For more on microcontrollers and wearables, check out Make: Volume 43.  Don't have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.
For more on microcontrollers and wearables, check out Make: Volume 43.
Don’t have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.

I’ve always been fascinated by high-resolution photos of insects. The amount of detail at that small scale is impressive and also surprising because it surrounds us on a daily basis, but goes unnoticed without a bit of effort and a microscope. You don’t need a fancy camera — even a cellphone camera will provide good results. With a little practice, you’ll be able to capture and share your own high-quality images of the microscopic world.

Ideally you’ll want a low-magnification, binocular microscope that provides light from above the specimen. But if you already have a conventional monocular microscope that provides light from beneath the specimen, you can easily use that as well.



Project Steps

Create Adequate Lighting

Even if your scope already has a light that

shines downward, you’ll likely need to add more — the greater the light, the better the images. One solution is to take apart a desk lamp that has a circular fluorescent tube surrounding a magnifying glass. Remove the glass, and check that the light can be positioned so that it surrounds your specimen without interfering

with the microscope itself.

Another option is to buy two or more goose-neck lamps, such as Jansjo from Ikea. These lamps are really handy for lots of projects, and don’t need to be modified for use with your microscope.

Mold a Camera Mount

You can attach your cellphone or point-and-shoot camera to the microscope with a moldable plastic such as InstaMorph or Shapelock. These products come in pellet form and are softened by immersing them in hot water. The pellets form a blob that has the consistency of modeling clay, and can be wrapped around your microscope eyepiece and camera or phone. The plastic will retain its shape after it cools and is not sticky, so the camera can be easily removed.

Be sure to have a properly lit specimen in the microscope with the camera turned on while applying the moldable plastic. Very slight misalignments will cause some of the image to be lost. I made a small hook with the plastic for my cellphone mount, which holds the phone surprisingly well.

If you have a camera with a removable lens (such as a DSLR), you’ll get the best results by removing both the camera lens and the microscope eyepiece, and connecting the camera directly to the top of the microscope. This can be accomplished by disassembling a broken camera lens and salvaging its lens mount to help couple the microscope barrel to the camera with moldable plastic, or by using a machined or 3D-printed adapter (there are lots of shared designs online at makezine.com/go/microscope-adapters).

Adjust Camera Settings

Your camera’s focus should be locked to infinity if possible. This way, the knob on the microscope will control the focus, and the camera’s autofocus mechanism will not continually try to adjust.

The camera’s exposure should also be set manually so that multiple images have the same brightness.

Many cameras also allow a custom white balance to be set through a menu function, which improves overall quality. You can do this by placing a piece of white paper under your microscope, and activating the function with all

of your lighting positioned as it normally would

be for a real specimen.

Using a wireless or wired remote control will allow you to take photos and turn the focus knob on the microscope without disturbing the camera at all.

Carefully Collect Specimens

You can mount insects and other objects very effectively with a pin and a piece of modeling clay or putty.

You can check windowsills for dead insects, but if you want to photograph a living insect that you’ve found, it can be difficult to kill it without damaging it. One method is to place the insect in a small jar and carefully spray in some gas from a canned “duster.” The gas will displace the oxygen in the jar, and kill the insect as humanely as possible without ruining its detail.

Shoot Multiple Images

Once you’re taking photos of tiny objects, you’ll notice that very little of the image is in focus at any given time, like this tiny purple lanthanum hexaboride crystal.

This is a physical limitation of the optics, but it can be overcome with a clever trick: Take 10 or more photos of the specimen at different focus settings, and combine them so that all of the sharp parts of each photo are combined into an image that is completely in focus.

This technique is called focus stacking, and can be accomplished with Adobe Photoshop or a free program such as CombineZM. Set up your camera as described above, then adjust the microscope’s focus knob so that the highest part of the specimen is in focus. Take a picture, then turn the focus knob so that a slightly lower part of the specimen is in focus, and take another picture. Continue this until the bottom of the specimen is in focus. Copy all the images to your computer, and use the focus-stacking program to combine them into a sharp image.

I hope these techniques allow you to explore the microscopic world and share your creative vision of it. You may find new ways to photograph insects, ice crystals, plants, rock formations, and other everyday wonders.

Need a Microscope?

If you don’t have a microscope, you can purchase a suitable model for less than $100 new or from an auction of used equipment. The Amscope SE100-ZZ is an economical model that fits this description. When taking photos, you’ll only use one eyepiece, but the binocular feature is nice when simply looking through the scope.