I Don’t Know Exactly Which Microscope You Should Buy

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

But I still have a lot to say about microscopes

I teach Outschool classes and clubs on Microscopy, so I get asked about kids and ‘scopes all the time. Please note, I don’t recommend a particular microscope at this time, but I link to plenty of Amazon products for examples. If you make a purchase from these links, I get a small affiliate payment, at no extra cost to you.

So, the first question I get is,

Is a microscope appropriate for my child, age X?

Honestly, you know your child better than I do, but I regularly work with kids as young as 5 who happily dedicate a full hour to online microscope time. I got my first microscope when I was around 6. It’s a great introduction to “doing science,” asking and answering questions, and recording data. (Yes, even your 5 year old can draw what they see under the ‘scope. Sometimes the drawings are really quite impressive!)

Sometimes kids need help with the technical side of using a microscope. A parent should probably be present for the initial unboxing and set-up, but this doesn’t mean your kid can’t use a ‘scope – they just need a hand, for now. My parents and I had a deal – they’d carry the ‘scope to wherever I was working. Then, after I was done, they’d help me put the ‘scope away at the end of my session. They were generally around, if I needed help with something, whether cutting up a leaf or preparing a bug slide.

Some parts of microscopes can be dangerous – slides and lenses are usually glass, and a metal-body microscope (usually sturdier than plastic-bodied) can be heavy and unwieldy. In particular, I usually avoid using glass cover slips completely with young people. I find there are several work-arounds to avoid the tiny, thin scraps of glass. (Plastic cover slips exist, and it’s possible to use a second slide as a top cover glass.)

That said, a good microscope can be used for years, from an elementary learner exploring independently, to a medical student studying histology. I still have my childhood microscope – it is approximately 30 years old and still functioning, so if you buy the right microscope, it’ll be useful for decades!

Which microscope is the best?

Oh, boy – it depends. It definitely depends.

What are you trying to see? What are your preferences? How much would you prefer to spend?

An Intro to Microscope Types

Here’s an example of a basic microscope for a young person, or a newbie scientist of any sort. Here, we have a “classic” laboratory-style microscope, what a lot of people think of when they hear “microscope.”

Properly, this is a compound light microscope. Compound, because it’s got a lens up high in the eyepiece, and down low in the objective – two lenses, so the view is compounded. Light – it uses light waves to visualize the specimen. (This is in contrast to, say, electron microscopes, which are too big and expensive to consider for home use.)

Electron microscope- definition, principle, types, uses, images
An electron microscope. Definitely worth googling images taken by EM – you can visualize much small stuff than can a light microscope!

There’s a few quirks regarding compound light microscopes to be aware of: they require slides, either glass or plastic. They can generally magnify around 40-1000x, which means things can look 40 times bigger than they really are, or 1000 times bigger. Common microscopes have 3 or 4 objectives, and either one or two eye pieces, so there’s generally 5 or 6 levels of magnification one can choose from.

Since the light shines from below the specimen, the specimen needs to be thin and flat – either cut or squished, usually, so that light can shine through. Something like a finger is too thick to view with a compound light microscope.

Now, say you do want to view your finger…

You’d want a stereo microscope, like this:

The lighting, importantly, comes from above, and the overall magnification isn’t as strong. These ‘scopes are also known as dissecting ‘scopes, because they are perfect for viewing something that you’re actively working with, moving, dissecting, and so forth.

Here’s an example image of a compound light microscope – a standard lab ‘scope. This is onion skin.
And here’s some rotten cat teeth, more like what you’d see with a stereo “dissecting” microscope. Thanks to Puig for the teeth.

Dissecting microscopes generally have two eyepieces side by side, for binocular vision. This means specimens appear three-dimensional. Slides aren’t needed for dissecting ‘scopes, but do be cautious that you don’t get the ‘scope dirty. The cat teeth, above, are simply sitting on the base of the ‘scope, which simultaneously serves as the stage.

Digital Microscopes

Of course, there are digital options.


I have a ‘scope like this second option, and while it’s great that I can connect it to the computer, it’s just not as powerful as a compound microscope. It’s actually taken me awhile to learn to appreciate this ‘scope: if I want to hold a ‘scope up to the cat’s whiskers while she’s napping, this is the ‘scope for the job.

The sharing is pretty great – I can hook the camera up to Zoom to share it with the world, or take screen shots. Then again, there are compound light microscopes that have a camera attachment. The lines do start to blur between digital and analogue microscopes.

My Dream ‘Scope

Someday, when I’ve saved up enough, I’m definitely going to get a ‘scope like this one. It’s as powerful as my old compound light microscope, but it can connect to a computer.


2 responses to “I Don’t Know Exactly Which Microscope You Should Buy”

    • Something tells me Leon will be needing a home microscope before you… but you might enjoy some of the photos I take with my digital microscope!