The Lytro - a plenoptic camera review

What is light field photography?

A friend of mine recently purchased a Lytro camera - a slender rectangle of anodized aluminum housing a 35-280mm f/2.0 equivalent lens. He showed up, quite unexpectedly the other day and offered me the chance to borrow it for a few days (Thanks Matt!). In the spirit of sharing, I thought I'd post my reactions to (and a few pictures from) this very different kind of camera for you readers. What makes this camera different from any other I've used before is what lies between the lens elements and the sensor: an array of tiny lenses that refocus light rays at the image plane. The upshot is the ability to see what the 2D image would have looked like if the photographer had chosen a different depth of field or focal plane (click anywhere on the image below to refocus and see for yourself).

Update: RSS readers will need to click through to the website in order to view the Lytro images.

Coffee House Mugs on the Stanford Campus.

If you want to know more about how this works (it' really fascinating). Head over to Lytro's homepage - where you can get the quick version or read Ren's dissertation (pdf).

The Focus Problem

Ostensibly, the goal of light-field photography is to solve the "focus problem" - that is, to remove the need to make a focal point decision during image capture. Lytro's founder and CEO, Ren Ng, argues that these "living pictures" provide depth and an experience absent in traditional still photography. The price one pays is resolution - Lytro images, as printed or viewed on screen, are approximately 1 megapixel - good enough for web usage and small prints, but clearly lacking in quality when compared to images from a DSLR or even a smartphone camera.

The Thinker.  Rodin.
The Thinker. Rodin.

The Thinker. Rodin. Cantor Center for the Arts, Stanford Campus.

Is 2D photography dead?

In a word: No. For one, although the camera is a beautiful piece of simple and elegant industrial design (there are only two buttons and an extremely simple interface), image quality and output are completely different from what the photographic market and community are used to consuming. This isn't to say that light-field images don't have a bright future, but I suspect they will remain a novelty for some time while technological developments and social expectations progress.

Control and handling are wonderfully simple. This is a camera with only two buttons: power and shutter. The Lytro has a virtually silent shutter and only two shooting modes: normal - which provides maximum "depth of field" extending to infinity and creative - which allows the user to focus closer to the lens element at the expense of not being able to refocus to infinity later. The weakest feature on the Lytro is it's screen (the only way to compose). The LCD's low pixel density and poor viewing angles, combined with postage-stamp size, leave the photographer with almost no feedback as to image quality. Although I could quibble about zoom mechanics and placement, ultimately small details like this are unimportant, especially with regards to a first, category-defining product and when one considers that high-resolution displays are bound to find themselves in future iterations. Instead of focusing on design specifics, this review is about image quality.

As you can already tell (and will see in further examples), these images are beautiful and immersive, but they lack so much of what we've come to expect in the last 160+ years of photography. To see the value of refocusing and to dream big is to see where Lytro could go. Sure, you could produce effects similar to stereoscopic images, you could "refocus" to remove all out-of-focus areas and generate an infinite depth of field at optimum (f/8ish) aperture, etc. This, however, isn't where I think Lytro is going.

Japanese Yams and Garlic, Milk Pail Market, Mountain View.

Share and share alike

We live in an age where photography isn't just growing, the numbers of photographs made every year are growing exponentially. Further, the currency of photography is, more than every before, publishing and sharing via the web and mobile devices. Lytro has moved aggressively into the arena of sharing images via Facebook (fully integrated) and the web. It's also a poorly kept secret that Apple and others had at least talked with Lytro about integration into mobile device cameras. All this is to say that it should be clear that Lytro is going to be pushing hard into areas where consumer photography and "the focus problem" overlap. Expect your cell phone to be a light field camera before long.

Here's what I dream of using this little camera: I imagine a DSLR or medium format digital back, extremely high in resolution, low in noise with a microlens array (in the case of a medium format digital back, removable) that produces an output image similar in quality to today's 12-16 megapixel cameras, which can be refocused in post. The images I love to make are those that take the viewer on a journey or offer him or her a path - a stroll down a corridor or over a wave-swept beach - imagine if that path were presented to you just out of focus and one had to interact with the image to finish the journey. This is a long way off and a specialty tool, so I'm not holding my breath.

Skull. A study by Rodin - Cantor Center for the Arts, Stanford Campus.

The take-home

Let's put aside for a minute the question of whether you, as a photographer, want to choose your focal plane or whether you are willing to relinquish control of focus to your audience. Are you a technophile, gear-head and photography nut who loves to play in different media? Do you share your images predominantly on social media, are you looking for a camera that is as simple as it gets? Do you experience the "focus problem"? If so, the Lytro might be just for you.

I think a lot of this depends on your approach to photography. I grew up in the era of film and then started to get serious about photography in the early digital age - I think in still photographs and obsess about image quality, but even I can see the advantage of this technology, even if the current iteration's output doesn't thrill me.

The problems I raised with image quality are imminently fixable. I urge you to remember it wasn't that long ago that a $5000, 2.47 megapixel camera changed the market forever. Since then, Canon and Nikon (and others) have pushed the envelope tirelessly. Thirteen years later, DSLRs output images faster, at higher resolution and with far lower noise than anyone could have dreamed of in the film days. What's more - they are capable of recording HD video that is revolutionizing the cinematography field. All of this is to say that the first Lytro will not produce a sea change in digital photography, but looking at these little square images and refocusing, experimenting with perspective I can almost see the next iteration: bigger, brighter and better.

I've seen videos of children, used to playing with an iPad or iPhone, frustrated when the pictures on a glossy magazine don't respond to their touch. They try to pinch and zoom and swipe to no avail. Similarly, there may be a time in the future when we are frustrated by the static traditional still photograph.