Microscope Advice

How to Take a Picture Through a Microscope Without an Attached Camera

You can take a picture through a microscope using a small point and shoot camera or the camera on a smart phone. Smart phone cameras prior to 2008 were very difficult to use with microscopes. The cameras on more recent phones are easier to use. First position your microscope so that you have space in front to rest your elbows. Hold your camera up to the oculars (the part of the scope you put your eye up to). Brace your arms on the table or a stack of books to help steady your hands. Do not hold the camera lens right up against the ocular of the microscope, but instead hold it back a short distance. If you watch someone else look through a microscope you will notice that their eye is 1-2 cm away from the actual lens. This is where you need to hold you camera. Watch the display on your camera and look for a bright circle. You need to move the camera so that the bright circle is centered and mostly fills your display. You will likely have a black circular border around the edge of your image. Video can often be more useful than still images when identifying algae so try taking both.

How to Buy a Magnifying Device

I recommend that everyone who maintains a marine aquarium purchase a magnifying device. Relative to the expense of maintaining an aquarium a magnifying device is very cheap and can come in practical use checking corals for pests, identifying nuisance algae, and examining fish for parasites. A microscope can also open another window into enjoying the ecosystem you have created.

A small hand lens will allow visualization sufficient to distinguish between filamentous and single celled algae. This can be helpful when trying to distinguish between a Cyanobacteria bloom versus a single celled alga such as a dinoflagellate. The best hand lenses will be made of glass and be made by bonding several different cuts of glass together to achieve high magnification and resolution. Look for the word “triplet” to indicate this feature. Beware hand lenses sold with magnification over 10X that do not specify that they are several bonded lenses. While these lenses can reach magnification as high as 60X the resolution of these lenses will not be sufficient to make out the fine details needed for identification of algae.

Greater magnification will be necessary for distinguishing between types of single-celled pest algae. I recommend purchasing a used compound microscope. A monocular (as opposed to a binocular) microscope might be easier to use for children or those who have no training. I do not recommend a dissecting microscope as your only microscope if you are trying to identify algae, but it is excellent for checking corals and fish for pests. If you are looking a dissecting scopes be sure to get a light source with it.

Most Universities have a store set up near campus to sell old furniture and equipment. You can often find great deals on used classroom microscopes at these university stores. A good price will be $100-$200. It is a good idea to bring a prepared slide with you so you can plug the microscope in and make sure it is working. Make sure the microscope has at least two objective lenses (these are the lenses near the slide). One objective should be low magnification (2-10X) and another should be higher (40-60X). 100X objective lenses are nice, but they require immersion oil.  Ignore those unless you have experience with oil objectives.

If you don’t have a university near you then you can turn to ebay or other auction sites. When looking at microscopes in these places, look for guarantees that the microscope has been tested and is working. Refurbished, serviced, or cleaned are also good things to look for when buying from a website. Look for missing parts in the pictures. Often microscopes are sold without objectives, stages (the platform you place you slide on), or oculars (the lenses you put your eye against), or light sources. Look for any signs the scope has been dropped like dents or big scratches.

How to Borrow a Microscope

Good microscopes can be expensive and hard to purchase. If you have a pest algae you want identified, and don’t have the time or money to go out and get a microscope of your own, consider borrowing a microscope.

Your local high school biology teacher is often the best person to ask for help. Try asking if they can look at your algae with you. Their willingness to help will obviously depend on the individual, but most high school biology teachers are enthusiastic about biology and will welcome a polite request to look at something under the microscope with you. If you don’t have any luck with the local high school teachers you can also try your local University professors. Try finding someone whose research interests involve algae, marine biology, or microbiology. Unfortunately most professors get so much unsolicited emails you may not get a response. Be sure to be polite and respectful of their time when addressing your email.

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