Friday, 23 March 2012

Lytro Light Field Camera: Snap Happy Or Photo Gimmick?

Described by an employee as “the first major change in photography since photography was invented”, the Lytro light-field camera is certainly a revolutionary device. The camera shakes things up by replacing much of the heavy and sensitive technology in your typical camera with software.

Whether or not it’s worth your hard earned money at this stage is still unclear, however. Even the earliest of early adopters might want to think twice about the Lytro, despite the amazing technology and interactive results that are possible. Here are a few facts and examples to help you make up your mind.

A Revolutionary Device:

A typical camera measures the intensity and colour of light of a scene, be it captured on a roll of film or the sharpest digital sensor. Once you’ve taken your snap, Photoshop aside, there’s very little you can do to change the point of focus on a static image. That’s where Lytro differs.

By capturing the direction light is moving and then reconstructing this along with color and intensity, Lytro allows you to change your point of focus once the image has been captured. This is called light field technology, and it’s bound to revolutionise the way we take photos. You can see an example from the Lytro Photo Gallery

Click different parts of the image and the picture will refocus accordingly. The lack of a focusing motor means there’s no shutter delay, which is another nice step forward. The camera also features an 8x optical zoom lens with a constant aperture value of f/2.
It’s important to remember the technology that’s enabling this is truly the star here, perhaps more than the photographer themselves.

A Simple Device:

The Lytro is an incredibly simple device to use, which is both great and limiting at the same time. There are only two modes included with the camera – Everyday and Creative, and both are fairly automatic – good old point-and-shoot, worry about focus later. There are literally no standard settings for anything on the Lytro, you just adjust the exposure and focus range (in Creative mode) by tapping the rather small touchscreen then shoot.

And this is my first issue with the Lytro. Anyone who owns or has learned to use an SLR or prosumer camera will be familiar with the modes – aperture, manual, shutter and so on – as well as other camera terminology like exposure, ISO and white balance. If taking pictures is your passion, the Lytro won’t suit your love for the finer details, the mastery of a camera or the post-production process.

Why am I warning the cameraphiles? Because if the latest advancement in your field had recently been released to the public for $399 and revolutionized the picture-taking process then you’d probably have a passing interest too. Unfortunately, the limitations continue.

Lytro have also yet to develop a way of editing your “living pictures”, so there’s no exposure tweaking or colorization to be had here. No black-and-white high contrast plane-shifting, no HDR (not that that’s a bad thing) or any Photoshop wizardry at all. Of course you can take a still from your “living picture”, but you’ll unfortunately be left with a 1,080 x 1,080 (about 1.2MP) JPEG which is fairly disappointing to say the least.

Which musters another complaint – while the effect (and science) is astounding the first few times you use it, the picture quality is nothing special. What’s more the effect doesn’t work on every scene, because not every scene has the makings of a perfect Lytro photo. Notice how many of the photos in the Lytro gallery are similar – close-up foreground object against a distanced background with plenty of depth of field. Now take the “living picture” aspect away, and you’re left with a less-than-stellar exposure that would pass the Instagram test but leave much to be desired once printed and framed on a wall.

Of course many new features can be added to the Lytro with a simple software upgrade, and though this won’t necessarily do wonders for image quality or low-light performance it will give you something else to do with your light field camera.

A First-Generation Device:

There’s more bad news I’m afraid. If you’re a Mac user then you’ll be able to jump right in, transfer your photos, process using supplied software and then upload (via Lytro’s website) to share. There is at present no Windows support, but a small “A Windows application is in development” message afoot the camera’s description on the official website. Without this software your pictures will be trapped on the device until you borrow a Mac or till the application is released.

The camera also lacks a number of other things, but they’re really not that important. There’s no video, but then this is a light-field device designed for those “living pictures” after all. You still need to connect the device to your computer using a cable, no deal-breaker but wireless would have been nice. There’s also only 8GB of non-expandable memory available in the $399 model, though if you fancy coughing up $499 you can have 16GB – considering all digital cameras now use memory cards, an SD or Micro SD card slot isn’t asking too much.

So just who is the Lytro camera for? Photographers won’t enjoy the limited settings and lack of after-touch, and many would rather spend the $399 on new equipment for existing collections. The asking price puts it out of range for the average Facebook’ing teen and when it comes to placating them with presents wouldn’t your sprogs opt for something like an iPod Touch or PS Vita instead?


Is it just me who sees the click-able “living image” as more of a gimmick than having a real-world use? Won’t it get – dare I say it – boring after a while? Light field technology is a relatively recent advancement, and one that is set to continue to thrill us for many years yet. For the Lytro though, in its current stage of development, I’d probably recommend against the purchase unless you’re completely bowled over by the “living images” and have a lot of Facebook friends to show them to.

Maybe after a few software updates have landed the Lytro will look that little bit more attractive.

Have you bought a Lytro? Are you considering a purchase? Let us know what you think of this and the future of light field photography in the comments below.

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