Photography began with the concept of capturing light in a single plane — the idea of what’s in and out of focus in an image has been central to photographic composition for more than 100 years. The photographer’s job has been to direct the viewer’s attention by deciding which subjects are in focus, while ensuring that the background (and less frequently, the foreground) are appropriately blurred. The Lytro camera turns that entire concept on its head by delivering a “living image” where the viewer can change the point of focus to explore the image.
When my Lytro arrived, I couldn’t wait to try it out. What follows is my review of the 1.0.0 version of the Lytro camera and 1.0.0 software following my attempts to take good photographs.
I’d love to embed some Lytro photos in this post, but that doesn’t seem to work.
The Lytro camera “out of box” experience is very well done and will be very familiar to anyone who owns an iPod or iPhone. It comes in a white box, with the camera held firmly in place with plastic inserts. Underneath the camera is a white cardboard box containing the paperwork, lens cap, cleaning cloth, wrist strap and USB cable.
The camera itself is small — just 4.4 inches long — and arrives with some charge in the battery so you can start shooting immediately. It’s shaped like a square tube, with the lens at one end and a small viewing screen at the other:
A small power button on the bottom turns on the camera, and the shutter button is on the top. Zooming is accomplished by dragging a finger left and right on the rear top edge of the camera. It’s a little clunky, as it can be hard to set just the right composition, but it works.
The camera is fully automatic: it sets shutter speed and ISO automatically with a fixed f2 aperture. You can tap on the rear screen to tell the camera the exposure metering point and it will do its best. The Lytro needs a wide aperture to capture the best light field — the direction of the light as well as its intensity and color. There’s a little clicking sound when you point the camera at a very bright object like the sky on a sunny day, and I expect it’s inserting a neutral density filter inside the lens barrel to reduce the light intensity.
In “Everyday mode” (the default), the Lytro takes photos instantaneously when you press the shutter button. Lytro makes much of this “instant capture” capability in its marketing, because a light field camera doesn’t have to focus. In theory, yes. In practice, not so much, which is why there’s “Creative mode”, accessed by swiping a finger upwards on the rear screen and tapping a small icon, allowing you to focus the camera. The physics of optics has crashed the “focus free” light field party here: the camera has to focus the lens so that the captured light field has a useful range of potential focus planes.
The net? The Lytro camera requires very careful framing and composition of subjects to give the viewer an interesting set of subjects separated by distance. While the camera might be point and shoot, the composition work is anything but instantaneous! Creative mode offers more flexibility in composing the subjects by distance (handy if they are inanimate) and careful control of the camera to ensure it is properly “focused”. The square (1:1) aspect ratio of the image doesn’t help with composition, making it hard to get everything into the frame. The camera would be easier to use if it had a wide aspect ratio, as there would be more room in the frame for the subjects.
This is really the crux of the challenge presented by the Lytro: how to use it to produce an effective photograph that is interesting and aesthetically pleasing for the viewer. Many of the examples on the Lytro website are contrived compositions with near and far elements to show off the novelty of being able to re-focus after the fact. If that is all there is for light field images, then its impact on photography has been dramatically over-hyped.
Plugging the camera into your Mac (Windows support just shipped) allows you to install the Lytro Desktop software — a nice touch. Once installed, you unplug and replug the camera to download images. You can then view the images — though not at full size — and change the focus point. You can also share images on Facebook and Lytro’s own website, and export JPEGs (so I’m told — I have never managed to find this function in the software). The only effective way to show an image is through the flash file stored on the Lytro website, which is severely limiting.
Lytro touts the camera’s low-light capabilities, but I think that’s a mistake. There is significant noise, banding, lines and other odd artefacts in low light. Shutter speeds are low, even at f2, so camera shake is a real problem, and there’s no flash integration.
Overall, the Lytro camera is intriguing more for future possibilities than what it can do today. Version 1.0.0 is pretty basic and effective composition is extremely time-consuming and requires full cooperation of your subjects. With light field photography, we ought to be able to produce 3D photographs, change the viewers position, tilt and shift the plane of focus to our liking… there are many more possibilities than capabilities in the current software. Today, I find myself leaving the Lytro at home more often than I take it out, and that’s a shame.