$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!
Remove these adsRemove these ads by Signing Up

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


Lights: http://www.amazon.com/FTmall-Pocket-Portable-Keychain-Flashlight/dp/B008O2KKYW/ref=lh_ni_t?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=A2B8SF4TS2YZYV
Lenses: If you don't have a laser, these lenses have produced comparable results:  http://www.aixiz.com/store/product_info.php/cPath/46/products_id/374/osCsid/37cabc139b4f03b0e0a522178defae7e

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
Still 7.jpeg
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
Still 9.jpeg
what you're looking for.jpeg
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

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!

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.  
1-40 of 463Next »
Yoshinok (author) 1 year ago
The LED light that is used in this instructable:

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

I understand that you can use others as well?

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 Wilson1 year ago
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.
BenR112 days ago

If you order the blue glass laser lens from AixiZ that I recommend, make sure you e-mail the owner and request a lens suitable for cell phone microscopes. One of the batches I ordered didn't work right. If you let him know, he will send the right ones.

HeidiDawn99 made it!22 days ago
I forgot to test the correct orientation of the lens to phone, so I may pop the lens out, turning it over if needed. I made one for a kids gardening class, if it's useful to them, I'll make a few more.

I used to have a laser pointer when I was a kid, but threw it our at one point. Can you tell me where I can buy just a focus lens?

These lenses are better quality than cheap laser pointer lenses. These are made for a blu-ray player.

AixiZ Blue Laser Glass Lens for 405-455nm


I bought a package of 10 without the dark colored carrier from eBay from the seller "foreversafe". They cost $3.99 for 10. I ordered them 4/23 and they got here 5/4. Here is the title of the search: new 10 pcs laser diode focus lens/collimating lens diameter 7mm acrylic.

Hi Christian. I build this microscope using the lens from an old DVD writer. You can find these lenses in any sort of dvd, cd, blue ray etc.. players. The lens is used to change the focal point of the laser. I would rather suggest using such a laser becaue it is alot bigger so you can get better clearer pictures.

Thanks. I have an old portable cd player which I will now make good use of :) I was keeping it for memories, but this is a much better idea.

BenR1128 days ago

There is an easy way to calculate a rough magnification is this:

1) Get two rulers with millimeter markings.

2) Zoom in on the millimeter scale on one ruler using the scope.

3) Use the other ruler to measure the apparent length of one millimeter on the screen (in mm). This number is your approximate magnification.

PaulY51 month ago
elliotnash1 month ago

Wow, simply brilliant. I used to have an old laser when I was a kid, but I'm not sure whether I'd be able to find it. Is there some kind of substitute in this case?

BenR11 made it!1 month ago

I tried around six types of lenses. I didn't get good results with the cheap laser pointer lenses. The best results I got were with this lens:

AixiZ Blue Laser Glass Lens for 405-455nm


AlexM344 months ago

Do you know any teachers who have made use of this in classrooms? If so I would love to feature them in an article I'm writing now about accessible innovation - alexannem [at] gmail [dot] com

I've been meaning to post a 'made it' of this project,. I've been working as a part time science lab instructor at my old high school, and I mostly use instructables or other online ideas for fun, (inexpensive) hands-on labs.

eamoore AlexM343 months ago

I built one to use in my classroom. We are a bring your own device school so this worked in perfectly. I just finished writing a grant proposal to be able to purchase large quantities of the materials so I can build one for each student group in the grade level. (roughly funding to build 20 of these units). The nice part of this is that I am not concerned about letting students sign out units at night for additional learning outside of the classroom. The one I am building now will also accommodate a tablet comfortably. Even though we have microscopes.....as a STEAM school, it is nice to bring the engineering design process and creativity into use for the students. They love it.

I'm a teacher and just built my first one! Not sure if we'll get around to using it this year, but we're rolling out a BYOD program in the next week or two.

brad_bradshaw2 months ago

Hey all, here's some updated resources for the design!

Laser diode focusing lens: http://www.amazon.com/Collimating-lens-Focusing-La...

Keychain LED flashlight: http://www.amazon.com/Etekcity%C2%AE-Multicolor-Su...

Useful LED filters: http://www.amazon.com/AmScope-FT-BGY32-Yellow-Filt...

Black vinyl sheet (recommended to cover plywood base for better darkfield imaging): http://www.amazon.com/Expressions-Vinyl-adhesive-o...

Jbozz2 months ago

So I made most of it except when I used the lense from a dollar store laser pointer, my specimen has to be right up against the screen a couple of millimeters away to get a focus. Is there different laser pointers I can use that will let me focus up on specimens farther away?

dibbkd2 months ago

FYI the link you have to the lights actually links to the lenses. Yes I was able to copy/paste the Amazon link but thought you might want to correct it for others.

alcurb2 months ago

First of all, brilliant build. Thanks for posting your well-document instructable.

I have a question and some suggestions:

What household chemical can one use to stain the specimens?

One can make the stage less wobbly by using larger washers and by hot-gluing the washers to the wingnuts.

One can set up two lenses side-by-side: one single and one double (stacked) lenses. To change mags, all you gotta do is slide the phone left or right.

Lighting with polarized light can yield some interesting features of the specimen. To do this, scavenge polarized lenses from a broken pair of sunglasses or from 3D cinema glasses. If one were to place the lens on top of the LED light and rotate the lens, one can vary the polarization of the light hitting the specimen. If one were to stack two polarized lenses or films on top of each other and rotate one of them, one can accurately dim the light output from the LED light source.

Using UV LED light can bring up some interesting colors of the specimen that would otherwise not be visible. Needless to say, one would need to take precautions not to stare at the UV light or wear UV-blocking glasses. Let the camera do the staring.

Yash Gimonkar made it!2 months ago
Finally it's done! Pic: Dorsal section of a curry leaf.
nightdave3 months ago

Great instructable - we did it in one evening and have a "lovely" picture of a crane fly as a result. Thank you!

Garth Irons made it!3 months ago

HackLab #308's local adaptation of the design. Our first specimens were delectable fava beans untimely ripped from the Global Center's guerrilla garden.

Thank you...

photo (9).JPGphoto (10).JPGphoto (11).JPGphoto (6).JPGphoto (12).JPGphoto (13).JPG

I made 6 of these for my 8th grade physical science class! They work great! We've been using them to look at small crystals and other curiosities around the room. There can be an issue with iPhones focusing. The object must be very close to the lens. I use a scrap of the Plexiglas and it works great. I plan to make more but I'm going to increase the size to 10" x 10". I've been finding that many phones are difficult to fit bceause of their larger sizes. I'm also going to try with 2 lens.

how many focus lens i need

does this app only work with IPhones or androids, too?

Yoshinok (author)  FernRidgeLabradoodles3 months ago

Its not an app. It uses the camera function of any smartphone. It also works on tablets and iPods, anything with a small digital camera that can autofocus.

eamoore3 months ago

I found the LED lights in the cat toy area (go figure) at a local five and dime type store. It is the same one as shown in the pictures.

Epicspoon3 months ago
I did an Instructable on just using the laser pointer lens and I was wondering if making the stand with plexiglass does anything to make more magnification or better quality images.
NikhilM24 months ago

Any other alternative to the lenses..?(apart from laser pointer & DVD players)and is lens required a plano convex lens or what..? Plz help :D

Thnx for sharing ur project..! It's amazing.Looking forward for more similar DIY Projects.

tmichlovitch made it!4 months ago

My 9 year old daughter and I made this. We had a lot of fun putting it together. I cut the wood and the plexyglass and she helped me assemble it. We covered the wood with some black pressure sensitive vinyl type material so that it would look better. The close up shot is a picture of the letter A taken from a quarter.

Thanks, we had fun!


Hi. Looking great. I see you also made the same modification as I did by adding extra bolts to the adjustable table to keep it more steady. One hint, try to get the laser inside an old CD,DVD player, burner etc... It is alot bigger and works much better than the laser from a laser pointer.

Thanks for the hint, I will try that out.

is plexiglass do anything with magnification
Any helpful tips on getting the lens out of the black housing from the lenses bought in bulk? l bought the ones listed, totally scratched one up trying to get it out. Ideas? Anyone know what size drill bit works best for the suggested lenses?
Any helpful tips on getting the lens out of the black housing from the lenses bought in bulk? l bought the ones listed, totally scratched one up trying to get it out. Ideas? Anyone know what size drill bit works best for the suggested lenses?
1-40 of 463Next »