Better microscope lighting in 20 seconds

Consider the standard configuration of stereomicroscope and fiber optic light used to examine insect specimens:

Arranged like this, the lights provide point sources of intense light. A shiny ant specimen lit as above looks like so:

Undiffuse light from the fiber optic source leaves harsh glare and dark shadows, and the ant’s skin textures and hairs are difficult to see. How to fix it?

Instead of directing light at the specimen, arrange white paper or styrofoam under the scope and reflect the light off that:

Moving the fiber optic arms to bounce light off a white surface replaces the harsh points with a soothing sea of even illumination.

Diffused light renders the ant’s skin textures and hairs more visible. Same ant, diffuse light. Look at the difference- it is much easier to see key characters!


  • All photos taken with an iPhone 4s, including the specimen shots. The phone’s little camera actually works pretty well held up to the scope’s eyepiece.
  • For microscope photography, this quick diffuser will still be insufficient to produce publishable-quality images. Instead, you’ll want to up the diffusion with something like the styrofoam cup trick.

23 thoughts on “Better microscope lighting in 20 seconds”

  1. Thanks Alex. Last week, I gave up trying to get a picture of a Leptothorax collected from under the snow just because of this glaring problem. I tried using tracing mylar to diffuse the light, but it wasn’t enough. I guess I’ll have to go scrounging for a styrofoam cup.

  2. Hi,

    Thank you so much for your blog and this post!

    Do you have more details on the styrofoam cup trick? I found the photo but no explanation.

    I hope it will be useful for me while photographing insects for my independent study project!


  3. Sigh- it hurts me that many entomologists really don’t know how to look at bugs under a scope. LED ring lights are not the answer for most insects, especially small shiny ones, and almost never for photographing through scopes (leps perhaps the exception?). If you’re just using the scope for examination (not photos), you want a mylar stage (see crude examples: ), with the light arms coming from behind the scope stage- then you can manipulate your specimen with the manipulator and observe away- if you’re really observing bugs you’re going to be constantly repositioning the manipulator, thus cups are out. A directional light source also gives you more of a 3d effect (as seen in many of of the images on this site). Position the light arms about 1 cm away from the mylar, and the mylar as close to the specimen as possible, these two distances make all the difference.

    1. Matt,
      Not every entomologist looks at small, shiny insects on points all the time, nor do many of us spend significant time photographing. Also, the LED ring lights that come with dimmers and quadrant control (allowing groups of lights in 4 groups) are incomparable, in my opinion. They can also be diffused or filtered just like any other light and are excellent for pointed insects. I’ve been staring at ants for more than 13 years now and tried every other set up you can imagine and I’ve yet to find anything close to them, especially when a large amount of somewhat diffuse light is needed (say for when you are sorting pitfall samples), and then you need to transition immediately to a point mounted specimen (say for when you need to confirm an ID of a specimen in the alcohol).

  4. A sawn off ping-pong ball makes a good diffuser. You need to cut off the top and bottom 1/4s (roughly, adjust to fit your stage/objective etc!) Don’t be tempted to try to burn a hole in one!

  5. I’d love to hear more tips for budget photomicroscopy. So far it’s been a crap shoot for me to get a point-and-shoot and ocular that work nicely together, and it’s hard for me to justify purchasing the equipment to put my personal SLR on a workplace scope.

  6. I find inexpensive 1 – 3 mp ocular digital cameras commonly available on Amazon for less than $100 coupled with free focus stacking software like CombineZP provide surprisingly decent pictures of small specimens / structures.

    The camera is made to slip into any dissecting or microscope eyepiece. While the resolution is not barn-burning quality, neither is the pricetag. My setup cost a total of 46 dollars for enlarged digital pix (of less than 15 mm fof) subject material suitable for posting on blogs, etc. The best shots could even be used in professional pubs or keys.

    The more you spend, the better the quality, of course, but even the least expensive are pretty good with the lighting techniques mentioned here. The focus stacking software is also very forgiving of manual focusing rather than having to spend for a motorized stage.

  7. I’m interested in photographing the odd insect in the size range that Matt typically works with (I haven’t tried a diapriid yet, but I will) and as long as they are in alcohol, I don’t have much problem with glare (but shifting is a problem). For example, see here:

    The margarodid male is only 3 mm in length.

    Like BioBob, I limit my coffee intake and manually crank the microscope and click the mouse for the images to send to the wonderful CombineZP, but I do have a fancier camera (but only 5 megapixil, so not great). I wish I had a motorized stage and automatic camera.

    Why entomologists insist on putting tiny bugs on points, I have no idea, but I suppose surface sculpturing is easier to see. Makes for much harder and more boring photos, though, and when they are shiny you need diffuse light.

  8. Thanks guys! I’m working with Platygastrids and would love to get my own usable images. I’ll experiment with some of the methods mentioned here and keep hoping that we get a dedicated system someday…

  9. I’ve been using a standard fluorescent desk lamp with two 15W bulbs since I was a grad student. The glare and shadows all disappeared. I couldn’t tell Nylandria workers apart without it. But brightness becomes an issue under higher power. Getting the light as close as possible to the specimen helps. Brightness increases 4x when you cut the distance in half. I also bought a cheap LED ring light, but the glare was unacceptable. So I fitted a ring of Mylar over the ring light and got diffused lighting. Using the ring light with the desk lamp gives me enough light to view the tiniest platygastrids, like Neobia.

    Myrmycos’ trick with the Styrofoam and the fiber optic lamp has the potential of providing a bright, diffused light source from one lamp. I’ll have to try it. I have considered fiber optic lamps to be totally useless until now. 🙂

  10. Great blog post for microscope lighting. Just like the ant featured in the picture, they can be beneficial or pest like the [link removed-AW]

    1. If you’re going to spam my blog, Jason Alonzo, it would be wise to check that the commercial sites you link to aren’t using my photographs without my permission.

      I have alerted your web host.

  11. Thanks — this is also helpful for those of us dissecting insects, since the contrast inside the body cavity is often low under most lights, which makes it hard to see parasitoid eggs or larvae. I am probably going to be buying some new lighting for my dissecting scope soon — does anybody have specific recommendations for their favorites? I don’t do any real photography (I just beg Alex for photos ;-)) but do like to have good views for dissected specimens.

  12. A substage-with-adjustable-mirror/illuminator is helpful at times to view translucent structures, etc.

    I also like to swap out different colored stage-plates or even cardboard of different colors under the specimen. These all can make significant differences in visibility.

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  14. One other way to diffuse the bright light is to use a thin white cloth but for sure your method of simply using styrofoam block is quick and cheap.

  15. Excellent post and a neat and very inexpensive solution.
    I haven’t tried with an iPhone , but my attempts at photography with a digital camera via the eyepiece were awful.

  16. Pingback: Microscope photos of insects from the trees | Emily Meineke

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