Light Microscopes – The Major Different Kinds

Microscopes are the cornerstone of bacterial and microbial analysis. Without them, we would never be able to study how microbial beings act or interact with the world, let alone see them at all.

Light Microscopes - The Major Different Kinds

While microscopes have been around for 400 years, the kind that can reliably be used to study or look at animals and objects too small to be observed by the human eye has only been around for 100 years.

In that 100 years, light microscopes have made incredible leaps forward in technological terms and used for a multitude of different applications.

Generally speaking, when we talk about light microscopes, there are four different kinds that we refer to.

These four kinds of microscope tend to define the field and, while there are others, these will be the four kinds of microscope that we mainly talk about in this article today.

Compound Microscopes

Compound microscopes are mostly used in the field of molecular biology and biotechnology.

These microscopes usually have dual lenses or two lenses and can work at low or high magnifications. They are simple to use and allow the researcher to better analyze the sample.

The compound light microscope can do this because it uses not only lenses but light to magnify the image or the object in front of them.

While most compound microscopes allow for a magnification of 10x to 15x their original view, you can produce a much greater range of magnification by adding and combining more lenses (up to three or four).

This can produce an extraordinary magnification of up to x1000 the original view.

These microscopes are great for studying bacteria, medicine structures, and plant matter as it allows the researcher to see fine structures as well as large ones in a contained setting.

It can also be used for studying images and videos and is equally at home in a lab or a school setting.

Stereo Microscopes

Stereo microscopes are used for optical image processing and image analysis. They are used for research and education in the fields of biology, physics, engineering and biomedical sciences for their fairly unique ability to view an image in three dimensions.

The way this is done is through the use of different optical pathways. When the optic paths are adjusted for this microscope, they are set at slightly different angles.

These optic pathways view the image differently and often when these two are combined they will overlay one another creating standard topography.

As such, this creates a three-dimensional image under the lens. These microscopes don’t offer a huge amount of magnification, normally the range at which they can magnify is between x10 to x200, but if more commonly below x100. 

They are used to study and analyze anything that could possibly need a three-dimensional image or needs to be looked at through a cross-section.

This can include optical images, microsurgery, circuit board inspection and manufacture, surface analysis, and many other things.

Digital Microscopes

Digital microscopes were a game changer when they first came into being in 1986.

They are great for the quality of images they produce and allow scientists to look at samples in great detail at microscopic levels for extended periods without the worry of a changing or degrading image.

They come in a range of specifications and magnification, and are limited only by their own lenses and the computer’s ability to process the images.

This is great for studying cells in a state free of all their surrounding matter and allows scientists to see things in great detail.

They can also be used to analyze samples or images of other microscopes, as a kind of computerized quality control. The best thing about digital microscopes is that they can be connected to a computer and monitor.

This allows for the image to be viewed more easily and the microscope to be more finely controlled in its viewing, with an input into a computer being far more accurate than the human hand.

Images and videos can then be recorded and saved to the computer’s memory, keeping the evidence of your research secure, and they can even be e-mailed easily to others.

Finally, the computer can also comfortably and unendingly record what is happening without the worry of interruption or fatigue, helping scientists immensely when they are conducting time-based experiments.

USB Computer Microscopes

USB Computer Microscopes

This is a microscope that you can connect to a computer and is great for viewing images and manipulating them.

It is not really suited to a scientific environment or expert research, but it is great for home use and for hobbyists who love to study the microbiomes of the world.

Like the digital microscope, it can be plugged into a computer and the monitor can be used to view and collect whatever the microscope is viewing at the time.

You can use it to create various types of diagrams and graphs, including 3D models, as well as look upon whatever catches your interest at the time.

The magnification of this kind of microscope is somewhat lacking, though. Many people would compare it to a compound light microscope, being that both of their magnifications can go up to x200.

However it is much rarer to find a USB microscope that can go anywhere near x100. Also, the depth of field of a USB microscope is much narrower than that of the compound microscope and is an indicator of its abilities.

Pocket Microscopes

The traveling scholar’s best friend, excluding a notepad and pen, of course. A pocket microscope may not be as impressively big as other microscopes, but its repertoire is surprisingly large.

These are usually small and compact microscopes that are great for use in the lab, outdoors, and at home, with their use in such a rugged environment meaning that they have to be durable and easily portable.

They are very cheap and easy to use, but they lack the quality of optical image that the compound microscopes provide. The magnification range is between x25 to x100, which is somewhat lacking compared to other microscopes.

However, considering the conditions that they are used in, this is a small price to pay, and they act far more as a validating device to determine whether something is worth dragging back to the lab for greater study is difficult terrain.

Electron Microscopes

Electron microscopes are probably among the most powerful microscopes in the modern world.

As its name would suggest, an electron microscope can be used to study materials at the atomic level, including the base makeup of a cell – electrons, protons, and neutrons.

For example, our complex images of what pollen looks like comes directly from electron microscopes.

They are very expensive and very advanced microscopes, but they are definitely worth the money.

These microscopes are used in study and production of nanotechnology, biology, gemology, chemistry, metallurgy, and industrial production, with a lot of the information that has advanced these industries coming from the use of these particular microscopes.

They tend to come in two types: The transmission electron microscope (TEM) and the scanning electron microscope (SEM), with the difference being that the TEM can produce images at 1 nanometer in size and the SEM can produce images that are 10 times less powerful than the TEM, but the images are far more complete, a higher-resolution, and in three dimensions.

Scanning Probe Microscopes

These microscopes tend to be used solely in industrial or academic environments, for the simple reason that they are very expensive and no one else can afford them.

The areas of their particular use are mostly physics, biology, and chemistry for standard analysis and development.

Much like stereo microscopes, they can observe whatever they are viewing in three dimensions, however the way they do this is slightly different.

The scanning probe microscope will send a very delicate probe to scan and record the surface of whatever they are studying and provide a three-dimensional image in real time.

This means that their ability to create this image is far more accurate than electron and stereo microscopes and can find the tiniest change in topography of the viewed object at any given time.

Acoustic Microscopes

The acoustic microscope works completely differently from other microscopes. Most other microscopes rely on sight or light to view something at a smaller level.

A scanning probe microscope will use touch, but even then at some point sight will be used to verify it.

These microscopes work on the principle of sound. The microscope will send out a high ultrasound that will bounce off the object being viewed.

This sound will hit the object at all different angles and create an image of what the object is and what its structure is like.

They are used to looking at samples in great detail and can be used to study materials at the atomic level, but they can only be used in labs that have sound-proof facilities. The reason this is done is because of the purpose of these microscopes.

They are designed to look for faults, cracks, errors, or cavities in something.

Finding something that doesn’t belong is easier to do with sound, as it will bounce rapidly off the object without damaging it or changing how we perceive it, which can happen with light.


There are many different types of microscopes out there, and many of them are incredibly useful to even the most casual observer of our world.

They can be used to see the microbiomes of the world, explore our atomic structure, advance technological, industrial, and academic fields, as well as dictate what faults there are in something that we can’t see with our own eyes.

Jennifer Dawkins

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