There are photographers who are chasing megapixels, better lens and sensors for that elusive goal of capturing images that are sharp and true to colour. Although expensive cameras do give the user that bit of advantage, it still comes down to experience and skills to see a picture and capture it and that requires some time to learn those skills.
However vast majority of the users out there just want to capture images for keepsakes or to share them on social networking sites without the associated learning curve of photography. They just wish they have a small camera, with as little buttons as possible and can capture picture quickly (in other words, very little shuttle lag). They are also not interested in how a picture can be focused correctly and manufacturers have to provide camera functions such as face detection to ensure that pictures, especially facial features, can be seen clearly.
There’s one camera that aims to do just that: Lytro Lightfield camera. Unlike conventional cameras that uses light from one direction, the Lytro picks up light from a variety of sources within the frame. When a camera picks up light from a source, it deposits the light intensity data and colour (mostly in Red, Green and Blue) in a pixel site. The Lytro picks up more than the pixels but ‘rays’. Hence when it comes to storing information, Lytro uses Mega rays instead of Mega pixels; instead of frames, it picks up light field data i.e. the amount of light faring in every direction through every point in space.
The mathematics behind lightfield is pretty daunting for the lay man. To explain it as simple as possible, capturing the ray data enables the camera to reconstitute the picture in ways that a normal camera sensor couldn’t. It is like cooking. You can churn out different types of food using some main ingredients just by mixing and matching.
Hence the main attraction of a light field camera. Unlike a conventional camera, you don’t have to focus first before recording the picture. Lytro will take all the light data in a particular frame and enables the user to take the same light data and reconstitute and present a focused picture. Because one has all the light data within the frame, one can use the same data and refocus the picture elsewhere in the frame.
The implication of such a system? There won’t be a mis-focused picture for such a camera.
The Lytro camera is designed in such a way that it tries to be unconventional, even revolutionary. The Lytro comes with brushed aluminium square tube and rubberised grip. It is shaped like an oversized lipstick where the camera has a rubber portion that ladies would instinctively twist to employ the use of the red colour stick for their lips. Instead, it is where the Lytro shutter button, zoom, screen and micro USB slot is. It doesn’t have a SD card slot but comes instead in 8GB and 16GB versions.
Colours wise it is dictated by the storage capacity you want. The 8GB comes with Electric Blue, Seaglass Green and Graphite Grey. Only the Red version comes with 16GB. Pink? Only from Target.com/lytro.
There are many ways to use the Lytro and this itself is a conversation starter. I used it by holding the bottom of the camera with my thumb and little finger. Zoom with my index finger and shutter the camera using my middle finger for the one-hand operation.
Using the Lytro for a snapper is pretty simple, just turn it on by pressing the on/off button at the bottom of the tube or just press the shutter at the top. One then could employ the use of the optical zoom by swiping the zoom bar just on the top of the screen and then snap the picture via the shutter button. The Lytro is the point-and-shoot camera in all sense of the word. You just point and shoot. No need to half press to ensure focusing is correct.
For the more technically inclined, there is also the manual mode where one can choose shutter speed and ISO settings from ISO 80 all the way to ISO3200. You can also invoke the Neutral Density (ND) filter to create bokeh effects in bright daylight.
Is there a way to control aperture? With the Lytro where focusing is not the main problem, aperture is really not needed. If one is shooting landscape, the plane of focus would be pretty far and so it shouldn’t be a huge issue unless the subject is very close to the camera and that would imply the presence of a shallow depth of field since the camera has a constant F2 aperture setting throughout the zoom range.
Looking through the photos is equally easy. Just plug the camera to the PC/Mac and search within the camera for the Lytros Desktop app and install it. Once done, the application will download all the photos and you can experiment the photos focus points easily. To share, just select the photo you want to share, and click on the share button at the bottom right corner of the Lytro Desktop app and you can share it to Facebook.
The camera only captures square frame pictures so it would be a new learning experience for most who are used to four-thirds and/or two-thirds frame ratios. Image quality wise it won’t win any awards but that’s not the point of this camera; It is meant to be fun and for people to play around with the pictures, giving digital images a multi dimensional life post capture.
Here are some samples of what I mean:
Watches. Click on the nearest and furthest watch and see the transformation
Below is a deliberate mis-focus just to show there’s a fencing and the building behind. The picture has sufficient data to render the words on the building clearly.
Although the camera can do focusing post capture, the best insurance is to make sure that the subject you want is already focused properly just by tapping on the screen. There’s one type of blur that no camera can solve and that is motion blur. Unlike mis-focused shots, motion blur shots are pictures capture when the camera is moving so ensuring one has ample shutter speed is key to avoid such mistakes.
Mentioned previously it doesn’t save pictures as pixels and hence it does not save pictures as JPEG but its own proprietary format. The photos proprietary format files called the life picture file (.lpf), is a whopping 16-22MB (8GB = 350 pictures) but is condensed into something more manageable to 500-600KB for sharing.
With that said, the way to access the files is not the same as one would see their JPEG files and hence should convert their Lytro picture files to 1.16MP JPEG file should there be a need to print it to the maximum size of 5 by 7 inch photographs (5R) .
As a consumer product, there isn’t much thing to complain about unless one is a professional photographer or a photographer who is particular about image quality. The Lytro is definitely not perfect but as a ‘first-try’ and a ‘concept-tester’ it has done well and may revolutionise how pictures will be taken in the future. Colour capture wise it is found wanting but a quick post editing corrected the problem but an in-camera control to select white balance would be welcomed certainly.
Before and after WB correction. Do note I have preselected the focus point before exporting the JPEG and colour correction is a matter of personal taste:
Who should look at this camera? I would say this camera is for those who just want something to point and shoot without worrying too much about focusing and the creative types that want to use life pictures as a means to convey messages and stories through such a media can be manipulated. The square frame is also something new to most and would be a fun medium to compose with.
Do look out for Lytro’s improvement to the offering in the form of perspective shift and 3D effect. The best news about the Lytro system is that the new features can be applied to images taken before the updates to the Lytro camera, showing the versatility of the format and provide a more immersive viewing experience for the users.
So would I keep one? I would say it is a fun camera to have around for those snap shots and a bit of fun on the side. For pictures that requires a lot of clarity, sharpness and colour accuracy, the conventional camera should take up the slack. My experience shows that people generally are more ‘into’ the Lytro pictures because one can click on it and see reaction. It would be a totally new medium to tell a story, sell a product or make your shots more interesting.
You can see more of my photos from this revolutionary camera here: