Tutorial: guidance for quantitative confocal microscopy

Nat Protoc. 2020 May;15(5):1585-1611. doi: 10.1038/s41596-020-0313-9. Epub 2020 Mar 31.


When used appropriately, a confocal fluorescence microscope is an excellent tool for making quantitative measurements in cells and tissues. The confocal microscope's ability to block out-of-focus light and thereby perform optical sectioning through a specimen allows the researcher to quantify fluorescence with very high spatial precision. However, generating meaningful data using confocal microscopy requires careful planning and a thorough understanding of the technique. In this tutorial, the researcher is guided through all aspects of acquiring quantitative confocal microscopy images, including optimizing sample preparation for fixed and live cells, choosing the most suitable microscope for a given application and configuring the microscope parameters. Suggestions are offered for planning unbiased and rigorous confocal microscope experiments. Common pitfalls such as photobleaching and cross-talk are addressed, as well as several troubling instrumentation problems that may prevent the acquisition of quantitative data. Finally, guidelines for analyzing and presenting confocal images in a way that maintains the quantitative nature of the data are presented, and statistical analysis is discussed. A visual summary of this tutorial is available as a poster (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41596-020-0307-7).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Microscopy, Confocal*
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Tissue Fixation