$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
bbtinker Yoshinok4 months ago

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.
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.

Hey Nathan. Sorry I didn't get back to your question earlier. The rubber band didn't have to be too tense. The friction was enough to turn the wheels. The problem I ran into, though, is that it's very difficult to keep a flat belt on a flat wheel. The rubber band would eventually "climb" the side and slip off. I recently did a better version with stock pulleys and a round belt. It works extremely well. I'll post it up sooner or later. As for the insert nuts, they turned just as easily as the wing nuts. A light squirt of WD-40 was pretty effective at making them turn even more smoothly. As for using this design for a drill press, I'm sure it would work, but it would advance the drill very very slowly. I've seen a few designs for shop-made drill presses that would probably work better. Just go on Youtube and search "Homemade Drill Press" and you'll see a bunch of them pop up. Some are pretty ingenious in their simplicity.

Ill have to check out the drill press videos. Recently i thought, just a drawer with a track on it mounted to a board would work. /cut some slits in the trach and hose clamp the drill to it.

That's a great idea. Maybe even, perhaps use a bungee cord attached to it that will make the drill rebound.

How did you make this wooden cog wheels with the gears perfectly spaced like that. Im thinkingyou used the drill press with the hole saw guide holes as an axle putting through hole to get the depth in to circle right, yea? How did you advance the wheel in equal amounts though so the space would look/be even. I keep wanting to make a wood saw blade for my grinder. They make little circular saw blades but not 7/8 diameter arbor. Or at least a cardboard saw blade for cardboard. It seems a lofty task. Definitely have made or least tried to make similar blades for a rotary tool from a can lid before. Did not work at all, very unbalanced. This may have been due to some sort of lack of precision on my part.

nice with the bungee. yea, some drills have that threaded hole in the side for a bolt. Saw an instructable where that was used as a mount. Other than that the tool must have a flat side or some measue to make sure its at 90 degees. Harbor freight sells this for 20 dollars: Like a a pocket hole jig on crack. It's limited as an angalable drill press, due to the bottom piece. I bought it and tried it. I think it's mainly intended for easily drilling holes in the exact center of tubing/pipe. That or board that is almost the exact width as between the black trianglish tightener nuts at the bottom It has the v channel to the bottom. Unless you made an insert that was that v shape that made it flat, then you could drill smaller board. But if you added some wide legs to the bottom.....or something....Its just so close to being able to do so much more. So much more light duty stuff that it.


Ill have to check out the drill press videos. Recently i thought, just a drawer with a track on it mounted to a board would work. /cut some slits in the trach and hose clamp the drill to it.

Thanks for the reply, makes sense. Yea, the insert nuts. That is what you call the thinner nuts. Because I built this thing with regular sized nuts, not insert nuts and I could not bring anything into focus because the nuts were too tall. Id like to try again soon. I just got some lenses out of a dvdv burner, much easier to extract than the ones you order from aixis or find in some laser pointers. I was trying to get the laser diode out from in another instructable but the diode in mine must have been way different looking from the one in the instructable, as such with my limited knowledge of lasers I did not even know what piece it was, salvaged the lenses though. I am wondering what is the limiting factor in magnification/focus. Only got it to work with one lens. I have a suspicion that when I stacked two lenses the ridges on the lenses themselves were too tall/unadjustable to bring the image into focus.

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.

WOW, great design, will any smart phone work? or does it have to have a certain camera?

I've got a Nokia Lumia and the camera protrudes from the back of the phone, probably a good camera, but not practical for this.

Yoshinok (author)  Snellingkorey20 days ago

Any camera on a phone will work. That being said, SOME WILL WORK BETTER THAN OTHERS. My old flip phone camera was terrible, but the stand did work as a macro lens. Most smartphone cameras have an autofocus feature. The autofocus really helps you get the most out of this rig.

lololady1 year ago
I am not able to get clear images from this setup... Maybe I did something wrong? I am pretty sure I put the lens the right way (translucent film side down). I have the slide tray as far up as I can get it, where I get the the best quality I have been able to see, but for anything thinner than a dime, I cannot get any sort of focus. And the dime was extremely difficult too. Any suggestions?

Also, nothing on this rig is "heavy" or prone to much pressure so look for some low profile nuts for the underside of the top pane. You can easily find nylon nuts that are half the width of standard steel but you should also be able to find thin steel nuts as well.

Yoshinok (author)  charles.quinlan20 days ago

Absolutely. I will say though, that using a plexiglass slide is not something that should be overlooked. Not only does it raise the sample to the correct height, but it makes switching samples as well as moving them while viewing incredibly easy.

Yoshinok (author)  lololady1 year ago
Yes! Use a scrap piece of plexi as a specimen slide. It will increase the height of the specimen relative to the lens. The focal length on the scope is very short. This should fix your problem.

I have plexiglass for my specimen stage but does the camera stage need to be plexiglass (or something transparent)? Or can it be another material that is opaque but still has a hole for the lens?

Yoshinok (author)  SupriyaSavaram20 days ago

You can use other materials for the camera stage. The first microscope I designed used luan. The problems, as described in the instructable, is that the non-transparent/translucent stage doesn't allow enough light to the sample. This is a serious problem when viewing any opaque object that requires illumination. Adding lamps on the outside of the microscope (ie. shining a desk lamp at the side of the scope) will only cast dark shadows across any relief on the object.

Also, I find that the see-through camera stage makes adjusting the sample while viewing FAR easier. Do yourself a favor and try to build the camera stage out of plexi.

When I removed the black piece and touched the lens it shot out of the assembly. There is a spring behind it. I was luck enough to see where the lens landed but it could just as easily have ended up under the couch with the dust bunnies. (I used the same LASER pointer shown in the tutorial.

brian.lm21 month ago

Dude, someone stole this idea and is using it on indiegogo dot com to raise money for producing it. Check it out:

That looks more like an improvement to the design rather than an outright steal.

GuC11 month ago

where to buy all the materials p.s. I am from taiwan?

GuC11 month ago

where to buy all the materials p.s. I am from taiwan?

sasclover102 months ago
Will it work with a samsung galaxy s5?

Yes. I showed some images to my class and a student used her Galaxy s5. It completely blew away the image quality I get using my old HTC Evo.

whitefeatherhunter made it!1 month ago

Works awesome - I didn't include the base. I got some amazing shots, without even using a light. My iPhone adjusts the exposure automatically.


Here's how mine looked (without the phone).

PannK2 months ago

can i not using led light?

Yes, using no light worked fine for me!

EmmanuelP1 made it!3 months ago

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)

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