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3/27/2012
12:40 PM
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Lytro: The Next Big Thing In Photography

Light field photography can eliminate the biggest problem photographers have: out-of-focus pictures. Don't toss your digital camera just yet, though. Although a major breakthrough, the Lytro is far from perfect.

Sharing photos
Sharing a dynamic light field photo is reasonably simple, although there are a couple of quirks. First you must use the Lytro desktop app to upload the photos to Lytro's free cloud service. Lytro does not appear to have a storage limit right now. However, it is difficult to imagine this will last long. I uploaded 180 files--3GB's worth of data.

Lytro's Web playback provides more viewing features than the desktop software. Images viewed on the Web can be zoomed into and viewed full screen. The Web interface also provides mechanisms to share Lytro photos via Facebook, conventional Web links, and embedded code for Web pages, Twitter, and Google +1. Placing a Lytro image on a blog might be challenging for some people. Lytro creates an HTML iframe to embed images on a Web page. Although those using WordPress.com for blogs can use a simple URL to display images, self-hosted WordPress sites do not support this method or scripts in iframe. Tumblr, however, can display a dynamic image by simply linking to the image as a "video" entry.

Great for inexperienced photographers
Light field photography is not simply an extension of conventional photography, analog or digital. It seems to share a lot with 3D digital photography. Who needs a Lytro? Light field photography is at its best when correcting careless or accidental photography mistakes. Most of us who are not professional photographers experience focus problems at one time or another. Take, for instance, the photo below, which shows a few large leaves in the foreground.

If you took this photo with a conventional digital camera, the leaves might be in focus, with the background blurred. Unless you were trying for a closeup of leaves, you probably wouldn't be happy with the photo. Because the Lytro lets you choose what is in focus and what is not, dynamically--after the photo is recorded--you can tap on the hill or the tree to focus on that part of the image. Or, if you really want to see the leaves, you can sharpen them instead. You can imagine how useful a Lytro might be at an event where there are objects--such as the heads of a people in a crowd--between you and your target subject. Unfortunately, Lytros don't do well indoors. Having no flash makes the Lytro a bad choice for low-light situations such as children's indoor school events or any night time event.

Given adequate light, the Lytro does very well with macro photography where objects are obviously in multiple planes. Click on the various parts of the leaves in the photo below to get an idea of what I mean.

The Lytro does best with scenes in which at least one object is less than 10 feet away from the camera in either actual distance or virtual distance using the optical zoom. The cat in the photo below was about 30 feet away from me. I used Lytro's optical zoom to bring it to within what appears to be about 10 feet away. No matter which of the big rocks behind the cat you click on, the focus doesn't seem to change much.

Distance photos--where all objects are essentially at visual infinity--do not benefit from dynamic light field photography. Try tapping the cityscape below. Tapping different areas of the photo does not appear to change the focus much if at all. Distance photos, even ones taken on sunny days, also tend to be somewhat grainy.

Now look at the same scene, below, this one taken within a minute of the first one, but with an inexpensive Canon PowerShot 780IS compact digital camera using default settings. The two cityscapes illustrate one of the problems with Lytro photos: A narrow view.

Although you could argue that the Lytro photo has better contrast and color saturation, you can fix these problems in the Canon photo by adjusting the settings before taking the photo or afterward, in a photo editor. Lytro photos can't be edited in any way except focus.

The only way to edit a Lytro photo is to save it using the desktop software to a conventional JPEG image file format. You can choose the focus before exporting the picture. Expect to spend some time on JPEG exports, though, especially if you want to save multiple versions of the same photo, each with a different focus. Unfortunately, there's no way to choose multiple focus points and then save them all to separate files in one fell swoop. First you have to view a photo, determine the focus point, exit the view back to the thumbnails, and then export to a JPEG image. You have to repeat this process for each subject focus desired. The side-by-side comparison below shows two focus choices saved as two separate JPEG files.

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