Lipstick Camera Turned Video Microscope

Backstory: In a previous life, I was a freefall photographer. I took photos and shot video while skydiving. Before GoPro and others started popping up on the scene, I had devised a little rig for shooting freefall video without the need for the bulky miniDV camera on my helmet. The setup used a "bullet" or "lipstick" camera which provided a video input signal for a miniDV camera (used as a tape deck at this point) located OFF my helmet and in a pouch under my jumpsuit. I don't remember where I got the camera. They can be found on the InterWebs for $100-ish, maybe less. Anyhoo, if you've ever stuck your hand out of the window of a car moving at highway speed, I'm pretty sure you'll be able to figure out how non-aerodynamic a miniDV camera is. Needless to say, a lipstick camera cuts through the wind WAY easier than a full-on Sony TRV-20 miniDV camera. A lipstick camera also weighs considerably less than a miniDV camera. Lipstick Camera

OK, now that I've barfed out a giant intro paragraph, let's get to the nutty-tasting inside of this story: I have this lipstick camera sitting around in a box. I know that when I twist the lens away from the sensor, the camera acts more and more like a video microscope. I have many tiny things I'd like to look at with minimal camera shake.

Focusing the Lens by Rotating It

Neato. In fact, this thing is an excellent tool for reading the tiny, tiny lettering on tiny, tiny surface mount devices ("SMDs") on tiny, tiny circuit boards that I am studying. The problem is holding it steady enough and having a free hand (two is even better) to move around the object under study and take notes. (There are more samples at the end of this article.)

Video Microscope In Action

My eyes are pretty good considering the amount of time they spend staring at computer screens and my age, but occasionally I run across some parts or circuits where there is no way I can easily read the tiny print without magnification. The image above is coming from the lipstick camera and is being shown on a 3.5-inch NTSC/PAL TFT monitor I picked up at Adafruit Industries.

Holding the camera sounds like a job for a gooseneck from a cheap lamp. Thanks, Ace Hardware! Got one. $12. Unscrew some parts, gut some stuff and boom! Microscope camera stand:

Gutted Gooseneck Lamp

I repurposed some of the DIY mounting hardware I used to keep the little camera on my skydiving helmet. Two plastic brackets and some screws from Home Depot (as I recall) and a piece of yoga mat to grip it better, as it was flying with me through 120+ MPH winds.

Helmet Mounting Hardware

I adapted it to the gooseneck lamp by flattening the bracket on the end of the gooseneck and simply screwing the brackets into it.

Camera Mounted on Gooseneck

That was attempt number one, anyway. I routed the cable for the camera, which includes its video signal and power wires, down the gooseneck. The power and video out connectors are routed out of the lamps power cord hole. I dug through my prodigious collection of random screws, nuts and washers and found some #6 pieces that worked like a charm:

Assembled Microscope Head

Here are some things I looked at with my nifty video microscope:

Device to Control Sony Cameras

PIC in Sony Control Device

The device pictured above was used on my skydiving helmet to turn the Sony camera on and off. I can't remember its name anymore. It was very cool. It had a multi-color LED that was fixed to my eyepiece for targeting the camera in freefall. I could get status from the camera, like when it was running low on fuel and tape. The single button make it super easy to work. Prior to devices like that, you had to have someone tell you that the red record light was on before climbing out of the plane.

My Eyeball

That image makes my iris look blue or grey, but it is in fact greenish-brown. Taking a picture of an LCD with my iPhone doesn't really keep a color profile intact, of course.

Resistor and Tiny SMD LED

That resistor is a 1/4-WATT, regular old resistor you've put in a thousand projects. The little dood next to it is the tiniest SMD LED I've ever seen. I had purchased and bunch of those little guys for a clock project and had no idea just how freaking tiny they were until I got them in-hand. No. Way. On. Earth. ...Am I gonna figure out way to solder those puppies to something and make them work. Funny thing about that particular one pictured above: I had lost it for months. While I was putting this microscope together, it just showed up next to another not-quite-as-tiny SMD LED I was examining. I think it was stuck to the edge of the ESD foam on my table and just dropped off by coincidence. It's blue, if you're wondering. Intensely blue with 3 volts.

Scoping a Twenty Dollar Bill

Twenty Dollar Bill Magnified

Currency is always fun to scope.

So, the next step in this project will be to make the LCD look nice and maybe conveniently mount it to the base of the scope. I dunno, yet. I have two of these little LCDs and each of them has two inputs. I might use the other one for a forward-looking camera on my RAM 1500 truck. Who knows?