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Light microscopy Using this web site

Light Microscopy

The light microscope, so called because it employs visible light to detect small objects, is probably the most well-known and well-used research tool in biology. Yet, many students and teachers are unaware of the full range of features that are available in light microscopes. Since the cost of an instrument increases with its quality and versatility, the best instruments are, unfortunately, unavailable to most academic programs. However, even the most inexpensive "student" microscopes can provide spectacular views of nature and can enable students to perform some reasonably sophisticated experiments.


Types of light microscopy

Bright field microscopy

Dark field viewing

Phase contrast

Oil immersion microscopy

Differential interference contrast (Nomarski, DIC, Hoffman modulation contrast

Applied microscopy

Measurement with the light microscope

Using a counting chamber

Types of light microscopy

The bright field microscope is best known to students and is most likely to be found in a classroom. Visible light is focused through a specimen by a condenser lens, then is passed through two more lenses placed at both ends of a light-tight tube. The latter two lenses each magnify the image. Limitations to what can be seen in bright field microscopy are not so much related to magnification as they are to resolution, illumination, and contrast. Resolution can be improved using oil immersion lenses, and lighting and contrast can be dramatically improved using modifications such as dark field, phase contrast, and differential interference contrast. Fluorescence and confocal microscopes are specialized instruments, used for research, clinical, and industrial applications.

Other than the compound microscope, a simpler instrument for low magnification use may also be found in the laboratory. This is the stereo microscope, or dissecting microscope. Stereo microscopes usually have a binocular eyepiece tube, a long working distance, and a range of magnifications, typically from 5x to 35 or 40x. Some instruments supply lenses for higher magnifications, but there is no improvement in resolution. Such "false magnification" is rarely worth the expense.

Bright Field Microscopy

With a conventional bright field microscope, light from an incandescent source is aimed toward a lens beneath the stage called the condenser, through the specimen, through an objective lens, and to the eye through a second magnifying lens, the ocular or eyepiece. Some microscopes have a built-in illuminator, while others use a mirror to reflect light from an external source. The condenser is used to focus light on the specimen through an opening in the stage. After passing through the specimen, the lightis displayed tto the eye with an apparent field that is much larger than the area illuminated. The magnification of the image is simply the objective lens magnification (usually stamped on the lens body) times the ocular magnification.

Students are usually aware of the use of the coarse and fine focus knobs, used to sharpen the image of the specimen. They are frequently unaware of adjustments to the condenser that can affect resolution and contrast. Some condensers are fixed in position, others are focusable, so that the quality of light can be adjusted. Usually the best position for a focusable condenser is as close to the stage as possible. The bright field condenser usually contains an aperture diaphragm, a device that controls the diameter of the light beam coming up through the condenser, so that when the diaphragm is stopped down (nearly closed) the light comes straight up through the center of the condenser lens and contrast is high. When the diaphragm is wide open the image is brighter and contrast is low.

Using a bright field microscope

First, think about what you want to do with the microscope. What is the maximum magnification you will need? Are you looking at a stained specimen? How much contrast/resolution do you require? Next, start setting up for viewing.

Mount the specimen on the stage

The cover slip must be up if there is one. High magnification objective lenses can't focus through a thick glass slide; they must be brought close to the specimen, which is why coverslips are so thin. The stage may be equipped with simple clips (less expensive microscopes), or with some type of slide holder. The slide may require manual positioning, or there may be a mechanical stage (preferred) that allows precise positioning without touching the slide.

Optimize the lighting

A light source should have a wide dynamic range, to provide high intensity illumination at high magnifications, and lower intensities so that the user can view comfortably at low magnifications. Better microscopes have a built-in illuminator, and the best microscopes have controls over light intensity and shape of the light beam. If your microscope requires an external light source, make sure that the light is aimed toward the middle of the condenser. Adjust illumination so that the field is bright without hurting the eyes.

Adjust the condenser

To adjust and align the microscope, start by reading the manual. If no manual is available, try using these guidelines. If the condenser is focusable, position it with the lens as close to the opening in the stage as you can get it. If the condenser has selectable options, set it to bright field. Start with the aperture diaphragm stopped down (high contrast). You should see the light that comes up through the specimen change brightness as you move the aperture diaphragm lever.

Focus, locate, and center the specimen

Start with the lowest magnification objective lens, to home in on the specimen and/or the part of the specimen you wish to examine. It is rather easy to find and focus on sections of tissues, especially if they are fixed and stained, as with most prepared slides. However it can be very difficult to locate living, minute specimens such as bacteria or unpigmented protists. A suspension of yeast cells makes a good practice specimen for finding difficult objects.

Adjust eyepiece separation, focus

With a single ocular, there is nothing to do with the eyepiece except to keep it clean. With a binocular microscope (preferred) you need to adjust the eyepiece separation just like you do a pair of binoculars. Binocular vision is much more sensitive to light and detail than monocular vision, so if you have a binocular microscope, take advantage of it.

One or both of the eyepieces may be a telescoping eyepiece, that is, you can focus it. Since very few people have eyes that are perfectly matched, most of us need to focus one eyepiece to match the other image. Look with the appropriate eye into the fixed eyepiece and focus with the microscope focus knob. Next, look into the adjustable eyepiece (with the other eye of course), and adjust the eyepiece, not the microscope.

Select an objective lens for viewing

The lowest power lens is usually 3.5 or 4x, and is used primarily for initially finding specimens. We sometimes call it the scanning lens for that reason. The most frequently used objective lens is the 10x lens, which gives a final magnification of 100x with a 10x ocular lens. For very small protists and for details in prepared slides such as cell organelles or mitotic figures, you will need a higher magnification. Typical high magnification lenses are 40x and 97x or 100x. The latter two magnifications are used exclusively with oil in order to improve resolution.

Move up in magnification by steps. Each time you go to a higher power objective, re-focus and re-center the specimen. Higher magnification lenses must be physically closer to the specimen itself, which poses the risk of jamming the objective into the specimen. Be very cautious when focusing. By the way, good quality sets of lenses are parfocal, that is, when you switch magnifications the specimen remains in focus or close to focused.

Bigger is not always better. All specimens have three dimensions, and unless a specimen is extremely thin you will be unable to focus with a high magnification objective. The higher the magnification, the harder it is to "chase" a moving specimen.

Adjust illumination for the selected objective lens

The apparent field of an eyepiece is constant regardless of magnification used. So it follows that when you raise magnification the area of illuminated specimen you see is smaller. Since you are looking at a smaller area, less light reaches the eye, and the image darkens. With a low power objective you may have to cut down on illumination intensity. With a high power you need all the light you can get, especially with less expensive microscopes.

When to use bright field microscopy

Bright field microscopy is best suited to viewing stained or naturally pigmented specimens such as stained prepared slides of tissue sections or living photosynthetic organisms. It is useless for living specimens of bacteria, and inferior for non-photosynthetic protists or metazoans, or unstained cell suspensions or tissue sections. Here is a not-so-complete list of specimens that might be observed using bright-field microscopy, and appropriate magnifications (preferred final magnifications are emphasized).

Care of the microscope

Exercise: viewing a prepared slide

Go through the set-up procedure for bright field viewing of a prepared slide of stained animal or plant tissue. Note the changes in illumination intensity as you increase magnification. Note how to adjust the binocular eyepieces for comfortable viewing. Observe at 40x, 100x, and 400x (final magnification).

Copyright and Intended Use
Created by David R. Caprette (, Rice University 7 Sept 1995
Updated 11 May 2000