how-to: do cheap macro photography on a BlackBerry

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[Imagine a giant disclaimer here that says I speak for RIM about BlackBerry officially only on matters of product security.  Everything else, like this post, is just me as an independent maker, messing around on my own time, in absolutely no official/approved way.]

By popular demand (ok, well James asked me), and driven by the great feedback from yesterday’s post of macro photos taken with my BlackBerry 9790 + cheap plastic lens (CPL), here’s a how-to of… how to do this.



Beginning with the end in mind, here’s one of the pics I shot tonight for this post.  For my non-Canadian friends, this is a $2 coin.  The ‘N’ there in “CANADA” is 2.3mm tall. 
Layout be damned here, don’t adjust your browser, the full-size pic is pushin’ the margin.

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Materials list is quite simple. 

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Strip the cardboard off the spent disposable camera so we can…

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get started on recovering that tiny 9mm circular plastic lens (with 1.5mm flange).  Behind it you can see “FUJIFILM” in white lettering on the shutter mechanism.  Funny story about how I came to even have these cameras: one of my project ideas last decade involved a large matrix of cheap camera flashes, so my Dad kindly and very persistently collected these spent cameras from grocery store photo labs all over the greater Sarnia area, amassing quite a few of them to support the making.  Thanks Pops!

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Some models are wrapped in an awfully sticky sticker rather than a cardboard sleeve, so you may have to improvise.  Here, we arrive at the safety portion of this operation, sparing you further disclaimers but noting the shocking bits and letting evolution sort it out.

These cameras have xenon flashes that require a fair bit of current at a fairly high voltage.  Even with the AA battery removed (as above), the big capacitor inside may still have an unhealthy charge on it, so I’m respectful and deliberate about where I stick the screwdriver in this device.  Ditto for my fingers.  Don’t be fooled by the meager 1.5V of the AA battery: the charge pump inside jacks that up to hundreds of volts on the capacitor, and when discharged through the trigger transformer to ionize the xenon gas in the flash tube, you get over 2000V.  A good rule of thumb is: don’t touch the metal bits.

As an antidote to our modern hyper-safe lifestyle, let me recommend: “Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)” by Gever Tulley, and all of Bill Gurstelle’s books.

Ok, so ensure that the AA battery has been removed from the bottom of the camera.

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Put on safety glasses.  If you’re like me, you like looking at things and enjoy depth perception, so definitely put on safety glasses.  And then, with the screw driver,…

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break off these tabs…

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that hold the two halves of the camera together.

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There are lots of tabs…

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all around.

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Then grab the front and back halves of the camera and pull it apart like a walnut.  There’s the lens just sitting there on the shutter, not fastened down at all.

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Tip the camera, lens falls out, no metal bits touched.

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The cylinder on the upper right is the flash capacitor to avoid.  There are other plastic lenses to recover for further experimenting, like the…

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viewfinder front lens which just slides out the top, and the…

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rear viewfinder lens as well as the exposure number magnifier, that both pop out easily.

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Here are all the lens-like pieces found on most models of disposable cameras.

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For now, we’ll defer discussion of reworking this flash circuit so that…

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it can be triggered by digital logic and fired through a silicon controlled rectifier like a C106D.

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Back to the BlackBerry, the hole on the left is the camera and the one on the right is the flash.

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Place the recovered plastic lens over the camera lens and…

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tape it in place.  Try to centre the lens over the camera and try not to obscure the lens with the tape.

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The lens is just flush up against the BlackBerry case.  Simple.

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More tape is good insurance on not losing your new lens if you choose to leave it on for a while.  The tape is also an amazingly effective conversation starter.

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My camera settings: macro scene mode, no flash, auto-focus continuous, no digital zoom, no image stabilization, picture review off, image size 2592×1944, no GPS tagging. 
To focus, you just move the BlackBerry nearer and farther from the subject
A little move makes a big difference in what is in focus.  To prevent the screen backlight from going dark while I’m sorting out focus, I just slide my thumb back and forth over the touchpad.  When focus looks good, I lightly tap the shutter button on screen.  Maintaining desired focus is easier if you brace your arm on something.

Beyond this, it’s all experimenting and shooting lots of pics!

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Inspired by this video by Bryan Peterson, I’ve got 2 pieces of 5mm white foamcore ($1ea) for a consistent background, and a $1 white LED lamp, both from the dollar store.  The third-hand stand is from KW Surplus ($6), and the drinking glass is from the kitchen.  I propped the coin up slightly with a balled up hunk of tape in order to get it off the glass on the edge I was shooting.  Then I played with the light positioning to find something interesting.

An aside, if you’re getting started with a Digital SLR camera, I recommend Bryan Peterson’s book “Understanding Exposure”.  My friend and fellow photog, Brian Neill, put me on to that book and it was the first book I should have read.  Totally straight-forward, easy to read, and practical.

Now on to a few more shots…


Here’s the flash circuit from the disposable camera.  That 4.7M resistor (yellow/purple/green) is only 3.2mm long.


Some fine steel wool.  The very shallow depth of field with this approach gives nice bokeh in the background.


Some broken safety glass from a car window (4.95mm thick)


A #8 32tpi screw that is 4.1mm across the threads.  For macro, things like lint and fingerprints really show up so, unlike here, it can be a good idea to clean your scene and subject with a lint-free cloth and alcohol.


Paper matches.  With practice, you’ll get a feel for what, in the frame, will be in focus, and what will be blurred so you can steer that more intentionally.


This vacuum tube is 17.74mm thick, and, along with the…


matches, is from The Imaginarium of Dr. Brohemus.  Thanks bro.

If you like this simple how-to, please leave a comment below.  It takes 6 seconds.  I moderate comments to maintain signal-to-noise, so your comment will appear within a few hours.  Would love to see links to macro pics that you shoot.  Or any photos shot with BlackBerry.

Happy making,

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11 Responses to how-to: do cheap macro photography on a BlackBerry

  1. Jon Johnson says:

    Awesome post! Great pics.

  2. Love the steel wool and matches shots!

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  5. Raegan Little says:

    Darin, the flash circuit from the disposable camera is unbelievable. I’m going to take the challenge and hit the dollar store today!

  6. Dave Suffling says:

    This really is fantastic!

    Would this be of any use as a work microscope, or does the camera end up too close to the subject? Could you get a soldering iron in there?

    • dw says:

      Thanks Dave. The device is about 2cm from the subject, so not a ton of working room, but might be workable.


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