands are significantly more expensive, and this is not only due to their rigorous quality control. The microscopes are designed with modularity in mind and this means that they put quite a bit of engineering effort into the microscope. The companies also maintain a service network, which costs money.
When to buy from these brands: Due to the high cost of these microscopes, I generally do not advise newbies to buy microscopes from these top brands as their first microscope, even if you have the money available. I think that you are better off first gaining some experience in microscopy so that you are then able to do a more founded decision. Buy these microscopes if you are interested in microscopy techniques that are otherwise not easily available in lower-cost microscopes, such as phase contrast or DIC. If you intend to work mostly with brightfield and darkfield, then I think microscopes that cost between EUR/USD 300 and 600 will be just fine, as you will be able to see the same things. Later on you can always get something different, but unless you change microscopic technique, you will not be able to see more.
- Advantages: Quality, Modularity, Upgradability, Service
- Disadvantages: High cost
There are countless other microscope brands around. Some of them market their microscopes primarily over Amazon, while others have their own online shops (and might therefore not be as visible to the consumer). When having a closer look at the product pictures, one can see that the eyepieces and objectives are often very similar among many of these models. I was also able to find the same optics in the Chinese online shop Aliexpress. Many of these microscopes are made either in China or at least their parts and are then imported and branded. There are a handful of Chinese manufacturers, who make the microscopes for the different brands and based on different quality specifications. The fact that they are made in China says nothing about their quality. Some of these microscopes are of excellent quality. I mention this because the term “China microscope” has become synonymous with a low quality microscope, which is not (always) the case. It is the responsibility of the importing company to make sure that they have a minimum quality.
Target group: Many of the microscopes from these companies are for children, amateurs and also even for professional use, such as routine laboratory use.
Different brands: The following list of microscope brands is by no means complete. Not all companies sell their microscopes on Amazon or an online shop but they might require you to contact them personally for a quote. Different brands are more common in some countries than in others. I suggest that you first visit the website of the different companies to get an overview of what they offer. Some of these companies also have quite advanced microscopes in their portfolio, targeting the industry/research market, while others also focus on the introductory or educational market. Also check if the company has a seat in your country (import tax issue).
- Because the range of microscopes offered varies so widely, it is not possible to give a general answer here. But generally lower costs should be mentioned.
- Upgradability might be limited (very microscope model and brand dependent).
- Spare parts sometimes not available separately (strongly depends on specific microscope model and brand, however)
Other good brands
In recent years, more brands have been moving into the high-end market as well. These companies are offering also excellent quality but at a lower price than the traditional “big four”. Why spend more money, if a cheaper microscope also gets the job done? These companies are also offering phase contrast, fluorescent microscopes and DIC but at a lower price. These microscopic techniques might not be relevant for beginning microscopists, however. We will see how the trend is in the future and if smaller companies are able to take a way some market share of the established companies.
The law of diminishing returns
The Law of Diminishing Returns (80/20 rule) states that for about 20% of the cost you can see 80% of what is possible. In plain English: the cost of a microscope rises rapidly the more features or quality you want to have. A small improvement can already drive up the price considerably. A microscope that costs 10x more does not allow you to see 10x as much. Some features can be considered so important, however, that one is willing to pay significantly more for them. This is the reason why one should know exactly what one needs (or wants) before making a significant investment into an expensive microscope. Beginning amateur microscopists often do not know what they want, because they of course do not know yet into what direction the hobby will take them. For this reason I recommend not to spend too much at the beginning.
What should beginners buy?
If you are completely new to microscopy and if you are curious but do not want to spend EUR/$ 300-400 on a microscope, then I recommend that you spend about EUR 100-120 on an introductory (not toy) microscope to get your first curiosity satisfied. These microscopes will allow you to see almost all of the things that many amateur microscopists like to observe, even if the image quality and convenience is a bit lower. These microscopes can also be used for home schooling and for children and many hobbyists do serious amateur microscopy work with them (they also make good travelling microscopes). As a matter of fact, many important discoveries in Biology were made in the past with much more basic microscopes. This microscope will also allow you to do sample preparation and will keep you busy and learning. When you outgrow the microscope after a few months, you will be better prepared to make a better decision on what better microscope to buy.