To win our Innovation of the Year award, the Lytro had to captivate us enough for us to pass over significant medical diagnostic breakthroughs and a complete reinvention of the internal combustion engine--and it did. So we're naturally excited about the opportunity to spend a little QT with the Light-Field camera. The Lytro, which is culmination of over a decade of work by CEO Ren Ng in the world of light-field photography, is the first camera that allows its user to refocus an image after it's taken. It sounds unbelievable, but after taking our own pics with the Lytro (below), we're happy to report that it's reality.
Click to launch a gallery of Lytro-taken shots, as well as a tour of the camera's hardware.
So, a quick refresher on what exactly this light-field stuff is all about: Typical digital cameras align a lens in front of an image sensor, which captures the picture. The Lytro adds an intermediate step, an array of micro-lenses between the primary lens and the image sensor. That array fractures the light that passes through the lens into thousands of discrete light paths, which the sensor and internal processor save as a single .LPF (light-field picture) file. Your standard digital image is composed from pixel data, like color and sharpness, but pixels in a light-field picture add directional information to that mix. When a user decides where in the picture the focus should be, the image is created pixel-by-pixel from either the camera's internal processor and software or a desktop app.
Given its fundamentally different way of dealing with imagery, the Lytro specs out differently than any other digital camera. Worrying to those who have to create spec lists is the lack of a true megapixel count or relatable sensor specs. Its sensor is physically slightly smaller than your everyday point-and-shoot, but it's designed to capture more data. The Lytro's sensor captures 11 megarays of data ("megarays" refers to the number of light paths the sensor captures), which, if flattened into a simple JPEG--removing the ability to refocus the image--results in a three-megapixel image. That sounds low, but remember that the megapixel count refers only to the size of the photo, not to its quality. The only manual control left to the user is exposure--you can't actually set it, but you can tap on the screen to tell the Lytro where in the image you'd like it to base its exposure.
Handling the Lytro is also unlike anything you're likely to have used before. Users frame shots by holding the 4.4-inch-long device like a pirate looking through a spyglass, staring down the barrel through a 1.5-inch touchscreen/viewfinder on the rear (more on this in the gallery). The front two-thirds of the camera is an f/2 optical zoom lens (it zooms up to 8x) encased in aluminum, while all the controls that aren't touchscreen-based--shutter, capacitive zoom slider, and power button--are situated on the rubberized grip. Cameras come with either 8 or 16 GB of internal storage, which give you space for 350 or 750 images, respectively (if you're nit-picking the math on that one, the difference is due to the software/OS taking up precious storage). The camera feels great: solid but not heavy, with a thoughtful, modern design. The magnetic lens cover is a particularly nice touch.
Smartphone or iPod touch users will have no issue navigating on the Lytro, which is very responsive. In live-view, they access a pop-up menu by pulling up from the bottom of the screen. To scroll through previous shots, swipe from left to right as on an iDevice. In playback mode, they can "star" images as favorites, which gives those images priority when syncing with a computer later.
When we set out to shoot with the Lytro for the first time, it was immediately clear that, as we've said before, this is an entirely new type of digital photography. And, as with anything that's truly completely new, the Lytro comes with a rather steep learning curve. Our "see the picture, take the picture" mentality for point-and-shoot cameras needed some rewiring. The trick with the Lytro is to internalize where it's likely to perceive different focal planes; images with a clear fore- middle- and background separated by several feet provide the clearest examples of what light-field photography can do.
Once you get the swing of it, the Lytro does exactly what it claims to do. On every photo we took, we could change the focal point with a click -- but keep in mind that there are shades of gray involved here. Often, when subjects were grouped closely, the shift in focus from point to point was nearly imperceptible. This is how the Lytro acts by default in "everyday mode," which limits zoom to 3.5x and has a minimum focusing distance of about 5 inches. Everyday mode is ideal for images where the primary subject and secondary one are far from both the lens and one another, much like our little squirrel friend and his faraway observer.
To provide more control, Lytro has added what it calls "creative mode," which allows the users to cheat the optics to make clear distinctions between focal planes. This mode extends the camera's zoom range up to its maximum 8x and brings its minimum focusing distance down to nil. Before taking the shot, tap the screen where you want the Lytro to think of as the "middle" of your image from front-to-back, almost like on a tap-to-focus smartphone. Doing so forces the camera (quite literally, in fact; there is an audible mechanical noise inside the lens casing when you select a new midpoint) to perceive that plane as the center of its focal range and assess other planes in front of and behind it more clearly.
We had the most luck using creative mode for macro shots, like groups of balls on a coffee table. But it's also useful to separate objects that are close to one another in the foreground, while still keeping a distinctive background.
If you're running on a Mac, uploading pics from the Lytro is a true plug-and-play experience. (A Windows client is coming soon.) When you plug the camera in over USB for the first time, it automatically launches an installer for its desktop software. The camera then begins transferring images to the computer – your starred favorites go first, then the rest of the lot. This can take a while, a long while. Because each image file contains thousands of light paths, one file can bloat up to 12MB. From there, you can upload the full clickable image to Lytro.com or Facebook, or export a still JPEG with the point of focus you want selected. Should you wish to print those image, Lytro recommends you not go any larger than a 5-by-7 equivalent.
Right now the Lytro is essentially a one-trick pony, but let's not forget that it's quite the trick. Think of it this way: this camera captures multiple depths of field with one shutter click, a feat only possible previously with either a whole room filled with lenses or taking multiple versions of the same image with a regular camera. We'd love to be able to say that the final images it creates are flawless, but that's sadly not the case; in low-light there's a noticeable amount of noise--especially at high ISOs. Image blur is a real issue, as well; the slightest shake of the hand or sudden movement from the subject renders shots irretrievably blurry.
As Lytro continues to refine its image-processing engine, you'll be able to edit images to be entirely in focus or choose two distinctive light paths in order to create a 3-D effect without a dedicated 3-D camera. But the promise of light-field photography for the everyday Joe isn't limited to this one device; should the Lytro's capabilities be merged with other now-common features (adjusting ISO, exposure, white balance, and the like), it could fundamentally change how we think about a large portion of modern photography. A light-field engine on a smartphone, for instance, could remove much of the guess-work from on-the-fly shots and allow those pics to have depth previously reserved for today's DSLRs and interchangeable-lens cameras.
The Lytro light-field camera is available now for $400-$500.
Embedded interactive images taken by Corinne Iozzio. For an assessment of the Lytro from a photographer's point of view, check out Popular Photography's take.
One cool thing to notice:
If you focus on the reflection on the plate... it focuses on the reflection of that plate!! (aka, far away things come into focus). COOL!
I'd love it when this becomes common place. How well does it work with stereoscopic or 3d?.
it is possible to focus the entire picture or can I only choose a portion?
This is cool, I want ONE!
Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses.
Now if they can just to that with eye glasses.
The tech is very cool, but useless for pro photography. Faster/bigger sensors and better lens tech (?) could make this technology REALLY REALLY cool. Right now it is more of a gadget than anything else, I think.
As an early adopter, I wouldn't mind buying one and playing around with it. Price is too high, though.
They got the dimensions wrong, who wants a square image? Neither us, nor any of our devices are designed to view a square image appropriately anymore, everything is widescreen.
That's ridiculous. Any photographer will shoot in portrait orientation when it suits the scene. If anything, switching to a universal square format is ingenious!
Oh, and I'm not even sure what to say about all the people shooting cell phone video vertically. How does that fit into your widescreen world?
FYI, lens are ROUND and make round pictures. Then it the imagine reflected through a box and saved via film, and now a day’s digital. And what do we all do when with our picture now and our computers; we CROP the hell out of them and do everything with want with them.
If the image resolutions are high and clear, we can crop it to be whatever we want for later. It does not matter how it originates.
I find this camera very interesting and seriously like to try it!
Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses.
this is pretty cool, i think that we could easily make a simple program to cut and paste anything that comes into focus. then we'd have a true image of an area, instead of one that just manages to hide the blur very well.
kinda makes me think that this will be the first step to robotic eyeballs that can actually focus on something.
to mars or bust!
In regards to The Artist's concerns about the square image that format has been used for decades. Hasselblad has used a 6cm x 6cm negative while the digital backs for the Hasselblads have also used a square sensor: 4cm x 4cm.
As for the Lytro, it's just what we need for the photoshop generation who can barely take a photo without spending hours editing it.
It seems you can't do many effects that require higher apertures since it has a low, fixed one. The article states you can change the depth of field but not really. If that really were to change than the dimensions of objects would appear to stretch or squash; this also would require computer editing of the photo. That, plus the low quality and noisy results makes this a neat gadget but not a replacement for real cameras. However, the smartphone pic snappers may like it since they obviously don't care about picture quality. Otherwise they would use a camera with a real glass lens and sensor larger than the head of a pin.
First application that comes to mind is that they can finally have Surveillance Cameras using this technology that authorities can use later to refocus on different suspects' faces like they do on Hawaii-Five-O or CSI (using fake hollywood magic of course).
If the Lytro had a wider field of view, could produce an image with everything in focus, and larger prints, it would make sense, but seems like a one trick pony not ready for prime time. And it has no panorama, video and other functions common to many cameras and cell phones.
The Casio EX-ZR 100 and other cameras can shoot in burst mode at various exposures and focal points and then combine them into enhanced views, including telephoto, best facial expression, etc. Instead of making a limited use gizmo, why not license the tech to Casio or the like and let them incorporate it into their lines?
As far as I can tell, it delivers a series of photos with incredible limited depth of field which you can choose from by scrolling thru them. Or have I missed something?
If you replace the image sensor with an LED projector, will you see a 3-D image? In other words, could this same technology be used in reverse? It seems that this camera captures light rays from many different directions. It seems that using this in reverse could re-create the light rays and the original 3-D object.
@mrspi, Yes you are missing something. this camera doesn't shoot a series of images. it shoots a single image that records not just red, green and blue information but PATH or DIRECTION information as well so that is can then go back and display an image made up of light rays that converge on the sensor from a specific focal plane.
here is a picture of how a lens normally focuses. note the sensor (or film) on the left:
Now, if it was possible to record the DIRECTION of the light (in this case 11 mega pixels of direction information, hence the 11 "mega rays") entering the camera, the lens wouldn't have to bend to to fall precisely on the sensor. the bending could be calculated after the photo was taken.
This camera makes that possible.
this is really pretty amazing.