Lytro's Illum camera is expensive, but less gimmicky than we thought

Back in 2012, Lytro's first camera introduced folks to its light-field imaging tech -– letting users tweak focus, perspective and depth of field after a photo is taken. However, that first-gen camera's peculiar body and low-res output limited its appeal. Now, with the $1,599 Illum, Lytro's back, looking to elevate its unique approach from mere curiosity to a legitimate photographic tool. I spent some time with the beefy new model to see how far the company's come.

First up, here's a quick and very basic primer on Lytro's approach. In traditional photography, you (or your camera) pick a spot to be in focus, compose the frame and snap a shot. Generally speaking, after the shot is taken, whatever was out of focus stays out of focus; there's not much you can do to make a blurry background object tack-sharp after the fact. You're better off just reshooting and adjusting the focal point or depth of field. With Lytro's tech, though, the camera sensor doesn't capture just the one focal plane you selected; it gathers light info from a wide range of potential focal points, allowing you to tweak the depth of field and have more control over what is and isn't sharp in post-processing.

Want a rough, musical analogy? Imagine capturing a photo is like making an audio recording of a piano chord. The traditional method would be to select a set of keys before pressing those specific notes down. Lytro's approach would be like mashing down 20 or so adjacent keys and then letting custom software help you sort out the notes you want later. (I did say it was a rough analogy.)


Lytro Illum

On the hardware side, the new camera looks nothing like its predecessor. Whereas the first-gen device resembled a square, aluminum cigarette, the Illum's designers went for a futuristic, wind-swept SLR aesthetic. From the rubberized control rings to the articulated touchscreen, the Illum feels impressively modern. The menus are finger-friendly and easy to navigate and the onboard Snapdragon 800 does an admirable job keeping up as I swipe from screen to screen.

Still, I have some complaints: The left-side panel covering the SD card and USB 3.0 ports can be tricky to pry open. Viewing angles on the 800 x 480 screen could also be better. And then there's the lens hood, which eschews the traditional bayonet-style attachment common to SLRs. Instead, it uses a sort of compression collar and spring-loaded locking pins to stay in place. On my particular unit, the hood's grip was so secure that removing it required an alarming amount of force. Of note, I did experience a few hard crashes that required removing the battery and resetting, but updating to the most recent firmware seems to have fixed those issues.

Despite its form factor, the Illum certainly isn't as quick as an SLR. Focusing by selecting a point on the live view screen can be sluggish and the 30-250mm (equivalent) f/2.0 lens takes its time going from one focal length extreme to the other. Still, in using the Illum, it sort of feels like it's meant to be more deliberate than traditional camera gear. After all, it does its best work when you put a bit more thought into the composition of each frame -- as opposed to the spray-and-pray approach that digital photography has made so feasible.

Lytro eschews megapixels in rating its sensors, instead opting for "megarays." In the Illum's case, we're dealing with 40 megarays -- four times what the first-gen unit had. Representatives hinted that the company hopes to quadruple resolution with every generation. That's ambitious, certainly, but I'm hoping overall speed is a priority as well.


Lytro Illum

Speed issues occur elsewhere, unfortunately. While the desktop client and mobile apps are well-polished, the software workflow -- from importing to final rendering -- is a time-consuming affair. Using the included USB 3.0 cable, it took nearly 40 minutes to fully transfer about a hundred photos from the Illum to my desktop PC. Exporting a Vine-length, 1080p clip at the highest settings took 13 minutes on my PC's Core i7-4770. Though a 720p clip at lower-quality settings generally took less than a few seconds.

The desktop client offers the standard image-editing controls like exposure and white balance. Beyond those, you also have access to Lytro-specific tweaks, like choosing a different focal point in the image or adjusting the aperture (and resulting depth of field) from f/1 to f/16. A newly added "Focus Spread" option lets you manually select where the focal points start and stop, allowing you to have the blurry background of, say, an f/2 shot with a foreground that looks like it was shot with a narrower aperture. It's a bit like traditional compositing using multiple exposures at different apertures, except it's all done from a single shot. Export options include short animated movies that showcase the Illum's focus magic (focus pocus?). You can also export images to standard 4-megapixel stills, though the quality there certainly doesn't rival a DSLR of equivalent price.

Both the desktop and mobile apps let you upload images to a personal gallery on Lytro's site. You can also view what others have been doing on the public gallery -- especially handy for inspiration if you're stuck in the "What do I do with this?" phase. One neat trick: Lytro images I viewed on the iPhone app responded to the phone's movement, allowing for parallax-style perspective shifts similar to the Perspective Zoom option for iOS wallpapers.

Overall image quality is much-improved over Lytro's first-gen effort. Still, the Illum performs best in good lighting conditions, and it can't compete with modern DSLRs when photons are scarce (though the built-in hot shoe allows for numerous lighting options). And while still images and short movie clips are more common formats, Lytro's interactive photo viewer remains the best way to show off what the camera can do.

You can check out a gallery of shots from the Illum via Lytro's interactive photo viewer here.


Lytro Illum

As an everyday tool, Lytro's second-gen effort is still a bit too cumbersome for me to dedicate space in my main camera bag. As a statement of intent, though, the Illum succeeds in demonstrating Lytro's aim of leapfrogging its past efforts. This is a much more useful photographic tool than its predecessor, but it could certainly benefit from faster performance both before and after a photo is taken. Generation three should be pretty intriguing.