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Transform Your iPhone Into a Microscope: Just Add Water

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A droplet of water suspended on an iPhone camera acts as a magnifying lens.

I’ve engineered a fair number of inexpensive DIY camera hacks. This one is by far the cheapest: it’s free! Simply place a drop of water on the phone’s lens, carefully turn the device over, and the suspended droplet serves as a liquid lens. Behold:

Crocus flower as seen by an iPhone 4s through a water droplet.

Droplet images are dreamy, blurred at the periphery, and just a little bit…wet. But the tiny subjects underneath are magnified with sufficient resolution for an impromptu microscope. Indeed, I started playing around with the technique after reading that the U.C. Davis iPhone microscope team experimented with water before moving to a solid lens.

After spending a few hours this weekend with a slightly moist iPhone, I am pleased to report the following:

  • It works!
  • Larger, rounder droplets lead to higher magnification, and as the droplet evaporates and shrinks magnification decreases.
  • The liquid lens is jiggly and sensitive to vibrations. The phone should be placed on a stable platform for maximum clarity. For these photos, I coopted a pair of short drinking glasses as a stand.
  • Image quality is not as sharp as that provided by solid, commercially available clip-on lenses like Olloclip. But hey. You get what you pay for!
  • Water is not generally good for cell phone electronics, so be careful when applying the droplet.

Below are my attempts at iPhone water-graphs.

Odorous house ant, backlit with an LED array under the leaf.

Give me liberty, or give me 10 cents

The water lens has sufficient power to resolve a honey bee's hairs!

A printed image from a book, up close


Tipping the phone slightly distorts the droplet lens into yielding a tilt-shift/lensbaby effect.

If you try the technique, I’d love to see your results! Drop a link in the comments, or send me an email.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 2:57 pm 03/12/2012

    Now that’s an innovative application of technology!

    Link to this
  2. 2. smarshallphoto 4:08 am 03/13/2012

    Thanks for the article. I tried this last night, but used glycerine instead of water. It behaves almost like syrup, so is much easier to control. I didn’t use an iPhone either (other camera phones are available!), I used my Android device. Result here:

    Link to this
  3. 3. dahved 4:29 pm 03/13/2012

    Really cool! Do you apply the drop with the phone already pointing downward?
    Also, is the dime distorted from being circular by the drop?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Biology in Motion 5:06 pm 03/14/2012

    Just tried this trick to take shots of the details in a vampire bat skull. Mixed results owing to some motion in the camera that, of course, leads to heavy motion of the water lens (as Alex warned in the article). Once I steadied the camera, results improved. No images online yet, I’ll probably post some to Google later. One thing I did notice, as well, is that strong directional lighting does some interesting things with this technique.

    Link to this
  5. 5. TheStoof 9:19 pm 03/15/2012

    Sub-pixels can be seen.

    Link to this
  6. 6. 4:17 am 03/19/2012

    cool, Alex!

    Link to this
  7. 7. elamperti 12:37 am 03/20/2012

    Hi Alex, great article and good results! After reading it I tried to take some shots with my Motorola Droid and I managed to get some interesting photos.
    Though the post is in Spanish, you may enjoy the pictures:

    Link to this
  8. 8. L.Slonimova 3:39 am 04/5/2012

    Can I try it also on iPod?)

    Link to this
  9. 9. Dubravko J. 5:18 pm 04/20/2012

    I tried it on my Galaxy S right now. The images are not as good as yours since the camera is not as good as the one in iPhone, though.

    However, I wanted to thank you for sharing this, it’s great! I’m gonna spend the rest of the night playing with my cellphone and water. Interesting and fun! :)

    Here are some photos I made so far:

    Link to this
  10. 10. blackmagicdude 12:54 am 10/15/2012

    I saw someone build a Microscope using this laser pointer.

    How can it be done?

    Link to this

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