The Parts of a Compound Microscope and How To Handle Them Correctly


Many important anatomical features, especially those that function at the tissue or cellular levels, are too small to be seen by the unaided eye. The compound microscope is a valuable tool for magnifying small sections of biological material so that otherwise inaccessible details can be resolved.

There are many different types of microscopes. We shall only learn about the compound light microscope. It uses visible light to visualize the specimen, but passes that light through two separate lens to magnify the image. The compound microscopes we will use in this course are sturdy instruments but they still have a lot of moving parts. They can be damaged and broken through misuse and mishandling. A large part of learning how to use the microscopes properly involves learning how to avoid damaging it. To do that, you first have to know which parts are which. Figure 4.1 identifies the key parts of the microscope that you need to be familiar with.

In Figure 4.1, there are two compound microscopes shown. The one on the left is monocular and the one on the left is binocular. Many of the parts of the two microscopes are in slightly different locations. Get used to this. Different brands and different models of microscopes position the key parts differently.

When you first sit in front of a microscope, you should always take a second to find the key parts, especially the focus knobs, the condenser adjustment knob (if present), and the stage control knobs. When viewing a specimen, your eyes will be at the eyepieces, and if you grab the wrong knob by accident, you can lose your image at best, and damage the microscope at worst. Don’t assume you remember where the key knobs are. You may have a different microscope than last time.


Figure 4.1 Some key parts of a compound light microscope.

The eyepiece

This is where your eyes will be. If the microscope is binocular, use both eyepieces. With binocular microscopes, you almost always can adjust the width of the eyepieces to ensure they fit the spacing of your eyes. The eyepiece contains the eyepiece lens, one of the two lenses doing the actual magnifying in a compound microscope.

The carrying arm

When moving a microscope, even if it is just a few inches, always pick it up by the carrying arm. Do NOT drag the microscope: pick it up. The microscope will have rubber feet that prevent it from sliding, so if you try to drag it, it will shake and vibrate and possible damage parts. Never pick up the microscope by any part other than the carrying arm. The other parts are generally much more fragile and prone to breaking if you try.

The objective lenses

Most compound light microscopes will contain three to four objective lenses that can be rotated over the slide. Sometimes these lenses are just called objectives. When a particular objective has been fully rotated into position, you will hear or feel a click as that objective locks into place. The objective lens is the second of the two lenses doing the actual magnifying in a compound microscope, so if it is not snapped into proper position, you won’t see the proper image. Each objective lens can usually be unscrewed from its position in the rotating turret that houses it. Be careful you are rotating the turret, not unscrewing an objective. Do NOT unscrew the objectives from the turret. Each objective lens has a different magnifying power, so the image on your slide will be magnified to lesser or greater extents, depending on which objective lens you have chosen. Each objective’s magnification power will be written somewhere on the side of the objective, although sometimes it is hard to see the number. The magnification of an objective lens will always be a whole number. There will be other things written on the side of an objective, but the one that is a whole number greater than 1 will be the magnification. You can ignore everything else written there.

The stage

The stage is the platform that the slide will be clipped on to.

Stage clips

The slide will be held in place on the stage with stage clips. Most of the time, these will clip against the sides of the slide. They do not sit above or below the slide. They are spring-loaded to hold the slide edges and lock the slide in place so that the stage controls can move the position of the slide smoothly. If the slide is not clipped in place, you won’t be able to reposition the slide to find microscopic features of interest.

Stage Controls

These allow you to move your slide while you are viewing it, but only if the slide is properly clipped in with the stage clips. Always find where these are on your microscope before you start viewing your slide. They seem to never be in the same place in two different microscopes and if you just blindly grope for them while viewing your slide, you will likely do something unfortunate to your view or to the entire microscope. There are always two dials. One moves the slide left and right. The other moves the slide up and down. Sometimes they are on top of each other, as in the binocular microscope in Figure 4.1. Sometimes they are two separate dials, as in the monocular microscope in Figure 4.1.  Sometimes they are above the stage, as in the monocular microscope in Figure 4.1. Sometimes they are below the stage, as in the binocular scope in Figure 4.1. Spend a few seconds to find them every time before you sit down at a microscope.

Coarse focus

This is always the larger of the two focus knobs. You should usually only need to use the coarse focus knob once for each new slide. Use it with the lowest power objective to get the specimen approximately in focus. After that, only use the fine focus knob, even after you change to a higher-power objective. Sometimes the coarse focus know is with the fine focus knob, as on the binocular microscope in Figure 4.1. Sometimes it is separate from the fine focus know, as on the monocular microscope in Figure 4.1.

Fine focus

This is always the smaller of the two focus knobs. This is the focus know you will use over and over again in viewing slides. Don’t change the coarse focus after using it for the first time, only change the fine focus.

Condenser adjustment

Not all microscopes have a condenser adjustment knob. If there are only two knobs, as on the monocular microscope in Figure 4.1, those two are the coarse focus and the fine focus and you only have to keep those two separate. But if there is a third knob, it is the condenser adjustment knob. As a general rule, do NOT touch or adjust this knob. It controls how far the light condenser is from the slide, which should be properly adjusted before you use the microscope. If you move it, you will have it in the wrong position. If your scope has the knob, find out where it is and avoid it.


This is directly under the hole in the stage where light passes through to the slide. It is controlled by a level which opens and closes an iris to let more or less light through the slide. In some specimens there is not much contrast between the colours and shades of the different components being magnified. Changing how bright the view is by adjusting the diaphragm can allow you to better see some of the details you are trying to magnify.

Lab 4 Exercises 4.1

There is a compound microscope for each student. Carry out the activities listed below and fill in the blanks as you do so.

  1. Pick up your microscope and physically move it to a new location. Bring it close enough that you can look into it comfortably from where you are sitting. Arrange it so that the stage is facing you and the eyepiece is rotated towards you. What part of the microscope did you grab in order to pick it up and move it?                                                                                                                                                                          
  2. Where are the locations of the two stage adjustment knobs on your microscope?                                                                                                                                                                         
  3. Where is the location of the coarse focus knob?                                                                                                                                                                         
  4. Where is the location of the fine focus knob?                                                                                                                                                                         
  5. Is there a condenser adjustment knob? If so, where is it located?                                                                                                                                                                         
  6. Find the diaphragm lever. Looking in the hole in the center of the stage, what happens when you move the diaphragm lever clockwise?                                                                                                                                                                         
  7. Still looking down at the hole in the center of the stage, what happens when you slide the diaphragm lever counter-clockwise?