4. Microscopy

The simple microscope


The simple microscope consists of a single lens traditionally called a loupe. The most familiar present-day example is a reading or magnifying glass. Present-day higher-magnification lenses are often made with two glass elements that produce a colour-corrected image. They can be worn around the neck packaged in a cylindrical form that can be held in place immediately in front of the eye. These are generally referred to as eye loupes or jewelers’ lenses. The traditional simple microscope was made with a single magnifying lens, which was often of sufficient optical quality to allow the study of microscopical organisms including Hydra and protists.



It is instinctive, when one wishes to examine the details of an object, to bring it as near as possible to the eye. The closer the object is to the eye, the larger the angle that it subtends at the eye, and thus the larger the object appears. If an object is brought too close, however, the eye can no longer form a clear image. The use of the magnifying lens between the observer and the object enables the formation of a “virtual image” that can be viewed in comfort. To obtain the best possible image, the magnifier should be placed directly in front of the eye. The object of interest is then brought toward the eye until a clear image of the object is seen.

Without lenses, the highest possible magnification is when the object is brought to the closest position at which a clear virtual image is observed. For many people, this image distance is about 25 cm (10 inches). As people age, the nearest point of distinct vision recedes to greater distances, thus making a magnifier a useful adjunct to vision for older people.

The magnifying power, or extent to which the object being viewed appears enlarged, and the field of view, or size of the object that can be viewed, are related by the geometry of the optical system. A working value for the magnifying power of a lens can be found by dividing the least distance of distinct vision by the lens’ focal length, which is the distance from the lens to the plane at which the incoming light is focused. Thus, for example, a lens with a least distance of distinct vision of 25 cm and a focal length of 5 cm (2 inches) will have a magnifying power of about 5×.

If the diameter of the magnifying lens is sufficient to fill or exceed the diameter of the pupil of the eye, the virtual image that is viewed will appear to be of substantially the same brightness as the original object. The field of view of the magnifier will be determined by the extent to which the magnifying lens exceeds this working diameter and also by the distance separating the lens from the eye. The clarity of the magnified virtual image will depend upon the aberrations present in the lens, its contour, and the manner in which it is used.


Various aberrations influence the sharpness or quality of the image. Chromatic aberrations produce coloured fringes about the high-contrast regions of the image, because longer wavelengths of light (such as red) are brought to focus in a plane slightly farther from the lens than shorter wavelengths (such as blue). Spherical aberration produces an image in which the centre of the field of view is in focus when the periphery may not be and is a consequence of using lenses with spherical (rather than nonspherical, or aspheric) surfaces. Distortion produces curved images from straight lines in the object. The type and degree of distortion visible is intimately related to the possible spherical aberration in the magnifier and is usually most severe in high-powered lenses.

chromatic aberration

The aberrations of a lens increase as the relative aperture (i.e., the working diameter divided by the focal length) of the lens is increased. Therefore, the aberrations of a lens whose diameter is twice the focal length will be worse than those of a lens whose diameter is less than the focal length. There is thus a conflict between a short focal length, which permits a high magnifying power but small field of view, and a longer focal length, which provides a lower magnifying power but a larger linear field of view. (Leeuwenhoek’s high-powered lenses of the 1670s had a focal length—and thus a working distance—of a few millimetres. This made them difficult to use, but they provided remarkable images that were not bettered for a century.)

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