Polistes dominula, the European Paper Wasp

captured with an iPhone

As an insect guy, the first question I ask about any camera is: Can I shoot bugs with it?

To my great disappointment, the answer for most cell phones is no. Cell phone cameras are normally fixed to focus at distances useful for party pictures and street shots. Fixed-focus simplifies the mechanics of the onboard camera, but it also makes close-ups of small subjects impossible. Even Apple’s iPhone 3GS- which has variable focus- doesn’t focus quite closely enough do anything but the largest insects. So when an aphid plague unexpectedly hits town, to name one real-life example, I have to go home and haul out my camera bag. No easy snaps.

An unmodified Apple iPhone 3G depicts the same wasp shown at the top of the post like this:


As you can see, the plane of focus falls behind this barely-visible insect. That’s no good.

There’s a simple solution. A magnifying lens placed over the onboard lens will move the focus point close to the camera. With an insect sitting nearly on top of a small lens, the resulting image is magnified to impressive size. The home-made rig looks like this:


I used a $20 lens and some masking tape, but any hand-lens should do. This arrangement allows the iPhone to cozy right up for some intimate bug portraits. I’ve posted a sampling below:







Given the low resolution of the iPhone sensor, I won’t be making posters out of these images anytime soon. But they’re fine for blog posts or powerpoint presentations. For a $20 hack, I’m not complaining.


  1. #1 Julie Stahlhut
    April 17, 2010

    The P. dominula is awesome!

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 17, 2010


  3. #3 wright1
    April 17, 2010

    Lovely images, especially the wasp.

  4. #4 Art
    April 17, 2010

    Quick. Apply for patent for a plastic shoe, an existing case perhaps, that has been modified to hold the appropriate standard lens type to allow close shots. Make the lens mount such that the lens can be changed. Sell the shoe and a small selection of lenses together.

    Put out a ‘pro’ version that allows better and wider selection of lenses and filters to be used.

    IMHO there is an large potential market for attachments to an I-phone to allow better photography. Not just for macro shots but wide angle shots. Perhaps even specialty photography.

  5. #5 James C. Trager
    April 17, 2010

    Well I’ll be dipped! Can’t wait to try this out.

  6. #6 nefernika
    April 17, 2010

    I’m with Art!

    I once heard a photographer say “the best camera is the camera you have with you”–for me, more and more, that’s the camera in my phone.

    I’d buy a case that had a set of, say, 4 lenses in a heartbeat. If they were set in a circle that you could flip through–like those old viewers that had a series of scenes of vacation spots . . . A close-up, a zoom, a wide-angle and a blank would be a nice set. Please let me know when they are available to order.

  7. #7 Daniel J. Andrews
    April 17, 2010

    Nice! This almost makes me wish I had an iPhone. For anyone interested, you can probably find cheaper lenses too. Old binoculars have some handy lenses in the eyepieces, as do some of the cheap telescope lenses. Some camera stores also have/had a bin of lenses you can rummage through and find the magnifying ones that aren’t chipped or damaged. Depending on what you grab they will run you maybe a dollar to completely free. Of course, that was before the digital camera era so perhaps those bins of discarded lenses aren’t as common now(?).

    I used old binocular lenses and my K-1000 Pentax camera’s 50mm lens to make a macrolens. Later I also made a sliding focus telephoto lens, and a sliding macrolens, so I could control the amount of magnification (total cost was $15 for the adapter ring, originally used for attaching my camera to my telescope for astrophotography, and the sliding tube was just two different sized cardboard tubes from paper towel dispensers).

    Adapting, modifying ‘toys’ is a great deal of fun.

  8. #8 S.L.
    April 17, 2010

    Too late, someone already came up with the idea:

  9. #9 Art
    April 17, 2010

    [b]Too late, someone already came up with the idea:[/b]

    See what happens when they use mind reading satellites and have a time machine. LOL.

    Looks like they got the basic idea but blew the implementation. I was thinking something a bit more compact and made out of durable materials. I hate to see a good idea poorly carried out.

  10. #10 Beatriz
    April 18, 2010

    Fantastic! Now, if we could only teach this trick to certain contributors to Bugguide. Some of their cameras are slightly better than an I-Phone but the results are deplorable. Sigh!

  11. #11 Mike George
    April 19, 2010

    Excellent shots. The iPhone is pretty sweet … but this makes it even better. It’s cool what a single lens can do to make the camera way more useful. (At the risk of sounding cheesy, this should be called the “bug-eyed iPhone.”)

  12. #12 Kevin Quiggle
    April 19, 2010

    Seems to me you don’t need an iphone for this – just a cell phone with a camera. Might even work better on cell phones with better cameras.

  13. #13 Luna_the_cat
    April 19, 2010

    OMFG, that is brilliant. Betcha I can make these work on my Android.

  14. #14 Out walking the dog
    April 19, 2010

    Wow, that’s fantastic. The difference between the first two photos is amazing.

  15. #15 tim
    April 22, 2010

    Good work Alex, handy to know! I have shared this on my ant tweeting page =)

  16. #16 Lance Gritton
    May 23, 2010

    I am a high school science teacher, and we routinely use cell phones to take micrographs, especially those of gram staining. you need to adjust the focal point manually (trial and error sometimes) but the hand lens may make that easier.

  17. #17 Nasikabatrachus
    May 25, 2010

    “I once heard a photographer say “the best camera is the camera you have with you”–for me, more and more, that’s the camera in my phone.”

    Funny you should say that:

  18. #18 Stephen Ironside
    July 17, 2010

    Great idea, Alex. I’ll have to set up this rig and see what I can do with it.

  19. Amazing close ups considering its on the iphone- going to try this tonight- Grant

  20. #20 Cy St-Amand
    January 3, 2011

    Wow, this is great, thank you every one for such great ideas, I will put them to work here in Alaska. The flat taped on lens show by Alex would be the coolest iPhone cover, I would call it the iBug.

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