The World's Best Microscope

Text and photography copyright Thomas Webster 2003. All rights reserved.


I recently purchased a different trinocular head for my venerable old Nikon microscope. In the process of setting up the head I found a number of issues that I could not seem to get resolved. In frustration, I caught myself thinking, "Boy, if only I had a Zeiss (or Leitz, or Wild, or Olympus...) I wouldn't be having these problems!" Now, mind you, I am an amateur microscopist of very limited financial means. All of the 'scopes I caught myself daydreaming about are way beyond my financial means at this time. I live for the day that I can merely stand in the same room with a Zeiss Universal with all plan-apochromatic objective lenses! LOL But this got me to thinking about the "world's best" microscope and I came to a fundamental reckoning...

The "World's Best Microscope" is the one you can afford to buy and will use regularly. Now, to some of you this may be an obvious conclusion. I dare say, to many of you this may well be Greek! I know a few amateur microscopists personally, met a few more over the Internet, and I belong to an online microscopy group. A topic of discussion that repeatedly comes up is, "What is the best microscope?" So many times I hear people shoot themselves in the foot by saying "I can't do this (whatever "this" may be!) or "I can't possibly do that (whatever "that" may be!) because my 'scope's not good enough" or "My 'scope won't support that". All too often, the microscope goes ignored. You would also be surprised at the people I know who own very fine microscopes and don't use them because the 'scopes are too complicated for them.

Be realistic about your needs, expectations, and financial capabilities. Microscopy can be an expensive hobby but it doesn't have to be. Be realistic about what you can afford to spend versus what type of microscopy you would like to perform. Simple brightfield work can be accomplished at very reasonable costs. Phase contrast microscopy is going to cost you more. Before laying out your hard-earned cash for a microscope decide how far you want to take your new interest. If your interests run to simple microscopy don't spend more on a complicated instrument that may just languish in the closet. A microscope not used is far more expensive, at any cost, than a microscope that is being regularly used. Conversely, if your interests run towards some of the more complicated lighting techniques, don't saddle yourself with a microscope that cannot be upgraded or easily replaced with a more advanced model. Do your homework before you make your purchase.

You have to learn to walk before you can run. A basic premise but one that is so often ignored. Having a microscope with all of the "bells and whistles" is next to useless if you don't know how to use them. I know many who have become frustrated because they can't obtain the same results as they see others obtain. Where was their failing? They never took the time to learn the basics of setting up a microscope. One friend of mine bought a very nice phase contrast setup when we were in college. 30 years later I asked him whatever happened to his microscope. My friend had sold it years ago and gave up on microscopy because he could never see anything through it. After a little more discussion I decided that he never took the time to learn how to set up the 'scope correctly. Rather than learning the basics with a basic instrument he tried to start out with a more difficult technique using a more complicated instrument. No wonder he got discouraged! Take baby steps.

Don't buy less than you need. Okay. Finances are tight but you really, really want to perform phase contrast microscopy. It really is false economics to purchase an instrument that is not capable of your ultimate desires. You have two choices, as I see it. One, purchase a basic instrument that can be upgraded. Two, if "one" is financially out of the question, set your sights a little lower. Don't ignore the availability of many fine microscopes from the late 1950s through 1970s. Many of these microscopes may be purchased at a fraction of the cost of a new microscope and are perfectly serviceable. It is often more advantageous to purchase an older microscope that you can afford to upgrade later than a new microscope that demands all of your financial resources at the time of purchase. Buying a new instrument that you can't afford to upgrade later will only result in an instrument that languishes in the closet. If you are truly limited by finances, don't give up. As stated before, there is so much that can be accomplished in one's lifetime using a basic instrument.

Concentrate on what you can do with your current microscope, not on what you can't do with it. I am one of those types that when I decide to take on a new hobby or interest I have the tendency to want to "do it all and do it right!" LOL Boy, is this a tough part of my personality to change. I can get discouraged fairly quickly if I have an interest in a particular technique that my microscope may not support. I have learned (and it was a hard lesson to learn) not to be discouraged. I have learned to content myself with exploring all of the things I can do with my present setup and look forward to a day that I might be able to equip myself for other techniques. I have hardly begun exploring all there is to do and learn with a simple brightfield microscope. Simply changing slide preparation methods can lend a different look to brightfield images without having to resort to different lighting techniques that may, or may not, be supported by your current setup. Exhaust the possibilities with your current scope first.


Beware the "Chinese" scopes! Never before has there been such an attractive offering of new microscopes promising "state of the art" optics. If you frequent eBay much you have, no doubt, seen new microscopes at very reasonable prices. Most of these instruments are made in China, with some being made in India. Keep in mind that under the skin these microscopes may be prettied-up designs from the the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly, the optical formulas for the lenses are quite old. This in itself is not really bad, there were many fine optical formulas from those years. The problem lies in poor quality control during manufacturing.

One buyer may be lucky and get a fine 'scope. The next buyer may end up with a poor scope. All too often, spare parts and accessories are nonexistent for these instruments. Your money is better spent on an older "name" 'scope with parts and accessories available on eBay than on an instrument you cannot upgrade. One exception to this is the recent availability of microscopes from the Russian manufacturer, LOMO. LOMO appears to have reduced the problem of inconsistent manufacturing quality. The LOMO line of microscopes offer very nice instruments for the money and accessories are readily available.

Be resourceful! Okay. Maybe your current microscope won't support phase contrast or the upgrade package may cost a couple of year's earnings. Is it time to give up? Not hardly! There are other image enhancing techniques that are nearly as impressive as phase contrast and don't require a large outlay of money. Darkfield microscopy is very effective at showing fine structures not seen in brightfield. Simple darkfield stops can be constructed from black construction paper. Rheinburg illumination is very impressive and is accomplished using circles cut from transparent colored cellophanes. Don't let the loss of one capability limit your interests. Articles on affordable homemade upgrades may be found on the Micscape Magazine website.

Be inventive. I love to shoot images of pond "micro-critters". I discovered early on that the illumination system on my microscope couldn't produce enough light to use shutter speeds fast enough to stop their constant motion. Did I give up? Not hardly. After finding that I could not obtain a brighter illumination system for my 'scope I put my limited gray matter towards devising an adapter to use an electronic flash as a light source. Hey, it even works! LOL Simply put, what you can't buy, make it!

Practice, practice, practice! You can't get good with a microscope or know what steps you need to take next if you don't practice, practice, practice! The finest instrument in the world won't serve you well if you don't practice proper microscopy techniques. A toy Tasco microscope in a closet is no worse than a fine instrument not being used frequently enough to reinforce basic skills. We are not born with an innate knowledge on how to use a microscope. We have to develop that skill through repeated use and practice. For all intents and purposes, the best microscope in the world is the one you will use!

So how did the installation of the new trinocular head end up? It didn't. It turned out that the issues were not with my microscope but were with the head itself. In the meantime I learned how to align the objectives with the diaphragm in the sub-stage condenser, a feat I thought was impossible before. Now, wouldn't you know, this opens a whole new world of exploration I didn't think I would be able to perform before I centered the objective lenses. I have the best microscope in the world!

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