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.

March 27, 2012

12 Min Read

Click here to see a slide show on the Lytro camera

The Lytro camera might be the most revolutionary change in photography we've seen since digital came along. But don't toss your current camera in the trash just yet. It took a while for digital photography to overtake film photography. And Lytro's "light field photography" camera technology is a 1.0 product. Here's the good, the bad, and the worrisome things I found after taking it for a spin.

The Lytro looks nothing like any digital camera you've ever seen. It's a small, square barrel that weighs less than eight ounces. The controls are minimal. But in theory, the Lytro's light field technology capabilities eliminate the need for most camera settings. Simply snap a shot and no matter what the scene--people, landscapes, closeups--the Lytro produces photos that are never out of focus. That's because the Lytro collects all the digital information needed to fix a photo afterward--call it retroactive focusing if you will. Say someone's face, or a closeup of a flower or an insect, is blurry. Simply click on the area of the photo you want to be in focus and it sharpens right before your eyes. Try it on the photo of the keyboard I took, below. Change the focus as many times as you like.

So what's the catch? There are a few. A big one is that Lytro photos can be posted online only via the company's site. Right now the camera works only with Macs. Technically, the Lytro will frustrate photographers accustomed to having plenty of control over their pictures, including shape--the Lytro produces squarish photos.

The Lytro's simplicity makes it easy to learn. It has a lens on one end and a 1.52-inch touchscreen on the other. On the bottom is the power button, which is built into the camera's rubber grip, and a micro-USB port for transferring photos to your computer and recharging the camera's battery.

You can also turn the camera on simply by pressing the shutter button, which is located on the top. The camera defaults to a live view. Swiping left to right changes the view to playback mode. Swiping from the bottom upward displays a list of options that let you switch to the camera's Creative mode, display storage information, or display the current battery level.

The Lytro has an 8X optical zoom with a fixed f-stop of f/2. That's the extent of the setting controls, other than zoom and the Creative setting, which provides more extensive macro and zoom settings. There is no flash. Tapping the gear icon in the top right of the screen brings up a minimal set of software options: About, Delete All, and Reset.

The optical zoom control is unusual. On top of the camera is a row of raised rubber bumps that serve as a slider. Running a finger tip left to right increases the zoom level; sliding right to left decreases it. The Lytro keeps the last zoom level active between uses, which some people might find convenient. However, it's easy to miss the the small visual indicator for zoom level in the viewfinder. After not using the camera for a while, it would be easy to pick it up again and accidentally take photos at an unwanted zoom level.

The Lytro is impressively zippy. There is virtually no lag time in recording a photo after you press the shutter button. It's ready to take the next photo after only a couple of seconds during which you get a quick preview of the image just taken. The reason it's so fast, according to the company, is because it doesn't have a traditional auto-focus motor.

The Lytro is Mac only
One of the the Lytro's biggest limitations right now is that it works only with Macs. Plugging a Lytro into a Mac the first time installs the OS X desktop software that comes on the camera. You can also download the software for OS X directly from Lytro's downloads site. According to the Lytro support FAQ, desktop software for Windows will be available sometime this year.

Transferring photos from the Lytro to my Mac took a while because there's so much data recorded for each image. Each light field photograph produces two files: one, which has an .lfp extension, is always a whopping 15MB. The second file associated with my images ranged from between 500K and 1MB in size. This second file ends with the extension stk.lfp. Compare these specs to those of, say, a JPEG photo produced by an ordinary point-and-shoot 12MP camera. Each JPEG would be between 1.5MB and 3MB in size. This makes Lytro light field images five to 10 times larger than conventional digital photos.

Once the file transfer is complete, you have to wait for the photos to be processed before you can view and play with them. I processed my photos on a late-2010 model 11-inch MacBook Air equipped with a 1.6-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB of RAM. Each photo took between 40 and 70 seconds of processing before I could view it. Fortunately, you can force a specific photo to the top of the processing queue by clicking on its grayed thumbnail image.

Once processed, light field photos can be viewed inside the Lytro desktop app. Tapping points on the photo brings that part of the image into focus. But disappointingly, you can't zoom into photos or view them full screen.

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.

Apple-centric
Lytro's Apple-centricity is not limited to the fact that the desktop software is currently limited to OS X. It extends to the Web, and to the mobile space, where dynamic photos via Lytro's website are best viewed on the iPhone and iPad. Image viewing on the Android OS 2.3 device I tested was a broken experience in which I got the photo to refocus only once. No dynamic viewing was possible on a Windows Phone 7.5 device. Although Lytro seems to provide platform-specific HTML5 support for iOS devices, this does not seem to be the case for the desktop, where Adobe Flash is required. Internet Explorer 10 for the Windows 8 Consumer Preview Metro interface does not support plugins. And Metro did not detect that the browser is HTML5 compliant. A message appeared in IE10 for Windows 8 Metro noting that Adobe Flash is required.

[At the CES 2012 show in Las Vegas in January, InformationWeek's Fritz Nelson interviewed Lytro at their booth about the camera. Click here to read the story, including video of the interview.]

Lytro: The first cloud camera?
In its current hardware, software, and Web configuration, the Lytro is a cloud-dependent camera. The only way to enjoy the full viewing experience, using zoom and full-screen, is to upload your photos to Lytro's cloud. Moreover, sharing Lytro dynamic photos on Facebook, blogs, and other Web pages is dependent on pointing back to Lytro's Web service. If the service fails or if Lytro disappears as a business entity, all dynamic photos currently on websites will be inaccessible and unviewable.

Despite the technology's current limitations, light field photography surely is the future. Back when digital photography first became available, in the mid-1990s, a lot of people thought it was a fad--most people dismissed the technology as obviously inferior to film photography and more difficult to use. And yet here we are, not even 20 years later, with film photography all but dead and gone.

Name: Lytro Light Field Camera

The Lytro is an amazing device and might be a sign of what's to come in digital photography, but it's a 1.0 product. You will appreciate it for the focusing problems it solves for photographers. It has great potential for professionals, such as scientists and others who work in the field, who need to get the shot the first time. But you shouldn't put your other cameras up on eBay yet.

Price: $499 for 16GB model (750 pictures). $399 for 8GB model (350 pictures).

Pro:

  • No need to worry about focusing.

  • Turns on instantly.

  • Fast shutter response.

  • Little delay between taking photos.

  • Small and light.

  • Free Web storage and viewing service.

Con:

  • Limited to set amount of storage that comes with the camera.

  • Square photo format.

  • No flash, and poor low-light performance.

  • Noticeable noise in photos of distant subjects.

  • Desktop software limited in functionality, and currently available only for Macs.

  • Unknown cloud storage limit.

  • Inability to share on self-hosted WordPress blogs.

  • Slow desktop image processing.

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