Lytro’s Light-Field Camera: Photography, Reimagined

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In the world of technology, there are three kinds of change. There’s the subtle, never-ending process of refinement we call evolution. There’s revolution, which is like evolution in fast-forward mode. And then, every once in a while, a product comes along that goes places that nobody was expecting — radically departing from the norm rather than simply improving on it.

Lytro, a new digital camera from a startup of the same name, is one of those radical departures. It’s the first product to consumerize light-field photography, a technology that captures the direction of light in a scene as well as its color and intensity. Formerly the stuff of supercomputer-powered lab experiments, light-field cameras have a full three-dimensional understanding of the images they capture, something that no conventional photographic device has.

Which is not to say that the Lytro advances on conventional cameras in every respect. Some of the things your favorite point-and-shoot does, it does either poorly or not at all. But it also does one dazzling thing that no consumer camera has ever done: It lets you focus photos after you’ve taken them. You can even focus these “living pictures” after you’ve downloaded them to a computer. Or let your friends refocus photos that you’ve shared on the web.

(MORE: Two Minute Video: Lytro Camera Is Focused on Never Needing Focused)

Really, it’s easier to let you refocus an image yourself than to try to explain what it’s like. Tap around on this one–I’ll wait…

[lytro photo=”21659″]

Lytro’s potential to change everything about picture-taking is so exciting to so many people that the camera, which was announced in October and just began shipping at a starting price of $399, is already back-ordered until April or May. (The company loaned me a unit for this review.)

It’s not just the Lytro’s picture-capturing guts that are a departure. This gadget has remarkably little in common with anything else you can use to snap a photo. As Polaroid did with its landmark SX-70 instant camera, Lytro has built an altogether new kind of camera rather than merely stuffing new technology into a standard camera body.

Looking a bit like a high-end kaleidoscope or a Scandinavian-design peppermill, the Lytro is an aluminum box — 4.4″ long and highly pocketable — with a lens on one end and a postage stamp-sized color touch screen on the other. There’s a power button, a shutter button, a concealed USB port for computer hookups and a touch-sensitive strip you use to adjust the 8x zoom. That’s about it.

Among the things the Lytro doesn’t have: a flash. (The f/2 lens lets in enough light that it’s possible to take flash-free photos in relatively dim lighting.) Or a memory-card slot or a removable battery. (Both the storage and the battery are sealed in; the $399 8GB model can hold 350 photos, a $499 16GB has room for 750 and both let you take up to 400 snapshots in between charges.) It also can’t capture video, just stills.

This camera is so uncameralike, in fact, that I thought I might be able to snap candid shots without anyone knowing what I was doing. Here in the tech-savvy San Francisco Bay Area, however, I kept encountering strangers who knew about the Lytro and were jazzed to see one in person. One guy even hopped off a cable car and bolted over to ask about it.

In multiple ways, the Lytro’s design is both fun and functional. It powers on almost instantly and takes photos with zero shutter lag, since it doesn’t have to bother with focusing. The touch-screen interface works well. Rather than cluttering things up with a separate playback mode, for instance, it lets you swipe away the live image to see the last photo you took. And you can keep swiping to review earlier photos.

Yet for all that’s appealing about taking photos with the Lytro, it has a size-17 Achilles Heel: its screen. The 1.46″ display is dinky and grainy, with a narrow viewing angle which makes it tough to see what you’re doing unless the camera is at eye level, or close to it. When I took the Lytro to an outdoor antique market on a particularly glorious day, the sun bleached out the screen almost completely, leaving only the most rudimentary hint of an image.

In theory, you can use the camera’s display to refocus images. Except for the fact that the screen itself is so gritty that it’s tough to tell what is or isn’t in focus.

The simplest way to ensure you’ll wind up with a dynamite Lytro picture is to put one interesting thing as close as possible to the lens, and another interesting thing further back. (Either or both of those things can be people.) You want, in other words, to create a composition that invites refocusing, as all of Lytro’s own sample images do.

Taking photos that lend themselves to refocusing is so important because more mundane shots generally end up looking mediocre at best. The low-res effect reminds me of the digital cameras of the late 1990s, and doesn’t compete with the best smartphones, let alone serious point-and-shoot cameras and SLRs.

To help nudge you in the right direction, the Lytro has two modes. The “Everyday” setting restricts the zoom lens to a maximum magnification of 3.5X, and increases the likelihood that the resulting photo will refocus well. “Creative” mode unlocks the full 8X zoom and lets you tap on the screen to set the midpoint of the refocusing range. It’s more flexible, but requires more experimentation until you get the knack.

JPG, the standard file format for digital photos, knows nothing about light fields. Neither do existing photo-sharing services such as Flickr and Picasa. So Lytro has created its own image format, software and sharing service. (The software is Mac-only at the moment; a Windows version is in the works.) In my tests, the Mac software took about half a minute to transfer each image from the camera and prepare it for use –which felt like an eternity when I returned from a picture-taking jaunt with 200 photos.

Lytro’s app doesn’t offer cropping, photo-tweaking options or other standard editing features. All it does it let you refocus images by clicking on them. With the best pictures, doing so is a fascinating, addictive treat, and vastly easier than it is on the camera’s own display. And you can share refocusable photos on Facebook, on Lytro’s own site and in blogs, where friends and family — who don’t need to have Macs — can fool around with them.

Here are a few more of my snapshots:

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[lytro photo=”24285″]

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[lytro photo=”24277″]

You can export these living pictures in JPG format for use in other photo editors and sharing services, but doing so strips Lytro photos of the unique qualities that make them Lytro photos. It freezes the focus, and the resolution –1080-by-1080 — is high enough only for on-screen viewing and for printing at up to 5-by-7.

So what has Lytro come up with? Definitely not a substitute for a garden-variety digital camera. Even if you’re comfortable plunking down $399 or $499 for a first-generation gadget, you’re going to want another camera that takes better standard shots at higher resolutions.

And even if you’re intrigued by light-field photography, you might want to see where the company takes the idea with future cameras and software updates. With any luck, the first model will be followed by cheaper, better, more versatile ones that truly bring this high-potential technology to the masses.

For now, buying and using a Lytro is helping to beta-test the future of photography. If that proposition sounds alluring — rather than intimidating or annoying — you’re the kind of person who might love this camera, limitations and all.

(MORE: Meet Lytro, the Light-Field Camera that Snaps 4D Pics)