$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!
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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
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

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.  
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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

You can get the led light at Dealextreme too.

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.
EmmanuelP1 made it!yesterday

Made it with some cheap laser pointer lenses. Image is good in center but there is a lot of spherical distortion. I had better results with 2 lenses.

Ordered some lenses from to see if they work better.

My daughter reply to her friends comment on the images she posted on Facebook : "My dad can do anything!" I guess Yoshinok should get part of the credits for my abilities ;-)

(the image is from a snake scale she had with her, now old, microscope)

DavidM188 days ago

Thanks for the very straightforward instructions. I made one this weekend in advance of a spring course I'll be teaching. Made a simple adjustment to the focus. I mounted the stage (now a fixed stage) and inserted compression springs between the stage and platform, then moved the wingnuts to the top. This arrangement stabilized the stage for the cost of three springs (about $1) and focusing from the top is less likely to disturb the sample. Thanks so much!!

The microscope.jpg

Coool... can you add a link for buying the springs?

Bob G at UNC made it!12 days ago

We made a dozen of these microscopes with students in a college class... images are at the flickr link below... thanks Kenji!!!

CairParavel314 made it!24 days ago

My girlfriend and I did it this at the afternoon. It was pretty bad alienated, and we didn't buy a lantern, but the rest was OK. We take a picture of a mexican billet.

tohsookwan made it!6 months ago

Hard to find the plexiglass I need. Make it with 3 CD ROM casing.


This is awesome!
How did you manage to drill the CD ROM case without breaking it??

If you're in the US, you can get some at Home Depot. They sell it in various-sized sheets in the window dept.

That is fantastic.

nikolatesla203 months ago

Just got done building this. Works awesome! I'm getting at *least* 112x mag when I use full digital zoom on my phone. Using a LG G2, which has a 14meg pixel camera, so even digital zoom looks great if you provide enough light. Thanks for the plans!

hi, do you need to adjust the distance between camera and lens?

TháiP1 month ago

the iPhone 4's phocal length is 3.85mm, and I'm using a Lumia 822 whose focal length is 26mm, so I think I should do some adjustment on the distant from the camera to the lens, right?

chiragpanigrahi made it!1 month ago

what if i will be adding 3or 5 lens??will i be getting more magnification than what i got with 2 lenses?

Yoshinok (author)  chiragpanigrahi1 month ago

The focal length of the lens stack gets shorter with every additional lens. A third lens theoretically would produce greater magnification, but might require the sample to be just about touching the lens.

I made this and cannot get the pictures I see on the site. I ordered the
lenses from the link and am using the exact same lights. I did not take
the covering off the lenses, and it doesn't seem to effect anything.
But when I try to make the double lens its worse than the single. Should
I take off the coverings? Which way should the lenses be, both concave
or opposite each other? Thank you, I am making a class set for 7th grade
science class any helpful hints would be greatly appreciated!

Hi. Did you get the lenses to work? I also bought the lenses from the link but cannot get the plastic cover off the lense. Did you remove the plastic cover or get it to work with the cover. Thanks!

Yoshinok (author)  IcartLavodnas1 month ago

Are you using extra plexiglass sample slides (see the video for an example)? The focal length of the lenses is rather short. If you don't get the sample close enough to the lens the image will never be in focus. I use one plexiglass slide for the single lens models and two slides stacked together for the double lens models of the microscope. This should fix your problem. Let me know how you get on.

Hi! Love, love, love this!!! I just made this awesome set-up, but now I'm trying to hook my smartphone up to my computer so that what the phone sees can be seen by the whole class on the bigger computer screen. I teach preschool, so they all don't have their own phones! :) Has anyone ever done that successfully? I've tried both USB cables and HDMI cables with no luck. I've tried using my TV instead of the computer with no luck, and I've tried the mirror imaging setting with no luck. I can take pictures and download them onto my computer, but that's not what I'm trying to do. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!!! ~shannon

hi... very simple.

just load an app on yr smartphone - IP WEBCAM..... (or something similar)

now yr smartphone will act as video server and u can see what the smartphone camera shows on yr computer....

... u can also use this to see what yr class is doing while you are checking the reports on yr computer in other room..

... hope this helps....

dees2 dees21 month ago

this is a free app.

if you are in school... please have this software

Stellarium is a planetarium software that shows exactly what you see when you look up at the stars. It's easy to use, and free.

.. children will love it.

Yoshinok (author)  shannon.carnegie.71 month ago

Hi Shannon,

When I do outreach events to present the microscope at science museums and schools I use an HDMI converter for my iPhone and then attach the HDMI cord to a projector. The only issue I have with this is that the cord sometimes yanks on the phone pulling it off the lens slightly. This is easily fixed by just taping the cord or phone to the stage as soon as it is centered on the lens.

Best of luck!


Take a look at the Ipevo company/site. If nothing else you could get a point 2 view camera. I feel like they may have other solutions as well. I am in a similar situation as I teach online. Another option that I just thought of is Airserver. I had lag problems with it but it does broadcast you iOS device to a computer over wifi Reflector also does the same thing Both apps are under $20 (or they were when I tested them last year).

Have been looking to do the same thing as simply as possible and found this today for iPhones: Airbeam for iOS at the App Store. It costs a few dollars but seems to work very well. You will need a wifi connection. You can view the image in any browser or with the free Mac app.

BravoSquirrel10 months ago
Like most things that are simple, I try to find ways to make them more complicated. The problems I had with this setup concerned the stage. It was really wobbly, and it was often a little clumsy trying to turn the two wing nuts simultaneously. So I rigged up this belt and pulley system built from wood, insert nuts, and a large rubber band. Now both sides turn in unison when only one side is turned. I also added some springs to add a little more stability and resistance. This setup works extremely well for fine adjustments and focusing. The downside is that it requires more specialized equipment than the original design: primarily a drill press with three sizes of hole saws.
microscope 002.jpgmicroscope 006.jpg

That my friend squirrel is way slick. That rubber band doesn't look super tense. Are those insert nuts easier to turn than regular nuts? I saw this a while ago but then thought of it because I was wondering if something like this would work to make a drill press.

I see you used 2 springs and gears. Can you example your process and materials please. This looks great!

Did you made a production plan? If it's already made I could only translate it in french for my students, otherwise I will have to create the document myself :-)

Brilliant! So, did you use a 5/16" nut on each side in lieu of the wing nuts?

Yeah, I used some t-nuts set inside the axle of the pulley. I decided
not to use brads, and I just used some high strength epoxy to set them
in place.

I can't extract the lens from the metal structure (see the image). What specifications must the lens meet actually so that I could just buy one instead of getting it from a laser pointer? Thanks!


I made this and cannot get the pictures I see on the site. I ordered the lenses from the link and am using the exact same lights. I did not take the covering off the lenses, and it doesn't seem to effect anything. But when I try to make the double lens its worse than the single. Should I take off the coverings? Which way should the lenses be, both concave or opposite each other? Thank you, I am making a class set for 7th grade science class any helpful hints would be greatly appreciated!

I have a document camera with a round lense that I would like to use as the camera rather than my phone. Do I need to find lenses of the same diameter?

xharris2 months ago

Great instructions! Going to see if we can make a class set. How did you add a second lens? Did you just add a second sheet of plexiglass on top? Thanks

thaipham1012 months ago

How can I use it with a DSLR camera?

JB162 months ago

What a great hack! I can't wait to try it.

You will be happy to know that your design is widely used and has been adopted by Missouri University of Science and Technology!

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