Lytro Camera Review: Shoot Now, Focus Later

Mar 29, 2012 12:11pm
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The Lytro light field camera.

When I take a photo, I almost always take the same shot twice. That’s because, more times than not, the subject in my first shot is out of focus.

Unfortunately, that means that I sometimes miss the best shot — that first shot, which could be Tim Cook’s expression as he pulls out the new iPad, or, more recently, my friend’s dog making an incredibly cute face as she put her paws on my computer.

But a new camera called Lytro might just be the solution to making sure I never miss those shots.

Based on light field technology, you can take photos that can be re-focused later. It seems a bit unbelievable — maybe magical — but it’s a real camera and it’s available now for $399.

Head-turning Design

The camera itself is like none other out there, and the company designed it to look that way. While I was taking a picture on a street corner in downtown Austin, one person stopped and asked me if it was some sort of fancy kaleidoscope.

The rectangular barrel, which is made of a blend of anodized aluminum and rubber, has an LCD viewfinder at one end and a lens at the other.

A magnetic lens cap comes with the camera, though it falls off easily in a bag. Speaking of a bag, that’s where you’ll want to keep the 1.6 x 1.6 x 4.4-inch camera; because of its shape it’s not going to fit in a pocket, at least not comfortably.

The shutter button is planted in the gray rubber band on top of the camera along with a touch strip, which you can slide your finger over to zoom in and out. And that’s really all there is to the design — very clean and simple.

The 1.46-inch touchscreen viewfinder is responsive to finger taps and swipes; you can swipe through to see your images, star your favorites, and, of course, tap to refocus.

Living Photos

Sadly, the screen quality is very low resolution (128 x 128 pixels) so that refocusing action is better done once you’ve transferred the pictures over to a computer. Still, all too often, that screen quality gets in the way of taking photos — it is hard to make out what’s on the display in sunlight and the viewing angles are so poor that it was hard for me to see what was on the screen when I held the camera at an angle.

But those hardware frustrations don’t diminish the novelty of taking photos that can always be refocused after you’ve taken them. Lytro calls them “living images” and that’s precisely what they are. Take a look at the image above that I shot of Nike’s FuelBand. It defaults to the bracelet being in focus, but if you click on the right — over the dots on the wall — you’ll see how they come into focus and subsequently illuminate.

You’ll notice that in the shots above and below there’s an object in the forefront and then something to focus on in the background. Those are the types of shots that allow you to see the re-focusing effects the best. You can see that in the picture below as well, but you don’t reap the same advantages in a photo like this one.

Normal shots of landscapes and people do look just fine when shot with the camera, but across all shots the quality isn’t going to be what you’d expect from a point-and-shoot camera these days, especially when you zoom in on a subject. Lytro doesn’t count megapixels, but rather megarays; the camera has 11 megarays and is said to take photos with a 1080p resolution.

The technical terminology aside, the pictures captured don’t look as crisp as ones shot with a point-and-shoot camera or even some high-end smartphones. The pictures simply don’t look as nice when you look at them on a computer screen or when printed out.

Software and Sharing

But the photos taken by the Lytro are really not meant for printing. Since the camera takes square photos, most aren’t going to fit in your typical 4 x 6 frame anyhow.  Lytro says that the photos are really optimized for Internet sharing.

When you plug the camera into a computer you can install Lytro’s own software, which lets you refocus parts of the image by clicking on the different areas. Currently Lytro only has software for Macs.

That means you cannot view images or upload them on a Windows PC of any sort right now. Lytro says the PC software is coming later this year, but this issue essentially makes the camera useless for Windows PC owners since you need the software to view the proprietary .LFP image format.

You can convert images to common photo formats, like JPEG, but you again need the Mac software to do that and you won’t be able to refocus the images once they are in another format.

Lytro does have a ton of cool sharing tools; you can upload photos to Lytro’s site via the software and then share the re-focusable photos on Facebook, Twitter, or on any blog or website (as I did above).

 

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The Lytro's touchscreen viewfinder. Unfortunately, the screen quality is poor.

Another thing to be aware of: the Lytro doesn’t have a replaceable battery or expandable storage. The battery and memory are built into the camera, so you have to plug the entire camera in via the micro-USB port on the bottom to charge it or get your pictures out of it.

The Lytro’s battery held a charge through close to two full days of heavy use, and about a week of periodic use. The 8GB version, which costs $399, can store 350 photos before you have to unload them. The $499 16GB model can hold 750 photos. That should be plenty for most people, but you can’t simply pop out the battery or card.

Verdict? 

The Lytro, and light field camera technology in general, changes the essential way we interact with photos. However, as with many groundbreaking technology products, the Lytro suffers from some early usability issues — the lack of PC software, the lower-quality images, and the poor screen all interfere with the experience. And that’s a lot to swallow for $399, especially when you consider that most point-and-shoot cameras cost half as much these days.

It’s undoubtedly one of the coolest new gadgets around.  I had a great time playing around with the head-turning camera and then refocusing pictures. But it looks like I will be sticking to taking two shots of everything until light field and Lytro cameras are ready for prime time.

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