Lytro camera a ‘game-changer’ in world of photography

February 29, 2012

Something incredibly exciting just happened in technology. No, it’s not a new iPhone or iPad, a new TV or the latest Android device.

It’s a new kind of camera called the Lytro that takes pictures in a way that no other camera ever has. The innovation behind this gadget is light field photography, which the company, also named Lytro, calls “the first major change in photography since photography was invented.”

I agree.

First, a little explanation about light field photography and what the Lytro does. When normal cameras take a photo, they measure the color and light coming through the lens to produce an image. The Lytro camera not only sees color and light but can understand which direction the light moves while snapping a photo. Instead of simply grabbing one point of the light in a scene, Lytro analyzes all the points of light and then converts them to data. Once the image is stored using the technology, it can be processed and reprocessed after the photo is taken.

What does this mean, exactly?

Basically, it means that you can take a photo and then refocus the subject in it after the fact. It means that if you take a picture of a friend in the foreground and there’s something exciting happening down the street, you can use Lytro’s custom software to refocus on the background, or almost anything else in the scene that you captured. It’s hard to explain, but it’s amazing.

The company says it’s also working on updates that will allow you to slightly readjust the angle of the picture after you’ve taken it, or look at the scene in true 3D.

Being able to refocus an image after it’s been uploaded to your computer will irrevocably alter your perception of what a photo is. When Lytro’s director of photography showed me what the camera was capable of, and what it will be able to do in the future with software updates, I was awestruck.

After testing the camera in the real world for the past two weeks, I can say that although the Lytro’s not perfect, it will certainly be a game-changer in photography. And, it lays out an exciting future for how we think about still pictures.

The tubular, simplistic, telescope-shaped Lytro — which will be available for purchase in April or May, according to the company — comes in three colors (red, gray and blue) and two storage capacities, 8GB and 16GB. The 8GB models cost $399; the 16GB, $499.

The camera’s body has an odd shape, and most functions are accessed through its display. There’s a small touchscreen on the back that responds well to input, though it’s so tiny that it can be challenging to get around in sometimes. Although the software is rather intuitive, the 128-by-128 pixel screen can be a pain. It does offer some nice features, such as the ability to focus images by tapping on a subject on-screen (but you snap pictures with a small, indented button on the top of the Lytro).

When you’re finished taking photos, you can upload them to a personalized page on Lytro’s Web site, as well as store them in a custom application the company provides with the device (Mac only right now, but Windows is coming). From there, you can make static prints of shots, focus on points you like or share malleable, embedded versions of your photo online or directly to Facebook. It’s a terrific way to let friends and family see the pictures how they want to see them.

My biggest gripe with the product is its shape and size. The camera isn’t that comfortable to hold, and framing photos can be awkward. The zoom functions are activated by a strip along the top of the device that I found myself accidentally tapping from time to time.

I really wish the company had designed a housing for the Lytro that was more akin to a traditional camera.

The Lytro also has some trouble shooting in low light. Because the camera doesn’t come equipped with a flash, you really need bright light or daylight to get the best results. Shooting in darker settings can produce noisy photos and severely inhibits the meaningful features of the camera.

The Lytro doesn’t take the highest-resolution photos — exported shots are about 1 megapixel — but it takes pictures unlike any other camera you’ve used. And those pictures can be incredibly good.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your only shooter. If you’re planning on taking your kids to Disneyland, you probably want a dedicated point-and-shoot in your bag as well. But I’d be willing to guess that by the end of that vacation, the coolest pictures will be the ones snapped with the Lytro.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site.

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