The next generation of photography is here, with Lytro’s first-generation Light-field camera, a technology that has the ability to let you focus after you taken the photo, creating an interactive image.
What it is
More than just a simple happy snap camera, the Lytro is a camera with an 8x optical lens encased in an aluminium body with rubber controls and a small 1.5 inch touchscreen LCD.
Rather than look like a traditional camera, you might consider the Lytro to look closer to an oversized tube of lipstick, or a cubic kaleidoscope. There’s no built-in tripod mount, though you can buy an external ring adding the tripod screw mount easily.
The camera features simple intuitive controls set out on the rubber section around the LCD screen at the back, with a circular shutter button and small touch-sensitive zoom slider on top, and a power button on the bottom just next to a covered microUSB charge and data transfer port.
Lytro’s touchscreen is tiny, with simple gestures activating different sections. Swiping from left to right brings up your past photos; swiping right to left takes you back into the camera section, or alternatively, just hit the shutter. Swiping up in the main camera screen – the electronic viewfinder – and you’ll find an options menu for switching into either simple or creative mode, as well as storage left, and settings.
Two versions of the Lytro are available in three colours, with the 8GB supporting 350 pictures available in graphite and blue, and the 16GB in red supporting 750 images. There is no microSD or SD expandable storage on the Lytro, and you rely solely on the internal storage.
Obviously, the most important part of the Lytro is the technology inside, and this is vastly different from any camera you’ve seen before.
Inside the metal body, there’s a long optical lens set roughly equivalent to 35-280mm (8x optical) that runs at F/2.0 aperture all through the barrel, with the sensor and image recording technology just behind it.
Lytro doesn’t officially talk in megapixels, so stop right there and focus on this term instead: megarays, or how many million lightrays enter the camera and record information to the Lytro first-generation Light-field sensor.
For this model, there’s eleven million lightrays, making this an 11 megaray sensor, collected and combined by the Light-field engine that maps information to each of the rays and creates images from that data.
Ok, so the wording Lytro uses for its cameras does sound a little like it’s from a different language, or maybe even the future, but the simple breakdown is this:
Lytro’s Light-field technology captures a 3D scene and allows you to refocus on the information interactively.
Think of it as “photograph 2.0” because while the digital camera improves on film by allowing you to take photos easily and quickly, they still end up on a 2D environment: either on a screen or a piece of paper, the way you originally shot them or with some Photoshopping in between.
That was photograph 1.0, and this new “light-field” technology is the next-generation.
In photograph 2.0, the image is interactive, and instead of just seeing one plane the way the photographer set up the image, you can pick on a different focus point and view the photo differently.
To do this, the Lytro isn’t capturing multiple images at the same time, but rather a chunk of space in 3D, mapping it out using light, and allowing you to decide what you want to see in focus later, which plane you want to see more clearly.
If that’s still too hard to understand, then think of it like this:
The Lytro Light-field camera allows you to shoot first, focus later.
Outside of this, there’s a whole bunch of science and research that led its creator – Dr. Ren Ng, an Aussie – to take the research project and shrink it down into the sort of gadget that anyone could carry around.
Obviously, this isn’t your traditional camera, and doesn’t work at all like one. It’s almost like you have to think in three dimensions if you want to be creative, although you don’t have to, and can happily just take pictures without worrying about that extra third dimension.
Because it’s a different style of camera, you don’t really hold it the same way, so with the Lytro’s long tube body, you hold can either hold it with one hand – balancing the body and controlling the LCD – or two, which is a more stable position.
There are two modes for you to shoot with on the Lytro: “everyday mode” and “creative mode.”
Everyday mode is the regular mode for happy snaps with the light-field technology, and is denoted by a white outlined square. In this mode, your camera is limited to 3x optical zoom, most of which isn’t functional for close-up photography.
You can grab shots of your friends or landscapes quickly, touching the spot on the LCD where you want the focus to be applied to, and hitting the shutter button up top for a speedy snap. There’s no shutter lag, but you can’t just leave your finger down, firing in burst mode, because there is none.
In everyday mode, the results are pretty much always in focus, though may not as creative as what is possible from Lytro’s revolutionary technology.
For that, you literally need to switch into the creative mode.
Denoted by a repeating field of blue squares, going into creative mode gives a thin blue border around the LCD screen and asks you to once again tap on the subject, with the camera responding by setting the refocus range based on that specific point.
In creative mode, you’ll find the full 8x optical zoom available for long shots, and close-up macro photography is now possible, too.
Creative mode seems to be the area where the coolest images are possible, and if you’re a lover of extreme close-ups or are itching to see the Lytro refocus technology at its best, you’ll want to work in this area.
That said, it can certainly take some getting used to, as it’s not easy to get shots right. You’ll mostly be playing with a lot of trial and error, even if you’re a seasoned pro, as you have to get accustomed to taking pictures with some level of blur involved, knowing that something will be thrown out of focus, so that when someone touches it later on, that part of the image will then return to being in focus.
It’s a little strange, but once you’re used to it, you’ll find the images are often playful and feature different levels.
You can fiddle with the images on the camera itself, flicking to the left and playing back what you’ve shot. Either double-tapping or using the touch-slider will zoom you in and out, and here you can easily touch to focus the areas to see if your image came out the way you intended.
Head back home and you can take images off the Lytro using software – which is available on both Mac OS and Windows (64-bit) – sharing them with friends and uploading them to Lytro’s image service in the process.
Image quality isn’t terrible, and the glass is capable of some reasonably sharp details, though we’re not talking about a high resolution image. Try not to speak in megapixels here, as there aren’t many, and the image resolution is equivalent to 1080×1080, which is nowhere near, say, eight megapixel’s 3264×2448.
Low light isn’t high on the list of priorities, but the Lytro does a decent job, especially given that its sensor works differently. The specifications say that the ISO ranges from 80 to 3200 which it automatically changes for you, and while you can see some noise at its limits, it’s not bad, especially given the image size.
While a very new technology, the feeling you get from playing with the Lytro is that it’s a very cool technology, and it probably won’t be long before every camera company in the world starts trying to integrate this into its photographic products.
The concept is brilliant: who wouldn’t want to focus after they’ve taken the shot? It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense, but at the moment, there are things stopping it from being truly amazing.
One of these is quality, and while the whole “11 megaray” thing seems like a lot, in real life the first-generation Lytro only exports a 1.1 megapixel square image.
That’s lower than any smartphone has had for years, and while the quality from that one whole megapixel isn’t bad, it’s not enough to make you give up either your dedicated camera or five, eight, or twelve megapixel smartphone. Not nearly.
Video is also missing too, and images can only be export in one megapixel JPEGs from the software or viewed as interactive multi-plane images that can be hosted on Lytro’s site.
That last bit actually is another con, because while you own the images, you can’t share them with friends without hosting them on Lytro.
For the moment, image hosting is free, and while we don’t expect this to change, you can’t upload them to your own site or Facebook and keep the interactivity, so if Lytro ever goes under and disappears, good luck with that whole sharing thing.
On a Mac – which is where we tested the Lytro – you can find the images by heading to your “photos” section and exploring the package contents of the Lytro app, which stores each image in the “LFP” file format, each file roughly translating to a 16.1 megabyte file.
This at least means you can backup your full Lytro images, and potentially import them to other computers, but sharing remains something that is entirely reliant – at least when they’re interactive – on Lytro’s servers.
The LCD on the back is also a touch disappointing, offering low quality and poor resolution. It’s not a terrible screen – we’ve certainly seen worse – but the viewing angles certainly leave a lot to be desired.
In fact, we actually got used to using the Lytro on its side because the horizontal viewing angles were stronger than the vertical ones, meaning that if you were using it the right way – with the shutter button on top – you were actually looking down at washed out colours and a faded image that was near impossible to see.
One other downside we recognised stemmed from its design, which is obviously not like any camera you’ve seen prior.
With a rectangular prism design that closely resembles a cubic kaleidoscope, it’s not one of those cameras you can easily throw in your pocket, and even a jacket pocket feels a little burdened with this inside.
The future of printing
There are a few people out there who will be quick to criticise the Lytro, and the fact that its 1.1 megapixel images are hardly enough to print a 4×6 picture, let alone be useful for an A4 photo.
Printing, however, is far from what the Lytro has been designed for, with the interactive world of the internet making this technology truly cool.
It’s not enough to just stare at an image, because with Lytro, you can communicate with the image.
From a picture taking perspective, regular people never have to worry about taking an out-of-focus shot again, and photographers can plan scenes in a way where there are extra meanings or more things going on than initially seen.
But you need a computer, a phone, or a tablet to see the results, because the medium is entirely interactive, your mouse or finger clicking on the spot where focus should be changed to.
Printing is technically a thing of the past with this style of digital camera, but given how many pictures we shoot on a regular basis compared with how many we print, that’s probably not as much an issue as you might think.
How many pictures do you take yearly?
All up, I would imagine I shoot around 20 to 30,000 images annually, on smartphones, compacts, and interchangeable lens cameras, and I may print 20 or 30 of these.
Most of the images we take go online, on photo sharing websites such as Flickr and Smugmug, on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and uploaded to our personal blogs where we can share more than just our images, but also our words and videos.
With just 0.001 percent of the images printed, and usually only around a holiday for greeting cards and the sort – people don’t do a whole lot of printing for fun, not like when we all used film – worrying that a camera isn’t designed for hard physical copies isn’t as big a deal as you might imagine.
Almost a year after it was first released in America, the Lytro camera has finally arrived in Australia, delivering this next-generation refocusing technology to consumers keen to partake in a glimpse of the future.
At this point, you’re buying into a photographic technology that is so new, it’s hard not to acknowledge that you’re essentially paying an early adopter’s fee for something that isn’t yet commonplace.
The concept is very cool, and while it still has a way to go – and will probably be amazing five or ten years from now – is certainly worth checking out.
As for whether or not you’ll use it long term, that remains to be seen. You can certainly get better quality images with a compact or mirror-less camera – hell, even a premium smartphone offers more resolution – but you do get the awesome multiple fields of focus concept, and that’s a gimmick that we can’t quite get over.
The Lytro could end up being the new Lomo, though, a niche that appeals to a select group of hipsters keen to take advantage of its snazzy uses that make them seem more special.
We like the Lytro a lot, but at around $500, it’s hard to recommend to anyone outside of the geek and enthusiastic photographic spectrum, because while the interactive picture side of things is awesome, you’re unlikely to carry a bulky camera that does one thing when you already have a smartphone or camera that takes better pictures.