I’m not a good photographer. Certainly not the worst — I can point and shoot, and I know enough to bypass the flash whenever possible. (It tends to wash things out, and flattens an image like a virtual steam roller.) I even pay attention to things like back lighting and framing, but the nuances of camera settings and focus adjustments still elude me. So I usually have two options: Use the dreaded auto setting, and wind up with underwhelming snapshots, or gamble with manual settings that will probably give me blurry images. Ugh.

Then something caught my eye that genuinely has me excited. A promising new Silicon Valley startup called Lytro is making a name for itself, thanks to a very cool new photo technology.

Here’s the gist: The company claims to have figured out how to allow users to snap a pic, and then adjust the focus after the image has been taken.

To get the basics of how this works, it’s important to understand one key concept: Camera sensors. They’re crucial when it comes to good snaps. You could have a 12 MP beast of a camera, but if it doesn’t have a decent sensor to capture enough light and detail, the image quality just isn’t going to be very good.** Now imagine lashing together 100 sensors and cramming them into a single camera. That’s the basic idea behind the Lytro, which uses something called a microlens array to snag light — a lot more light (from different angles, in fact) than typical cameras. Since it can capture the whole light field, it can even grab enough data to create 3D images.

In other words, the shooter is taking in more detail to begin with, and this enables what the company calls “living pictures,” or images that can be refocused on different elements of a pic after it was snapped.

But that’s not all: With Lytro, there’s no shutter lag (so no more missing photo ops by a microsecond!), and it comes in at a very portable form factor, comparable to a point-and-shooter.

Best part? The company promises that, when it launches later this year on Amazon and Lytro.com, it will be oriented toward a consumer market. I’m taking that to mean I won’t have to sell a kidney to afford it.

Am I the only one who’s jumping up and down about this? If you’re excited too, visit the source link to sign up for an alert when it’s available. While you’re there, you can also try out the interactive variable-focus “living pictures” for yourself via Lytro’s photo gallery. Or just take a look at the vids embedded below. Then let me know if you’re joining me in this happy dance or not.

[via New York Times, source Lytro]

To see the 3D rendering in the following video, you’ll need 3D colored (anaglyph) glasses or 3D display. Oh, and Lytro says these look super cool on an HTC EVO 3D, so if you’re rocking that, you’ll want to load this up on your phone and then hit play.


**That’s one reason why smartphone cameras, with their itty bitty sensors, just can’t compare to “real cameras” — yes, no matter how many megapixels they pack. As for pocket cameras, well they have a bad rep for shooting lame pics, though there’s a new trend with bigger sensors stuffed inside smaller form factors. To allow for this, there’s some space optimization going on in there, with a prism chamber getting whittled down in a system called Micro Four Thirds. The MFT camera I’ve been drooling over for a while is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, but there are some snazzy new compact contenders hitting the scene. For more on this, hit up our resident digital photography guru Mike Perlman for his coverage.