Lytro camera: A photographer's analysis

The Lytro represents a breakthrough in camera technology. But, is it really useful in practice?

The Lytro Light Field camera represents a large step forward in digital photography technology. Rather than rely on fixed points of focus, as with traditional cameras, the Lytro captures an entire scene and enables selective focus after taking the picture.

Lytro bases its technology on the doctoral dissertation (PDF download) written by the company's founder, Ren Ng. The document is an unusual thesis because it is so well written and clear, in contrast to most academic papers which are difficult to read. Ng wrote his paper in 2006, so it took six years to bring his vision to life in the Lytro camera.

According to the Lytro web site, the camera captures light differently from traditional photography:

Recording light fields requires an innovative, entirely new kind of sensor called a light field sensor. The light field sensor captures the color, intensity and vector direction of the rays of light. This directional information is completely lost with traditional camera sensors, which simply add up all the light rays and record them as a single amount of light.

In other words, the Lytro captures the light color, direction, and intensity as a blueprint to guide later reconstruction of important elements of the photo, such as focus point. Although traditional digital photographers routinely edit photos using tools like Adobe Photoshop, the additional data that Lytro captures adds a completely new dimension.

After taking a picture, the specialized processing software supplied by the company uses the additional data to let users interact with the photo and change the focus point at will. Lytro's ability to change focus, selectively, after the picture is taken represents a genuine innovation in photography.

Here is a cross-section of the camera hardware, from the Lytro website:

Although Lytro genuinely offers something new, the practical utility of this first generation camera and software combination is less clear. Let's consider Lytro's value to experienced photographers and casual photographers.

Experienced photographers seek three attributes in camera systems: high quality output, ability to control the image, and flexibility to accommodate a broad range of shooting situations. Based on the criteria, the Lytro system falls short of traditional film or digital cameras. It acts like a camera-phone quality point and shoot with the ability to adjust focus after the photo is taken. Based on traditional photographic criteria, the Lytro does not satisfy the needs of experienced photographers.

Lytro also disappoints casual picture-takers, who usually use a point and shoot or mobile phone camera. This group values low cost, ease-of-use, and good quality pictures over other attributes. Although Lytro basics are relatively easy to learn and the picture quality is passable, the base model costs $399, making it an expensive and less flexible choice among alternative cameras. For that price one can buy a high quality point and shoot camera with all the bells and whistles.

The Lytro system is ingenious, so who is it for? That's the magic question. Well-known photography site, DPReview, concluded:

The Lytro LFC is so unlike any conventional camera that it doesn't make sense to score it in comparison to them. Ultimately, though, we're not convinced that the Lytro either solves any existing problem or presents any compelling raison d'etre of its own.

CNET says the Lytro is perfect for the:

Mac-using early adopter with deep pockets who really likes to compose photos and be creatively different

Camera reviewer, Steve Huff, calls the Lytro, "a cool ass gadget, but not worth $400".

A PHOTOGRAPHER'S CONCLUSIONS

In a blog post on innovation, author Vinnie Mirchandani asked me to comment on the Lytro. Having spent time with the Lytro camera, unfortunately it appears to be little more than a toy in its current form. Here is why:

1. I question the fundamental value proposition of allowing ordinary users to change focus points after the fact. There are many point and shoot cameras that can keep virtually an entire image in focus, if that is important. To me, changing focus after the image is taken sounds cool, but becomes boring quickly. In addition, I just do not see the point of "interactive photographs" such as those presented by Lytro. Admittedly, I may be shortsighted here, however.

2. As a photographic artist, I place focus points precisely to convey a particular effect or composition. Honestly, I want the image to look a particular way and I do not want anyone screwing with it.

For example, in the image below, the focus point lies squarely on the large, red ornament. The image would make no sense if the focus point were moved back to the alligator. Nonetheless, the clear distinction between focused and out-of-focus areas makes this precisely the kind of image that Lytro would handle well:

Photo credit: Michael Krigsman

The following photograph shows where the Lytro is particularly weak. Because this photo has only a single point of focus, the Lytro camera would serve no purpose:

Michael Krigsman

Photo credit: Michael Krigsman

3. The Lytro software is limited and does not support editing options (as far as I could tell). Image editing is akin to printing a photo in a darkroom -- for serious photography it is often a required step, even if only to adjust sharpness or contrast.

4. The Lytro camera hardware is well built and easy to understand, but actually hard to use in practice. The screen is tiny, I find the zoom hard to control, and the two modes - everyday and creative - are confusing.

5. The whole focus thing is quite confusing - to get it right the user must understand how the camera software handles focus points and how the lens handles close focus distance. The zoom and close focus capabilities vary based on camera mode, which turns the point and shoot learning exercise into a required study, if you want to get the most from the camera.

Despite all these issues, the technology is fascinating and I suspect will have a rich future as it matures. However, in its current form, the camera is little more than a plaything for well-heeled photographic experimenters, especially since one can buy great point and shoot cameras for less money.

Also read:

Thanks to NetSuite, which gave some attendees a Lytro camera at a recent event. Lytro is one of NetSuite's customers.

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