$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) 9 months ago
The LED light that is used in this instructable:

Diamond Visions Inc 08-0775 Crazy Colored Stubby Keychain Led Flashlight
Dean Wilson10 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 Wilson10 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.
thaipham10113 days ago

How can I use it with a DSLR camera?

JB1614 days 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!

aesparza23 months ago
I used the lens from a laser pointer that was a cat toy.

Your cat is probably mad at you now. :)

winman9122 days ago
Wow, we made it with our sons. Pretty impressive.
dcampbell233 months ago

can anyone tell me about what x magnification i am getting?


If you used 1 lens you should be getting around 175x, if you used two about 350x - 375x.

@eellis3 I used one lens(f=8mm) and only got around 30x, how do you get that high magnification?

I get 16X with the lens on its own, but then my phone has 8x zoom, so that works out to around 128x total. Seems to work really great and definitley zooms in at least 112x on my setup

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!

jenslabs made it!1 month ago

Thanks for a fun and useful instructable. More pictures at

1. The microscope, 2. The eye of a fly, 3. An Sony Xperia ZR display and an iPhone display, 4. A wild strawberry.


After intensive fruitless searching for a good, cheap, ipad-compatible digital microscope to use with my preschool class, I came across your instructable. It looks great -- definitely thinking of having a parent make it for our class! One question: Is there any way to change the magnification?

I've GOT to try this. Anyone have a drill I can borrow???

kal walid1 month ago
thank gonna make one soon.
mkhandelwal12 months ago

Plz tell me of what diameter the lens should be?

Sputnik0510 months ago
@Sputnik05 Thanks for the suggestion. So I decided to combine a Special Focus Lens Laser Diode-Collimator from Ebay and Thomas Larson's micro phone lens. The ant image to the right is using just the laser diode-collimator; to the right is the combination of both lenses.


@Linstruction, How do you combine the lens?

@asdfghjkl1991 The thickness of the hole that I drilled in the acrylic plate allowed for the placement of both lenses. I have the focus lens laser diode-collimator slightly raised above the surface of the plate since my iPhone has a cover. I simply press in the micro phone lens from below. To keep the latter from popping out (i.e. when specimens accidentally brush against it) I use a little piece of tape.


My laser leds have lenses smaller than the camera phone lenses.

Can this be done with the lens of a CDROM or something like that?


bryce6687 made it!3 months ago

I have made some alterations to the design of the Microscope with help from an optical engineer. The 5mm diameter lens I used has a focal length of 5mm also and the depth of field that the lens can focus on is tiny so with that in mind I made some alterations to the method of focussing and also changed to a 7mm diameter lens to let more light in (this decreases magnification which was x41 using 5mm however the image is clearer). Tips I can give now are to ensure the lens is close to the phone, put white paper under device feet and shine a torch onto paper up into object viewing as the camera phone can deal much better with this light, use a flexible stage with adjusting screw to focus as shown in my pictures. You can use 5mm think coloured plastic like I have but only for the top platform and only with a 7mm lens. I have chosen to use this because it looks good and am planning on building these with some 12 years olds in a School so wanted something more robust that they can shape and cut etc. Thank you to SELEX Es and ST Microelectronics for their support with the adaptions, and the person who posted the original design. Total cost for this version is just over £2 but can get lower if you buy large quantities and use thinner clear Perspex.

photo 1.JPGIMG_0198.JPGIMAG0092.jpg

amazing photos and the water flea video, just wondering how much magnification is that? and did you just order on-line for the 5mm lens? b/c I ordered the lens suggested on this webpage, i measured its focal length and its about 8+-2mm, and I'm only able to get a magnification around 35x(im using blackberry but i assume phones wont make much difference), so besides you used 5mm, is there anything else you did to obtain those good images? like compound of lens, could you please share? Thanks a lot!

ZeroThompson2 months ago

Can someone please tell me how to properly add a 2nd lens for further magnification? I have tried putting them close together, further apart, nothing seems to work.

Thank you in advance!

same ask here, 375x would be much more amazing. I'm also trying to improve it by using the same concept of a actual microscope,

CMartinTaylor made it!2 months ago

Built one this weekend for myself, then made 3 more as kits for my geeky relatives! Too bad the stupid upload software doesn't preserve the orientation of the images.

BravoSquirrel8 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

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.

ScienceWizz993 months ago
@Yoshinok could you help me? My lens is not providing enough magnifacation.

I want to see cells on prepared slides it is not working.

I'm also going to add another lens but on a seperate attachment.

I submitted some pictures earlier too.
ScienceWizz993 months ago
The ones earlier are prepared slides and they are large enough to see the pink blob before you magnify it. The purple one is a flower petal.
14, 2:31 PM.jpg14, 2:31 PM.jpg14, 2:31 PM.jpg
ScienceWizz993 months ago
Also the specimen are not being magnifyed enough.
14, 2:28 PM.jpg14, 2:28 PM.jpg14, 2:28 PM.jpg
ScienceWizz993 months ago
I completed my microscope. But I an currently trying to figure out how to make another lens fit but be able to rotate it around.
14, 5:22 PM.jpg
qwickset9 months ago
I want to build this with my daughter and have the parts all lined up on where to buy but I see tons of discussion about lenses that don't work, lenses that people are going to try but couldn't find any models of lenses that work or are recommended.

Can anyone that is having great success share the model of laser pointer they used. I'm looking forward to getting started on this build with my 6-year-old daughter.

Yoshinok (author)  qwickset9 months ago
Remember that only the people that are experiencing problems are likely to post about it. These folks are very likely outnumbered by the people that have made working microscope stands.

It is also quite likely that many of these laser pointers that "don't work" are actually just fine but aren't being implemented properly.
- If they are upside down (wrong side towards object) then the image will come out very distorted.
- The image will be blurry until the object is brought close enough to the lens. Many folks are figuring out that the focal length of their lenses is rather short and they can't raise their stand high enough (nuts supporting camera stage in the way) to achieve focus. In this case use a scrap of plexiglass as a slide (see the video) to raise the object higher.

I have bought seven different laser pointers now. All have worked. Only advice is to stay away from the combination LED/LASER pointers like this one:

The collimating lenses on these models are half the diameter of the others. You really want the lens to be the same diameter as your phone's camera.
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