Hack Your Smartphone and Become a Better Photographer

Hack Your Smartphone and Become a Better Photographer

Don't worry this hack won't invalidate the warranty on your phone and takes minimal technical skill to do. The end result is a dramatic change in how you and the camera see the world.

The best camera is the one that is with you and for most of us, it's the camera in our smartphones which is at hand more often than our dedicated "real" ones. While the technology in our phones is getting better with each and every generation of handset released, I still personally find the pictures I can take with my smartphone a little disappointing and uninspiring. It's for this reason, that I find myself taking fewer and fewer pictures these days. This is a real shame as those photos can be a great starting point for future projects as well as keeping those important photographic reflexes sharp.

While clearing out some old photography gear recently I stumbled across a makeshift macro lens which I used to have on my smartphone. I vaguely remember reading an article on cannibalizing an old CD/DVD drive somewhere, but this little lens has been collecting dust for several years so I'm not sure where the original idea came from. Once I removed eight years worth of dust from the miniature lens I stuck it to the back of my phone and began shooting random objects around my house. The transformation which took place to both my pictures and my mindset was dramatic. I felt like a kid again who had just discovered the joys of photography for the first time.

#NoFilter - The first DIY macro image shot on my iPhone

What I really enjoy about shooting with this DIY macro lens is the unpredictability of it. This lens has the most shallow depth of field you will ever shoot with and the ability to get razor sharp images on it is very challenging indeed. It's like nothing I have ever shot on before and because of this, it's incredibly refreshing to use. Sometimes us photographers need to step outside of our comfort zones to give our creative and technical processes a little jump start.

During the aforementioned clear out, I also unearthed what looked like the first ever external CD writer from the 1990s. Before taking it to the recycle center I thought it would be a good idea to harvest the drive for its lenses and document the process in the hope some of you might be inspired to have a go at hacking your smartphone's camera.

Dismantling the Drive

While I am using an old CD writer to get my lenses you could easily use any unwanted device which was made to read CDs, DVDs, Blueray etc. as all of them will have similar lenses inside. It goes without saying, but always make sure you disconnect any electronic device from the mains before you start poking around inside. Also, the process of removing these lenses will kill the appliance in question so don't go borrowing your grandmas DVD player unless she's happy to never see it again.

After removing the external housing for my CD writer I locate and remove four screws on the top of the drive. Some drives may have extra screws underneath so inspect all the sides of the drive and take out any screws you find.

Remove the Front Cover

Thankfully, because this is a salvage mission we don't need to be too precious about removing these initial parts. I used a flat headed screwdriver to pry open this front cover. Because some brute force is being used at this stage, it's probably a good idea to don a pair of safety glasses. It might sound like overkill but if you're one of these people who always puts a filter on the front of your valuable lenses to stop them getting damaged, then you should be taking similar precautions with your eyes.

Locate the Lens

Depending on the position of the disc tray, the location of the component which houses the laser will vary. Regardless of the device you are dismantling, the lens we want to use will look similar to the one in the picture.

Remove the Lens

Before I could get to the lens I had to remove a black plastic cover which was protecting all the electronics inside it. Thankfully this was just lightly glued on and came off quite easily. Instead of taking the lens out of its housing in situ I remove everything the lens is sitting on so I can work more easily. Again the part just pops off with a little help from a screwdriver. The main thing to remember when doing all this is to keep any sharp tools away from the lens itself.

Pop out the Lens

Although you may think it would be useful to keep this lens in its purpose-built housing the lens itself needs to sit flush on your smartphone's camera so it needs to come out. I took a blunt cocktail stick and poked the lens out from behind. I'm not sure if it's because I was dismantling such an old appliance but all these stages required very little force to remove them. If you are finding things are glued a little more firmly then try adding a little-localized heat to help manipulate the glue used.    

Installing the Lens

There are several ways you can install this lens to your smartphone, but I opted for White Tak. It may not be the prettiest but it gets the job done, is removable, and reusable. If you plan to use this lens more regularly you may consider making a little mount for the lens. Just remember to keep the lens flush on the back of the smartphone as if you don't you'll find focusing impossible.

Bonus Lenses

There should be at least two lenses in your appliance if not more. These candidates all came from the same CD writer so have a good dig around in the same place where the first lens was removed to see what else you can find. Each lens will vary in how close it can focus so it's worth having a few different kinds in your macro arsenal. 

Using the Lens

Once you have the lens in place the world is your oyster. Just remember that you need to be literally millimeters away from your subject for it to come into focus. These lenses do take a bit of getting used to but the rewards are totally worth it. Unless you plan on staying in the world of super macro on your smartphone, you will need to remove the lens to take regular pictures. It's for this reason, that I use the reusable White Tak mentioned above. When not in use I keep these lenses stored in a folded piece of card in my wallet.

So there you have it, how to hack your phone and change your photographic perspective. For those who don't have a CD drive to dismantle, similar macro lenses can now be found online and although I can't vouch for them I'm sure the results are comparable. While I appreciate these macro lenses aren't going to replace your existing cameras they do help to get you out of your regular mindset when it comes to your photographic practice. Trying unconventional things from time to time really does help you to see the world through different eyes. As the world becomes further homogenized and automated, thinking differently is going to become more and more important to us all.

Have you ever tried this lens hack? Have any techniques for changing your photographic perspective? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Paul Parker's picture

Paul Parker is a commercial and fine art photographer. On the rare occasion he's not doing photography he loves being outdoors, people watching, and writing awkward "About Me" statements on websites...

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For anyone who is interested, here are two shots with and without the lens:

this is neat. been looking for a project now the wet weather is here. thanks

That's a great point Robert, even the most mundane things found around the house can make fascinating subjects when you shoot them macro...

Stop saying hack

I'm sorry the title hacks you off.

Personally, I think hack is appropriate in this context...

It is absolutely appropriate, just stop saying it.


Im super hacked off about this title.

Quite surprised you can get something like that from a mobile phone.

What is the first image of at the top of the page?


It's definitely achievable with the help of a macro lens. The first image was the side of moths wing close up. That's how it came out of the camera. To me, it reminded me of some random landscape at sunset...

Thanks for your reply Peter

Is that the quantum realm?

Sure does feel like that! This came straight off my phone like this. Kinda felt like witchcraft...

I thought that was Mars for a second :D

Thats the first thing I thought too! I had a lot of fun shooting these pics... :)

thats what sprang to mind for me too

HI Paul. I write for the Apple news site, Cult of Mac. Would you be willing to share your images for a post about your iPhone hack? I can be reached at david@cultofmac.com. I tried reaching you through the thatPaul site but an ad for website building templates came up. Thanks. I'm ready to try this hack myself. - David Pierini


Interesting Paul - nice article and a good way of re-using some otherwise pretty obsolete parts.

Thanks Jeff, can't actually remember the last time I used a DVD/CD drive for anything...

Fun trick! I look forward to giving it a shot. Thanks for posting.

Thanks Brian. It really is a fun thing to try...:)

hack hack hack hurrah!
Funny trick, really.

haha thanks for stopping by!

Fun trickm lol. Thank you for sharing

It really is a fun trick worth trying!

Just tried this now. Lots of fun. Really love this post. !!!

Oh cool! Would love to see some pics?

Hey Kinu, how are you getting on with your new hacked lens a few weeks on?

heres my take on the idea. Took out the magnifying eye piece from a loupe. I just held it over the lens with my hand.

I love it!! Looks like winter has taken hold where you are. Thanks very much for the share. :)

Thank you. I couldnt zoom in as much as your examples but it certainly helps.