Turn Your Smartphone into a Digital Microscope

Microscope Image

The amount of technology we now take for granted is astonishing; a typical smartphone has a dazzling array of components and functions including digital camera, GPS receiver, computer, internet browser and email. For anyone with an interest in science, this effectively means you have a mobile laboratory and research centre packed into a small portable box that fits in your pocket. With a few modifications, your smartphone can be converted into a laboratory instrument which only a few years ago would have been regarded as science fiction. For example, your smartphone can be converted into a digital microscope by following a few simple steps:

1. Get a smartphone. All smartphones possess digital cameras but models that have manual or touchscreen focussing tend to be the easiest to operate.

2. Find some dark thin rubber. A tap washer, bicycle inner tube or rubber window seal are all suitable materials to use. Carefully make a small hole (less than one millimetre in diameter should suffice) in the material using a pin or a needle.

3. Now you need a lens. It is possible to order a one millimetre diameter ball or half ball lens from various internet suppliers for prices in the range of $15 -$50. Alternatively, you can salvage lenses from the eyes of fresh fish – yes a fish. A fresh sardine will provide two lenses about the right size for use in your microscope; if the fish is not fresh then the lens tends to become opaque and difficult to see through. The smaller the lens you use, the higher the magnification will be.

4. Carefully mount the lens in the hole you made in the rubber material. The lens should be a tight fit inside this hole. You may need to widen the hole slightly depending on the size of the lens.

5. Position the rubber and ball lens over the centre of your smartphone camera. You may need to make several adjustments until the lens is properly centred. Attach the rubber to your smartphone (or ideally smartphone case) using black electrical tape.

6. Find a suitable specimen to observe. Just like a normal microscope, you will need to provide plenty of illumination to see your sample. Try observing onion epidermis (the wafer thin ‘skin’ that comes off onion leaves), a dead insect or hair for your first attempt.

7. Observe the specimen. This will be a process of trial and error as you assess the correct distance at which to hold the smartphone above the specimen. All light microscopes have a narrow depth of field, meaning they only focus within a very narrow plane of observation. If the lens is slightly too high or slightly too low the image will either be blurred or not visible at all. A good tip is to move the specimen gently to and fro while you observe – you will know that you are at the right plane of focus when you see the same movement in your field of view.

8. Use your smartphone’s capabilities to record snapshots, take videos and share with others via internet and email. Show the world some of the fascinating images you’ve been able to capture using only a phone and a lens!

Of course, if you don’t want to build your own and you have an iPhone, you can buy a manufactured conversion kit to save yourself time…but where’s the fun in that?

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