Lytro’s Light-Field Camera Gets Manual Settings

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When Lytro released its namesake digital camera last spring, it wasn’t immediately clear what sort of person would want to buy it. On one hand, it was a genuine technological breakthrough: As the first consumer light-field camera, it captured the direction of light in a scene as well as color and intensity, letting you snap photos which could be refocused after the fact. It packed that breakthrough into a super-simple pocket-sized aluminum rectangular box which was a radical departure from any other point-and-shoot model ever made.

But for all the innovative wow factor of the Lytro’s refocusable photos, they could only be viewed using the company’s own software, web site and a web viewer which can be embedded in Facebook, blog posts and elsewhere. The camera wasn’t at all good at taking garden-variety snapshots, and its grainy, undersized touchscreen was a major design flaw. And with a starting price of $399, it was no impulse purchase.

Now that the camera has been on the market for a few months, its makers say that they know who their primary customers are: Creative types who love to create Lytro “living pictures” that tell stories. In many cases, these photographers aren’t just pointing and shooting–they’re carefully composing shots and know exactly what sort of effect they want.

They’re creating images like these three, all of which were entered by Lytro owners in the company’s photo contest (click anywhere on any picture to refocus it):

[lytro photo=”100632″]

[lytro photo=”70501″]

[lytro photo=”340833″]

Today, Lytro is announcing a new version of its camera’s software–shipping on new units and available as an upgrade for existing owners–which caters to serious Lytro shutterbugs by giving them new manual controls. The company briefed me on the new features and loaned me a camera with the updated software.

The manual controls are pretty straightforward stuff. They let you set the shutter speed (from 1/250 of a second to 8 seconds) and ISO (from 80 to 3200). After adjusting these settings, you can turn on the neutral density (ND) filter manually to control how much light is captured in bright scenes. And you can lock the auto exposure and then move the camera around to change the composition.

At first blush, it’s not completely obvious how Lytro would implement these options in a pleasing way, given that the camera has only three physical controls: a power button, a shutter button and a touch-strip slider for the 8X zoom. But it’s done a nice job of making them easy to use when you need them, and keeping them otherwise out of the way. In fact, they’re completely invisible until you proactively switch them on in the settings menu.

Once you do, the screen shows the shutter speed and ISO. You slide down on the touchscreen to reveal the manual options; once you’ve changed any of them, they slide back out of the way. And it’s always easy to go back to automatic settings.

In short, the manual settings make the Lytro a bit more powerful in the conventional-camera sense, without impinging on the things that make it unique. (A recently-introduced $19.95 tripod adapter also helps.)

Here are a couple of clickable photos I snapped:

[lytro photo=”399049″]

[lytro photo=”399078″]

Part art project and part magic trick, Lytro picture-taking is a lot of fun. Just walking around and looking for photo opportunities helped me see the world around me in a new way.

My biggest issue with the cameras is one the company can’t fix through software: The screen is too small, too grainy and too easily bleached out on sunny days. It makes it tough to precisely frame your picture–a major snag, since thoughtful compositions are so important with this camera. (You need to think about what’s in the foreground and background if you want to shoot a photo that lends itself to refocusing.)

For that reason, I’m eager to see how a second-generation Lytro camera might look and work. (And what it would cost–$199 sounds about right to me.) Still, I’ll bet that Lytro fans will appreciate the additional creative control they get from the new manual settings–and that they’ll use them to come up with even cooler living pictures.

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