Guidance on purchasing microscopes, especially for bryophytes/liverworts

Recently wanted to get serious on bryophytes, and some other stuff that requires microscopy like Xyris so I’m going to invest in a microscope. Problem is, I have not used one since high school so I don’t know what to look for. I have pretty much decided on a compound scope because I think it would be the most convenient, but I’m not sure what to look for in brands, accessory equipment, or where to get one. Also I don’t want to get a bottom of the barrel scope, but would like to keep it under $200 if possible. Any help is super helpful and appreciated!

Some of the suggestions here may be helpful for you:

I don’t know much about identification of these groups, but are you only looking at very small structures, like spores or single cells? I would think larger morphology would be important, requiring a dissecting scope or a good hand/macro lens.

I won’t say this is impossible, but it may be difficult.

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I would suggest you take a look at r/microscopy on Reddit too.

Do you know if you want/need a compound microscope (light passes through a slide you have to prepare, usually with 40x-1000x magnification) or a stereo microscope (light usually illuminates a probe from the top and you most often look at objects whole)?

If it’s the former, I personally use a Swift SW380T, which does a decent job for hobbyists but is far from professional quality. People on r/microscopy often suggest to look for second hand microscopes, as you can potentially get a lot better (but older) ones for the same price.
I have no experience when it comes to stereo microscopes, though.

Whatever you end up getting: I’d suggest also getting an adapter for your phone or for your camera. It makes it a looot less frustrating (especially if you ever decide to look at moving things like ciliates).


Years ago, I purchased an Omax microscope on Amazon and I’ve been very happy with it. I’ve used it e.g. to look at spores. It’s a little more than you want to spend but very conveniently has a built-in camera that hooks up to a computer via USB cable. I was thrilled to find out I could also use it to switch into live microscope view during zoom meetings when we all had to teach our labs remotely during the pandemic. In the teaching lab, we now also have scopes with cameras that connect to a computer via WiFi so we can demo slides during class. That might be beyond what you want to to do though. There are some cheaper models available that get down to the $200 range.

Tip: If you get one without camera, you can take pictures with a cell phone through the eye pieces - my students do this all the time in class and it seems to work well for them. For field work, we got one of those microcopes with ring light that clip onto a cell phone - seems to work great to get close-ups on the cheap while out in the field. I’m not a cell phone person but my students love using it. So that might be another option if you don’t need the high power magnification.

If you do want to get into spore analysis or look at cells with higher magnifications, I recommend also getting a stage micrometer. A lot of keys have notes on spore sizes etc. There is software that allows you to calibrate a ruler to measure things but you can also do this by simply comparing pictures. What I usually do is take a picture of the ruler on my stage micrometer with the same magnification as I used for the spores/cells, and then determine e.g. how many pixels in the picture correspond to 0.1 mm or whatever on the ruler so I can put a size marker onto the image with the cells.


I second looking for secondhand ones. Sometimes these are on ebay or occasionally at local auctions. You can also purchase some cameras that can attach to older scopes depending on the setup, but digiscoping can work pretty well too.

I agree second-hand can be a bargain. If you have a local university, you could ask if they have any to sell. If they have updated or gone digital, there might be a cupboard full of old ones. They might lend you one long-term, until you decide what you need.

I’m mainly an entomologist but have just begun to look at a few of the easier bryophytes. I suspect for bryophytes you need both a dissecting microscope (10x to 80X magnification) for looking at 3-D aspects such as leaf attachment and capsule structure; and a compound microscope (100x to 1000x) for leaf sections and cell shape. If you can only afford one, I’d go for the dissecting microscope and accept some genera will be beyond you. Or try a very good hand lens, at least 20x, instead of a dissecting microscope.

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