Buying a microscope for home use

Overwhelmed by all the different microscope types, makes and models? Not to worry.

Shopping for a microscope doesn’t have to be a daunting experience. This guide will help you narrow the field with a few quick questions. 

What do you want to look at?

The first step to finding the best microscope for you is to consider what you’re going to be looking at. This is important because there are two main kinds of home microscope – stereo and compound.

Stereo microscopes

If you want to look at larger 3D specimens such as plants, rocks, insects or circuit boards then go for a stereo microscope.

Stereo microscopes have lower magnifications (from 5x to 50x) but they provide depth perception and allow you to hold your specimens while you inspect them.

They can come with single magnification, two pre-set magnifications or a continuous zoom that lets you adjust your magnification within a set range.

Compound microscopes

If you’re interested in truly microscopic specimens such as microorganisms, cells, pond water and blood, then you’ll want a compound microscope.

These microscopes combine an eyepiece lens with an objective lens to give you much higher magnification (from 40x to 1000x).

Who are you buying it for?

Consider who will be using your microscope. Just you? You and the kids? Or friends as well? 

Binocular v monocular

You’re probably familiar with microscopes that have two eyepieces – a separate eyepiece for each eye (the ‘bi’ in binocular). But you should know that while they may be best for you as an adult, they can be difficult for young children to use.

The distance between their eyes if often not big enough to comfortably use two eyepieces. So, for young children, a single eyepiece (monocular) is the better option.

Digital microscopes

If you want to share images with friends or family who have the same interests, or if you just prefer to look at a screen instead of an eyepiece, then consider a digital microscope.

Dino-Lite AM2111 Digital Microscope

‘Digital microscope’ is a blanket term for any microscope that gives you the option of sending your images to a screen instead of looking down an eyepiece. They are great for sharing or teaching – you can show an image to everyone at once on a big screen or monitor.

While you can get fully integrated digital microscopes, you can just as easily add a cheap microscope camera to an existing microscope and slot it onto the eyepiece. They’re simple to set up and use – and you can even take video.

Pocket microscopes – miniature but powerful

If you or your family spend a lot of time outdoors, you might be interested in a branch of microscopes known as ‘pocket microscopes’.

These are small, portable handheld microscopes for use in any environment – they’re easy to use, have decent magnification, and you can carry them anywhere.

Durable and portable enough to take straight to the source, these are great for children or families, particularly if you travel a lot.

High eyepoints (for glasses wearers)

If anyone in your home wears glasses, look into high eyepoint eyepieces for your microscope. They’ll be able to look down the eyepiece with their glasses on, avoiding adjustments every time someone else uses the device.

Do you want to take photos or video?

The strange and beautiful things found under a microscope give you a glimpse into an entirely new world, and many people love having the option of recording and documenting what they see.

If you’d like to take pictures or video, you have a whole range of options to cater to any budget or level of interest.

Camera options

For casual purposes or if you’re new to microscopy, you can simply use your smartphone camera or a very cheap USB microscope camera.

For a more advanced option, choose a better-quality USB microscope camera or HDMI microscope camera with higher frame rates and resolutions.

For the enthusiast (or if you have a big budget), look for a very high-quality HD microscope camera. Alternatively, attach a DSLR camera to your microscope.

And if you want to capture and record a lot of footage, look into purchasing a trinocular microscope (a necessity for DSLRs).

Trinocular microscopes

The extra eyepiece on a trinocular microscope is designed specifically for attaching a camera to your microscope.

Trinocular microscopes are more expensive, but you’ll be able to take photos without having to fiddle around with a smartphone or bother with switching out an eyepiece for a camera whenever you want a picture.

A trinocular microscope is mandatory if you use a DSLR camera, which takes much higher quality pictures than standard cameras but is much heavier. Unlike lighter cameras, the weight of a DSLR camera can destabilise or damage microscopes if you try to attach it to an ordinary eyepiece.

Things to avoid

Excessive magnification

It may seem silly to say, but too much magnification is not a good thing.

For compound microscopes, be wary of any model claiming to have magnification above 1000x – there are physical limits to standard microscopes that prevent any additional detail from being seen beyond that point.

The extra magnification (usually achieved by attaching 20x eyepiece lenses instead of the standard 10x) doesn’t have the resolution needed to see more detail. It just results in a degraded image, similar to when you zoom in too far on a screen and see only blurry pixels.

Ultra-cheap microscopes

There’s nothing wrong with a cheap microscope, but unless you’re looking for a toy for a very young child, try to avoid the very cheapest models.

These often use plastic lenses instead of glass and have very poor build quality. You’ll end up with blurry images and a microscope that breaks at the drop of a hat.

We hope these questions and answers help you find the right microscope for your home use.

Previous article Which microscope objective should I start with?