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Why we’re all desperately waiting for you to bright field and dark field imaging.

bright field and dark field imaging

What is bright field and dark field imaging?

What is bright field and dark field imaging?

Have you ever heard of a dark field microscope? While such a name may sound like a sci-fi gadget used to measure black holes, in reality it’s just a handy tool used to view certain types of translucent samples. The average microscope user may not know about the concept of dark field microscopy, yet it can shed new light on the old way of viewing specimens.
Most people who have survived a biology class know what a light field microscope is. This type of scope uses bright field illumination, meaning it floods the specimen with white light from the condenser without any interference. Thus the specimen shows up as a dark image on a light background (or white field if you will).

This type of unit works best with specimens that have natural color pigments. The samples need to be thick enough to absorb the incoming light; so staining is usually paired with this type of microscope.

Plankton illuminated with a dark field microscopeYet what if the specimen is light colored or translucent, like the plankton on the right? It certainly won’t stand out against a strong white background. Additionally, some specimens are just too thin. They cannot absorb any of the light that passes through them, so they appear invisible to the user. This is where the concept of dark field illumination comes in!

Rather than using direct light from the condenser, one uses an opaque disk to block the light into just a few scattered beams. Now the background is dark, and the sample reflects the light of the beams only. This results in a light colored specimen against a dark background (dark field), perfect for viewing clear or translucent details.

On a grand scale, the same thing happens every day when you look up at the sky. Do the stars disappear when it’s light out? Of course not! They’re still there, their brilliance blotted out by the mid-day sun.

If you’re still having a hard time visualizing this concept, think of a dusty room with the light on and the door open. You may feel the dust affecting your breathing, but you probably won’t see it flying through the air.

Now turn off the light and close the door to just a sliver, while leaving the light on in the adjacent room. If you look at that sliver of light coming through the door, you’ll see all sorts of dust motes suspended in it. You’re employing a similar principle when you use dark field illumination!

bright field and dark field imaging

What is bright field and dark field imaging?

What is bright field and dark field imaging?

Bright-field microscopy is the simplest of all the optical microscopy illumination techniques. Sample illumination is transmitted (i.e., illuminated from below and observed from above) white light, and contrast in the sample is caused by attenuation of the transmitted light in dense areas of the sample. Bright-field microscopy is the simplest of a range of techniques used for illumination of samples in light microscopes, and its simplicity makes it a popular technique. The typical appearance of a bright-field microscopy image is a dark sample on a bright background, hence the name.

bright field and dark field imaging Light path

The light path of a bright-field microscope is extremely simple, no additional components are required beyond the normal light-microscope setup. The light path therefore consists of:

a transillumination light source, commonly a halogen lamp in the microscope stand;
a condenser lens, which focuses light from the light source onto the sample;
an objective lens, which collects light from the sample and magnifies the image;
oculars and/or a camera to view the sample image.

Bright-field microscopy may use critical or Köhler illumination to illuminate the sample.

bright field and dark field imaging Performance

Bright-field microscopy typically has low contrast with most biological samples, as few absorb light to a great extent. Staining is often required to increase contrast, which prevents use on live cells in many situations. Bright-field illumination is useful for samples that have an intrinsic color, for example chloroplasts in plant cells.Bright-field microscopy is a standard light-microscopy technique, and therefore magnification is limited by the resolving power possible with the wavelength of visible light.

bright field and dark field imaging Advantages

Simplicity of setup with only basic equipment required.
Living cells can be seen with bright-field microscopes

bright field and dark field imaging Limitations

Very low contrast of most biological samples.
The practical limit to magnification with a light microscope is around 1300X. Although higher magnifications are possible, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain image clarity as the magnification increases.
Low apparent optical resolution due to the blur of out-of-focus material.
Samples that are naturally colorless and transparent cannot be seen well, e.g. many types of mammalian cells. These samples often have to be stained before viewing. Samples that do have their own color can be seen without preparation, e.g. the observation of cytoplasmic streaming in Chara cells.

bright field and dark field imaging Enhancements

Reducing or increasing the amount of the light source by the iris diaphragm.
Use of an oil-immersion objective lens and a special immersion oil placed on a glass cover over the specimen. Immersion oil has the same refraction as glass and improves the resolution of the observed specimen.
Use of sample-staining methods for use in microbiology, such as simple stains (methylene blue, safranin, crystal violet) and differential stains (negative stains, flagellar stains, endospore stains).
Use of a colored (usually blue) or polarizing filter on the light source to highlight features not visible under white light. The use of filters is especially useful with mineral samples.

bright field and dark field imaging

How to change Dark Field Transformation?

Most stereo and standard compound microscopes have the potential for bright field and dark field imaging.

If a microscope has built-in elements to easily modify for dark field illumination, the manufacturer usually lists this amongst the observation specifications.

You can achieve dark field by using condensers, mirrors and/or a “stop.” Some microscopes come with these accessories or researchers can purchase dark field kits, or even use some common items to adapt a microscope for dark field illumination.

In bright field illumination, the object is lit from below the stage, resulting in a larger, contrasted image that can be studied.

A dark field microscope blocks this central light with a condenser so that only oblique rays hit the object.

An Abbe condenser, for example, contains a concave orb that collects light rays in all azimuths that bounce off a sample to form a cone of illumination.

If there is nothing on the stage, the aperture of the condenser is greater than the objective and the view will be completely black.

A stop is an opaque object that blocks the central light when placed underneath the stage condenser.

This also causes light to scatter in all azimuths, resulting in a cone of light that allows for dark field observation.

Too expensive? What you can do…

If you do not have access to these accessories and cannot afford a dark field kit, there are alternative ways to adapt your microscope for dark field illumination.

The expensive stops are all made of opaque material.

Any possible substitutions cannot have any transparent properties.

One option is to use a circular object, such as a coin; adhere the coin to a larger disk and place below the stage.

You can also cut out a round piece of thick paper, such as construction paper, cardboard or poster-board, and attach to the condenser.

Whatever you use, the trick is to find the right diameter so that the makeshift stop will block the light and only allow the oblique rays to illuminate the specimen.

bright field and dark field imaging

How bright field and dark field imaging work?


Microscopes are used to magnify objects. Through magnification, an image is made to appear larger than the original object. The magnification of an object can be calculated roughly by multiplying the magnification of the objective lens times the magnification of the ocular lens. Objects are magnified to be able to see small details. There is no limit to the magnification that can be achieved; however, there is a magnification beyond which detail does not become clearer. The result is called empty magnification when objects are made bigger but their details do not become clearer. Therefore, not only magnification but resolution is important to the quality of the information in an image.

The resolving power of the microscope is defined as the ability to distinguish two points apart from each other. The resolution of a microscope is dependent on a number of factors in its construction. There is also an inherent theoretical limit to resolution imposed by the wavelength of visible light (400-600nm). The theoretical limit of resolution (the smallest distance able to be seen between two points) is calculated as:

Resolution = 0.61 l/N.A.

where l represents the wavelength of light used and N.A.is the numerical aperture. The student-grade microscopes generally have much lower resolution than the theoretical limit because of lower quality lenses and illumination systems.

Standard brightfield microscopy relies upon light from the lamp source being gathered by the substage condenser and shaped into a cone whose apex is focused at the plane of the specimen. Specimens are seen because of their ability to change the speed and the path of the light passing through them. This ability is dependent upon the refractive index and the opacity of the specimen. To see a specimen in a brightfield microscope, the light rays passing through it must be changed sufficiently to be able to interfere with each other which produces contrast (differences in light intensities) and, thereby, build an image. If the specimen has a refractive index too similar to the surrounding medium between the microscope stage and the objective lens, it will not be seen. To visualize biological materials well, the materials must have this inherent contrast caused by the proper refractive indices or be artificially stained. These limitations require instructors to find naturally high contrast materials or to enhance contrast by staining them which often requires killing them. Adequately visualizing transparent living materials or thin unstained specimens is not possible with a brightfield microscope.

Darkfield microscopy relies on a different illumination system. Rather than illuminating the sample with a filled cone of light, the condenser is designed to form a hollow cone of light. The light at the apex of the cone is focused at the plane of the specimen; as this light moves past the specimen plane it spreads again into a hollow cone. The objective lens sits in the dark hollow of this cone; although the light travels around and past the objective lens, no rays enter it (Fig. 1). The entire field appears dark when there is no sample on the microscope stage; thus the name bright field and dark field imaging. When a sample is on the stage, the light at the apex of the cone strikes it. The image is made only by those rays scattered by the sample and captured in the objective lens (note the rays scattered by the specimen in Figure 1). The image appears bright against the dark background. This situation can be compared to the glittery appearance of dust particles in a dark room illuminated by strong shafts of light coming in through a side window. The dust particles are very small, but are easily seen when they scatter the light rays. This is the working principle of bright field and dark field imaging and explains how the image of low contrast material is created: an object will be seen against a dark background if it scatters light which is captured with the proper device such as an objective lens.

The highest quality darkfield microscopes are equipped with specialized costly condensers constructed only for darkfield application. This darkfield effect can be achieved in a brightfield microscope, however, by the addition of a simple “stop”. The stop is a piece of opaque material placed below the substage condenser; it blocks out the center of the beam of light coming from the base of the microscope and forms the hollow cone of light needed for darkfield illumination.

bright field and dark field imaging

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