Photographer's Dream? Focus Is a Thing of the Past

No need to worry about focus with new technology

June 23, 2011, 3:19 PM

June 24, 2011— -- "Shoot now, focus later" – that's the tagline for a new camera technology out of Silicon Valley that will allow photographers to snap a photo, and worry about the focus of the image long after the picture is taken.

Some photographers are calling it "revolutionary." Lytro, a start-up company in Mountain View, Calif., with about 45 employees, expects to release the camera onto the market sometime this year.

The camera uses what's called light-field technology, which rather than taking in the usual snapshot of light hitting a sensor, it separates rays of light so as to record their individual characteristics. That way it's possible to alter the focus afterward, creating what Lytro founder and CEO Ren Ng says is a "more powerful photograph."

Lytro not only touts its camera's ability to focus images after they're taken, the camera will also take pictures in 3D. It also allows for photos to be taken with increased speed since the time a normal camera takes to focus isn't applicable here.

Although research surrounding light-field technology began in the 1990's at Stanford University, according to Ng, this is the first time a product like this is being created on a consumer level. Ng said that the stages of this research began with a room full of cameras in order to capture the effect, and he was interested in miniaturizing that.

"I remember trying to take pictures of this five-year-old girl, and it was really hard to take a great picture of her with kids moving all over the place. It was hard to capture the right fleeting moment, or to focus correctly. I wanted to bring light field technology to make everyday picture taking a better experience," said Ng, who founded the company in 2006.

In order to refocus images, no special software needs to be downloaded. Lytro has also created a Facebook application that allows users to upload photos taken with the Lytro camera, and post them to their pages, allowing viewers to adjust the focus themselves (see images below for a demo).

But some say that the new technology might be more of a gadget than a game-changer in the photography industry. Tech blogger John Biggs of said that while the camera is interesting, future cameras are moving in this direction.

"It's going to be hard to sell something like this. It'll be massively expensive. The difference between the way cameras work now than in the next couple of years is that you [will] choose the point of focus anyways," he said.

Cool, But Revolutionary?

Ng will not release the price of the camera, nor its shape or size.

Erik Butler, a professor in the MSA Photography Department at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, said that although it might be a good learning tool, the price "will dictate if it's revolutionary."

"The product seems really cool, but might have a short-lived enthusiasm," he said, adding that with cameras now focusing on 3D imaging, that could be the arena in which Lytro's product really shines.

From the standpoint of professional photography, Biggs thinks that the new technology might not be appealing.

"With this technology specifically, if you're a good photographer, you're not going to need this. Setting up the scene is one of the basics-- having this as a crutch is not something most professional photographers are going to be interested in."

Yet according to Ng, the focus of the product isn't necessarily marketed toward professional photographers but, rather, will be simple enough for the most amateur of picture-takers.

"The product design is very user-centric. User research shows what folks are having trouble with," said Ng. "We're not doing it for technology's sake, but [instead] to make photography simpler, faster and more magical."

Click on the image below to refocus the photo: