Review: Lytro Light Field Camera

After two weeks with the Lytro camera, I still can’t decide if it’s a highly refined proof-of-concept or an uneven look at the future of photography. It’s simultaneously addictive and frustrating. It’s also, as advertised, a truly unique photographic experience.

If you missed the hype surrounding the announcement of Lytro’s light-field camera last year, the short explanation is that it allows you to focus your photos after you’ve taken them.

That’s the addictive part. No Lytro photo is ever finished. You can continually readjust an image to focus on the foreground, middle, or background merely by clicking around the image. This also means it’s nearly impossible to take an out-of-focus picture. Just aim and shoot, then focus later.

Lytro calls these “living pictures,” and all the data that powers this re-focusing trick travels with each square-cropped image. Post a Lytro photo (using the company’s custom Flash widget) on your blog, on Facebook or on Twitter, and your friends and followers can refocus the picture in their browsers without downloading any special software. It’s like a choose-your-own-ending Instagram.

At the core of the Lytro camera are the light-field sensor (hardware) and light-field engine (the software). The sensor, which looks like a flat, square fly’s eye, enables the camera to capture all the light traveling in every direction in a scene, rather than just the rays aimed directly at the lens. Think of all the light you see through a typical viewfinder as a rectangular cube. A conventional photo focuses on one plane of that cube. A light-field image captures the whole thing. Instead of megapixels, Lytro measures the sensor’s power in terms of how many millions of rays of light it captures — in this case, 11 million, or 11 megarays.

As I said, playing around with these images is addictive. But the camera suffers from design and usability issues. It’s a first-generation piece of hardware that has to solve problems no one has ever faced before. So, as would be expected, there are some kinks. The touch-sensitive zoom is too sensitive, and the 1.5-inch touchscreen feels too small and unresponsive. Also, while the always- in-focus nature of the camera does simplify one aspect of photography, taking a compelling light-field image requires more time and compositional forethought than normal point-and-shoot snapping. There’s a learning curve here that Lytro’s hardware design doesn’t really help.

When it comes time to share your image, that’s where the fun really happens. It’s hard to say what these living images will become until you publish them, when they cease to be just memories and blossom into “viewer experiences.”

Lytro’s simple software makes this easy. Plug in your camera and Lytro’s desktop app (Mac only for now) automatically launches, downloads your photos and begins generating the light field for each one. Depending on how many images you’ve shot, this can take from a few seconds to several minutes. The software lets you prioritize certain images to download and process first if you can’t wait to see them.

The desktop app lets you arrange photos by dates, group them into events, and to share them with a few clicks, publishing either to your own free Lytroaccount or directly to Facebook or Twitter. When published, the images appear with a “play” button and pop-over instructions that encourage people to interact with them. Lytro also provides embed codes for WordPress and Tumblr. In all cases, the light-field engine travels with the image data, meaning aside from the standard Flash player, viewers don’t need to have any additional software installed.

Lytro plans to release updates later this year allowing for things like genuine tilt-shift focus and native 3-D images from a single lens. Another filter currently in the works will let you place an entire image in focus.

If you have a photo you’d like to edit with standard desktop software, the Lytro client lets you export any image in your library as a jpeg. But the resulting file is a standard, static image — no refocusing.

Aside from some less-than-ideal button placement, the Lytro camera is an elegant enough device. But this seems to be more about the social experience than the hardware. As such, Lytro’s technology would be much better employed inside a smartphone rather than in a standalone camera, especially one that doesn’t even have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth capabilities.

Playing with a light-field image is truly unlike anything I’ve experienced. Since the introduction of photography, the technological changes have been iterative — the addition of color, the jump from film to digital. Lytro feels much more like a radical departure than a stepping stone.

Still, it’s not enough to make me want to buy a third camera (I already have a smartphone and a DSLR). The Lytro is too big to carry in a pocket but not something I’d want to hang around my neck, which means carrying it in a backpack or shoulder bag. For me, that’s where cameras go to die.

This won’t stop early adopters — the Lytro is already backordered — and I have to admit I’ll be a bit jealous when I see people shooting with these cameras in the coming months. But I’ll wait until “light field” is another option on my smartphone’s camera before taking the plunge.

First Lytro photo: John Bradley/get-gadget
Second Lytro photo: Ariel Zambelich/get-gadget

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