It feels as if Lytro's engineers were incapable of closing the chapter on their masterpiece until they stripped it of everything but the essentials.
Despite the inherent complexity stuffed within, the Lytro camera's exterior couldn't be more simple. That's high-praise: it isn't often that we encounter a product quite this refined, so minimalist in its sensibility. It feels as if Lytro's engineers were incapable of closing the chapter on their masterpiece until they had stripped it of everything but the essentials. This seems that much more impressive, too, when you remember this is the work of a startup -- one unveiling its first piece of hardware, at that. Other CE makers just got put on notice.
But let's delve deeper into the intricacies of what makes this thing tick. The design is a jarring blend of metal and rubber, and the overall effect is nothing short of striking. For starters, we have an anodized aluminum barrel, which houses the f/2.0 8x optical zoom lens. That, in turn, is fused to a rubberized cube where the sensor, various electrics and touchscreen all reside. It's worth noting that the rubber portion is where you'll spend all your time, as that's where all of the spartan controls live. Things like a shutter button and capacitive-touch zoom slider up top, followed by a power button and a micro-USB door directly opposite on its bottom.
Completing the tour, let's turn our attention to the 1.46-inch touchscreen adorning the back side. Despite its premium glass construction and responsive performance, Lytro doesn't quite make up for the poor quality of the display itself. Some of that disappointment stems from its unimpressive 128 x 128 resolution, sure, but more worrisome is its tendency to wash out as soon as you turn it ever-so slightly off-angle.
That's a problem because pulling off those cool depth-of-field shots means more often than not you'll be contorting the hardware at odd angles. We also took issue with its performance in bright light -- get used to creating shade with your hand cupped to the unit as you try to frame shots out in the wild.
Having a poor display on a piece of photographic kit would normally be a bummer, if not a deal-breaker. Ultimately, though, it'll hit you that the camera workflow you've been practicing for your entire life doesn't necessarily apply here. Soon enough, you'll stop worrying about focus, and realize Lytro liberates you to dwell on composition and exposure, the latter of which you can tweak by tapping the screen. Okay, not everyone will be comfortable adopting the "shoot first ask questions later" mantra, but that's how we generally used it outdoors -- a habit made sweeter with the help of some fast shutter releases. Naturally, your mileage will vary depending on your technique (human skills still do count for something here), but as we'll explain, we were more than happy with the results, so long as we had adequate lighting at the ready.
Lytro's thrown caution to the wind and started anew, adopting the same simplistic approach on the interior as on its exterior.
If we're honest, the current user state of camera interfaces is pretty abysmal. Years upon years of crud, including leftovers from directional-driven UX, does not a happy Engadget reviewer make. Thankfully, Lytro's thrown caution to the wind and started anew, adopting the same simplistic approach on the interior as on its exterior. For starters, taking photos is as simple as waking the unit (either by pressing its power or shutter button) and pressing the shutter to take a picture. To zoom, slide your finger along the capacitive zoom bar up top. Swiping up on the touchscreen reveals that dock you see above, with three tappable icons, which enable "creative mode" (more on that in a bit) and show remaining storage and respective battery capacities. That gesture also reveals a Settings icon (the cog in the upper right corner), which is where you'll find the About, Delete All and Factory Reset menus.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's talk a little bit more about creative mode, the only alternative shooting setting this camera offers. Tuned for finer control, in this mode the camera is less worried about maximizing a shot's future refocus potential -- essentially a fancy way of saying it'll now let you take much closer macro shots with a shallower and flatter depth of field, which means less of that Lytro-refocusing magic applies later. Getting started, you'll know it's active thanks to an onscreen blue border. Creative mode gives you access to the full range of the camera's optical zoom (8x versus "Every day" mode's 3.5x) in addition to enabling tap-to-focus (instead of the default mode's more restrictive tap for exposure).
Once you've actually taken a shot, viewing your creations is as simple as swiping to the left. From there you can continuously swipe left back in time, or right to return to the viewfinder. Thankfully, if you've perused through a lot of photos, you don't have to endlessly swipe to get back into capture mode -- one press of the shutter button and you're ready to start capturing again. Sliding across the zoom bar while viewing those creations reveals a 3 x 3 grid view, similar to how most digital cameras manage photos these days. And if you swipe upward while viewing a single photo, the same dock appears as before, except this time you've got a delete button occupying the leftmost spot where creative mode lived.
Image quality, performance and battery life
Ultimately, it's of no consequence how beautiful the hardware or onboard software is if a camera fails at its one purpose: taking pictures. With Lytro things are a little complicated in this department, insofar as the camera excels in certain situations, while putting on a mediocre performance in others. Before we walk you through the results, it's worth setting the expectation that you won't be getting any poster-sized prints here. Shots from the Lytro camera have 1080 x 1080 resolution -- good enough, the company says, for 5 x 7 prints.
Well-lit snaps with two or more layers of focus, like the ones above, are really where Lytro comes into its own. With proper lighting, colors are vibrant and generally accurate across the range, and Lytro had no problem conquering more tricky shots with highlights and shadows. Unfortunately, we can't say the same about well-lit, but focally flat long distance or landscape shots, where pictures consistently lacked sharpness and detail. If you're into depth-of-field shots, the Lytro's a worthy companion; just be cognizant you won't be sending your current shooter to the graveyard.
Unfortunately, things don't get better when it comes to low-light performance. Yes, in theory, that wide f/2.0 aperture lets a lot of light in, but prepare yourself for copious amounts of noise. High-contrast shots taken during a beach-side hike passed, but more often than not you'll have to sift through quite a few iffy shots with copious noise before finding an acceptable one.
On the upside, though, shutter performance and zooming are both much better. Booting is near instantaneous and first captures, with their reassuring click, are ready to go less than a second later. Shots thereafter continue at a rapid clip -- speedy enough, certainly, for us to catch waves breaking or a cat mid-yawn. Of course, this isn't rapid-fire shooting on the order of a DSLR, but the quick reflexes of Lytro's camera is still worlds better than most smartphones and, we'd hazard, most point-and-shoots as well. Image quality when zoomed at full bore (in creative mode, naturally) is relatively good, and, as an added bonus, all that lens movement happens with the unit's barrel, meaning there's no lens protrusion here.
As for battery life we don't have any complaints either. You should get at least a day trip's worth of photos from the on-board lithium-ion battery. We're talking anywhere from 200-300 shots per charge, which considering the onboard processing we found perfectly within the range of acceptable. Charging is a strict micro-USB only affair, although for those travellng sans computer, we're told there will be a $19 "fast charger" arriving in the coming months.
You might have missed the passing reference in our intro, but the Lytro camera doesn't output your run-of-the-mill JPEG. Instead all that directional light information is stuffed into a custom format the company calls a "Light field picture file," or .lfp for short. Ergo, to do anything with a picture that originated from a Lytro camera, you'll naturally need the company's accompanying homegrown desktop application. The good news is the installer's preloaded on the camera -- just plug it in and follow the prompts to make your way through the installer package. But we hope you also caught that installer package nuance, as here comes the bad news. For now, Lytro's desktop software is Mac only (requiring 10.6.6 or above), although the company says a Windows version will follow at some point this year.
Upon firing up the desktop software for the first time, you'll realize you have to complete a one-time backup of the camera's calibration data before proceeding. After conquering that, .lfp files start copying to the disk (with previously starred images given first bidding), while the suite simultaneously begins processing each RAW-like .lfp into something the desktop suite can digest. You'll know when the processing is complete, as one by one, grayscale thumbnails give way to color replacements, which means they're ready for some TLC, courtesy of the suite's rudimentary editing chops.
When it comes to editing all you can really do with the software is refocus to your heart's content (by clicking different spots in the picture), actuate image rotations and bring up an additional info on a capture with more in depth data (like shutter, ISO, focal length and aperture values). That might not sound like a lot, and it isn't, but Lytro promises it'll quickly iterate with new features over time. And because those .lfp files are untouched, new functionality like the previous tech demos the company has shown (like shifting perspective and making images all-in-focus) will come to photos you've taken today in a future release.
The final piece of the software puzzle relates to sharing. Upon logging into a lytro.com account, one can upload captures to their own gallery on the company's website. Pictures uploaded can be publicly visible or private and additionally the desktop software supports direct uploads to a connected Facebook account. Choosing the latter creates an inline "living" Flash-powered embed on the social network, which friends can then interact with by refocusing inline on Facebook to their hearts content. Additionally there's support for Twitter and HTML embeds, although you'll have to navigate over to the intended picture in the Lytro gallery portal and click share buttons to complete those tasks from your browser.
Finally, those looking to get their sharing-on old school, can export JPEGs from a secret option in the desktop software, which only rears its head when you right-click on a thumbnail. Sneaky.
While there's so much right with Lytro's debut shooter, it will, even at its best, be no more than another accessory living in your camera bag. Although we're smitten by its delectably simple UI and gorgeous hardware (its washed-out screen not withstanding), its inability to shine in limited shooting conditions means you'll never be able to just make the Lytro your sole photographic companion.
That's saddening -- it's obvious Lytro's onto something huge, and we're impatiently awaiting the day when cameras of all sizes make use of the technology on display here. Whether the company will realize our dream by building out a full line of Lightray-equipped cameras remains to be seen, but with a such a solid technical and groundbreaking foundation there really is only one way but up.
The end game is long and these are the earliest of days. For the photography aficionados in the audience, $399 is chump change compared to the kinds of glass in your collection, making Lytro a no-brainer and worthy companion of space in your camera bag. For the rest of us, though, patience is a virtue.
Update: As of July 24th, there is finally Windows support for the Lytro camera.