Taking Pictures with a Microscope reveals Invisible Worlds
by Dr. Robert Berdan
November 21, 2010
A kaleidoscope of colour that can be seen in a microscope are only matched by the colours taken of galaxies in outerspace.
Top left - potatoe starch grains , lanthanum crystals, dog flea, lanthanum crystals, lanthanum crystals, caffeine crystals, snail embryos, citric acid crystals, caffeine crystals, feather, caffeine crystals, spirogyra - green algae.
You might think of a microscope as special type of lens that you can attach to your digital camera to take pictures and it's not any more difficult then attaching your camera to a telescope or birding scope. The problem is a microscope is a sophisticated piece of equipment and the more you know about how to operate it the better. Also a big component is knowing how to prepare material to be viewed in a microscope. The are also many different types of microscopes and they have more options than any digital SLR camera. Toy microscopes are great to get kids interested in science and that is how I started. I was 9 years old when I saw my first microscope and being a total geek, I fell in love with the instrument. After a couple of years of using it to view micro-organisms living in pond water I received a professional quality scope upon graduating in Grade 8. Now I was on my way to becoming a super-geek. I went on to become a biological researcher after a long apprenticeship in University of about 15 years. In my research I used many kinds of microscope including various types of electron microscope. The most exciting thing about microscopes is that they reveal a world that most of us have never seen and some of these scopes fill an entire room - I was in geeks heaven.
Many common objects like potatoe starch grains, wood, and even hair can appear unusual when photographed with a microscope using polarized light and special filters called wave plates. To a trained microscopist the colours provide important information about how molecules are arranged within the specimen. Forensic scientists also use microscopes to identify types of hair and other elements left at a crime scene. I used microscopes to dissect and study brain cells and how they formed new connections (above).
White Pine section showing the cells that make up wood where water moves from one cell to the next through sieve plates, the star- like objects. One does not have to know what you are looking at to simply appreciate their beauty. I made this picture when I was 18 years old with the microscope shown below - right.
The two main types of microscopes are the stereo microscope (left) and the light microscope (right). A stereo microscope can be used to examine small objects and magnify them between about 2 to 50X. They are used to dissect small organisms, inspect electronics or jewelry. A light microscope can magnify between about 10X to about 2,000X and plays an important role in identifying bacteria that cause disease. It's also used to study cells and anything that is really small.
Taking pictures through a microscope involves attaching the camera to the microscope, usually through a third trinocular head though it can be attached to any of the tubes that hold eyepieces. Most microscope dealers sell special attachments, however you can rig an attachment up yourself with some black electrician tape and a camera extension tube. A good microscope capable of taking photographs will start at around $500 for a used one and goes up in price to over $10,000 depending on the accessories and quality of glass that you purchase. My research light microscope at the University of Alberta cost over $65,000 and it had all the bells and whistles one could ask for (see below).
My wife posing in front of an Olympus Inverted microscope. I used this microscope to view and record electrical signals from Invertebrate Brain cells at the University of Alberta around 1985. At this time I was involved in brain research and trying to understand how and why some nerves regenerate and others do not.. The microscope is equipped with an Olympus OM-4 35 mm SLR camera body and low light video camera capable ot taking time lapse movies.
Photographs taken by scanning electron microscopes often reveal objects in 3D and are popular in science books. Above is a picture an aphid and close up view of its compound eye and single bacterium on the surface.
Picture of a common moth taken with a stereomicroscope - about 15X magnification
Diatoms are single celled animals that live in fresh water and form hard silica shells in a variety of beautiful shapes.
Approximate magnification 1,000X
Radiolarians are part of the plankton in the ocean and they represent single celled animals with silica shells.
This photograph shows the shells only. Approximate magnification 800X
How to get started in taking Pictures through a Microscope
The first thing you would need to do is buy or borrow a good student microscope. To purchase a good used microscope requires that know what you are buying and how to use the scope, but if you have never been trained with one how do you know? I would recommend finding someone that does know or you could end up spending much more money then you need to. I was lucky a good friend of our family, Herbert Thony was a salesman for Olympus micrscopes and he got me the best equipment I could afford and taught me the correct way to use it. A good used scope will be around $500-$2,000 and a new light microscope scope of professional quality will be $1500 and up. Stereo microscopes are somewhat cheaper and easier to use. Nikon, Olympus, Zeiss and Leitz make some of the best scopes. If you just want to start playing with a microscope check out Edmund Scientific they offer good starter microscopes. Be sure to buy or pick up a few books on microscopy at the same time, also check your local library for books on microscopy. My first scope cost $24.95 and today the same scope today will cost about $100. Here is a link to what I would consider to be a good starter microscope for the up and coming scientist in your family: Edmund Scientific 400X Basic Scope.
Trout Alevin - wins honerable mention in Nikon Photomicrography contests 2010, 20X using stereo-microscope.
Making Movies with a light microscope.
One of the most exciting aspects of photomicrography today is the ability to make movies using the new digital cameras which record HD video. The main problem is getting a very bright light source to do this. I have been using my old slide projector to provide a strong light source and this has been working well. It's impossible for me to go into detail here how to take pictures through the microscope so I have provided some links below for more information and I would be happy to reply to any emails. I have been taking photographs through microscopes for over 35 years. Most of my sales in photomicrographs are to science centers,book publishers and museums.
Watch movie of microorganisms living in pond water by Robert Berdan
Note: if you have a child in your home that is interested in a microscope you are welcome to send me questions and I will happily provide you with advice. If you live in Calgary or Alberta I will even gladly meet with you and your child (child should be at least 10 years of age) to show you a good microscope and what to look for when if you are looking to purchase one. If you are an adult looking to buy a microscope I would be happy to provide you with guidance or instruction in my studio at my normal hourly rate ($60\hr). If you buy a microscope and need more quality objectives or eyepieces I have a box of them for sale :-)