I am a computer science student, focusing on machine learning applications. I have been always interested in biology but I lack any training in it. Now, I had an idea that I could introduce myself to biology more by buying a microscope, and doing some small (still serious, if possible) experiments.

Now, the problem one I am facing is what kind of microscope should I get? Preferred answer would outline what kind of research is possible to do with such and such microscope, and what is the typical price range for the system.

If there are any safety (e.g. does any of the UV leak from fluorescence microscopes?) or ethical concerns I would like to hear about them too. Thanks!

  • $\begingroup$ Initially I can invest about max. 1000€ ($1300) but if it need be, I can keep saving more. $\endgroup$ – bio Jul 27 '14 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ There is a similar question, which I have provided an answer for (biology.stackexchange.com/questions/5470/…) $\endgroup$ – Bez Jul 27 '14 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ Put it this way: if I come to you and ask "I am a biologist wanting to learn about ML. Should I learn about linear regression or about classification trees?". Surely you would reply "depends on what you want to do in the end". This is exactly the same situation :) $\endgroup$ – nico Jul 27 '14 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ :) I see. Could you answer my comment in the answer below, where I outlined some possible materials for study (food, blood, plants, wine)? $\endgroup$ – bio Jul 27 '14 at 11:14

This really depends on the application you have in mind. As with other precision instruments there is a huge range of qualities and applications. If you just want brigth field illumination and look at relatively big things ( approx 100 microns) then you could find something decent for the price you mention if you buy used. But if you want more complex imaging techniques like confocal microscopy or fluorescence microscopy to image smaler strutures and cell imaging then your budget is probably not enough. There you probably won't get a decent microscope for less than 2500 Euro. I think you should figure out what you want to do with your instrument not just buy one and then get started.

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    $\begingroup$ Ok, I see. Thank you for the good advice! What kind of microscope I should I get if I wanted to study for example a) plants, b) blood, c) liquids such as wine, d) food? $\endgroup$ – bio Jul 27 '14 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ A simple bright field microscope should be enough. Best look for one with Köhler illumination and x10, x20, x40 and if possible x100 objectives. $\endgroup$ – JereB Jul 27 '14 at 11:14

I agree with @Jeremias Brand's answer.

Pretty much you will have to forget about fluorescence microscopy... you can probably find some dusty old one on eBay in your price range, but it probably won't be any good.

However, the good news is that seen that in your comment you mention

a) plants, b) blood, c) liquids such as wine, d) food?

transmitted light (white light) would be perfect for a start.

eBay is surely a good place for finding used objectives at a cheap price. You may end up with a good collection of objectives for less than 100€. That is surely tempting, and it may actually be OK as a start.
However, I personally think that it is better to own a good lower magnification objective than a cheap high-magnification one, so be always be a bit wary about offers that look too good to be true (especially for new piece of equipment).

I would strongly suggest getting a binocular microscope (so with two eyepieces), rather than a monocular one. Makes life much easier. Also, be sure to have a camera attachment. While a camera may not be strictly necessary, especially at the beginning, it's better to have an attachment so that you can add one in the future, if you feel the need of taking pictures. Although many microscopes have specialized attachments for microscope cameras, you can get away with using your own normal camera, or even your cellphone, if you position it correctly (may need some DIY depending on the situation). This page has very detailed explanations on how to connect a camera to a microscope.

As for your samples, plants are a very good and easy thing to start observing. Onions are probably one of the best samples to start with.

You may also want to stain your samples. Probably the easiest thing to get is methylene blue, which should be a few euros for 20-30 ml. However, fountain pen ink works as well.

Whenever you use chemicals, remember to look for their safety data sheet (MSDS). Methylene blue is pretty safe to work with, provided you don't swallow it (doh...) and use gloves (standard latex gloves are OK). Be careful because it stains and can be a bit messy, which is true for pen ink as well!

Crystals are also pretty cool to watch under a microscope: take a coverslip, put on a drop of sugary or salty water and wait for it to dry!


With all respect I think the accepted answer underestimates the quality of current inexpensive instruments. What I have found comparing images on my recently acquired $400 scope to those produced by top-end Nikons is that it produces images which are aesthetically less appealing but nearly identical in detail.

Mostly I have used it for fungi, which are well-suited for optical magnifications. To get the full benefit you need a PC to run the imaging software, so that expense must be factored in. Here is I think a pretty clear image of Aspergillus (tape mount) showing concave spores.

enter image description here

When I hit the Lotto I will get a $7000 scope but I am really amazed at what I can see with this very inexpensive scope (and there are several similar brands available).

Another example--here is a high-end google image of Trichophyton sp. showing the diagnostic macroconidium. Everything that is wrong and right with the inexpensive scope can be seen by comparing the photo below:

enter image description here

The color is a bit garish (the blue stain is intentional) and there is always a background color as opposed to a neutral field). But the detail is very good. I had borrowed a scope from a friend and did not hesitate to buy.

The claim that one is restricted to objects of about 100$ \mu$ is incorrect. I bought a decent calibrating slide and here is a snippet of an image showing Penicillium spores. The small divisions are 10 microns. I didn't bother to calibrate the slide but the order of magnification is amply supported by the sorts of structures I have seen.

enter image description here

Again, the clarity and aesthetic appeal of images captured with a $7000 scope cannot be achieved, nor can you do good phase-contrast or florescence. But the functionality is really pretty amazing.

Below is a group of very small Penicillium from potato dextrose agar. The spores are not much bigger than 1 micron in diameter. It's not a crisp image but conveys a good sense of what an intact structure looks like.

enter image description here

Amateurmicrography.net has some nice images that can give you an idea of what different scopes can do.

Edit: added an image 7/31/14.

  • $\begingroup$ I have mixed feeling about this. Sure, you can see stuff with a small microscope, but sometimes you want crisper images than those you posted (and maybe with less fringing). But I am probably spoiled by using expensive scopes :P $\endgroup$ – nico Jul 27 '14 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @nico: Yes indeed, I really get envious when I see a crisp image with minimal distortion. In time I will move up for just those reasons. The cheap scope is also good for getting experience spotting structure in a cluttered field and preparing slides, but ultimately there is no alternative to a good quality scope. $\endgroup$ – daniel Jul 27 '14 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ obviously there are many factors to consider. I wouldn't spend 2000 euros on a microscope if I just want to give it a try... better to start with a cheap one and see whether you like it, then move on if you really want to get serious. Unfortunately there are certain microscopes you just cannot afford to buy, but then get a job in an imaging lab if you want to play with those toys! It's lots of fun! $\endgroup$ – nico Jul 27 '14 at 16:19

Very popular microscopes for bio work these days are the inverted style, These allow you to view samples without preparing slides.



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    $\begingroup$ If you have to prepare samples or not depends on what you want to see. Can you work out your answer a bit more? Actually it is more or less two links. $\endgroup$ – Chris Jul 28 '14 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Although what you say is correct, remember that mounting, especially if using specific microscopy mounting media increases the quality of the image. See for instance: microbehunter.com/… $\endgroup$ – nico Jul 28 '14 at 15:29

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