Introduction: $10 Smartphone to Digital Microscope Conversion!

Picture of $10 Smartphone to Digital Microscope Conversion!

The world is an interesting place, but it's fascinating up close.  Through the lens of a microscope you can find details that you would otherwise never notice.  But now you can.

This instructable will show you how to build a stand for about $10 that will transform your smartphone into a powerful digital microscope. This DIY conversion stand is more than capable of functioning in an actual laboratory setting. With magnification levels as high as 175x 375x Edit:  with the addition of a second lens magnification can be as high as 375x, plant cells and their nuclei are easily observed!  In addition to allowing the observation of cells, this setup also produces stunning macro photography.

The photos in this instructable were taken with an iPhone 4S.  

Watch the video below for a quick overview of the project!

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Picture of Materials and Tools

The cost of this project is just $10 (not counting the smartphone), and it only takes about 20 minutes to build. You can be viewing cells with your smartphone within the hour!

Materials required:
3x 4 ½” x 5/16” carriage bolts
9x 5/16” nuts
3x 5/16” wing nuts
5x 5/16” washers
¾” x 7” x 7” plywood  -- for the base
⅛” x 7” x 7” plexiglass  -- for the camera stage
⅛” x 3” x 7” plexiglass  -- for the specimen stage
Scrap plexi (~ 2"x 4") for specimen slide (optional but useful)
laser pointer focus lens (use two for increased magnification)
LED click light (necessary only for viewing backlit specimens)

Assorted bits


Lenses: If you don't have a laser, these lenses have produced comparable results:

Step 2: Getting the Lens From a Laser Pointer

Picture of Getting the Lens From a Laser Pointer

The focus lens of just about any laser pointer will act as the macro lens on the microscope stand.  Don't waste money on an expensive model; the lens from the $2 laser is fine.  EDIT: To achieve higher magnification (up to 375x), use a second lens!  

To get the lens from the laser pointer start by unscrewing the front cone and the back cover of the tube.  Remove the batteries.  Using the eraser end of a pencil, push the innards out of the front of the tube.  The front of this assembly (the side without the spring to contact the batteries) is where the focus lens sits.  Unscrew the small black piece of plastic in front of the lens and the lens will come free.

Step 3: A Few Notes on the Lens...

Picture of A Few Notes on the Lens...

The lens, when viewed from the side is not symmetrical. You’ll see a thin translucent strip (~1mm) on one side of the lens.  That side must not be adjacent to the camera.  You can determine the correct orientation by sticking the lens between the prongs of a hairpin and taping the rig to the back of a smartphone.  The correct orientation will provide you with a larger field of view.

As it is, you can take reasonably good macro photos with this lens and smartphone. This simple rig is limited; not to mention, it’s extremely hard to keep the phone steady when taking zoomed in photos. That’s why we need to build a stand!

Step 4: Drilling the Bolt Holes

Picture of Drilling the Bolt Holes

Make a mark with a Sharpie on the front two corners of the plywood base ¾” from both the sides and the front edges.
Put a sacrificial piece of wood beneath the plywood base before drilling.  You don’t want to damage surface of the bench! Stack the plexiglass camera stage (7” x 7” piece) on top of the base.  Then stack the specimen stage (3” x 7”) on top of the camera stage with ¾” of the stage extending off the front of the base. 
Drill through the entire assembly.   The bolts that stick up through the base must be countersunk in order for the stand to sit flat.  Flip the base over and counter sink the holes with a spade bit.

EDIT: A few tips on NOT cracking the plexiglass when drilling…First, go slow.  Let the drill do the work and DO NOT press down hard on the drill.  Use a sharp bit and press gently on the drill.  You can also put a piece of tape over the area that you wish to drill through.  It will reduce the chance of cracking the plexi.

Step 5: Embedding the Lens

Picture of Embedding the Lens

Find a drill bit that is the same size as or smaller than the diameter of the lens. Remember, you can always take more plexi away; adding extra plexiglass after drilling is not an option.

¾” from the front of the camera stage (in line with the bolt holes) drill a hole for the lens. 

If the lens doesn’t quite fit, file or use sandpaper to enlarge the hole.  Be sure to do this slowly and test the fit often.  It is easy to overshoot and make the hole too large! 

When using the stand, it is important to have the lens as close as possible to the camera.  If you don’t plan on having your phone in a case when you use the stand, make the lens flush with the stage.  Otherwise, leave the top of the lens slightly exposed (as is done in the image) so that the lens will rest closer to the camera.

EDIT: If you are using TWO lenses, stack them on top of another.  Insert one lens from below the plexiglass and the second from above.  

Step 6: Drilling the Hole for the Light Source

Picture of Drilling the Hole for the Light Source

It is important that a hole for your light source is directly below the focus lens.  The best way to mark the placement of the light is to slide the camera stage (without the lens) down to the base, mark with a pencil where the hole is to be drilled, and drill a shallow hole to rest the light in.

Step 7: Assembly

Picture of Assembly

We are ready to assemble!  Start with washers and nuts to hold the bolts tight to the base.  Then add some upside down wing nuts and then washers to the two front bolts.  Place the specimen stage on top of the washers and add a nut to each bolt. Lower them about 1/2” and rest the camera stage on top of these nuts.  A level is handy here to make sure that the stage is actually flat.  If you don’t own a level there are plenty of free level apps for a phone!  When the stage is level both front to back and left to right, tighten down the final nuts.

Step 8: Explore!

Picture of Explore!
Go take some pictures! Or video! With $10 worth of materials and a smartphone, you just made a digital microscope!

Plant cells tend to work best for this particular model, but feel free to experiment. That’s what this is all about, giving you the freedom to explore.

I am a major proponent of making home science more accessible.  My goal in designing and building this phone to microscope conversion stand is to provide an alternative to overly expensive microscopes. This set up is a viable option for underfunded science classrooms that would not otherwise be able to perform experiments requiring a microscope.  But more than that, this device will allow people to rediscover the world around them.

Please contact me if you have any questions or suggestions regarding this project!

Special thanks to:

The folks at Grin City Collective for all their creative guidance and support.

Luke Saunders for videography

Step 9: Troubleshooting!


As you have questions I will do my best to address them in this section!

Lens won't focus!
I have heard a lot of folks responding and saying that they are having trouble getting the lens to focus on the object.
This is most likely because the object is not close enough to the lens.  If you still can't focus on the image and the nuts under the camera stage stop the specimen stage from being raised higher use a scrap piece of plexi as a slide.  This will raise the object into focus.  

Cracked plexiglass!
I touched on this briefly earlier in the instructable.  The big thing here is GO SLOW.  Let the weight of the drill do the work and DON'T PRESS HARD.  Use as sharp a bit as possible.  Taping over the area you need to drill also reduces the chance of cracking.

I don't have the tools to make the cuts!
Not to worry!  Most hardware stores have a shop and will charge a small fee for cutting the wood and the plexiglass down to size.  

Help!  I can only buy plexiglass in huge sheets!
Many hardware stores will have scraps.  I purchased a large piece of scrap to make 8 microscopes for a fraction of the price of a full sheet.

Aaaaaaah! I can't find the same LED light!
Pretty much any LED light will work.  Ideally it can stand up straight with the light pointing vertically.  If your light is tall, it might raise the minimum height that your specimen stage can be.  This of course can easily be fixed by using longer bolts.  


Dean Wilson (author)2013-10-17

Love the simplicity of this and will definitely be taking inspiration. One question: how have you worked out the level of magnification you are getting?

Yoshinok (author)Dean Wilson2013-10-17

The magnification was determined by using calibration micrometer slides and comparing the images obtained by this apparatus to the images from a digital microscope of known magnification.

bpark1000 (author)Yoshinok2015-09-24

You don't need a calibrated digital microscope if you know the object size. Just measure a known size object on the display (that you claim the magnification for). For example, if a 1mm ruler mark is 100mm, measured on the screen, you have a magnification of 100. You can also use common objects, such as human hair, which is about 0.002 inch diameter as your "calibration object".

Yoshinok (author)2013-10-26

The LED light that is used in this instructable:

Diamond Visions Inc 08-0775 Crazy Colored Stubby Keychain Led Flashlight

JulieHenriksen (author)Yoshinok2014-08-21

I understand that you can use others as well?

sergioa3w (author)2017-11-30

Congratulations, very well explained, and very well illustrated with the photos. It's amazing. Although you can buy Zoom Microscope Clip for your smartphone, always doing it yourself is better and more beautiful.

Greetings and many thanks for sharing;)
matrosov (author)2017-08-22

Thank you for a great idea. I will be building this with my 9 year old for her science fair project and wanted to add compression springs to the specimen stage. I can't seem to find 3/4 inch internal diameter spring seems a bit oversized. What springs did you guys use for your builts?

Dirruk (author)2017-07-11

Did it!! Now for some plant cells...

Dirruk (author)2017-07-11

Making one right now. How and where do you attach the second lens?

WernerBritsSA made it! (author)2017-05-20

Great instructable! Will definately be experimenting with it some more.

SalikA1 (author)WernerBritsSA2017-06-07

how u are doing this my lens is not focusing

WernerBritsSA (author)SalikA12017-06-08

I found that focusing works best when the lens is as close as possible to the camera's lense. I even took the cellphone cover off when using the microscope. Allignment of the lenses is also very important. From there it is up to using the up/down adjustment and then using the camera's focussing. Hope that helps.

Yoshinok (author)WernerBritsSA2017-05-23

Excellent! Please post more photos of things you find interesting.

WernerBritsSA (author)Yoshinok2017-05-23

Here's some crystals

nice, seems you already having fun.

SalikA1 (author)2017-06-07

the lens is not clear i have placed it on my camera and it blurs the image. How to get rid out of it ?

jlubczyn (author)2015-12-15

Do you think this would work to take pictures of snowflakes? I'm thinking of building these with my Grade 10 science class

JeffR178 (author)jlubczyn2017-02-15

It DOES work very well for snowflakes...but you have to have the entire scope outside so your stage and slide are cold so the snowflakes don't melt. I took this image a couple of days ago.

Yoshinok (author)JeffR1782017-03-28

This is a magnificent shot. I am giving a presentation to my colleagues about the response of the online community to my instructable/microscope. Would you mind if I used your photo? I've sent a PM and would like to be able to make all appropriate attributions. Thanks!

JeffR178 (author)Yoshinok2017-03-28

Yes, by all means, you may use the photo. I'm new to this site and am having trouble finding my PMs in Safari on my iPhone. I have a few other snowflake photos as well, if you are interested.

Yoshinok (author)JeffR1782017-03-29

I would absolutely love that! Thank you! If you are comfortable,feel free to post them here, or I can send you my personal email.

JeffR178 (author)Yoshinok2017-03-29

Here are a couple more images, one is a collage with a few "flakes" that were more like ice crystals. I also have a few images posted on my Facebook page:

london11 (author)2017-03-22

amazing trick

StephaneP31 (author)2017-03-06

Are lenses out of a CD drive identical? I could get one out of a broken radio but the focal distance is very short. Getting the advertised lenses in Belgium gets at high price as the CN seller ask 15$ for shipment.


jayguy2k (author)2016-01-28

Hi Yo. Ingenius and Innovative setup you made there.

I am a Nigerian who studied Microbiology. Students in Nigeria find it difficult assessing a microscope because its very expensive and most schools dont even have a working one.

So as soon as i saw this setup, i couldnt help but wonder how helpful this cheap setup can be to students and how many thousands of dollars (millions in nigerian naira) one can make by harnessing, perfecting and commercializing this setup.

I am doubly sure that this setup can be improved enough to be able to view bacterial cells.

I am yet to practically construct this set up coz am still gathering the materials, but from the contributions so far, i havs some questions to ask

what is the magnification of the laser light lens?
a light compound microscope uses 2 kinda lenses - the objective lens (with a maximum mag of 100*) and ocular lens (with a maximum mag of 10*). this lenses are inclined at an angle to give us a total mag of 1000* whatever we are viewing (this mag can be used to view bacteria). So are the lenses in your setup inclined at an angle or simply stacked atop each other to get a more magnified view?
Lenses are made of tiny reflecting units, so is it possible to cut a big 100* lens into the size of the laser focus light lens so it can fit into the small drilled hole in your set up.

Pardon my long comment. I am seriously considering the prospects of perfecting and commercializing this setup to help students and also make some gains. thank you

TATTERH00D (author)jayguy2k2017-01-26

Jayguy2k, if you're not already aware of it, you should check out the foldscope project!

LakshayS8 (author)2017-01-21

Can we use any other lens, other than from the pointer?? If yes, which lens will work better??

Coletted (author)2017-01-12

I got lenses here

T0BY (author)2016-12-06

What an excellent Instructable!

Cyclone96 made it! (author)2016-11-20

Thanks! Loved the project, as did my daughter. I'm going to add springs between the two layers to keep the specimen stage level.

Butacska made it! (author)2016-01-12

Easy to follow instructions, made some modification with object "shelf", I had to secure it with a set of rubber band so it would not tilt away. Fine adjustment for lens is required, as it has a very tiny depth of field. Used a laser pointer lens.

certs17 (author)Butacska2016-10-16

Love those photos!! This whole instructable is simply marvelous--I love how folks are making/modifying it to suit their own needs. I am excited to get started on my own!!

kjlpdx made it! (author)2015-09-25

with my CNC router I just fabricated 72 kits which a friend gave away to children at the Portland makers faire. [ignor extra holes in base of prototype]

certs17 (author)kjlpdx2016-10-16


neonsparrow (author)kjlpdx2016-04-02

Love this.

nsignia (author)kjlpdx2016-01-10

Kudos to you and your friend! 72 inspired minds (likely more, because they'll share with their friends) Awesomeness!

FokkoP (author)kjlpdx2015-09-29

Oh wow that´s actually quite amazing. Keep up the great work.

thisishowwerole (author)2016-09-07

is this a good science fair project?

certs17 (author)thisishowwerole2016-10-16

This would be one of the coolest science fake projects ever. As a judge of one or two myself, I would call this project a winner. Good luck!

BenR11 (author)2016-09-21

Ok, I wanted to share something I saw the other day- a company called Echo Labs is selling a wooden cell phone microscope kit somewhat similar to this one for ten dollars. I haven't bought one yet, so I don't know the quality of the kit or the lenses, but it looks pretty neat:

It has an interesting focus mechanism, and is made of laser cut wood.

I've made a bunch of Yoshinok's kits too, we use them for school, and I like them. I would like to compare the two.very much.

Yoshinok (author)BenR112016-10-04

Hi, BenR11! I picked up one of the wooden microscopes from Echo after you posted this. It is cute. It comes as a single sheet of laser-cut thin plywood. The greatest level of magnification I got out of it was about 50x (compare to the double lens smartphone microscope >300x). That was AFTER I had zoomed in. Without the zoom it is closer to ~10x, maybe less. It doesn't come with a light source, and I had some issues with the keychain light (the one I use in my scopes). The individual LED's were clearly seen even after using diffusion gels.

The huge lens has a long focal length, so the samples don't need to be super close to the lens to be in focus. This is handy when looking at opaque objects as it allows a good deal of light to reach the sample. I'd say for very simple investigations of opaque specimens this microscope works pretty well.

BenR11 (author)Yoshinok2016-10-04

Thank you for the review! Oh, by the way, Yoshinok, your cell phone microscopes are working great in our biology lab, I appreciate you inventing this!

Samp130 (author)2016-09-30

I can only see 40x. How to magnify to 175x? Please let me know, Yoshinok.

Yoshinok (author)Samp1302016-10-04

Hi Samp130! You will need to use the digital zoom on the phone to achieve higher levels of magnification.

takiqadim (author)2016-09-30

Looks awesome, Thanks in advance

DavidR625 made it! (author)2016-09-17

This is my first time building something. A little crooked. Make sure to take proper measurements and honestly write down everything because I was being lazy and just taking the instructions from the video. So far I was only able to take some photos of some coins up close and they look pretty cool to me. My only issue has been that the objects need to be really close to the lens for there to be any kind of clarity.

I will eventually get a light and I also want to add another lens.

Yoshinok (author)DavidR6252016-09-20

Excellent work! Those photos are great!

Flatwalkn (author)2016-09-02

One thing I found that I needed to measure the size of my lense because it was smaller than in the video. Drill bit and lense were the same size, had to woller the hole to make it fit. Then I got the hole too big... A little super glue on a toothpick wiped on the inside of the hole and allowed to dry and you are back in business. The lense can be inserted without falling through. Do not get the glue on the lense or plexi, and do not use acetone on plexiglass as it will mark the surface.

Firebird1029 made it! (author)2016-07-04

I made it!

Random boredom made it! (author)2016-06-12

This was a fun build and it took about 3 hours (mostly due to finding all the parts cheaply) and cost me 9.57 to make. There are some cumbersome aspects that I will be fixing up in later renditions.

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