36 Differences between light and electron microscope

Biology Educational Videos

Last Updated on July 8, 2020 by Sagar Aryal

Both light microscopes and electron microscopes use radiation (light or electron beams) to form larger and more detailed images of objects which cannot be seen clearly through an unaided eye.

Differences between Light and Electron Microscope

However, each of these microscopes has distinct features and is suitable for different purposes.



Light Microscope

Electron Microscope

1.      Alternatively known asOptical microscopeBeam microscope
2.      Invented byIt is believed that Dutch spectacles makers Zacharius Jansen and his father Hans were the first to invent the compound microscope in the 16th century.In 1931 physicist Ernst Ruska and German engineer Max Knoll.
3.      Illuminating sourceUses light (approx wavelength 400-700 nm) to illuminate the objects under view.Uses a beam of electrons (approx equivalent wavelength 1 nm) to make objects larger for a detailed view.
4.      PrincipleThe image formed by absorption of light waves.The image formed by scattering or transmission of electrons.
5.      StructureLight microscopes are smaller and lighter.Heavier and larger in size.
6.      Lenses usedLenses are made of glass.Lenses are made of electromagnets.
7.      VacuumNot used under a vacuumOperates under a high vacuum
8.      Specimen typeFixed or unfixed, stained or unstained, living or non-living.Fixed, stained and non-living.
9.      Specimen observedBoth live and dead specimens can be observed.Only dead specimens are possible to be observed.
10.   Specimen preparationLess tedious and simple.It generally involves harsher processes, e.g. using corrosive chemicals. More skill required – both to prepare specimens and to interpret EM images (due to artifacts).
11.   Preparation timeSpecimen preparation takes usually a few minutes to hours.Specimen preparation takes usually takes a few days.
12.   Thickness of specimen5 micrometer or thickerUltra-thin, 0.1 micrometers or below
13.   Dehydration of SpecimenSpecimens need not be dehydrated before viewing.Only dehydrated specimens are used.
14.   Coating of specimenStained by colored dyes for proper visualization.Coated with heavy metals to reflect electrons.
15.   Mounting of specimenMounted on the glass slide.Mounted on the metallic grid (mostly copper).
16.   FocusingDone by adjusting the lens position mechanically.Done by adjusting the power of the electric current to the electromagnetic lenses.
17.   Magnification powerLow magnification of up to 1,500x.High magnification of up to 1,000,000x.
18.   Resolving powerLow resolving power, usually below 0.30µm. The high resolving power of up to 0.001µm, about 250 times higher than the light microscope.
19.   Viewing of the image formedLight microscope images can be viewed directly. Images are viewed by the eyes through the eyepiece.Images are viewed on a photographic plate or zinc sulfate fluorescent screen.
20.   Nature of Image formedPoor surface viewGood surface view and internal details
21.    Image ColorColored images.Electron microscopes produce grayscale (sometimes called “black and white”) images (except “false-color” electron micrographs).
22.   Image dimensionImage plane “flat” (2D).2D only in a Transmission electron microscope (TEM); 
Scanning electron microscope (SEM) images give depth information which seems like 3D.
23.   Living processesVisualization of living processes such as microscopic pond life in action and even cell division is possible.Living processes cannot be viewed.
24.   Room settingsNo special settings required.It must be used in a room where humidity, pressure, and temperature are controlled.
25.   Simplicity in useSimple to useUsers require technical skills
26.   Electric CurrentNo need for high voltage electricity.High voltage electric current is required (50,000 V or above).
27.   FilamentsNo filaments used.Tungsten filaments used to generate electrons.
28.   Cooling SystemAbsentCooling system present to pacify the heat generated due to high voltage electric current.
29.   Radiation leakageNo radiation risk.Risk of radiation leakage.
30.   ComplexityLess complexComplex
31.   ExpenseCheap to buy and has low maintenance costs.Very expensive to buy as well as to maintain.
32.   Suitability /   PracticalitySuitable for most basic functions, and is very common in schools and other learning institutions.Limited to specialized use such as research.
33.   Advantages
  • Easy to use
  • Cheap
  • True color but sometimes require staining
  • Live specimens 
  • High resolution
  • Provide detailed images of surface structures and interior structures
  • High magnification
  • 3D images
34.   Disadvantages
  • Low resolution due to shorter wavelength of light (0.2nm)
  • Low magnification
  • The specimen used is thin.
  • Expensive
  • Requires extensive training
  • Sample must be dead
  • Black and white/false-color image
35.   Types/ Variants
  • Transmission electron microscope (TEM)
  • Scanning electron microscope (SEM)
36.   ApplicationIt is used for the study of detailed gross internal structure.It is used in the study of the external surface, the ultrastructure of cell and very small organisms.


  1. Manandhar S. (2013). A practical approach to microbiology. Revised 2nd Edition. National Book Centre: Kathmandu.
  2. https://theydiffer.com/difference-between-a-light-microscope-and-an-electron-microscope/
  3. https://www.majordifferences.com/2013/10/difference-between-electron-microscope.html
  4. http://www.ivyroses.com/Biology/Techniques/light-microscope-vs-electron-microscope.php
  5. https://biodifferences.com/difference-between-light-microscope-and-electron-microscope.html
  6. https://www.easybiologyclass.com/light-microscope-vs-electron-microscope-similarities-differences-comparison-table/

Differences between light microscope and electron microscope

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