Compound Light Microscope

Optics, Magnification and Uses

**With Links to MicroscopeMaster Buyer's Guides**

A compound light microscope is a microscope with more than one lens and its own light source. In this type of microscope, there are ocular lenses in the binocular eyepieces and objective lenses in a rotating nosepiece closer to the specimen.

Although sometimes found as monocular with one ocular lens, the compound binocular microscope is more commonly used today.

The first light microscope dates back to 1595, when Zacharias Jansen created a compound microscope that used collapsing tubes and produced magnifications up to 9X.

Microscopes have come a long way since then—today's strongest compound microscopes have magnifying powers of 1,000 to 2,000X.

Because it contains its own light source in its base, a compound light microscope is also considered a bright field microscope.

Bright field microscopy simply means that the specimen is lit from below and viewed from above.

With bright field illumination, the sample’s contrast comes from its absorption of the light, as opposed to dark field illumination where the contrast comes from the sample scattering the light.


In order to ascertain the total magnification when viewing an image with a compound light microscope, take the power of the objective lens which is at 4x, 10x or 40x and multiply it by the power of the eyepiece which is typically 10x.

Therefore, a 10x eyepiece used with a 40X objective lens, will produce a magnification of 400X. The naked eye can now view the specimen at a magnification 400 times greater and so microscopic details are revealed. More on objective lenses here.

Magnification is the ability to view an object as larger. A good image is obtained when the amount of specimen detail is also increased. Magnification alone will not achieve this.


Good resolution or the resolving power of the microscope is necessary to see the valuable details comprised in an image.

Resolving Power is the ability to measure the separation of images that are close together.

Optical quality plays a vital role but the distance of the wavelength of light used is crucial.

With a shorter wavelength, you have increased resolution.

Working Distance

At low magnification your working distance is longer and so vice versa when increasing magnification.

Damage to your specimen is inevitable if you are not cautious of the shorter working distance when increasing your magnification.

Be especially careful with oil immersion lenses. This objective has the smallest working distance and your careful handling is important.

BrightField Microscopy

What can be viewed:

  • Using Stained Prepared slides you should see:
  1. bacteria
  2. chromosomes 
  3. organelles 
  4. protists or metazoans 
  5. smears 
  6. blood 
  7. negative stained bacteria 
  8. thick tissue sections

Utilizing unstained wet mounts for living preparations should enable you to see:

  1. pond water
  2. living protists or metazoans, and 
  3. plant cells such as algae.

Distortion is a factor in viewing smaller specimens and the difficulty increases further without natural pigmentation to provide some contrast when viewing the specimen.

An electron microscope is needed to view molecules and atoms as well as viruses. Light microscopy fails to have this capability.

Viewing Heads: Monocular, Binocular, Trinocular

  • Monocular - only use one eyepiece when viewing the specimen. You are restricted if you want to use a CCD camera because this would occupy the eyepiece. However, monocular microscopes are light weight and are inexpensive.
  • Binocular - with two eyepieces which proves to be more comfortable. It is the most common choice. 
  • Trinocular - has a third eyepiece tube that can be used by another person simultaneously or by a CCD camera. The trinocular option is more expensive than the other two types.

Usually the heads can be set to a 45 degree or a 30 degree angle with sliding or hinge adjustment for inter-pupillary distance. These options are based on individual preference.

Compound Light Microscope Uses/Benefits

One of the biggest benefits of owning a light microscope is its simplicity and its convenience.

A compound light microscope is relatively small, therefore it’s easy to use and simple to store, and it comes with its own light source.

Moreover, because of their multiple lenses, compound light microscopes are able to reveal a great amount of detail in samples.

Even an inexpensive one can reveal an incredible view of the world that would be impossible to explore with the naked eye.

Is there a benefit to paying more?

A certain misconception is apparent when going to purchase a compound light microscope. Many hobbyists in particular believe that buying from a major manufacturer at ten times the expense will give them a microscope with ten times the resolution. That is certainly not the case.

However, there are advantages to paying more for a research microscope, you should benefit from:

  • Plan apochromatic objectives
  • Tension-free objectives
  • Condensers that enable different contrast methods (such as DIC, dark field etc.) to be used
  • Greater stability and resilience
  • Availability of spare parts
  • Better overall service/product support

Also microscopes are now coming equipped with a new LED bulb.

For anyone wanting or needing to study the microscopic world, a compound light microscope is an invaluable tool.

Scroll down this page to check out free up-to-date information about the several microscopy techniques used today.

Further down you will find links to our research and reviews of compound microscopes available in the microscope market from leading manufacturers.

A great virtual tutorial: Light Microscopy Basics

For the Beginner....

How Does a Microscope Work? 

Parts of a Compound Microscope - you should probably understand that the compound microscope is more complicated than just a microscope with more than one lens. Check out its parts and functions. 

How to use and adjust a compound light microscope - click here for the easy steps you can follow to get started in using your microscope.

Dissecting Stereo Microscope Parts and Functions

Cleaning your Microscope - Discussing Best Practices 

Preparing Microscope Slides 

How to sketch a microscope slide - sketching microscope slides is not obsolete. Let us help you add those dynamic elements from the outlines to inner shapes.

Beginner Microscope Experiments

Check out our Microscope Quiz to test your knowledge!

And expand your knowledge of Cell Biology here

Other Types of Light Microscopes

Inverted Microscope Buyer's Guide - What is the comparison to a compound light microscope? This type is perfect for observation and analysis of living and large specimens adding greatly to molecular and cellular biology more. 

Comparison Microscope Buyer's Guide - read about the mainstay of forensic science allowing two objects or samples to be compared side by side.

Scientific Microscopes Buyer's Guide

Metallurgical Microscopes Buyer's Guide

Microscopy Imaging Techniques

Brightfield Microscopy - the most elementary microscopy technique but important to understand and apply correctly. 

Oil Immersion Microscopy - when used properly increases the refractive index of a sample/specimen. With only a few disadvantages, slides prepared with oil immersion techniques work best under higher magnification where oils increase refraction despite short focal lengths. 

Confocal Microscope - check out how image details can be viewed through state of the art technology and lasers are impossible to view using a conventional microscope. 

Phase Contrast Microscope - learn about an entire new world that has opened up in the field of microscopy. Once limited to bright field illumination phase contrast observation is now a standard feature on almost all modern microscopes. 

Fluorescence Microscope - study the most used microscope in medical/biological fields which uses high powered light waves to provide unique image viewing options.

Dark Field Microscope - learn more about how when the light source is blocked off, light scatters as it hits the specimen and is then able to reveal details otherwise difficult to see. 

Polarizing Microscope - discover its use in a wide range of applications in fields such as geology, metallurgy and medicine. Essential in obtaining information about the color intensity, structure and composition of a sample.

Kohler Illumination - broaden your knowledge of this technique which evenly illuminates the viewing field providing a bright specimen image and eliminates glare. 

Differential Interference Contrast - a microscopy techique which benefits from differences in the light refraction by various sections of living cells and transparent specimens allowing for better visibility during microscopic imaging.

Reviewing Popular Compound Microscopes by Brand

Olympus Microscopes - read about their BH series, such as the BH-2 microscope, the BX series-BX41 and BX51 and follow links to other more affordable but sturdy microscopes like from the Olympus CX series-CX21 and CX31. 

Nikon Microscopes - has remained competitive in the market, their Optiphot and Labophot microscopes are very well received even today. Now the current series called the Eclipse is impressing microscopists across the field. Check out our reviews of different models available from these lines. 

Leica Microscopes - check out Leica's competitive edge when compared to Zeiss, Nikon and Olympus brands. We are talking excellence in design and construction at a competitive price. 

Zeiss Microscopes - learn about optical innovation which has paved the way for microscopic advances and literally changed the way scientists and researchers use microscopes. 

Beginner to Intermediate Microscopes

Leica DM300 Binocular Microscope - Mechanical Stage, E1 Condenser with 100X Objective 

AmScope 40X-2000X Biological Compound Microscope with Mechanical Stage 

AmScope 40x-1000x Advanced Student Widefield Biological Compound Microscope 

AmScope 40X-1000X LED Cordless Student Compound Microscope

AmScope 40X-2500X LED Digital Binocular Compound Microscope with 3D Stage and 5MP USB Camera

Omax 40X-2000X Compound Biological Microscope with built-in Camera

Omax 40X-2000X Lab LED Binocular Compound Microscope Promotion Set.

Omax 40X-2000X Lab LED Binocular Compound Microscope with built in 1.3MP USB Digital Camera and Double Layer Mechanical Stage

Omax Trinocular LED Microscope with 5MP Digital Camera and Mechanical Stage

Swift Stellar 1-T Professional Lab Compound Microscope

Levenhuk Compound Microscopes

Older Models

American Optical Microscope - a trusted educational tool and manufactured by a company that was well recognized in the market, still in demand today. 

Bausch and Lomb Microscopes - for the best part of a century, Bausch and Lomb compound microscopes were some of the best available for purchase. They are still wanted on the used market and are a great find! 

Leitz Microscope - Taking a look at the features and versatility of the Orthoplan, Aristoplan and Diaplan models from Leitz. These older microscope models may perfectly suit your needs. It may be a treasure hunt to find them on the used market but worth your time!

Learn about the Stereo Microscope Vs Compound Microscope

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