How to capture images with your microscope camera
Using a microscope you’ll often see objects so fantastically intriguing that you’ll want to take a photo or video to show your colleagues and friends – or the whole world!
While capturing the image can be as straightforward as taking a photo down the eyepiece with your smartphone, there are other options.
These are the 3 main ways to take that perfect photo for your needs and budget:
- Microscope camera
- DSLR camera
Using your smartphone is the cheapest option. Simply take a photo down the eyepiece of your microscope using your phone camera.
It can be finicky to get just the right distance and just the right angle but it’s not impossible. If you’re having trouble, a mobile phone adapter can help. An adapter attaches to the eyepiece to provide a stable platform for your photography.
However, attaching and detaching the adapter every time you want to take a picture can be a pain. To get around this, attach the adapter to an extra eyepiece, and then swap the eyepiece in whenever you need to take a picture.
There are two other drawbacks to using your phone. First, your pictures will have a significant black border and, second, the outer edges will probably be blurry (unless you have fancy and expensive plan lenses that correct for lens curvature). These can be cropped out or digitally altered, of course, but it is an extra step you might not want to deal with.
Naturally, you’ll also be limited by the quality of your phone camera.
Overall, phone cameras are viable and cheap, but really only good for casual purposes.
Let’s turn now to the microscope camera. This is a specialised camera that can either sits on your microscope eyepiece or attaches to a camera port (if you have a trinocular microscope head) and sends the image to your computer.
They’re popular, cheap enough and are easy to use. Attach the camera to the microscope, plug it into a computer, and the accompanying software should let you adjust the image to your liking – as well as let you take photos or video.
USB Digital Microscope Camera
The main caveat is that you’ll need a computer or a tablet, but you’ll also get to see the images on a much bigger screen.
There are several varieties of microscope cameras, with their own pros and cons.
As the name suggests, this variety plugs into a USB port. They offer reasonable quality, price and convenience but sometimes don’t have a high enough frame-rate to capture good images of live specimens. Typically used by hobbyists and educators or for routine analysis.
HD and 4K camera
These use HDMI cables to provide high-quality images and fast frame-rates. They have two drawbacks. One, they often require manual activation for each picture, and two, they usually save the images onto an SD card (short for ‘secure digital’ card) rather than directly onto your computer. This adds the extra step of having to plug the SD card into the computer afterwards. Typically used in pathology, academic work and wherever fast frame-rates and high-quality live images are required.
These can be a good option if space is limited. It uses a tablet instead of a computer. The tablet attaches to your microscope’s camera port (if you have one), giving you a much larger image right in front of you. The quality and frame-rate of the images will largely depend on the quality of your tablet. Typically used in educational settings to let multiple people see a sample at once.
You can attach a wi-fi camera to your microscope, creating a wi-fi signal that allows multiple people to remotely view your image on their computers, tablets or smartphones. A convenient and popular option in educational settings.
Overall, microscope cameras are a great option for almost any context, but they do require some form of computer to be nearby.
If you really need to get the best results, you can turn to the DSLR option. With a digital single-lens reflex camera you’re in the big league of microscope photography. Attaching a DSLR camera to your microscope will give you the highest quality images, but still with a few caveats.
This is the most expensive option (unless you already have access to one) and requires a microscope with a trinocular head because the camera is too heavy to be attached to normal eyepieces. You’ll also need an adapter to attach the DSLR to the camera port.
The convenience of the DLSR option will largely come down to the camera model and the quality of the adapter. Some DSLRs have a screen to let you see the image; others attach directly to computers to allow more convenient control.
It’s also important to know that some of the cheaper adapters are not parfocal, meaning they won’t stay in focus when magnification is changed. This makes focusing difficult in general, and trying to adjust for the difference can sometimes cause the lens to collide with the slide. Try to stick to a parfocal adapter if at all possible.
Expense and potential inconvenience aside, DSLRs produce top-quality images and video. Typically used for research and academic publication, as well as for photomicrography.