Lytro Light Field Camera – The Future or a Cute Gimmick?

lytroAs a Christmas present I received a Lytro Light Field Camera and when I posted my first impressions of the Lytro I got quite some flack on social networks that the Lytro goes against the very nature of photography.  How often have we heard that one technology is going to destroy an entire industry and then it goes on to completely revolutionize that industry? VCR’s were going to destroy the movie industry, CD’s were going to kill the music industry. In photography, auto exposure, auto focus, and then digital were going to ruin the photography business. Is the Lytro finally going to be the nail in photographer’s coffins or is it just a one trick pony that is destined for the box of useless gadgets we all collect?

What is the Lytro?

lytro-1688The Lytro is not a camera in the typical sense that it doesn’t record the scene in the usual way. It’s closer to recording a hologram than a flat image. The camera  When you import the “images” into the desktop software, you then need to process them before they are viewable. When the processing is complete, it creates a packed file of JPEG images with different focal points. These images are all stuffed into a single file so that, when viewed, a viewer can zoom in, change the focus point, and even slightly manipulate the perspective. The more technical explanation is that The Lytro uses an array of microlenses to spread light out into component rays, which are then re-assembled in software to simulate any desired focal plane.

lytro_cutaway

Try clicking on the image below to change the focal plane and drag around to shift perspective.


Lytro calls these interactive images “Living Images” due to their ability to be manipulated by the viewer.

What you should know

lytro-1689If you go around reading reviews of the Lytro, most are fairly old and a good number of the original issues with the camera and software have been solved. The biggest one is that there is, in fact, Windows software for the camera. When you plug the camera into your computer, the software installer will appear in the virtual drive that appears. The second biggest complaint is lack of controls. With the current firmware you can go into manual mode and select the ISO speed and shutter speed but the aperture is fixed at f/2. You can also enable/disable the built-in Neutral Density filter.

Who is it for?

This is probably the single most difficult question to answer. The resolution isn’t high enough for professional use and most consumers will be happier with a point and shoot or a mirrorless camera. This doesn’t leave a very large market for the camera outside of gadget freaks and photography geeks like myself. Because the Lytro LFC is closer to being a proof-of-concept rather than a serious camera, only people who are really interested in the technology will be wanting to try their hand at creating Living Pictures.

How does it work?

lytro-1At first glance there are no controls on the camera, you actually have to look close to see that there is a USB port and power button on the bottom and a shutter button. Behind the shutter button is an almost invisible ridge that is hard to see but easy to feel, you slide you finger back and forth along the ridged area to adjust the zoom. It’s very simple to use and has a very Apple-ish feel to how it all functions.

The other controls and menus are found by swiping up or down on the LCD screen. Swiping up will bring up the primary menu where you can see the battery level and storage level and switch between “Everyday” mode and “Creative” mode, more on these modes later. Swiping left with this menu up will show more options which, at the time of this writing, only adds a self-timer mode.

lytro-1684There is a gear icon in the top right corner that will bring up another menu where you can enable Manual mode. Once Manual mode is turned on, you can then swipe down to choose between ISO Sensitivity and Shutter Speed. Under Shutter Speed is also an icon for enabling or disabling the internal neutral density filter. Sometimes I will go into the setting and the ND filter toggle isn’t there and sometimes it is, I have yet to figure out why it appears sometimes and is not there others. I hope to solve this problem soon.

Once you take a picture, you can then swipe left to right to preview the images. When you are previewing an image you can then swipe up to reveal the menu again with an option to delete the current image.

Everyday Mode vs Creative Mode

lytro-1690The Lytro LFC has two different shooting modes. The first mode, Everyday mode, is the default shooting mode which allows you to turn on the camera and shoot away and do your focusing later. The minimum focus distance is about 4-5 inches away from the lens. This mode gives you a focal range of 43 – 150mm depending on your zoom setting. You can also tap on a light or dark area to help set the exposure.

In Creative Mode, after framing your shot, tap on any object to set the middle of the refocus range at that distance. This allows for extremely close-up shots, pretty much right up to the surface of the lens. Creative Mode also enables the full 8x optical zoom which can give you more dramatic refocus shots at farther distances.

Do we need a light field camera?

This question is right up there with “who is this for” and this is where the controversy over the camera begins to come into play. Many photographers go off about how an image should be what the photographer intended and not what the viewer wants to see. The Living Pictures is only one aspect of what is possible with the Lytro, but it is the main selling point today so let’s talk about this for a moment.

Let’s take a look at a typical wedding photo. The image below is a fairly typical shot of the groom in focus and the groomsmen blurred a little in the background. In a Living Picture the viewer could click on the different faces to change the focus. If I shot this with a Lytro LFC, then my intention would be to make it interactive. If my intention was to make it a static shot, then I would shoot it and process it as such. Due to the current resolution of Living Pictures, these images are not destined for print or albums, but what they are for is for putting on my blog and Facebook as a way of creating reader stickiness. While the shot of the groom has the groom as the main subject, think about how the mother, wife, or girlfriend of one of the other guys would like to be able to zoom in and focus on their man.

While an interactive Living Picture may not be what you want, if it is what I choose to create, then how is this a bad thing?

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Let’s take the Living Pictures piece out of the equation and look at two other practical uses of this technology. The most interesting aspect is being able to change the focus after shooting an image. The following two images are from the same Lytro shot but in one I had the focus close to the camera and the other has the focus further away from the camera. Yes, this does mean that you might not have to think about focus and you can blast away and set your focus points later. This point is one where photographers are flipping out about how this will ruin photography. To me, this is an evolution of auto-focus, not really a major game changer, its just another tool. For photographers, it means something very important. It means you can change your mind. If you took a shot with a specific focal plane and decided you wanted to change it later, its a complete reshoot. With a Light Field Camera you simple change the focus point and re-save it.

far close

Another interesting potential is creating an all-in-focus shot. Let’s look at a shot of the Lytro camera itself as an example. Even though this shot was taken at f/20, the rear of the camera is still not in focus. To get this shot entirely in focus I would have needed to use a much longer lens and move back away from the subject. Another solution is to take multiple shots with different focus points and then use Photoshop to do focus stacking. It sure seems to be that it would be much easier just to shoot the object and save it with everything in focus which is extremely easy for the Lytro LFC to do, although the functionality is not built into the software at the time of this writing.

lytro-1688

Given what light field technology can be used for, I feel its hard to question its potential to change certain aspects of photography. Photographers scoffed at auto exposure, auto focus, and digital technology but they didn’t ruin photography, they lowered the barriers to entry and made photography more accessible to people than ever before. Ok, some may say that those things did, in fact, ruin photography by narrowing the gap between beginners and professionals but that does not account for the years of practice and training photographers have in composure, exposure, positioning, posing, processing, and lighting. Do these technologies make photography easier than before? Absolutely, but in my mind that is not a bad thing and photographers should always be looking to embrace new technologies and techniques to make their own work better and easier.

Using the Lytro Camera

I think its obvious that I have become of fan of the technology, but how is the Lytro as a camera and in some areas it really falls short. The design is rather awkward to use as its just a box. You would expect that the shutter being on the end of the camera would throw off the framing every time you push it but the camera is pretty well balanced and once you get used to it, it works pretty well and takes its pictures very quickly.

The biggest drawback is the LCD display. The LCD is not only really small, it also pretty poor resolution so its pretty hard to tell if you have the focus right. More importantly, the LCD suffers from a horribly small viewing angle. If you are not looking straight at the LCD, you probably are not going to see anything. One thing I discovered is that the viewing angle from the bottom isn’t nearly as bad as from the other angles so if you are trying for a low shot, or if you are having problems in the sunlight, its often better to just turn the camera upside down so you can see the screen better.

My personal pet peeve besides the LCD screen is the lack of a tripod mount. Really? There is no room at all to put a 1/4-20 thread on the bottom? If you want to use a tripod you have to buy their optional $20 tripod mount that  slips over the camera.

As for the software, it works well but still needs some features like an all-in-focus exporter. Once an image is imported, its pretty much ready to post online to the Lytro gallery or straight to Facebook. However, if you want to add the perspective shift feature you need an additional processing step that on my high end laptop takes about 20 seconds per image.

The Final Verdict

The light field technology has massive potential in numerous aspects of photography but the final question has to be “Is The Lytro Light Field Camera Worth Buying?“. This is a tough question to answer as well. The Lytro LFC as it exists today is not a replacement for a point & shoot, mirrorless, or DSLR if you want great quality images with good resolution. The Lytro is also not good enough for real production use by professionals. If you are a complete tech geek photographer like me, then this is a very interesting piece of technology. I personally plan on keeping mine for while to see how I can utilize it for different real-world projects like interactive shots from weddings, new ways of doing product photography, and what else I can open my mind to doing with it. If you want a glimpse at what a very unique piece of gear that can do things that are next to impossible on a regular camera, then the Lytro could be worth looking at. If you are looking for a single, multi-purpose camera for your day-to-day photography, then I would say you need to pass on the Lytro for now.  Time will tell if Lytro can take this technology further and develop the technology for professional uses.

As for how the Lyto is going to affect photography and how letting a viewer manipulate an image is a good or bad thing, I really want to hear from you in the comments and let me know what you think.

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KerryG

Kerry Garrison is a wedding, portrait, and product photographer living in Castle Rock, Colorado. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms. Kerry's work can be found at http://kerrygarrison.com and on Facebook at http://facebook.com/KerryGarrison

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