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.