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Low cost DNA gel documentation

Content sponsored by New England Biolabs

An image of an aperture to depict DNA gel photography.

Equipment for DNA gel photography, such as photographing DNA gels stained with ethidium bromide (or other fluorescent dyes), doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. These days, great pictures can be obtained with a standard digital camera and an orange filter. Here’s how.

You will need:

  • A digital camera
  • A Cokin orange filter 002A or similar (This does not have to fit onto the camera, a square filter will do.)
  • A polystyrene ice bucket with a thick (3-5cm bottom)
  • A UV transilluminator

To build it:

    1. Cut a hole in the bottom of the box that is big enough for the camera lens to fit into.
    2. Tape the filter over the hole, inside the box.
    3. Set the camera flash to off and the mode to black & white.
    4. Push the camera’s lens tube into the hole (or place the camera lens over the hole if there is no lens tube). Depending on the shape of your camera, you may have to modify the box to ensure that the camera is pointing straight into the hole.
    5. Place your DNA gel onto the transilluminator and put the box over the gel.
    6. Turn the transilluminator and the camera on. You should now be able to see the stained DNA on the gel in the viewfinder of the camera.
  1. To get a quality picture and good detection limits you will have to play around with the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. This will be specific to your camera, but the setting ISO 200, Shutter speed 1/3, Aperture 8.0 worked for me—so may be a useful starting point for you.

Update: Here’s a schematic diagram that shows how the whole thing should fit together. Let me know if you have any comments or questions.


For more tips, tricks, and hacks for getting your experiments done, check out the Bitesize Bio DIY in the Lab Hub.

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  1. Oliver on April 18, 2011 at 7:00 pm


    I’m thinking of building this system.
    Two questions.

    1) Do you really need the orange filter? Why not apply the same effect in photoshop or in the camera settings? Does the filter allow using a cheaper camera or help in getting a better contrast of the bands?

    2) I have inherited a very old UVP M-20 UV transilluminator. The lamps are quite clearly visible which leads to a gradient across at least part of my PCR gel.
    Any suggestions for how to get rid of this cheaply?



    • Ivan Ivanov on April 27, 2011 at 9:05 pm

      Hi Oliver,
      1) Do you really need the orange filter? Why not apply the same effect in photoshop or in the camera settings? Does the filter allow using a cheaper camera or help in getting a better contrast of the bands?

      Yes, absolutely !! The orange filter cuts off the UV specter that otherwise can damage your camera chip. An UV filter is also advisable. I have compared orange vs. dark yellow filter (usually used for SYBR Green I stained gels) and found that the latter work great with EtBr (better than the original orange filter). You can find various filters in ebay quite cheap.

  2. Ivan Ivanov on October 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Hi, guys. I am seriously considering making a geldoc system with blue led light. I will be using it mainly for DNA in agarose gels stained with SYBR dyes or GelGreen. There are many points to consider such as:

    1. Transillumination vs. epi-illumination. Some useful info: they use 6 star type high power leds.
    Very useful info
    2. I am wondering if this would work for transillumination when coupled with appropriate diffuser on top of it.
    I will be back soon with more suggestions.
  3. A.J. Maxwell on October 11, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    That is a great post- Thanks! I will definitely try it. Do you know about the new gel doc imagers that claim to be less expensive- Would love some advice if anyone has used the new one by biorad or any others.

  4. A.J. Maxwell on October 11, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Thanks for the posting- I am definitely going to try it! Do you used or know anything about new gel doc imagers on the market biorad’s new one that is inexpensive- or any others?

  5. Shana Garrett on August 13, 2010 at 2:45 am

    I am SO doing this tomorrow. I have never in my life found a more useful website. I would pay for this type of advice!

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