Compound Microscopes vs. Stereo Microscopes: What’s the Difference? | AmScope

  • Compound and stereo microscopes are two of the most common kinds of scopes.


  • A compound microscope is commonly used to view something in detail that you can’t see with the naked eye, such as bacteria or cells.


  • A stereo microscope is typically used to inspect larger, opaque, and 3D objects, such as small electronic components or stamps.


  • AmScope can help you determine which type is best for your unique needs.

There are two primary types of microscopes: the compound microscope and the stereo microscope. Although they have one very fundamental aspect in common–they both magnify objects, of course—these two pieces of equipment are made for two very different applications. Both are mainstays in labs and classrooms, but neither provides a one-size-fits-all solution to every magnification need. Here’s everything you need to know about the differences between compound and stereo microscopes.

people using compound microscopes in a lab

What Is a Compound Microscope?

Compound microscopes use multiple lenses and backlit slides to view transparent specimens at high magnifications. They provide one optical path, which is then divided at the observation tube to convey the same image to both eyes. Generally speaking, compound microscopes are best for applications where you need to be able to view the internal structures of cells and scenarios where high magnification is required, such as in the biology or crime lab. Compound microscopes are typically supplied with 3 to 4 objective lenses with magnifications of 4x/10x/40x/100x. Combined with the standard 10x magnifying eyepiece, the total magnifications are 40x/100x/400x/1000x. See our compound microscopes here.

person handling a microscope slide

 What is a Compound Microscope Used For?

Compared with stereo microscopes, compound microscopes have much higher optical resolutions, so they’re best for viewing or inspecting small specimens requiring very high magnification, including bacteria, plant cells, algae, protozoa, animal cells, chromosomes, and thin slices of organs or tissues. They have a small working distance, which varies from 0.14 to 4 millimeters and is ideal for ultra-thin samples that you can pass light through.


Compound microscopes are not recommended for viewing dissections or any opaque, three-dimensional objects. You also cannot view viruses, atoms, or molecules using compound microscopes, as these can only be viewed with an electron microscope.  


There are many different types of compound microscopes available, including brightfield, darkfield, inverted, phase contrast, metallurgical, and polarizing. Compound microscopes are used in biology classrooms and labs, research facilities, museums, nature centers, medical labs, hospitals, veterinary facilities, genetic testing labs, and crime labs.


What Is a Stereo Microscope?

Also known as dissection or dissecting microscopes, stereo microscopes have dedicated objective lenses and eyepieces for each eye. The separate optical paths create two axes offset from one another, providing depth perception for a three-dimensional view. This makes stereo scopes ideal for viewing dissection or any larger objects that you may need to manipulate as you observe. Stereo microscopes operate at lower magnifications than compound microscopes. If you are examining relatively large objects, this is probably the right microscope for you. See our stereo microscopes here. 

person examining a plant with a stereo microscope

What is a Stereo Microscope Used For?

Stereo microscopes are used for examining opaque specimens in three dimensions. Due to their large working distance, subjects that are visible to the naked eye such as insects, plant life, gems, jewelry, and electronic parts are best viewed with a stereo microscope. This makes them popular in both biological and industrial labs.