Lytro light field camera
Shoot first, focus later
Review Since before the days of Fox Talbot, cameras have worked like the human eye. A lens focuses an image on a plane, be it a retina, silver halide or electronic sensors. The Lytro is different
Lytro: the box camera for the 21st century
Instead of capturing a single image it captures the rays of light, working out what’s pointing where to build a model of the different focal points. The plane can effectively be moved backwards and forwards in the image in software. This allows you to take one picture and focus later. Lytro calls this a “living picture”. Although it begs the question that if you take away the need to focus does that lead to you becoming a worse photographer?
The important difference is that instead of all the light rays converging on a single point there are multiple points of focus on the sensor. They call the area which is captured a “light field” and the sensor a light field image sensor. It captures not just the intensity of the light coming from a point but the direction and the changes of intensity along the path. This of course means a lot more data and processing than with a conventional image.
Simple controls and operation
The Lytro camera captures 11 million light rays which has some distinct advantages. While in traditional photography a smaller aperture gives better depth of field, a larger one allows more light in and works better when less light is available. However, a large aperture means lenses have to be better to avoid distortion around the edges.
Lytro argues that digital sensors have now overtaken the quality of lenses as well as the screens and printers we use to display pictures. The redundancy in the sensor resolution can be harnessed by the light field technology to overcome the limitations of focusing. The upshot of this is that although you have a very expensive camera with a very high resolution sensor the actual images, at each level of focus are pretty point and shoot.
For on-line rather than on-paper viewing
It’s not yet high enough resolution for you to just take a picture and then expect it to be printable at any level of focus and, of course, the living picture cannot be printed. Instead, Lytro hosts it on its website and provides you with embed links. In the main, Lytro seems to expect you to post the living pictures on Facebook.
The real cleverness of the Lytro camera lies in its software, as it’s a simple looking device. There are only two buttons, one on the top which turns the camera on and works the shutter and one on the bottom which turns the camera on and off.
The screen size makes it difficult to judge your shots
The battery is not removable, and neither is the storage. It comes in 8GB and 16GB configurations, the larger one only in red, the smaller one in graphite and blue. Lytro claims a 16GB camera will hold 750 images, in use I found it nearer to 500.
Given there is no focus, consequentially it has no aperture control. Nor is there control over shutter speed. The only controls are an optical zoom which is hidden in a touch sensor along the patterned rubber top and a touch screen.
Concealed micro USB connection
Under a flap there is a micro-USB connector. The screen gives a few controls, you can use it to view pictures, and tap to focus on a picture, mark some pictures as favourites, and put the camera into “creative mode”.
The creative mode lets you stipulate the centre of the focus for the spread of focal points, so this image uses the automatic setting...
...while the image below had the centre of focus stipulated as between the nurse and the knights using creative mode.
You’ll see that in the second picture the back row of people can’t be brought into focus.
Alas, the screen is dreadful. It’s too small and of too low a resolution to see any detail in the pictures. It’s not really possible to see the effects of the focus unless they are really marked. In bright light, it is worse and you have to just snap and hope. What it really needs is a USB link to a tablet – a latest generation iPad would be ideal  – so that you can see the pictures, and one is in the works, apparently .
When you download an image to a computer, the Lytro software spends about 30 seconds per pic crunching the light field. As the pictures are read into the Mac they are processed. Any marked favourite pictures are processed first, and they all appear in black and white before they are processed.
At the moment there is only a Mac version available and the testing was done with a moderately fast MacBook Pro. No installation CD is needed, the camera contains the set-up software in ROM and when you first plug it into your Mac it instals and then downloads updates.
Lytro has an ambitious roadmap for those updates and because the light field which is transferred from the camera is the equivalent of a RAW file. Hence, any future improvements in the image processing will be reflected in all the pictures you have taken in the past. This includes a promise of 3D pictures.
All the pictures here, even the indoor ones were take with a lot of daylight. Experiments with artificial light and in low light led to very poor pictures. So, technical wonders and low light issues aside, is it worth the money? Talking of which, unless you're in the US buying one can be a bit of challenge – Lytro has a web page highlighting the options .
The camera, software and posting images to the web is very exciting, in a “this is the future of photography” way. The technology is fantastically clever and as sensors get ever bigger it makes more and more sense, but it isn’t a software lens mobile phone option the way Dblur is , or was as it’s not been heard of for three years. Indeed, the Lytro optics need a lot of glass and that’s not too pocket friendly. Nor is it really an option for photographers who can’t focus, because each of the pictures at an individual level of focus is a bit “meh”.
Compact but not exactly pocket friendly
Besides the photographs which show off the technology well are those images that have a good distance between objects which aren’t those you tend to take. You don’t really need lots of focal points for groups of friends smiling at the camera, Christmas trees and sandcastles. Yet using a Lytro does make you think differently about composing your shots but I’m not sure if the way we usually compose shots is because of the limitations of conventional photography – and the human eye – or because that’s the best way to present the information.
Have you never taken a picture of someone pointing sushi at you because you couldn’t do it or just because you didn’t want to? You have to put a lot more thought into composition. It’s not just the camera which captures the whole scene, you have to build that model in your head too.
Game changing shooter for the digital domain
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been pondering what the usefulness of the Lytro Light Field Camera. Much like when I had my first Sinclair Z80 computer people said: yes, but what’s it for? I’ve decided the job of the Lytro is to make you think differently about photography. By taking away the need to focus it may very well make you a better photographer from a creative standpoint and, at the very least, a more contented one if you struggle with the finer points of photography. ®
Simon Rockman sells, and blogs about easy to use mobile phones at Fuss Free Phones 
Thanks to Jez San for the loan of his Lytro camera.
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