The Lytro camera is the most revolutionary product in photography since the digital camera. Developed by Stanford graduate Ren Ng and his team of light field-obsessed colleagues, the Lytro captures images in Megarays rather than Megapixels. As a result, images can be focused after the fact, creating what Lytro refers to as "living pictures." The Lytro camera also scoffs at convention with an unorthodox design that hosts a touchscreen LCD and offers simple, intuitive shooting features. But it's the wacky light field technology on the inside that truly sets this camera apart from every other digital camera manufactured to date. And the million-dollar question for me was whether or not the Lytro could replace a trusty old conventional digital camera within the $400-500 price range. That's a tall order for a digital camera that lacks a video feature in this day and age, but let's find out if Lytro's light field technology is enough to pry photographers away from their Canons and Nikons.
Lytro Camera Summary
- Revolutionary light field technology enables focusing after picture is taken
- Instant capture without AF sensor, no shutter lag
- f/2.0 aperture stays constant throughout zoom range
- Impressive low light sensitivity
- Excellent image software for uploading living pictures online or saving as JPEGs
- Mediocre overall image quality; images could only be captured in 1:1 aspect ratio
- Severely limited controls; Auto Exposure and Zoom were the only options
- Not the best dynamic range; Auto Exposure could not be fine-tuned
- Zoom toggle is easily inadvertently triggered due to close proximity to shutter button
- Magnetic lens cap is cool, but falls off frequently
- No external memory
- Touchscreen LCD is far too small
Ideal for: True photography diehards who want to own a piece of history, hoping that someday they can make a killing on eBay.
Find the Lytro here: Lytro Product Page
Price: $399 for 8GB Electric Blue or Graphite, $499 for for 16GB Red Hot.
Lytro Camera Design
Unconventional technology deserves to be packaged in an unconventional housing, right? The Lytro camera looks unlike anything on the market. It's basically a squarish lens barrel with a 1.52-inch touchscreen LCD tacked to one end. The construction quality of the Lytro is top notch, utilizing an aluminum housing anodized in three fetching hues. The Lytro is almost 4.5-inches long and over 1.6-inches in height and width. I think the Lytro looks like an oversized lipstick case that got it on with a slide viewer.
For control, the Lytro camera features a textured, rubberized portion on the LCD end. The top of the rubberized portion hosts the indented shutter button and a touch-sensitive zoom panel. By simply tracing a finger across the Zoom strip, the camera would achieve telephoto and wide-angle magnifications offered by the 8x optical zoom range. My one gripe about the Zoom strip was that it was positioned too closely to the shutter button, so I kept inadvertently zooming in and out. It also took several swipes to fully zoom in or out, so I think Lytro needs to amend this control.
The Lytro's Power button is located along the bottom of the rubberized portion, along with a USB terminal. There's no SD card slot meaning, sadly, that the camera does not have external storage capability. You'll have to rely on either the 8GB or 16GB internal Flash memory, depending on what model you choose. The magnetic lens cover was a nice touch, but it kept falling off and it lacked a safety strap. I think Lytro should have incorporated a magnetic bay on the bottom of the camera where it could rest while taking pictures, in addition to a safety strap. A $20 tripod accessory is also required in order to mount the Lytro up to a standard tripod, but I wondered why is wasn't built into the camera's body for $0.
Now let's talk about the Lytro's primary navigation wheel: the 1.52-inch touchscreen LCD. While the screen was constructed of a high quality glass and its sensitivity was fantastic, it was far too small. Tapping on tiny little icons will not be easy for anyone aside from elves and fairies. The Lytro is minimalist at best. Beginners will not have a problem with this design, but advanced photographers will constantly be searching for the AF Lock button and 4-way directional pad.
Lytro Camera Features
I thought base-level point-and-shoots were saddled with limited features, but the Lytro camera brings a whole new meaning to the word "basic." The camera has Exposure control. That's about it! There's no Auto or Manual Focus, given the fact that images could be focused after they are taken. Because of that, images can be captured instantly, without shutter lag. Also, the Lytro powered on and was ready to snap shots in one second, so it's exceedingly quick. There's also no ISO control, White Balance, Shutter Speed or Aperture. The reason that there's no Aperture control is that the Lytro maintains a constant f/2.0 opening throughout the entire 8x optical zoom range. This means that telephoto images will not see a dip in light sensitivity. The only other control, though it's a stretch, is called Creative Mode, in which I was able to set the refocusing range, though I never needed to shoot in that mode.
Now this is what I found with the Lytro's Exposure control. In order to adjust exposure, I had to tap on the screen, much like an iPhone. In most scenarios with bright highlights and dark shadows, the Lytro could only brighten the shadows at the sacrifice of severely blowing out the highlights, or it would subdue the highlights while plummeting the exposure of the shadowy areas. This was a dynamic range issue, which is something that the Lytro struggled with in contrasty environments. Since this was my only control over my images, I felt like I was trapped. Where's the HDR mode? How about ISO? Tap Exposure is the only option.
The menus system was speedy and intuitive. In order to access Playback mode, all I had to do was swipe the Live View to the right and my images appeared. I could swipe between images and zoom them down to display nine at a time on the screen. Images could be deleted or Favorited, but that was it. Display information was limited to battery life and remaining storage capacity, and that was all she wrote. So, for advanced photographers, the Lytro will be a lesson in simplification.
Lytro Camera Image Quality
So what's the science behind a light field camera? Well, here are the basics. Unlike a traditional camera, which captures the rays of light in a 2-dimensional plane and outputs it as a 2-dimensional picture, the Lytro captures the "light field," which is defined as all of the rays of light traveling in space at every point. This is Star Trek stuff! As a result, the light field sensor retains the directional information of all the light rays, capturing a different type of raw data that has a couple more dimensions. In a nutshell, the Lytro camera relies heavily on computing and software to achieve "living pictures" that can be focused after the fact.
To be honest, I'm still a trifle perplexed by this technology, but the fact that images can be captured as .lfp (light field picture) files, refocused later through the Lytro software and exported as JPEGs at any focal point is truly earth-shattering. As far as sensitivity, the Lytro was quite impressive, despite the fact that it's devoid of a flash. That's because the camera was capturing all 11 million light rays instead of megapixels in low light. Images could also be stored on a personal page on Lytro's site, so be sure to check out my link in the Still Image Samples section.
But there were a few tradeoffs. First, the Lytro camera is equipped with a small, point-and-shoot size sensor. This affected the overall image quality of the pictures by, you guessed it, producing too much noise and grain. In low light, the noise was furious, rendering most of my night shots unusable. Because of this, the Lytro can really only be used in bright or slightly dim environments, but night shooting is out of the question. And as mentioned before, the camera's dynamic range is not very impressive in contrasty environments. Colors were also a bit washed out, though the Auto White Balance worked well.
All in all, don't expect fireworks in the image quality department.
Lytro Camera Still Image Samples
*These are just a few of my selections. For my entire Lytro camera picture collection, go here: https://pictures.lytro.com/Toasterdance#.
Click on different areas of the images to refocus.
Lytro Camera Conclusion
There's no question that the Lytro camera is the most innovative piece of equipment since the digital camera. The ability to refocus after a picture is taken will make any seasoned photographer's ears perk up instantly. Even Steve Jobs was highly interested in the Lytro's technology, meeting with Ren Ng last year.
However, I think the Lytro camera is merely a stepping stone on the road to the future. The camera's mediocre image quality, lack of any true manual controls and other eccentricities still place it behind the other contenders in this price range. $400-$500 is a lot of money to drop on a device that's really only capable of achieving one thing, and that's why I think it's best to sit this round out and wait for the generations of Lytros to come.
The Lytro will still go down in history as the most innovative digital camera to date, but its technology is capable of being molded into so much more. How about a bigger DSLR-sized sensor? Manual controls? A flip-out, rotating LCD screen? The light field technology of the Lytro is the exciting part, so now the company just needs to find the right home for it. Until then, it's still safe to stick with that Canon or Nikon.