There is a staggering amount of digital photomicrographic equipment. Modern student or college level microscopes outfitted for photomicrography have moved away from the previous standard of the tri-nocular head with detachable camera, and are now frequently found with dedicated integral digital cameras. The downside of such cameras aside from the added initial expense (which may double the cost of a comparable binocular microscope) is the inability to upgrade to a superior camera as advances are made or funds become available, and the software requirements. The upside is the possession of a tailored optical system that (ostensibly) has been designed with a knowledge of the microscopes optical system.
The contemporary alternative is the digital eyepiece camera or the eyepiece relay adapter. Despite the versatility of such things their occupation of an eyepiece may greatly complicate the normal use of the microscope. Such secondary optics might just as easily result in inferior image quality depending on the optical system of the microscope. Various artifacts and aberrations may be unavoidable and not immediately apparent.
Putting aside the issue of format for a moment, classic∗ photomicrographic equipment falls into the same two broad categories as modern digital photomicrographic gear. The traditional attachment camera was designed for use with monocular microscopes and many binocular microscopes were available with an interchangeable monocular body to be used with the photomicrographic outfit. Such apparatus was generally designed so as to use an ocular which could be varied depending on the objectives employed or magnification desired. Unlike modern equivalents most used a beam splitter to provide a viewing port for focusing, those which did not made use of a ground glass screen which could be interchanged with the film or plate holder.
The second category relied upon specialized microscope viewing heads which were designed with a beam splitter which would send a portion† of the light into a photomicrographic camera system. Nearly all lines of microscopes by the major houses were available with photomicrographic heads of different sorts encompassing the solely photomicrographic (without provision for visual use) to the monocular and binocular photomicrographic (trinocular). Such microscopes relied on the use of compatible photomicrographic systems generally provided by the manufacturer.
An off-the-shelf microscope equipped for digital photomicrography will undoubtedly function but one risks being tied to an overly simplistic microscope that does not meet the requirements of the microscopist as they grow in their ability. The same might be said of a modern or classic microscope outfitted with a digital camera and an eyepiece adapter, with the added difficulty of uncertainty of the suitability of the system‡. For modern photomicrographic equipment then the chief hazards is inferior equipment and the easy of excessive digital image modification.
Classic photomicrographic gear is only very infrequently available as a complete system in good working order. Obtaining results that do it justice is often heavily reliant on the ability of the user to locate and properly employ gear which was originally designed for use with a given microscope line. Such efforts are often complicated by the lack of relevant documentation or informed sellers§ who greatly increase the difficulty of locating equipment by selling it under some other designation. Recognizing compatible equipment on sight is inherently difficult. Attachment cameras using chemical photographic formats provide resolution that well exceeds consumer grade digital cameras, but one suffers for the time and expense of development and processing of significant numbers of test photomicrographs while getting the equipment in working order.
One can obtain a perfectly suitable modern microscope and outfit it for digital photomicrography at a reasonable cost, assuming of course the images are not required to be used for serious work. A student microscope designed for entry level photomicrography might easily run $500.00 US and one suitable for college level work could exceed $1000.00 without batting an eye. Regrettably, such microscopes are generally inferior to used professional microscopes of similar cost, but for assurance of capacity one could not be faulted for going that route.
A used professional grade trinocular microscope (such as the B&L DynaZoom, DynOptic, BalPlan, AO Spencer 10, Microstar, or 2/4) from any of the major houses may generally be found for far less than all but the cheapest modern student microscopes. Many microscopists have no interest in chemical photomicrography, however, what is seldom considered is that such microscopes as mentioned above existed at a time when the C-mount video camera was in wide use. After obtaining a trinocular microscope one should endeavor to find the c-mount photo-tube sold by the original manufacturer. This author is personally aware that such tubes exist for Bausch & Lomb and AO Spencer, an is told it is true of Olympus, Ziess, and Nikon as well.
One may just as well go the above route and in place of a difficult to find c-mount tube purchase a widely available Polaroid instant camera system designed for the microscope. Film remains available for the more common formats and one has all the benefits of chemical photography without the need of expensive darkrooms or tedious developing processes.
∗As distinct from antique photomicrographic equipment which should be taken to include the bellows outfitted horizontal and vertical cameras.
†Alternatively the microscope head might be equipped with a control which would direct 100% of available light to either the ocular(s) or the photomicrographic outfit.
‡By this is meant the difficulty of using a system that can not be tested before hand—most equipment must be purchased on the internet—and the difficulty of recognizing unforgivable visual artifacts and aberrations as a beginner.
§Most of the authors photomicrographic equipment was obtained from dealers who incorrectly identified it as projection or aerial photography gear.