Will an Innovative New Focusing Technology Change the Way We Take Pictures?

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Although technological advances have paved the way for smaller and cheaper camera models to enter the market, there haven’t really been any major innovations in terms of the hardware itself within the past decade. That’s why you see “classic” lenses and camera bodies still demanding exorbitant amounts of money on eBay, or on camera trading posts like Keh – solidly built, well-constructed optics are timeless.

But a new Silicon Valley start-up called Lytro may just change the way we approach photography. The technology stems from an award-winning thesis by the company’s founder, 31-year-old Ren Rg, who graduated with a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2006.

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Essentially, Lytro allows photographers to adjust a photograph’s focus after it’s already been snapped. But don’t be mistaken: This isn’t simple photo manipulation via Photoshop; it uses a process that’s entirely new.

Lytro utilizes a technique called light-field photography, which according to CNET, has been an active field of research for years.

Typically, a camera works by gathering light information onto an image sensor. An object must be “in focus” in order to appear clear in the resulting photograph. But with Lytro – which has managed to raise $50 million through three rounds of funding so far – the lens and image sensor take in light information from multiple directions at the same time using a special type of sensor called a microlens array. Essentially, it’s like having several cameras compacted into one small space, and it gives photographers one less thing to worry about since they don’t have to think about focusing.

“[Lytro] allow[s] both the picture taker and the viewer to focus pictures after they’re snapped, shift their perspective of the scene, and even switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D views,” says the company’s website. “With these amazing capabilities, pictures become immersive, interactive visual stories that were never before possible – they become living pictures.”

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The company promises to sell its first camera this year, and that the units will be affordably priced and compact enough for consumer use.

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The big question, however, is whether it’ll be able to succeed. Photojournalist Richard Koci Hernandez tells the New York Times that his experience with a prototype of the camera was largely positive. “You just concentrate on the image and composition, but there’s no need to worry about focus anymore,” he says. “That’s something you do later.”

It’ll be interesting to see what type of consumers Lytro eventually draws. Professional photographers are unlikely to move away from their current equipment, which grants them a modicum of compositional control. On the other hand, Stephen Shankland of CNET suggests that everyday picture takers might have a hard time adapting to a new type of process: fiddling with a photograph after it’s been snapped.

In fact, consumer photography overall is moving towards a future of instantaneous gratification – it’s why the iPhone is now Flickr’s most popular camera, and why photosharing apps like Instagram are riding a tidal wave of success.

Still, Lytro’s foray into the stuffy field of photo technology is a welcome one, and its innovation appears promising –  at least for now. We’ll try to get our hands on one to review as the launch date approaches.

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