What is the difference between confocal and super-resolution?

Differences Between Confocal and Super-Resolution Microscopy

Confocal microscopy and super-resolution microscopy are two advanced imaging techniques widely used in the field of biological sciences and materials science. While both methods offer enhanced imaging capabilities beyond traditional light microscopy, they differ significantly in their principles, applications, and the level of detail they can reveal.

Principle of Operation

  • Confocal Microscopy: Utilizes a pinhole to eliminate out-of-focus light, improving optical resolution and contrast of images. It scans the sample point by point and reconstructs the image, allowing for the creation of three-dimensional images from thick specimens.
  • Super-Resolution Microscopy: Refers to a group of techniques designed to surpass the diffraction limit of light, achieving higher resolution than is possible with conventional optical microscopy. Techniques such as STED (Stimulated Emission Depletion), PALM (Photoactivated Localization Microscopy), and STORM (Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy) are examples of super-resolution methods.


  • Confocal Microscopy: Typically achieves a resolution of up to 200 nm laterally and 500-600 nm axially.
  • Super-Resolution Microscopy: Can achieve resolutions below 20 nm, significantly surpassing the diffraction limit of light and providing much finer details of the sample.


  • Confocal Microscopy: Widely used in life sciences for imaging living cells and tissues, studying cellular processes, and obtaining detailed three-dimensional images of specimens.
  • Super-Resolution Microscopy: Ideal for applications requiring nanoscale resolution, such as visualizing interactions between molecules, studying the architecture of complex cellular structures, and detailed analysis of subcellular components.


  • Confocal Microscopy: While offering improved resolution over traditional microscopy, it is still limited by the diffraction limit of light. It also requires relatively high light intensities, which can lead to photobleaching and phototoxicity in live specimens.
  • Super-Resolution Microscopy: Often requires sophisticated and expensive equipment, specialized reagents like fluorescent dyes or proteins, and complex data analysis. It can also be more time-consuming and technically demanding than confocal microscopy.
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