An exciting demonstration of what light-field sensor tech can do, but we don’t recommend you buy one.
Most of the products we review at PC & Tech Authority are merely refinements of an existing idea – laptops with faster processors, tablets with higher-resolution displays, cameras with better sensors. The Lytro camera, however, is a huge leap forwards – a device that turns many preconceptions about what a camera can and can’t do completely upside down.
The Lytro introduces an entirely new technology for capturing images: the light-field sensor, which is capable of snapping photos not only in a flat plane, with one point of focus, but also at multiple focal lengths simultaneously, allowing the photographer to change the focal point after a picture has been taken. With a standard camera, if you’ve focused on the wrong point by accident, there’s nothing you can do to rescue your photo; with the Lytro, once you’ve imported your images into the Lytro desktop software, you simply click the area you want to bring into focus, and it’s as sharp as a tack.
The desktop software also allows you to convert photographs after they’ve been imported to give a perspective-shift view, whereby the entire photo remains in focus. We’ve included some before and after shots, but the best way to view Lytro photos is to visit the website, where images can be posted, viewed and shared.
This is seriously clever technology, and it works by dint of an extra layer of microlenses, placed in front of a standard CMOS sensor, which allow the camera to measure not only the intensity of light, but also the angle of incidence of the light rays hitting the microlenses. The camera uses this extra information to work out where the light would have fallen had the camera been focused on a different point.
From a technological standpoint, it’s a thrilling development, and in the Lytro it works astonishingly well. In the camera’s default Everyday mode, you can simply point and shoot without worrying about focus. It doesn’t give you unlimited depth of field, although – according to a Lytro spokesperson – it’s the equivalent of setting a compact camera to f/20.
The hidden advantage of light-field photography is that the Lytro’s aperture of f/2 remains wide open when shooting, all the way through the camera’s 8x optical zoom range, delivering impressive light-gathering capabilities, plus the ability to blur the foreground and background smoothly when focusing on different points.
There’s a manual mode for those who want to be creative, allowing the adjustment of sensitivity between 80 and 3200 ISO, and the shutter speed between 1/250sec and 8sec. You can set the focus point as well, with a tap to the rear touchscreen, and coupled with the camera’s ability to focus at a millimetre away from the lens, it’s capable of dramatic macro images.
Can we recommend the Lytro as a replacement for your current snapper, though? It’s fun to use at first, but the answer has to be no. The biggest problem is that the images are very low resolution: the desktop software and web galleries display images in a small box in the centre of your screen; they can be zoomed, but can’t be viewed full-screen. Even the accompanying iOS app and PC desktop software, which allow you to view images interactively, can’t show the images full-screen. You can handily transfer images direct to your phone via the Lytro’s built-in Wi-Fi chip, though. It’s possible to export images as JPEG files, which gives you a larger photo, but images are still only 1080 x 1080 in size (1.2 megapixels) and can no longer be refocused once exported.
The other issue is the hardware itself. Physically, the Lytro is like no other camera you will have used, and not in a good way. It takes the form of an extended square tube with a lens at one end and a tiny, 1.5in, 128 x 128 touchscreen at the other. The shutter release is on the top of this tube with a touch-sensitive zoom track behind it; on the bottom is a power button and a micro-USB socket for charging and data transfer. Irritatingly, there’s no tripod thread, although one can be added via a slide-on collar.
To put it bluntly, it’s an awkward device to use. The screen has dreadful viewing angles, so you have to look at it directly head-on to frame your picture, and it’s horribly dim. In bright sunlight we had a tough time seeing anything at all on it. The form factor makes it impossible to get a comfortable one-handed grip without cramping your fingers up, and it’s tricky to frame photos accurately, with a level horizon. This is important, since the desktop software doesn’t allow any cropping or rotation.
Finally, the fact that the camera uses a compact-camera-sized sensor, which already imparts a naturally long depth of field, means you have to try quite hard to produce the sort of attractive shifts in focus the technology is capable of. We found this process worked best with close-up subjects.
We can see light-field technology making its way into all sorts of cameras over the next few years, from smartphones right up to serious DSLRs, with dramatic consequences for the way we view and carry out digital photography. However, don’t imagine for one moment that your first light-field camera should be a Lytro. It’s a toy, no more, no less, and with the cheapest 8GB model costing $499, it’s an expensive one at that.