$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.  
Yoshinok (author) 5 months ago
The LED light that is used in this instructable:

Diamond Visions Inc 08-0775 Crazy Colored Stubby Keychain Led Flashlight
Dean Wilson6 months ago
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 Wilson6 months 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.

Another source for lenses $5, free shipping.

tohsookwan made it!15 days ago

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


That is fantastic.

johnawebb5 days ago

"laser pointer focus lens (use two for increased magnification)"

you elaborate on this a little? I ordered a 10 pack of lenses. I would love to make a mod where the
second lens can be fitted/removed, or swing into view on an
arm. Many of my friends have kids. I'm planning on making several at a time.

leetramp4 months ago
Any idea what the focal length of your laserpointer lens is? I'd like to make a couple class sets of these and would rather not have to waste all those laser pointers :-)
Yoshinok (author)  leetramp4 months ago
Not sure really. I have found that these lenses work well if you are not interested in buying laser pointers.

Hi All,

I purchased the aixiz lenses and am experimenting with them today.

1. I found I could remove them from the black collars with a wirecutter. I just make two cuts parallel to the vertical axis and the shell falls into two pieces. There is a acrylic collar around the lenses, so although the collar gets scratched a bit, it doesn't affect the optics.

2. In the orientation suggested (mounted with the translucent strip farthest away from the camera) my focus length is approximately 9 mm. Is that the same as focal length?

3. I am experimenting with a no-cost scrap cardboard stand to construct and teach prototyping with some middle school students. I constructed Version 1.0 large enough to hold a Surface RT.

4. I'm wondering if anyone has seen a clear tutorial on how to think about arranging a set of lenses for DIY construction of a compound microscope.

My questions:

1. How does one use focal length, etc, to optimize a two lenses system?

2. Has anyone optimized the two lenses system and can give us advice on the optimal orientation and distance between two aixiz lenses?

My challenge to the DIY community:

Devise a mini-optical workbench out of cardboard or other inexpensive materials that can be used to optimize these DIY microscopes with students. The mini-optical workbench would have to be able to handle these small laser pointer lenses.

Surface RT microscope.jpg

BTW: If I take a picture with the max. digital zoom (4x) on my android camera and then zoom into the image, I get 40x. How did I calculate this?

1. I took a picture of lines indicating 1 mm on a ruler.

2. I then measure the center to center distance between the two lines on a zoomed in image of the two lines. The distance was 40 mm.

absa53 Yoshinok3 months ago
Do you take the lens out of the black plastic collar? If so, how?
Yoshinok (author)  absa533 months ago

I didn't take them out of the collar. I just made a slightly larger hole. It is producing magnification above 150x.

leetramp Yoshinok4 months ago
Thanks. I just ordered a pack of ten and can't wait to build these. The school I teach at went to all iPads this year, so I'm going to build slightly larger models to fit the iPad. I'll report back with photos when I finish.
techfun2 months ago

Hello dear Yoshinok.
I have made a microscope following your guidelines but i didnt get the magnification that i looked for.I was expected to get about 40x to study some blood cells and i got about 8x and the next step was a blurre picture.You are saying about a magnification 175x???How can i get this magnification?
Thank you!

Hello, could you tell me how you wokred out the zoom from the photos taken?

twseeley made it!1 month ago

Such a great project! Did it with a group of 5th grade Cub Scouts. They had a little trouble lining up the camera and getting clear image, but they had a blast and it was exceptionally easy. Instructions don't discuss grade of plexi, but I found step drill bit critical. Also, getting laser lens to fit was a major challenge and drilled hole too large a few times, but all-in-all, great project. Highly recommend.


such great images!!

BravoSquirrel3 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

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.

rmelville24 days ago
Hey everyone I'm using this construct for a school project and I'll like to know how to determine the exact zoom that was used for my photos. I used the 12x30mm lens and the phone used was an iPhone 5

Not really so interested in cells and nuclei but have to try this!

GTOTML2 months ago

hdias4 months ago
I made a cardboard version. The card thickness is 3 mm. I replaced the led lamp by a mirror.

Congratulations for your innovation, i´m thinking of using it and including the original prototype for applications with ''vulnerable'' schools. You can write me to if you want to get credit i need your complete name. I invite you to collaborate in any way if you are interested.

Great idea!!!!

Mr. Yoshinok, i need some contact to write toy you please. I started working on my thesis for physics teacher, that will be on applications of this prototype into ''vulnerable'' schools, to promote experimentation and observation work. Its very important to this to get direct contact with you to obtain support as permission, information on the development of this prototype and any other collaboration you will like to offer.
Please write me an email at to be able to write you back, i can offer you as a reward lot of young children and teenagers contact with this creation as unique experience in their lives. Hope you could collaborate, and congratulations again by this prototype, Diego.

Wonderful, I came here for the same purpose.

I'm a Biology teacher from Brazil and I'm about to start my thesis with reconstructed models of microscope.

I'm finishing the first year of my Master's Degree on Technological Education.

Where are you from, Diego?

Can we exchange ideas and informations about the metodology and other stuff.


Hi Felipe, I wrote you back an email. I think sure we should exchange ideas and collaborate. I´m from southamerica too, Chile.

Diego Rates M.

vkumar762 months ago

first of all very nice and inventive and thank you, i am using this project for a science project and instead of the specimens you used we used a specimen slide and amazing the results were great i had to make some changes like the distance between the two Plexiglases and adding a drop of alcohol between the two lenses. so i mean to ask you to just give a few lines on how the lenses from the pointer work as focal lenses you know theoretically. below are two of the images

paulqgt4 months ago
Great Directions! After the stand was complete I noticed that the specimen plate would wobble when the wing nuts were lowered to adjust the focus. To prevent this from happening I inserted two compression springs between the two plexiglass plated, close to the front bolts. These springs force the specimen plate down against the flat washers on top of the wing nuts thus keeping the specimen plate from wobbling.

what size compression springs did you use? diam and length, and where you got them from, if you would please.


mebow2 months ago

PLEASE can someone make the same thing with a lumia 1020 and publish it?!

linstruction3 months ago
Made a short film about lice using the smartphone microscope.

Nicely Done!

Hi, i want to congratulate you for this idea (if it´s yours). I made two for an university homework, and want to propose a project for make some dozens to donate to low-budget schools.

Great idea, though keep in mind the students will need access to iphones. I thought the best way to do this would be to do all the drilling and give out little kits that the class could assemble,

nlutea3 months ago
Awesome! Thanks. Here are some of my photos.
Red onion epidermis
Moss gametophytes
Usnea sp. (fruticose lichen)
Foliose lichens
Usnea again
More lichens
Lettuce leaf
Guard cells
Potting soil
Green onion
Immature camellia anther
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