Innovative Lytro Camera Lets You Shoot First, Focus Later
By Edward C. Baig
Following months of hype, the new and novel Lytro Light Field Camera has arrived. This very different kind of point-and-shoot camera lets you shoot first and focus afterward, and makes it possible for the friends you share photos with to alter a picture’s focal point after the fact. Lytro’s technology is exciting and well worth focusing on.
Do you feel compelled to craft the perfect photograph, where the mood and focus must be just right before you press the shutter?
Now picture the ability to shoot first and focus afterward. And to make it possible for the friends you share photos with to alter a picture’s focal point after the fact. It sounds like techno hocus-pocus. But within limits, such is the real deal behind the Lytro Light Field Camera that I’ve tested here and in and around New York City.
Following months of hype, this very different kind of point-and-shoot camera finally ships. Lytro, made by the company of the same name, isn’t cheap: An 8GB, 350-picture, graphite or “electric blue” model fetches $399; a 16GB, 750-picture “red hot” version goes for $100 more.
Based on light field technology research born out of Stanford University, Lytro captures light in each direction and point in space, a lot more data than a conventional digital camera takes in. The process once required a roomful of cameras tied to a supercomputer, Lytro says.
Lytro’s technology isn’t the only thing that’s novel. The design reminds you of an oversized tube of lipstick. Inside are an 8x optical zoom and a fixed (F/2) lens. Press a button on top to take a picture. A slightly ridged zoom slider is controlled with your finger. At bottom are a power button and concealed micro USB connector. The camera weighs just over 7 ounces and fits in your purse or jeans pocket.
In the rear is a 1.46-inch backlit display with a glass LCD touch-screen you can use to frame and review pictures. Once you’ve got some pictures, slide your finger to summon a 3-by-3 grid of them and swipe for the one you want. Tap an area of the photo to make it come into focus at the expense of another part of the picture.
The effects are easier to see on a computer than on the camera display. When you import these so-called living pictures to a computer or share them at Lytro.com or through Facebook, Twitter or Google+, viewers can similarly interact with the image by tapping to change the focus point — without special software .
Despite the bona fide technological breakthrough, Lytro is no miracle worker. The skill and creativity (or lack thereof) that a photographer brings still very much matters.
The LCD is tough to make out in sunlight, and there’s a definite learning curve. There are two main ways to shoot, “everyday mode” and the more advanced “creative mode,” which gives the shooter more control over the refocusing range but makes it harder, I found, to get it right. Fortunately, the camera powers on immediately, and there’s no shutter lag. Battery life is good — up to 600 or so shots between charges.
In many respects, Lytro feels like a classic version 1.0 product, fresh and promising but light on features. Lytro lacks a flash. There’s no removable storage. And Lytro can’t shoot video , though video is in the cards long term.
For now, a Macintosh computer with OS X (version 10.6.6 or higher) is required, though a Windows version is coming. Lytro’s desktop software installs automatically when you connect the camera to the Mac via USB.
It takes awhile for pictures to load onto the Mac. At first they appear as gray-scale thumbnails inside Lytro’s software, then go color when the software finishes its thing, a process that can take 25 to 30 seconds or so per image. From the camera, you can “star” favorite shots so those pictures are imported first. The software lacks most editing tools. About all you can do is rotate an image and add a caption.
Pictures are in a proprietary file format, although you can export images as common JPEG files for printing or to e-mail them — but lose the ability to change the focus. Lytro says pictures should look good up to a 5×7-inch size; if you need to go bigger, choose another camera.
You need Adobe Flash to work with “living pictures” on the Web. The experience is best, Lytro says, on the Firefox and Chrome browsers. The positive here is that Lytro can push updates through the desktop software.
For now, Lytro isn’t a very practical alternative for consumers who rely on camera phones and point-and-shoots. Seasoned photographers might throw it in their camera bags with other gear. Despite its limits, Lytro’s technology is exciting and well worth focusing on.