different types of microscopes

Stereo-microscope imageThere are several different types of microscopes to choose from. The most common types, especially for hobbyists, are stereo-microscopes and biological microscopes.

Stereomicroscopes are generally low power, 20x to 80x, that let you see close up detail on a physical object. There are no slides involved.

A biological microscope is essentially just the simplest form of a compound microscope without any of the bells and whistles added on. For a contrast mechanism, the slide itself is usually stained rather than there being any particular attachments on the scope.

The more advanced microscopes, such as phase contrast or polarizing microscopes, use attachments to the microscope that utilize various optical properties to achieve contrast rather than a simple specimen stain. The Phase Contrast Microscope and the Polarizing Microscope are both examples of a basic compound / biological microscope that have been enhanced with additional optical devices.

The most common types of microscopes you will see are:

  • Stereomicroscope
  • Biological Microscope (basic compound microscope)
  • Phase Contrast Microscope
  • Polarizing Microscope

StereomicroscopeStereomicroscope – used to magnify detail on objects and view it in 3 dimensions rather than the flat plane of a slide for compound microscopes. It uses reflected light, so anything you can fit under the microscope can be viewed at high magnification, generally in the 20x to 80x range.

Check our page on buying stereomicroscopes for more information on the various configurations that are available.

Biological MicroscopeBiological / Basic Compound microscope – basic compound microscopes without any of the special attachments are often call biological microscopes because they are often used to look at biological specimens. Biological specimens can often be easily stained to provided contrast, whereas other types of microscopes have other means of achieving contrast without the need of staining.

Check our page microscopes for sale for examples of these kinds of microscopes (we are not selling these ourselves - just showing what is available at different sources.)

Phase Contrast Microscope
– uses phase shifts in the light passing through a specimen to provide contrast, which on certain types of samples provide much better detail. Light passing through a material experiences changes in amplitude (resulting in darker or lighter) and in phase. The human eye is normally not that well suited at detecting phase shifts, so this type of microscope has an attachment and special objective that converts phase shifts into amplitude shifts.

A good biological microscope can easisly be converted back on forth with the right attachments. Certain structures, such as the interior of cells, and “thin” fibers can be much more easily seen on unstained samples. A common technique for counting airborne asbestos fibers requires the use of a phase contrast microscope.


Polarizing MicroscopePolarizing Microscope
– also called a petrographic or geology microscope. This type of scope uses polarizers in the light path to obtain various optical information from the specimen. It is often used to identify minerals, including asbestos, and it used for forensic analysis since you can obtain data about the specimen, not just look at it. A biological microscope can sometimes be converted to a polarizing one, but for the most benefit it is better that the scope was originally built for the purpose, which includes a polarizer, adjustable analyzer, and round, rotating stage.

that both the polarizing and phase microscopes can be operated just like a biological microscope if needed, but they have added functionallity.


There are several different types of microscopes to choose from. The hobbyist will probably want to look at stereomicroscopes or biological microscopes. Someone interested in forensics or mineralogy should look at the polarizing microscope. Special applications such as analyzing a cells internal structure will require a phase contrast microscope.