Lytro – putting light-field technology in the hands of the consumer


LytroWhen the camera went from analog to digital, it was one of those once in a lifetime changes. However, regardless of if you are using a 35mm or a point-and-shoot, the steps required to shoot a picture have remained the same: you focus on something, then push the button to record the image. What if you could take a picture and refocus it after you had taken it? What if, just by clicking around a photo on your computer screen, you could choose which part of the image should be clear and which part should be blurry? Well, you do all of this with a new camera that, named Lytro. With Lytro you take a picture as you would with any camera, but the digital file it creates can be refocused after the photo has been taken!

This is mind-blowing, imagine a wedding photo with the bride in the foreground and the wedding party in the background. Click on the bride, and she’s in focus while the bridesmaids are blurry. Click on the groomsmen and the focus shifts to them. Do this over and over all around the frame, the picture readjusts on the fly, smoothly moving from one focal point to another.

The Lytro can do this because its image sensor captures more data than your standard camera does. Not only does Lytro’s sensor register how bright the incoming light is and what colours it contains, it also knows which direction the light comes from. With that information (known as light-field data) the Lytro’s onboard software can create multiple focal points.

This all happens in a camera the size and shape of a stick of butter. It’s an unconventional design, with a lens at one end and a small touch screen at the other. On the top of the camera is a recessed button for the shutter release and a strip of bumps you slide your finger across to control the 8X optical zoom. On the bottom is a USB port and the power button. It’s a simple and elegant package, but the shape and feel will take a little getting used to.

The Lytro weighs 7.6 ounces, a bit more than some point-and-shoots. There’s no removable storage or battery, the camera comes with either 8GB of memory (350 pictures, costing $399) or 16GB (750 pictures, costing $499). Since the Lytro captures light rays, not pixels, its sensor is rated at “11 megarays” (11 million rays) instead of pixels. Both models come with a lithium-ion battery that is lasts for up to 600 shots between charges.

Like a point-and-shoot, turning on the Lytro is nearly instantaneous. The touch screen comes to life in about a second. That touch screen is one of the Lytro’s weaker points. After years of viewing large, crisp displays on smartphones and even point-and-shoots, the Lytro’s 1.5-inch LCD screen seems too small to really get a sense of what you are shooting.

The touch screen’s interface is more successful. When shooting, swiping up reveals an onscreen panel with battery life and memory-capacity information. Swiping to the right takes you to previously shot images. You can also switch between “everyday mode,” where the refocus range is determined automatically, and “creative mode,” which gives the photographer control over the refocus range.

After a picture has been taken, you can play around with focal points on the camera’s display, but the Lytro’s small LCD doesn’t make that a very pleasurable experience, it’s better to do it on a computer.

Taking pictures with the Lytro reveals other benefits besides focusing after the fact. Being able to refocus later means you don’t have to focus now. Since the camera is pulling in multiple focal points all at once, the Lytro doesn’t have the shutter lag that point-and-shoots have. It’s not SLR fast, but you can fire away with little delay.

You can upload photos to your computer via the included USB cable. Bear in mind that Lytro photos don’t leap onto your computer, but rather take more than one minute per shot to be uploaded and processed into clickable, refocusable images.

Lytro users also get a free online account to create galleries, share links with friends and post photos to Facebook, Twitter and Lytro’s public page, which is like an in-house version of Flickr. If you’ve ever used any photo-sharing site before, you’ll find that Lytro’s version is simple and straightforward and you’ll understand how it works in about two minutes.

Lytro images are stored as light-field picture files. Anyone with whom you share an lfp file can view it or click around and refocus it. It’s like a video you post from YouTube — the recipient doesn’t need any special software; it’s viewable in a Web browser.

Given that a Lytro picture is meant to be played around with, the format is not really intended for printed photos. You can generate a print, but it will be at a fairly low resolution, 1080 by 1080 pixels. That’s good enough for a 3 by 5 print, but anything larger will look grainy.

The Lytro has some drawbacks and not inconsiderable ones.

And while refocusing is its own interesting tool, that’s the only tool you have at this point, adding a filter or importing the image into Photoshop remains impossible. Then there’s the price. Four or five hundred dollars. It’s too expensive for basic photo purposes (that’s what your phone’s camera is for), and professional users will want more control over settings and lenses.

The potential of light-field photography is great, the whole ‘don’t have to focus’ thing is maybe even more impressive than focusing after the fact but there’s a difference between a great technology and a great product. Should Lytro’s engineers refine light-field photography into something more versatile and cheaper (imagine this on a smartphone), it may turn out to be a game changer.