dew drops on horsefly

What Is The Best Digital Microscope?

What is the best digital microscope for microscope photography? Nowadays you have a bunch of options to choose from. I’m going to examine the most popular ones in this article.

USB Microscope

A USB microscope is a digital camera with a high magnification lens – built into a single instrument. You connect it via USB cable to your computer or phone to take magnified pictures and videos of really tiny things.

USB Microscope
A USB microscope is great option for starting with macro photography.

It has a zoom control for adjusting the magnification. You hold it over an insect or whatever you want to look at, and take a photograph.

A USB microscope is the cheapest option you have for digital microscope photography. You can’t see cells with it (well, maybe on a very well prepared slide), but that is not really what a USB microscope is for. It’s for taking magnified pictures of things like bugs and pollen grains. It’s a lot of fun!

compound eye of house fly
Compound eye of house fly taken with a USB microscope.

I’ve written a USB microscope review if you want to see the details of how it works, and how to use it.

This is the kind of digital photography you can take with it:

Pixels under microscope
The red/green/blue channels of the pixels on a computer monitor.
cellar spider under microscope
A Cellar Spider under a microscope.
caterpillar under microscope.
Caterpillar under a microscope.

By the way, don’t let the claims of 1000x magnification fool you. They’re about 20x – 40x magnification.

If you browse through the USB microscopes on Amazon, you’ll see many of them look the same. They’re even using the same software (CoolingTech). One brand sells one for $20. Another sells the same thing for $70! I just bought the cheapest one for myself. Looking through the customer submitted images in the reviews, I can’t see the difference in image quality.

Some of them have much better quality stands than others. Some even have digital displays so you don’t have to use it with a computer.

The stand makes a big difference to the price. If you want a quality stand, you’re going to pay $20 – $50 extra for that. Some of the stands have extra LED lights on flexible arms for extra illumination. My take on this, is just buy use a cheap torch or something. I wouldn’t pay extra money for the stand or lighting.

Besides, the stand is a tool for examining coins and circuit boards and doing fungus analysis or something. For the purposes of digital photography, you won’t even use the stand that much. Read my review of my own USB microscope to see how I used it. It’s much easier to take photographs and videos holding it by hand.

No matter what the claims about a superior optics on a superior brand of USB microscope, I won’t pay $150 for one. Give me a break! For $150, you can buy a cheap stereo microscope. Stereo microscopes do the same kind viewing and photography that USB microscopes do, only they are superior … and more expensive. Seriously, as far as USB microscopes go, stick with a cheap one. There are better things to spend extra money on.

My last point is to encourage you to buy a USB microscope. If you don’t own a microscope, and you just want to have some fun making videos of magnified bugs, for goodness sake, this is the best option! They’re cheap. They’re easy to use. They’re really great fun!

I own USB microscope linked below (except without the wifi-box). I’ve had a lot of fun taking all these photographs with it. Once summer starts, I plan to take a lot more!

The microscope above includes a wifi-box. A wifi-box is a little box you connect the microscope to, that transmits the images and videos to a computer or phone. It’s useful because it makes the microscope more portable, and also, you can use it on an iPhone. Without a wifi-box, you can use it with an Android phone, but not an iPhone.

If you want a cheaper one without a wifi-box, this one is below is exactly the same.

Compound Microscope

A compound microscope (or light microscope) is really your only option if you want to get into digital photography at a cellular level. If you want to make videos of microscopic water life eating each other, or sperm swimming like crazy, you need to buy a compound microscope.

I’ve written an article on how a microscope works if you want more details about compound microscopes.

Here are some example images and videos from my own compound microscope:

Red blood cells against air bubble
Red blood cells at 100x objective magnification getting trapped against the edge of an air bubble.
human tongue cells look like fossils
Who knew that tongue papillae magnified at 40x objective magnification would look like fossils in stone?

I don’t want to go into too much detail about how to choose a microscope. I’ve already written a guide to choosing your first microscope which you should read if you are interested in buying one.

Basically, for taking reasonably good photographs and videos of microscopic life, you should spend around $200 for a compound microscope. If you want great photographic results, spend $400. But you can always spend more. Believe me, there’s no limit to the price in this industry!

Here is an OMAX microscope that takes nice pictures. Look at the images in the customer reviews. They’re pretty good. Also the features on this microscope all look good.

Here is a better microscope from AmScope. It’s got similar specs to the OMAX, except it’s got darkfield lighting. Darkfield photography gives really great results! The difference between brightfield and darkfield microscopy is that darkfield makes the background black, while still having a well lit specimen. Brightfield makes the background and the specimen both brightly lit. I don’t have a darkfield microscope. All the images I’ve shown you are normal brightfield. I plan on buying a darkfield kit soon, to extend my own microscope.

In addition, the AmScope microscope has a trinocular tube for holding a camera. It is also probably better quality than the OMAX. AmScope has a reputation for making good quality microscopes.

In addition, you will need to buy a microscope camera. You can use a normal camera, and hold it against the eyepiece. I’ve done that, but it’s much easier using a camera that is designed to fit into a microscope eyepiece. It also gives better results. Be prepared to spend at least $50 on a camera. Again, you can buy a super one for $1000!

Celestron sells a very nice looking 5MP camera in the USA. I’m jealous! I would definitely have bought this one if it was available in Europe.

I use this 2MP Bresser camera myself, which I bought from Amazon UK. They shipped it cheaply to the Czech Republic, where I live. It’s a great camera for the price.

Stereo microscope

You’ve probably heard about stereo microscopes. They look similar to compound microscopes, except that they’re missing the stage.

A stereo microscope has a similar purpose to USB microscopes. It is for examining quite large creatures, and not at a cellular level. If you want to take a video of Giant Red Velvet Mites crawling around, this may be the best instrument to do it with.

You can put an insect in a little shallow glash dish with a lid on, and view it with a stereo microscope. I’ve seen fantastic images and videos from people who have done this! Look at this video of Jumping Spiders made with a stereo microscope. It’s a family-made video. You can hear them talking in the background.

Jumping Spiders are really, really tiny! Very pretty too!

Stereo microscopes are also the best instrument if you want to dissect an insect under magnification.

I don’t own a stereo microscope. I’m considering buying one for the summer. I’m not 100% sure yet. If I had to buy one, I would buy one with a 180x magnification, which is about as high as they go. It’s expensive. For a cheaper option, I would get an 80x microscope. Bresser and AmScope make good ones.

Here is a very nice Bresser 80x stereo microscope. Unfortunately, it’s not available on Amazon USA.

Here is a cheaper AmScope stereo microscope, available on both Amazon USA and UK.

Here is a very nice (but expensive) AmScope 180x stereo microscope. I’m thinking about buying this one in the summer, when the insects come out.

Unusual Digital Microscopy Options

Here is an usual option. It’s a digital camera. No high magnification lens. Just a box with a CMOS image sensor and a USB output. Then they attach a monocular lens with a microscope conversion to it. They’re usually quite expensive. Although I think it’s mainly the camera that costs so much, not the lens. I’ve never seen a nice range of sample images to know what it can do. But it looks interesting. I’ll keep a look out for sample photographs taken with this technology.

A monocular lens attached to a CMOS camera on a stand. The white attachment is a light source for illuminating the subject.

Here is a very interesting setup. It’s extremely unusual. I’ve never seen anything like this for sale, but I found a video of a professional photographer using it. This guy got what looks like a microscope objective and connected it to a SLR digital camera! It’s amazing! In the video below you can see it from the 2 second mark until the 6 second mark. The results are incredible!

I hope you found this article useful, and that you got something out of it.

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