There are some obvious geometric limitations that apply to the design of microscope optics. The attainable resolution, or the smallest distance at which two points can be seen as separate when viewed through the microscope, is the first important property. This is generally set by the ability of the eye to discern detail, as well as by the basic physics of image formation.
The eye’s ability to discern detail is determined by several factors, including the level of illumination and the degree of contrast between light and dark regions on the object. Under reasonable light conditions, a normal eye with good visual acuity is capable of seeing two high-contrast points if they subtend a visual angle of at least one arc minute in size. Thus, at a nominal viewing distance of 25 cm (10 inches), the points must be at least 0.1 mm (0.004 inch) apart for the eye to see them as separate. With a simple magnifier of 10×, an observer can see two points separated by perhaps 0.01 mm (0.0004 inch); and with a compound microscope magnifying 100×, one might expect the observer to be able to distinguish two points only 0.001 mm (0.00004 inch) apart. However, an additional complication arises for the high magnifications encountered in a compound microscope. When the dimensions to be resolved approach the wavelength of light, consideration must be given to the effect of diffraction upon the eye’s ability to resolve details upon objects
The resolution and the light-collecting capability of the microscope are determined by the numerical aperture (N.A.) of the objective. The N.A. is defined as the sine of half the angle of the cone of light from each point of the object that can be accepted by the objective multiplied by the refractive index (R.I.) of the medium in which the object is immersed. Thus, the N.A. increases as the lens becomes larger or the R.I. increases. Typical values for microscope objective N.A.’s range from 0.1 for low-magnification objectives to 0.95 for dry objectives and 1.4 for oil-immersion objectives. A dry objective is one that works with the air between the specimen and the objective lens. An immersion objective requires a liquid, usually a transparent oil of the same R.I. as glass, to occupy the space between the object and the front element of the objective.
The limit of resolution is set by the wavelength of light and the N.A. The resolution can be improved either by increasing the N.A. of a lens or by using light with a shorter wavelength. In an immersion objective, the effective wavelength of the light is reduced by the index of refraction of the media within which the object being examined resides. The use of immersion imaging techniques in microscopy improves the resolution capabilities of the microscope.