The Lytro camera won't be ignored. Just one glance at the arresting design of this long, rectangular device and you'll understand that the Lytro represents a complete rethink of the camera industry as we know it.
Instead of relying on the standard sensor found in other digital imaging devices and cameras, Lytro outfits this camera with an array of microlenses that allow it to capture the colour, intensity and vector direction of rays of light. Called light-field photography, the technology allows the camera to shoot instantly without the need to focus first.
When you press the shutter release, the camera collects light from all directions. Next, the camera's software compiles what's basically a 3D map of the captured image. Once you post the photo, anyone with the URL can refocus the image by clicking on a new area of focus.
The technology is amazing, without question. The radical rethinking of photography holds promise, and we will continue to revise this review as Lytro updates its flagship camera. But my job right here is to tell you whether to buy the Lytro camera. For most of you, the answer is: not yet.
The smooth, two-tone metal box strays far from what you expect a camera to look like. It's basically a metal tube housing its lens with a constant f/2.0 aperture throughout its 8x optical zoom.
Its controls are just as simple, with nothing more than power and shutter release buttons, a tiny touch-sensitive strip for controlling the zoom, and a 1.5-inch touchscreen LCD for adjusting exposure, framing and viewing. Both battery and memory — 8GB for about 350 shots or 16GB for 750 shots — are built in and non-removable, and a micro-USB port is used for charging and transfers.
The touch-sensitive zoom strip (note the little lines on the fourth row down) can be frustrating to use.
At first I found the design awkward to use, but after a while I ended up holding it with two hands like a telescope with the small LCD up in front of my eyes. That actually works well and kept hand shake under better control. Which is where you have to keep it because going even a little bit above, below or to the sides of your eye line basically results in an inverted image, making it very difficult to frame your shot. Never mind that it's ridiculously small for framing shots.
The zoom strip is both interesting and frustrating. There's not a lot of fine control, but a single long swipe across it will fully extend or retract it. On the other hand, it is placed in such a way that when I would frame shots and put my finger on the shutter release, I would end up accidentally zooming in on my subject. On the upside, the design works for shooting left- or right-handed.
Shooting with the Lytro
Autofocus and shutter lag are huge stumbling blocks for regular point-and-shoot cameras, so eliminating that from the equation is certainly a selling point, even at the camera's high starting price of US$399. Ask yourself how many fleeting moments you've missed over the years while your camera was focusing or, perhaps even worse, how many shots you got only to find out later that your subject was completely out of focus, and you'll understand why the capability to shoot first and focus later is a breakthrough for snapshot photography.
(Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
However, the big hook for Lytro isn't just focusing after you've shot. It's that you can refocus an image over and over again using Lytro's software, giving you what the company calls a "living picture". Just click on any area of the photo and that portion will come into focus. It gives photos a level of interactivity that can't be matched with a regular camera.
The camera has two shooting modes: Everyday and Creative. Everyday mode lets the camera set the refocusing range — the distance between objects in the foreground and background that can be refocused. It limits you to about a 3.5x zoom, but doesn't require anything more from you than to point and shoot and, depending on your lighting, tap on your subject to correct exposure.
(Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
The Creative mode allows you more control over the amount of blur and is best for when the distance between two subjects is what would normally be too close to focus. It's good for extreme close-ups because it basically lets you rest the lens against your subject. Or if you extend the lens some and zoom in for a portrait, you can get a nice soft and blurry background. This is also the only way to get access to the full 8x zoom, so you can still get close to a distant subject and get a picture with refocus.
I've seen a lot of reader comments about how this is basically a shortcut to creating images that photographers practice to master. That's really not true. This camera actually takes a lot of thought to get a good living picture, let alone an interesting one.
Part of the reason for that is that you have to be very close to your closest (foreground) subject, about 10 to 15 centimetres. There also has to be some perceivable distance between your closest subject and other (background) subjects. If your subjects are too close together or look like they are on the same plane when you're framing the shot, then you won't have much of a refocusing effect. Again, while it's easy to pick up the Lytro and take a living picture, making one that doesn't suck takes some creativity and knowledge of how to best frame your shot.
(Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
Software plays a major role in shooting, processing and using the Lytro camera's images. Unlike a regular digital camera that produces JPEG or RAW files that can be used with any number of image-editing programs, the Lytro camera creates LFP files — essentially its equivalent of raw files. These files require Lytro's software to offload images from the camera and process them for sharing. This is both good and bad.
The good part is that since you're working with the original image data collected from the camera, Lytro can continue to add new editing tools or develop different ways of interacting with the living pictures. This could also potentially mean that the results you get now from the camera could be improved down the road. As the software gets better, so should your images. A good example of this is that while the current software won't allow you to have everything in focus, Lytro says an update coming in the first half of 2012 will allow you to do this. Another software update will add a perspective shift feature that will allow you to slightly change the angle of view of your photo just by clicking and dragging on the image. Do it back and forth and you get a 3D effect.
The bad part is that you're at the mercy of Lytro, the editing capabilities it wants you to have, and its software development schedule. For example, the desktop software requires Mac OS 10.6.6 or higher; there is currently no Windows version. It's in development (still no firm date yet), but if you're a Windows user, your living pictures will be trapped on the camera since the software is required to offload shots; you can't even dump them to your hard drive to deal with later without the software.
The desktop software is used for transfers, management and uploads, and it's fairly bare-bones. It's embedded on the device; an installer launches every time you connect to a new Mac. Given that each LFP file can be upward of 16MB depending on the complexity of the image, it can take some time to transfer. That makes it all the more irritating that there's no preview so you can't choose the images you want to transfer. If you took a hundred photos you know you don't want, you'll have to delete them one at a time on the tiny LCD before you connect to a computer or wait for them all to transfer and then delete them off your computer.
(Credit: Brian Tong/CNET)
Once they're in your library, you can view them, click around to select the subject you want to focus on and share. You can upload to Lytro — public or private — and send to Facebook. Once they're uploaded to Lytro.com, you can share them on Facebook, Twitter or Google+, or get the embed code and put them in a blog.
When you share them from your library, the last focal point you picked will be the starting focus for everyone who views your living picture. Your friends and family can click on whatever they want, but it always goes back to the story you want to tell after it's refreshed.
The software will also let you quickly convert living pictures into 1080x1080-pixel-resolution JPEGs. They're not good for much beyond Facebook sharing, especially low-light shots, but it's something. The living pictures are meant to be viewed locally on a computer or shared online so that you, family and friends can poke at them. So really, it's up to you whether this or, say, the inability to use your favourite software effects is a deal breaker.
Photo quality is a tough thing to judge with this camera. For the most part, if you consider the photos from your iPhone 4S or any other high-end smartphone to be "good enough", you'll likely be pretty satisfied with the Lytro's living picture quality. Yes, at high ISOs/low-light conditions the photos look grainy; again, they're on par with smartphone shots or lower-end point-and-shoots under the same conditions. In this respect, it acts like a normal digital camera: the more light you have, the better your photos will be.
(Credit: Joshua Goldman/CNET)
The f/2.0 lens does help, and since it's constant throughout the zoom range, you get the benefit of having more light reach the sensor regardless of how you've framed your shot. However, there's no image stabilisation, so you'll still have to hold the camera still when you're shooting, which gets trickier as you zoom in.
Also, while the living pictures do allow you to focus on different subjects in a photo, nothing ever looks really sharp. Well, with one exception: macro shots taken in Creative mode can look reasonably sharp.
Probably my biggest issue with the photo quality is that there's no way to adjust anything except exposure, which you can't even do in Creative mode. I'd settle for just white-balance control because under incandescent and fluorescent lights, it's terrible. Plus, the software currently only allows you to rotate photos and add captions — that's it for editing. You cannot crop, adjust colour or exposure, use your favourite lo-fi filters or even change a shot to black and white.
There's not much to say about shooting performance with the Lytro. In Everyday mode it does, in fact, shoot instantly. You can press the shutter release to turn on and give it a quick second press to shoot, all in a little over a second.
In Creative mode, where you are actually required to select focus, the lens ends up doing some hunting, which can take some time, and on occasion it wouldn't focus at all and I'd have to tap on my subject again. Chances are, though, if you're in this mode, you've got time.
It's difficult to review and rate a first-and-only-of-its-kind product. The Lytro Light Field Camera does everything that the company says it does. Though Lytro talks about what's possible with the camera and technology, it never promises or, at least, over-promises on what's actually going to be available. That's fair because I certainly don't want to hear promises of features that will never come. But it's also a big leap of faith to buy a US$400 camera that someday, maybe, will do what you want it to, if and when Lytro gets around to it. Such is life for an early adopter of a first-gen product, I guess.
If you need a camera that just takes simple snapshots, captures full HD video, creates large JPEGs or shoots great low-light photos, there are plenty of those to buy. If you're a gadget-loving, Mac-using early adopter with deep pockets who really likes to compose photos and be creatively different, well, this might be your dream device. Much like 3D cameras, I can see there being a dedicated following of Lytro users creating ever-more complex compositions to show off just what the technology is capable of. It's up to you if you want to be part of that club now, later or never.