Tested: Macro Smartphone Photography with a $2 Laser Pointer

By Norman Chan

How a super cheap laser pointer can let you take macro photos with your iPhone.

I'm fascinated by novel implementations of macro photography: manipulating optics in cameras to take extremely up close photographs of everyday objects. Cameraphone accessories like the Olloclip let you conveniently take macro photos with the iPhone you have in your pocket--even if the attachment is a little pricey. But the coolest thing about modern macro photography is that you don't necessarily need special lenses or photography equipment to snap those beautiful shots. I've shown you how you can easily take macro photos with your existing interchangeable lens equipment or even use a drop of water to refocus your smartphone's lens. This week, I read about another macro smartphone photography employing a cheap laser pointer and had to test it out. The process turned out to be ridiculously simple and surprisingly effective. The total cost: just $2.11.

So here's how to use a $2 laser pointer to take macro photographs, and how those photos compare with other D-I-Y methods.

The trick that makes this work is that all laser pointers have a small lens that focuses the light that comes out of the laser diode. That lens, as it turns out, is just the right side to fit on top of a small camera sensor--like the one in your iPhone--and give it a really short focal length. So the first trick is to find a cheap laser that works. I found one on Amazon for $2.11 with Prime free shipping.

The laser arrived in two days and I dropped in two AAA batteries to give it a test. Since the diode doesn't matter for this project, the cheapest laser pointer will work. Red lasers are the most common, with low power output and relatively short range.

Using a pair of pliers, it was easy to separate the laser from the pen housing. Here, you can see the small green laser circuit board with the button, capacitor, and resistor soldered on. But the only part we care about is the metal ring at the top, which holds the small lens.

Inside the metal ring, the lens is held in place by a small black plastic ring. The plastic ring makes it difficult to just pop out the lens (with a toothpick or q-tip), and on my laser pointer it was firmly stuck to the metal.

Thankfully the metal ring was pliable, and with the help of pliers, I stripped away the housing until the plastic ring popped out. The tiny lens rolled out easily after that. You have to be a little careful here so you don't scratch the lens or destroy it with the pliers.

Affixing the lens to an iPhone can be a little tricky, since you don't want to just tape it down with a piece of scotch tape. I used scissors to cut tiny strips of tape to grip the edge of the lens and hold it flat against the iPhone camera. Since the laser's lens is also smaller than the lens on the iPhone, you're only going to get focus on a small part of the entire sensor, meaning unavoidable blurry edges. Centering the lens helps, but also takes some patience. But as long as the lens itself isn't obscured by tape, you're good to go.

The taped lens is easy to remove, and I wouldn't recommend keeping it on the phone unless you're ready to take some macro photos. It's way more practical than using a drop of water, but still not as convenient as the Olloclip. I may mess around with designing a housing for it with the Makerbot to make it easy to attach and remove from the iPhone.

Check out some sample macro photos I took using this method on the next page, along with some comparisons with other macro photography methods.