What to look for in a dissecting microscope?

I’ve recently been looking into getting a dissecting scope. It seems like it’d be a lot more useful to me than a compound scope would be, considering I focus mainly on arthropods. Of course, like with any equipment, there’s tons of options to choose from. For those who have used dissecting scopes before, I ask you: what features are a Must Have in a dissecting scope? What features do you find overpriced and not really worth it? How much do you have to pay (please specify currency) to get something worth the money you’re spending on it? Etc. Really, I just want this thread to be about how to choose a dissecting scope.

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I can’t tell you too much but:

Consider buying a second-hand one to keep the price down.

You want the optics to be good, so you can sit and look through it for a couple of hours without getting a headache.

If you know any zoology-type research people in a museum or university, ask them what they would recommend.

You may want to consider getting a binocular microscope rather than just a regular dissecting scope.

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I only really use dissecting scopes for dissecting verts, and for this, the quality/power doesn’t need to be great. For inverts, I would consider what magnifications you would want (most scopes have two options, but the actual power can differ).

If using it a lot, the two most important things for me are the adjustability of the eyepieces and the lighting. For eyepieces some scopes just work and some are uncomfortable to me. I haven’t found any rhyme or reason, so maybe try before you buy. For lighting, you can probably jury-rig something, but there are handy light rings you can use that do a good job and reduce eyestrain (I haven’t bought one myself, just used them).

Other big consideration is whether you want to take a lot of pics or not. If not, the old cell phone or pocket cam to the eyepiece can work for occasional semi-decent pics. If you want regular pics, getting a cam attachment will be worth it.

The old dissecting scopes (from like the 40’s or whatever) still are often solid, so if you see used and only need something basic, that may be a good route.

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One thing I found really important is the range of interpupillary distance. Apparently, my eyes are closer together than most adults because I had trouble finding one that could be small enough to fit me and finally settled on one meant for schools (I guess because kids have small heads). If you can’t see through both eyepieces at the same time, the stereoscope doesn’t do much good.

We spent a little extra to get one with a camera port and it’s been really helpful for photographing tiny insect and plant parts.

Good lighting is important but there are lots of options for add-on LED lights that are highly adjustable. I bought some cork coasters for pinning down specimens and also printed some 1 mm grid paper for scale when taking photos. I like this graph paper generator: https://incompetech.com/graphpaper/multicolor/

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I bought a used Amscope SF-2TRA for a couple hundred US dollars. It works good enough for my purposes, but the photo quality at maximum magnification is noticeably worse than what I get at the same magnification on my compound microscope even when using the same external lighting source. The one thing I wish it had other than better quality optics is a mechanical stage, but I can get by with moving stuff by hand. I have also used a small, old scope made in the 70’s that I found at a thrift store for $20, and it seemed to have just as good optics. If you just want to use it to dissect insects, the cheapest ones should be fine since nothing is ever going to be entirely in focus anyway.

For lighting, I use a dolan-jenner MI-LED with a dual gooseneck attachment. That is significantly more expensive than the dissecting scope, but provides a strong enough light that I can also use it with my compound scope with up to a 40x objective. I also occasionally use it to blind myself when I shine it on a white surface. It is significantly better than my dissecting scope’s built in lighting.

For taking photos, I think it would be better to use a macro lens on a camera with a focusing rack than a dissecting scope. But that might just be because my scope has inferior optics.

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I used a dissecting scope a lot when I worked at Ag Can. My favourite one was an old (1950’s?) binocular Leitz with three fixed focal lengths. I don’t even know if they make them any more - I preferred the fixed focal lengths to newer zoom ones. A couple of things - find one that is comfortable to work with. I liked the one I used because the stage was raised, not on the desk top. Binocular is a must. Depending on what you are doing consider a fibre optic light (on Zoom they go around the lower optical site). The heat of a normal lamp will cause water/alcohol to evaporate, or the specimen to get too hot. Mentioned above, make sure the lenses are adjustable - black out attachments are good as long as you don’t need glasses. Again, depending on what you are doing, optical clarity may or may not be essential. Look at the edges of the ring image, to make sure the whole thing is in focus, not just the centre. If possible, and it’s not likely on a dissecting scope, look for a fine focus knob. I’ve never seen one except on a compound scope, but they help. Make sure the focus knob is not hard to turn, or it will be hard to focus. “My” work microscope is here - https://inaturalist.ca/journal/mamestraconfigurata . I don’t have one now, and don’t know how much they cost.

Oh, if you plan on doing any dissection, invest in one or two sets of fine tipped forceps. We used to sharpen ours under the microscope! Again, these were Swiss/German, and I don’t know where to find them. They make a hell of a difference.

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Definitely buy used! My supervisor at the museum I work at said microscopes depreciate faster than cars. I ended up getting an Olympus (SZ51 I think) for around $750. It was in great condition and that’s about half retail price. This ended up being the same model we use in my college biology labs. Here’s some photos I’ve taken with it via a cheap Samsung.

Light source may be important, but depends on what you’re doing. Mine came with a ring light that works great, but at school we have built in lights that plug into a unit where we can control the light intensity. We’re working with live hydroids on that though so temperature really matters. At home I’m mostly doing dry mollusks so it’s not as big of a deal (but I’m also starting to do dissections so that might change my needs). At my museum we use the fiber-optic source but I always thought those were super annoying to use.

Obviously binocular is best and an adjustable zoom is very nice. One way to check microscope quality is to see how much the frame moves side to side as you change the focus (check with one eye, good scopes don’t shift much). And a fun thing you can do with a lot of scopes is take out the eye piece and use it as a quick magnifying lens.

In the end it’s a lot of personal preference. Olympus is a solid brand, but Leica and Zeiss are some nicer options. My research prof has a Leica that she can take pictures with from her phone or laptop which is pretty cool (I used it to photograph this and this. Nikon is also decent. Everyone I’ve seen has something different for what they need and what they like.

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If you have a university nearby, see if they surplus equipment. We picked up a nice Bausch&Lomb boom arm dissecting scope for $50. That was a deal, even in 1994.

For light, we picked up a couple of these LED goosenecks. Plenty bright, cool, and useful for other tasks. https://www.amazon.com/Flexible-Gooseneck-Magnetic-Zoomable-Repairing/dp/B07L6T1N1K

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