Upgrade a pair of binoculars (or a telescope or microscope) with a Raspberry Pi 2 and a Pi camera and use one of Adafruit’s touch LCDs to view and take pictures at a distance.

This project is more time-consuming, expensive, and clunky than if you were to purchase a commercial product. However, you are probably not reading Make: because you wanted to buy a solution.

We created two versions. The first is an Over-Engineered edition, which involves a laser cutter, computer, Inkscape vector image editing software, thin plywood, nuts and bolts, and a bunch of other pointless features that will take a lot of time to build. However, today we will be building the Quick and Dirty version, which involves a little bit of foam, electrical tape, ruler, pencil, and a knife. It can probably be done in half an hour or less.

1. Image Download and Installation

The Adafruit crew put together a specific version of the Raspbian OS to make it easy to interface with their 2.8″ capacitive touchscreen. Go download the appropriate one for you.

Unzip the image after it finishes downloading. Carefully follow the “Writing an image to the SD Card” instructions to install the OS. Eject the SD card once you’ve finished writing the image to it.

2. Test Your Hardware

Remove the microSD card from the adapter. Flip the Pi over, and place the microSD card into its holder. If your camera cable is not attached to the camera, attach it now — blue side facing up, silver tabs facing the lens side (Figure A) — first disengaging the clasp if necessary, and re-engaging once plugged in.

Figure A

Next, attach the other end of the cable to the Pi, silver tabs facing the HDMI port, blue side facing the network jack, again disengaging the clasp first if needed. Place the cable into the slot and engage the clasp, leaving the camera facing out and the cable hanging over the network jack (Figure B).

Figure B

Attach the LCD panel to the Pi — be aware that it fits a bit loose and floppy. Line up the GPIO pins on the Pi with the header on the LCD (Figure C). Carefully press down (avoid pressing on the screen itself). Attach power, and boot up. It may take a minute, but you should end up at the Raspi Boot Config — a grey and blue screen.

Figure C

I used a USB Wi-Fi dongle for this project — it’s optional, though the steps later on will make use of it.

3. OS and Camera Setup

Boot the Pi. If the Raspberry Pi Software Configuration Tool doesn’t run at boot, login and run the command sudo raspi-config to start it.

Go to Expand Filesystem and hit enter. This lets you take full advantage of your SD card. Then go to Internationalization Options and Change Locale (the default is Great Britain), Change Timezone, and Change Keyboard Layout (if necessary) to what is appropriate for you.

Next, Enable Camera, then go to Advanced Options, SSH, and enable the SSH server (Figure D), which allows you to connect remotely. Select Finish and Yes when asked if you would like to reboot.

Figure D

You have two options to get the Pi connected to your network.

A. Ethernet Cable (Network Cable)

Connect from your router/modem/switch to your Pi. Reboot the Pi. When at the login screen the third line up should be your IP address. Make a note of it.

B. Connect a USB Wi-Fi Dongle to your Raspberry Pi


sudo nano /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf

Add to the bottom of the file:





Reboot the Pi. The third or fourth line up on the screen should be your IP address.

This part can be tricky so look-up additional help if you need it.

Download and Set Up the Camera Script

Return to Adafruit and scroll down to “Install Camera.” Follow the instructions there to set up Phillip Burgess’ excellent camera script.

Then scroll down to “System Tweaks” and follow the steps to speed up the screen redraws so the camera is more responsive. To have the Pi boot straight into the camera software at startup, follow the instructions for “Standalone mode.”

Enable Tactile Switch #23

SSH into your Pi: [email protected]. Then follow the “Tactile switch as power button” steps.

Note: Do NOT follow the additional steps below the tactile switch section.

4. Build the Camera Mount

Place your binoculars, with the eyepiece facing down, on the piece of foam. Draw an outline around the eyepiece on the foam with a pencil (Figure E). Use a ruler to create a crosshair through the center of your circle (Figure F), then draw a rectangle approximately 8mm×8mm at the center (Figure G) — this is for the camera lens (Figure H). Place some disposable material below the foam to save your worktable, then use your X-Acto knife to remove the rectangle, and then the circle (Figure I). Work slowly, making many light cuts; force doesn’t always help, and will cause more damage if you slip.

Test-fit the camera mount — it should barely cover the binocular’s eyepiece, and the Pi camera should fit just inside the rectangle (Figure J). This doesn’t have to be perfect, but the closer the camera is to the center of the mount the better.

5. Attach the Pi, LCD, and Camera

Place rubber bands around the top and left side of the floppy LCD to hold it in place. Cut a piece of electrical tape long enough (for me, ~25cm) to wrap around the binoculars at least once. Place the sticky side of the tape against the inner edge of the LCD headers. Use your ruler to smooth the sticky side against the headers (Figure K).

Figure K

Making sure the camera cable goes over the network jack, line up and attach the LCD panel to the Pi — being careful not to crush your LCD. Make sure the tape comes out the bottom side (Figure L). Then center the Pi and LCD on top of the binoculars, gently pulling the electrical tape down and all the way around the binoculars (Figure M). Position it close enough to the front so that the camera can reach the eyepiece. Wrapping loose electrical tape snug around the binoculars worked great with mine. Tape may not adhere well to your binoculars, so experiment as necessary.

Cut a short (~4cm) piece of tape. Place it across the electronics on the back of the camera and wrap it a little bit around the foam mount. If you removed the camera cable for this step, reattach it as you did in Step 2.

Boot up the Raspberry Pi and cut a longer (8–10cm) piece of electrical tape. Pointing the binoculars at a well-lit area, position the camera in front of the left eyepiece, moving it around until you see a well-defined circle (Figure N). Secure the camera to the binocular eyepiece with the tape.

Figure N

Cut another piece of tape. Wrap that around the eyepiece, over the tape you just attached. Mission complete!

6. Camera Flip!

It’s likely that the image you’re viewing on the LCD is flipped vertically and horizontally. If this is the case we need to add two lines to the cam.py file.

SSH into your Pi ([email protected]), or plug a keyboard directly into your Pi, and login. Then type:

cd adafruit-pi-cam-master

(or type cd ada then hit Tab to auto-complete).

Then type:

nano cam.py -c

and Enter. Tap Ctrl-W to Search and type:

# Init Camera

That should put you around line #571. Not too far above it you should find the line #Camera.crop — place your cursor above it and add two new lines:

camera.vflip = True

camera.hflip = True

Hit Ctrl-X, Y, and Enter to save and exit. Type sudo reboot and hit Enter to restart. The video should now be flipped in a way that responds more naturally to your movement.

7. Power and More

There are a number of options for powering your Pinoculars — we’ll cover Goal Zero’s Guide 10 Plus Recharger (Figure O).

Figure O

Make sure your batteries are fully charged and the battery pack is switched off. Connect the USB cable to both the battery pack and Raspberry Pi. When you’re ready to use the Pinoculars, just switch the battery pack on.

When you’re done using the Pinoculars, first switch the Pi off using tactile switch #23 on the front of your Pi. Wait at least 30 seconds for your Pi to shut down, then switch the battery pack off.

Some Power Details

The Guide 10 Recharger Pack is rated for 2300mAh at 4.8V. The Raspberry Pi with the LCD and Wi-Fi will probably draw between 500–1000mA per hour, so a 2300mAh battery pack should last around 2 hours. I would recommend against pushing this limit. If the battery can’t supply enough power you may end up losing the contents of your SD card, or worse.

If you don’t need the Wi-Fi adapter running for this setup, feel free to remove it. It’s a pretty significant power drain.

Learnings and Difficulties

Blurry images are very common! Holding the Pinoculars as still as possible and shooting in broad daylight will help.

Switch position: Using the touchscreen, or the switches next to it, to take pictures is not ideal. Positioning a separate switch closer to where your fingers rest would be much nicer.

LCD unnecessary? Once you’ve calibrated the position and focus of the camera lens, the LCD is unnecessary beyond reviewing pictures taken (which is nice). However, these could be sent to your phone, or viewed from your phone over a web page.

Video: Taking video with this setup would be nice. I tinkered with adding it briefly, but haven’t succeeded. Maybe you will!

Example Photos