I received a really unique Christmas gift today, a Lytro Light Field Camera. The Lytro is not a camera in the typical sense that it doesn’t record the scene in the usual way. It’s closer to recording a hologram than a flat image. I know that’s an oversimplification but it suites this initial description before I do a full on article for Camera Dojo. When you import the “images” into the desktop software, you then need to process them before they are viewable. When the processing is complete, it creates a packed file of JPEG images with different focal points. These images are all stuffed into a single file so that, when viewed, a viewer can zoom in, change the focus point, and even slightly manipulate the perspective.
A Paradigm Shift
One has to be pretty cautious when referring to the LFC as a camera in a traditional sense or more importantly, to the images as being photographs. Lytro calls the images “Living Images” as they are a dynamic image that can be manipulated by the viewer. To use Lytro’s words, the camera “records the entire light field — all the rays of light traveling in every direction through a scene — instead of a flat 2D image.”. Ok, so that means nothing to me either but the effect can be quite cool. A DPReview review says that the nature of the images is geared towards mostly contrived compositions in order to get the best effect. While they state that they may not “get it”, I beg to differ in that I think they nailed it right on the head. Why would you use a camera that can create a dynamically focusable image if you weren’t shooting something specifically for that purpose? That is EXACTLY what the Lytro is for, the problem isn’t the technology, the problem is in the messaging.
What can it do?
Ok, let’s back up and take a look at what the Lytro can do. Now granted, these first test shots were taking in a horribly lit hotel room immediately after unboxing the Lytro but bear with me as they will serve their purpose. In this first example, we have my laptop keyboard, at first this appears like any other photograph, but click on the blurry keys in the background or the soda can. Also, just hold down the mouse button and drag around. You can also double-click to zoom.
The photo purists out there will poo-poo the entire concept because they feel that a photographer should have the control of how an image is to be viewed and not let the viewer manipulate the image. First off, these are not photographs, they are designed to be manipulated and if you don’t want to have dynamic images, don’t use a Lytro. That being said, the technology behind the Lytro has been around since around 1908 and more recently has been used in scientific research. A video camera build using this technology would be able to build a workable 3D image of a subject. Ok, but I digress, let’s take another image and see how it works.
This image was taken at a very close distance with very little distance between the more foreground and background elements. As you can see by clicking around, very little difference is available in the focus planes. However, you can zoom in and drag in circles for a kind of creepy effect.
Have you ever shot macro photography? The biggest issue is the extremely short depth of view, while some people love it, it is a major problem when doing product photography. What I wouldn’t give for the ability to take a picture with a camera like a Lytro and process it into a perfectly focus stacked final image. Using this technology, it is also possible to take a picture, adjust the focus in post production and export a finished jpeg.
This is where the mud really starts to fly. Again, the photo purists are all up in arms about technology taking away the skill of photography. While there may be a nugget of truth there, wasn’t the same thing said of auto exposure and auto focus, tools that we rely on day in and day out? Isn’t technology supposed to make our work easier?
What’s Wrong With The Lytro?
I have only spent one evening so far with the LFC so I still have some work to do to really investigate the possibilities here but there are a few drawbacks to the current version of the Lytro. First off the resolution is quite poor. The dynamic images above are full resolution. This poor resolution is due to the design of the sensor/micro lens design which is going to be costly to improve into professional quality resolution, at least today. Secondly, the LCD on the back is one of the worst I have seen in a LONG time. You have to be looking directly straight on into the LCD or it is almost impossible to see. The screen color shifts horribly at even a slight angle, and with mine (I don’t know if this is common) it is especially bad when looking down into the screen. The resolution on the LCD is also quite poor so you really don’t know until its on a computer screen if you actually got a solid focus point or not.
The Future of Lytro
If the Lytro Light Field Camera is even a tiny glimpse into what the future of photography holds then we are in for some amazing things down the road. Lytro has to figure out if they can scale up the resolution, they need to improve the overall camera design, and they need to add additional features to the software.