When Lytro first introduced its light field camera two years ago, it shook up not just the world of photography, but of technology in general. Bundled inside a tiny rectangular block was a groundbreaking image sensor that could capture millions of rays of light along with their color, intensity and direction -- a task that previously required hundreds of cameras and a supercomputer. That hardware, combined with some complex software, meant that you could not only get a 3D image from a single shot, but also had the ability to refocus a photograph after you take it. It's this latter trick that is arguably the Lytro camera's most identifying characteristic, and the one that put it on the technological map.
Fast-forward to 2014 however, and there are now several smartphones that can imitate this refocusing trickery, albeit via software and some clever workarounds. Nokia's Refocus app, for example, snaps several photos in a row with varying depths of field and is then able to suss out focus after the fact. Others, like LG's G Pro 2 and Samsung's Galaxy S5 utilize software to blur out photos. Indeed, all Android phones with 4.4 KitKat and up can fake a bokeh effect thanks to a new Lens Blur option in Google's default camera app. Rather than being upset by this phenomenon, however, Lytro sees it as a positive sign. Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal and founder Dr. Ren Ng tell us they're flattered and humbled by the fact that their technology has been emulated by some of the "largest, most powerful consumer electronics in the world."
Thankfully, however, refocusing is hardly the only benefit light field photography brings to the table. "Light field photography is about capturing the richest information, fundamentally richer than we've ever had" said Ng. "This is so we can bring a whole new set of capabilities that were impossible before, because we can turn physics into software." This means, Ng said, that they can now entrust once physical characteristics of cameras entirely to computation.
It is this capability that's being introduced for the first time in the Lytro Illum and it's been applied to the lens itself. What do we mean? Well, a classic Canon camera lens that has a zoom range of 70 to 200mm has about 22 pieces of glass. The Illum lens, on the other hand, has a zoom range of 30 to 250 mm with a very wide f/2 aperture across it -- and only has 13 pieces of glass. That same Canon lens (plus a full-frame body like the EOS-1D X) would likely weigh around eight pounds. The entire weight of the Illum? About a pound and a half. According to Ng, that's because in the Canon lens, "a lot of the glass is used to work correcting aberrations in light. It needs the curvature of the light to make the photons land on the sensor to form the image that you want." With the Lytro's unique image sensor, however, it's able to figure out the direction of the light ray using computation and software instead.
"It's thinner, lighter and it has a bigger zoom range and a bigger aperture than you could've ever gotten conventionally," said Ng. "We're doing in software what physical pieces of glass had historically had to do." Ng added, "To design something like this with a conventional camera would essentially be impossible."
And what a design it is. The Lytro Illum looks like something out of a museum or a designer piece from a Parisian fashion house. It's a sleek and stylish thing, with a unibody magnesium chassis that's attached to a gorgeous anodized aluminum lens barrel equipped with both zoom and focusing rings. The grip and aforementioned rings are wrapped in what appears to be silicone rubber, which is supple enough to be kind to our hands and fingers. Over on the top right by the grip is a large shutter button along with a Lytro button that offers a visual depth-assist histogram (more on that later). Rounding out the physical controls are two adjustable dials (they default to setting the exposure and the ISO, but you can customize them), lock buttons for both autofocus and autoexposure and a couple of other programmable keys. Sitting atop the camera is a hot shoe that'll fit any standard flash, while the SD card slot and USB 3.0 port are on the left side in a hidden compartment. The Illum has built-in WiFi for wirelessly transmitting those living light field images to Lytro's servers, your desktop or directly to your iOS device.
If you're wondering why there's a focusing ring on a camera that lets you refocus the image after the fact, well, it's because depending on the depth of field, there might not be a lot of difference between the foreground and the background. If you turn on the Illum's depth-assist histogram, however, you'll be able to see a depth overlay that color codes things that are up close and in the refocusing range in green, and things that are at the far edge of the range in orange. Ideally, what you want is a nice gradient of green to orange for the most amount of depth and to maximize the drama in your shots.
What's perhaps more astounding than the camera's chassis, however, is the 4-inch touchscreen on the back. As we know, most DSLRs have a user interface that's rather incomprehensible for most camera newbies. The number of buttons and dials that you have to remember can be quite complicated, which is a stark contrast from the camera apps on most tablets and smartphones. Lytro, however, has taken a cue from those apps and integrated that same simplistic usability approach to the interface on the Illum. All you have to do is tap on an image to autofocus, and toggling through the different settings is just a touch and a scroll away. Rosenthal tells us they're still working out the kinks in the software, but right now, it looks like you can change the artificial horizon, adjust the grid, switch from continuous to single shooting mode, set a self timer and change between Program, ISO, Shutter and Manual control.
On top of that, the entire touchscreen is actually angled slightly so that the display faces you when you hold the camera to your waist. "We think a new shooting style should naturally evolve," said Rosenthal. "We're so used to holding the camera to our face, or holding it away from us -- we think that a natural evolution would be to hold the camera around hip height." If you want to adjust the screen even more, however, you can actually pop the screen out and articulate it to even more angles. If you're into selfies, however, you're out of luck, as the display doesn't actually swivel all the way around.
At the heart of the Illum is a giant 40 Megaray light ray sensor, which means it's able to capture 40 million rays of light (in contrast, the original only has 11 Megarays). This gives it about four times the area size, with a lot more light-capture efficiency and more pixels and resolutions to play around with. The refocusing, for example, is much finer and more granular -- we were able to focus in so tight on a labrador's nozzle that we could see its pores. We should warn you, however, that if you were to save out a 40 Megaray file into something more suitable for print, it's equivalent to only about 5 megapixels. In addition, the Illum has a mechanical shutter with a speed of 1/4000th of a second, which Rosenthal says would make it great for sports photography. He showed us an example of a Lytro image where it captured a cloud of dirt as a motorcycle went around a dirt track. If you'd rather shoot things up close, the Illum has an extremely close-up macro capability as well, allowing us to zoom in really close on a pair of jeans and home in on the stitches. Powering it all is one of the highest performance chipsets available; Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800.
Of course, all images on the Illum are captured in the same light field format as before, and you'll need to use Lytro's own software to process them. You get all of the same software tricks as before, like 3D imaging and post-shot refocusing, but you'll also now be able to adjust the depth of field in order to widen or narrow the focusing area. Additionally, Lytro has worked out a deal with Adobe and Apple so you can transfer those images to Lightroom, Photoshop or Aperture if you wish to work on them after you've adjusted the image's focus and depth of field to your heart's desire.
More than just taking a good photo, however, Rosenthal and Ng believe that light field photography allows for living art. It's one of the reasons Lytro is also introducing something called Light Field Animations, which are video-like capabilities that essentially animate the effects of image refocusing. "If you think of how pictures work today online, it's as if we took our parent's photo albums, ripped out the 4-by-6 prints, and just shoved them up on the web," said Ng. "We're on this long-term journey of taking these advanced hardware and software capabilities to just make storytelling and photography more immersive, more interesting and more interactive."
As for who the target audience for the Illum is, Rosenthal and Ng say that they're aiming for a group of people they're calling "creative pioneers." These are people who've embraced the original Lytro for its unique capabilities, of course, but also folks who are willing to take a chance on a new way of looking at photos. The ideal audience for the lllum is someone who's probably already well-versed in photography, but Rosenthal and Ng say the camera should also be simple enough for the curious amateur as the next step up from smartphones and point-and-shoots. In order to demonstrate this, Lytro has given an early version of the Illum to a group of professional photographers whose work you can see in the album above.
When asked if Lytro plans on selling the technology to a third-party camera manufacturer like a Canon or a Nikon, Rosenthal simply replied: "What we want to do is focus on the transition from digital to computational. We want to deliver the most outstanding end-to-end consumer experience, so that they can pick it up and go 'Wow.'" However, he did hint that there might come a time when light field will dominate as an imaging medium "that'll enable other people to build cameras" similar to Lytro's, but "that time is still a ways from now."
The Lytro Illum will be available starting July 15th for $1,599, which sounds expensive, but the closest professional camera with a similar lens will likely cost thousands more. And if you pre-order before that date, you can snag one for the introductory price of $1,499.
"If Camera 1.0 was film-based, and Camera 2.0 was the transition from film to digital, we're at Camera 3.0. It's about collecting very rich information about the world," said Rosenthal. "We're only just getting started. We can do much, much more in the future."