The term digital microscope can refer to two different set-ups. It can either be an optical microscope with a video camera or digital camera attached or a microscope with an integrated camera. In either case, it is capable of outputting the view of what’s on the stage as a digital image, and in either case, the camera can be referred to as a digital microscope camera. A digital microscope camera attached to an optical microscope has the disadvantage of the lenses being designed for the human eye, rather than the camera, so the image may be of lesser quality than that obtained with an integrated model. On the other hand, some integrated models do not have an eyepiece and depend on enlargement from the monitor.
A digital microscope camera enables a number of possibilities not available with a microscope that does not have such a camera. It allows images to be stored for record-keeping, transmitted over the Internet, or incorporated into documents. A projected image allows for study away from the microscope and sharing the image with others — for example, a group of students or colleagues, and the enlargement can also lead to better understanding of the data. With a video camera, the ability to record and share the view of a phenomenon or experiment over time is added.
There are monocular optical microscopes and trinocular microscopes that have been designed to make it easy to attach a digital microscope camera or video camera. In the case of the monocular microscope, the digital camera fits over the one eyepiece. With a trinocular microscope, the camera attaches to the third eyepiece, which is specially designed for this use. When adding a digital microscope camera to a microscope, a C-mount microscope adapter is the usual connector.
The first digital microscope was built by Hirox® in 1986. USB and FireWire now allow direct connections between the digital microscope camera and the computer. Other important differences in digital microscope set-ups include the quality of the optics, the availability of an eyepiece, the number of megapixels the camera has, the image software used, whether the microscope is on a stand or hand-held, and the cost.