Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Transform Your iPhone Into a Microscope: Just Add Water


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.

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

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