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Lytro Light Field Camera: Hands-on with the future of photography

On March 1, a new era of photography began when California-based Lytro started shipping the first Lytro Light Field Cameras. When I first heard about light field photography last year, I was intrigued enough to pre-order one of Lytro's cameras sight unseen. The camera arrived on Friday, and I've now had a chance to put it through its paces. In this review, I'll explain what light field photography is, describe how the camera and what Lytro calls "living pictures" work, and give you my impressions on how this first-generation device does its job.

TUAW's interest in the Lytro goes beyond pure "cool gadget" fascination, since the device is technically a Mac-only peripheral. At this point, the Lytro Desktop software only runs on the Mac platform, although a Windows version is on the way.

About Light Field Photography

What's a light field camera? Normal digital cameras measure the color and intensity of light, while a light field camera also captures the direction that the light is moving at a point in time. The Lytro measures all of the light in front of the camera and then recreates that three-dimensional light field in digital form.

Once the data is downloaded from the Lytro to your Mac, a piece of software called Lytro Desktop processes those images so that you're able to view the light field. As you'll find out in a bit, the camera can be focused on a particular point as you're capturing an image. But since you've captured much more information about the light entering the camera, you can also refocus the image in the software. This is where the magic of light field photography comes in -- photographers are essentially able to shoot a photo and then focus after the fact.

Without having to worry about focusing on a subject before capturing an image, photographers can simply "point and shoot", then refocus at will later on. Viewing light field images is like magic -- you click (or tap if you're using an iPad to view) on a spot to bring it into focus. Needless to say, this is absolutely stunning in images that have both close-up and distant elements, as the viewer can choose what to focus on. Give this image a try:

There are tantalizing hints from Lytro that the same information stored by the camera will soon be able to be manipulated by the Lytro Desktop app to display a 3D image or, in a particularly Blade Runner-ish way, shift the viewer's perspective a bit to see the image from a slightly different point in space.

Design and Specs

Light field photography is a new science, having been first achieved at a Stanford University lab 15 years ago. The CEO of Lytro, Ren Ng, wrote his doctoral dissertation (available here) in 2006 describing the math and physics of digital light field photography. The first DLF cameras, known as plenoptic cameras, filled rooms with many cameras looking through multiple microlenses and required supercomputer power to process the images.

Through years of research, Lytro has managed to squeeze all of the necessary camera technology into what looks like a small, square-sided telescope measuring 1.61" x 1.61" x 4.41" (41 mm x 41 mm x 112 mm) and weighing just 7.55 ounces (214 grams).

On one end is a 1.46" (33 mm) backlit touchscreen LCD that is used to control the Lytro camera, while on the other is a glass window covering the optics. The camera features an 8x optical zoom lens that stays at a fast f/2 aperture throughout the zoom range. There's a square magnetic lens cap that keeps the end of the optics covered when not in use.

With light field photography, you don't talk about capturing megapixels -- instead, you're capturing megarays. There's no other camera to compare the first Lytro with, so the 11 megaray spec is a bit meaningless -- that number indicates the number of light rays that are captured and is not indicative of resolution as we know it.

The Lytro comes in three models -- Red Hot (US$499, 16 GB, holds 750 images), Electric Blue ($399, 8 GB, stores 350 pictures), and Graphite (same as Electric Blue). I purchased the Electric Blue.

The exterior of the camera case is covered with a silicone rubber grip in the area that your hand holds it. This grip also contains a power button, a micro-USB port, two holes for attaching a wrist strap (included), and the shutter button. Sliding a finger back and forth across the top of the grip also zooms the camera.

Unboxing and using the Lytro Camera

Apple's aesthetic has definitely had a major effect on how electronic devices are packaged. The Lytro box is plain white with photos of the two ends and a side view of the camera printed on the top and ends. Opening the box, the first thing you see is the camera, perched atop a plastic tray. Lift up the camera, and a small set of instructions is folded underneath. Below the plastic tray is the USB cable for charging the Lytro and retrieving images, the wrist strap, a soft cleaning cloth, and some additional information.

The lithium-ion battery inside is already charged up when you receive the camera, but Lytro recommends plugging in the device so that it can be fully charged. The touchscreen display indicates the level of charge. Once it was charged up, I was ready to go take some light field pictures.

Taking light field photos is quite easy -- you turn the camera on, take off the lens cap, make sure that the image you're shooting is framed nicely in the viewfinder, and then press the shutter button. To help frame a subject, swiping a finger to the right on top of the hand grip zooms the camera in, and swiping left zooms out.

There's also a "Creative Mode" that provides more control for capturing extreme macro images, using the zoom's full range, and setting the center of the range of refocus. Accessing the mode is done by swiping up on the touchscreen and tapping a specific icon. When Creative Mode is set, there's a blue frame around the display. Setting the center of the refocus range is just a tap away. Here's another image that was done using Creative Mode:

Once you've taken a number of images, swiping to the right lets you look through them. Want to zoom in on a detail? Swipe your finger on top of the camera. Deleting a bad photo -- yes, you can still capture horrible images just like with any other camera -- is accomplished by swiping up on the display and tapping the popular trash can icon. There's also a way of tagging special images by tapping a star icon. Those images are imported to your computer before any other image.

Importing and sharing

Moving the images to your Mac and the free Lytro.com web storage / viewing area is also simple. Attaching the camera to your Mac via the USB cable for the first time opens the app installer, which is stored in the camera. When the app is installed, images are pulled over to the Mac. Importing and doing the processing of eleven images took a little over two minutes on my machine (a Core i7 recent-vintage iMac); if you've filled up your Lytro, be prepared to do some waiting.

In the Lytro Desktop software, images are displayed by "story." All images taken during a specific session show up in a single story, and images can be moved between stories by clicking and dragging. Stories can also be renamed, so images taken on a trip (for example) can be grouped and given a title appropriate to that trip.

The Lytro Desktop software is also used to share your images with others. To begin with, double-clicking opens the image in full size so that you can click on it to refocus. Once you've found a focus range you like, you have the option to shares the image or save the photo as a 1080 x 1080 pixel JPEG for printing or touchup. Saving as a JPEG, of course, gets rid of the interactivity.

However, the static photos are much less engaging than the interactive images, so it's better to share the images online so others can "play" with them. From the Desktop app you can post an image on your personal Lytro.com page or share a link on Facebook. From the Lytro.com page, it's possible to share a link on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or email the link. There are also embed codes for placing the images into a web page, which is how I got the sample images onto TUAW.

Negatives

There are a couple of things that I wish the first-generation Lytro had -- a way to attach it to a tripod (there's no tripod mount), a flash (despite the fast f/2 lens, it still takes noisy low-light pictures), and a way to geotag images automatically. If the Lytro is as successful as the company hopes, perhaps we'll see improved models in the future.

While you can view and refocus shared images on iOS devices, there's no way to do that directly in your Lytro.com account. The company is working on an iOS app that should be available in the near future.

The bottom line

One of the most common questions I've received since taking delivery of the Lytro camera is "What are some practical things you can do with it"? That's a very good question, since the images aren't as high resolution or editable as those from even a fairly pedestrian point and shoot digital camera, or usable without a computer of some sort.

I can see many practical uses for the device. For example, artists who want to display images of three-dimensional objects (sculptures) can now use a handful of shots and let potential customers focus in on different points; the same thing goes for eBay sellers or real estate brokers, who now have a new tool for giving potential buyers a stronger sense of the merchandise.

For those of us writing at tech sites, the ability to take amazing macros or product shots that readers can interact with is going to be a draw. Travelers will find light field images to be a unique way to capture snaps of places visited, then they can use the website or Mac Desktop software to "revisit" those places with a level of interactivity never possible before.

As I noted earlier, the captured light field can be manipulated to provide 3D images, and that's a feature that many expect to see soon. There's no word on how the images will be viewed, but I'll pass along the information when this capability becomes available.

The Lytro camera is small enough that I'll be able to carry it everywhere, so it's going to be a perfect companion to my iPhone camera (snapshots) and my "working camera." I absolutely love being able to capture images very quickly with no need to focus. The camera is immediately available for use after power-up, and it has already been useful for me in taking macros in seconds, instead of having to play with focus and lighting.

I also believe that using the Lytro is going to also change the way I think about traditional photography. Rather than framing my photos two-dimensionally, I already find myself thinking about depth of field more often now. The Lytro is going to be a useful tool for expanding my photography skill set.

Is it for everyone? Probably not. But it's a first step into a new world, and at some point in the future this technology may work its way into the mainstream. Until then, enjoy the images you'll start to see from Lytro owners everywhere.



On March 1, a new era of photography began when California-based Lytro started shipping the first Lytro Light Field Cameras