The Lytro Light Field Camera is available from Lytro.com with 8GB of built-in memory in electric blue and graphite shades for $399, or with 16GB of storage in red for $499. The Lytro is undeniably cool and surprisingly well-engineered, but before we get too caught up, let's just take a close look at that image quality.
The Lytro is a carefully refined, elegant device.
The Lytro appears to be an altogether different kind of camera. The design isn't totally foreign, but it's exotic enough to attract attention—exactly what a new camera should be trying to do. Everywhere I went with the Lytro, people were curious about it. They couldn't always tell that it was a camera from the get-go—they wanted to know what it was. The body looks like a giant lipstick container or paperclip holder, with a bright, brushed-metal finish and a rubberized grip.
The physical controls are minimal: just a shutter, a power button, a ridged, touch-sensitive zoom slider, and a 1.46-inch touchscreen LCD. A bunch of these ideas are borrowed from Apple, even down to the white packaging and the "Designed in California" slogan on the bottom of the camera. The optics are rooted in familiar compact-camera territory, including a standard 1/2.3-inch point-and-shoot sensor and an 8x lens at an impressive constant f/2 aperture. But the secret in the sauce is the microlens array, which makes light field photography possible. It's also worth noting that the memory and battery are both built into the camera. Charging is done internally, and the battery lasts for at least as long as it takes to fill up 8GB of memory. Memory is not expandable, but for an extra $100, a 16GB version is available.
Lytro's images are processed in-camera or via a computer, where you can export an interactive image (such as at the top of this page) or a 1-megapixel still. Lytro has also been busy adding functionality to the first-gen models this year, including manual controls and a neat parallax 3D effect that didn't exist when we initially tested the camera.
Light field photography has us thinking of new ways to capture, share, and display pictures, but handling this Lytro isn't always as simple as its minimal appearance would have you believe.
Light field photography has been around as a concept for quite some time, but it's only recently that the folks behind Lytro finally grown the idea into a consumer product. The result is the Lytro light field camera, and its key feature is the ability to take photos that can be focused and refocused, again and again, post-capture.
With its minimalist control scheme and entirely automatic shooting modes, the Lytro should be easier to use than it actually is. Most of the handling problems stem from the crummy LCD. It's distractingly small and low-res. Worse, its shallow viewing angles make it tough to frame off-angle shots, and the screen completely washes out in moderate sunlight.
Sometimes, you just have to resign yourself to shooting blind. The screen is too small to support a touch-based interface, simple as it is, and the zoom slider is too clever for its own good—slick, sure, but the placement is terrible and the feel is a bit over-cooked.
Overall, we found ourselves wishing for just a bit more control: a timer for starters, maybe continuous shooting. The firmware has been updated to include some manual features, but nothing that drastically changes the effect for most shots. Then there's editing and sharing: Everything must run through the Lytro software, which is Mac-only.
Happily, the Light Field Engine (as Lytro calls the refocusing software) is excellent—intuitive, easy to use, and effective, even on the camera's tiny LCD, and most especially on a proper computer screen. But the only way to share the light field photos is to first upload them to Lytro's website, then copy a link or a direct-embed code, then take those to a personal website—there's no way to share directly to Facebook, for example. If you want to share or edit a JPEG, you still have to crunch it down in Lytro's software. Lytro's software is fine, but most photo software is better, so we'd love to see wider support in, say, iPhoto, Picasa, or Photoshop.
How do you reward novelty?
We picked a few dozen of the best light-field photos we took with the Lytro and put them in a public gallery at Lytro.com. We’ve embedded a handful of some of the most or demonstrative shots below. You’ll notice the limits of the refocusing ability—it’s tough to separate closely grouped objects, for example. Or if you accidentally shoot in Creative Mode, your foreground objects might not focus correctly. Have fun.
By any traditional measure, the Lytro light field camera is not a great camera at all. The microlens array allows the camera to capture an incredible amount of information with each photo, but the shots lack resolution. The result, at least for now, is a camera that, at best, can produce a 1-megapixel still image that lacks dynamic range, contrast, sharpness, and color accuracy. If you're grading the camera's ability to produce a 2D image, that's terrible.
But most of our traditional ideas about photography are inextricably tied up in the presentation: our idea of a photograph is of a thin sliver of time, frozen forever. We look for things like contrast, dynamic range, color accuracy, and sharpness to present the illusion of life, so that an image feels as though we can reach out and touch it. Well, with the Lytro, you can touch the images online, moving around the frame to explore and see things that a traditional picture simply can't, and that challenges the traditional parameters.
Getting the most out of the Lytro's unique light field ability requires composing shots in a very particular way. As they're currently processed, photos taken with the Lytro generally work best when there is an interesting subject both in the foreground and in the background, letting you transition between them. This leads to a fairly muddled composition, with the photographer constrained rather than empowered by the tool. While they say the enemy of art is the absence of limitations, this is a very difficult way to shoot. The end result is the Lytro feels more like a proof of concept gimmick than a real creative tool.
A compelling first step for both Lytro and light-field photography as a concept, but hopefully more will follow
The Lytro is a lot of fun to play with, and it attracted a ton of attention everywhere I brought it over the past few weeks. The unconventional design makes it seem new and exciting, but the refocusing ability is virtually the whole of the camera's appeal. In general, poor focus ruins more photos than weird color or crummy resolution, but the Lytro is the first camera that lets us do anything about it. It's a cool party trick too, even on the tiny LCD.
But one fun, useful, innovative trick doesn't make a great camera. Refocusing is only one of many performance metrics, after all; and no matter how many times we change the focus on a Lytro shot, we still see the same flat results on the screen. As you've read by now, image quality comes up short; the colors are off, noise is a problem, and poor resolution is just a killer. They're fine for sharing online in small sizes, but even casual photographers will notice the lack of detail.
Lytro's director of photography, Eric Cheng, told us that light-field photography doesn't need to be limited to low-res shots with huge refocusing ranges, as this first Lytro camera is. Very simply put, the wider a light-field photo's refocusing range, the lower the resolution. He used the example of sports photography to highlight some possibilities: If a baseball player's face is out of focus, the photo is ruined. But if you have a light field camera that can refocus within a few inches rather than several yards, the resolution can be much, much higher—ready for print, even.
The challenge is that each light-field camera system needs custom-fitted hardware; a custom lens, custom microlens array, custom internal construction and so on. Each individual camera also needs to be custom-calibrated, which slows down production and keeps prices high.
But that's all down the line a little bit. This first Lytro is new and fun and could be the first in a long line of light-field cameras. If you're a huge camera nerd with a big budget and you want to be in on the ground level, then by all means, check it out and have fun. Now you know what to expect. But the game-changing gadget described by Lytro's marketing team isn't here yet. We're waiting to see what comes next, and most of you probably should, too.
Light-field photography involves everything that traditional digital photography does—light passing through a lens, through a color filter, being recorded by an image sensor, and then reassembled as a color picture down the line—but it adds one crucial step. Light-field cameras pass the light through a microlens array on top of the sensor, recording not only the color but also the direction of light. The camera then applies some heavy post-processing to reassemble the image as a "living picture" where focus is fluid and can be changed after the image is captured.
We put this effect to the test, but we also have to test what the resulting images look like. Unfortunately, the current Lytro camera and software can only output a 1-megapixel JPEG still image, limiting the traditional utility of the camera by quite a bit. In short, you're not getting the Lytro for its prowess as a camera, but for the novelty of light-field photography.
The Lytro may capture the light field, but it still captures red, green, and blue pixels as well, just like any other camera. Thus we tested it like any other camera.
We measured a mean color error of 3.94, a mediocre result, but one within expectations for a compact camera; under 3.5 is a fine result, under 3.0 is excellent. Color saturation is just about perfect, at 99.5%. Shades of red and blue are a bit exaggerated, which is pretty typical for a point-and-shoot.
We should mention that our color test shots were slightly underexposed. The Lytro has no exposure compensation option, and in our testing process—try as we might—we could not get it to auto-expose correctly in our lab. In the end, we ran our analysis on an image that was underexposed by a half-stop. Had we been able to expose correctly, the score probably would've been slightly higher, but there's no way to tell for sure.
We scraped the bottom of the barrel when we chose comparison models for the Lytro. The Apple iPhone 4S is one of our lowest-ranked point-and-shoots (no surprise), and the Sony W570 is the lowest ranked (wow, beat out by a phone). The Lytro produces more accurate, realistic colors than either of those cameras. However, the Canon ELPH 100 HS—the best cheap pocket camera we've ever tested—blows all of these models out of the water.
The Lytro's noise scores did not impress us at all. But most point-and-shoots don't, so that's no surprise.
The Lytro did not offer manual ISO control at the time of testing, so we had to improvise. Basically, we adjusted the lighting in our lab to force the Lytro to adjust its ISO setting. We then ran the shots through the Lytro software and exported the images as JPEGs for testing.
Based on what we found, the Lytro earned a below average noise score, but within expectations for a cheap point-and-shoot. At the base ISO (80), noise made up about 0.84 percent of the shot. The signal-to-noise ratio dropped quickly as the ISO level rose. At ISO 3200, we measured over 3 percent noise, and heavy-handed noise reduction pretty much scrubbed the fine details out of the shot—not that the photos have much to begin with, since resolution is so low.
Exported shots lack resolution
The Lytro captures light field photos, which allows users to experiment with focus after a shot is taken. But when we viewed test photos, they were processed as regular JPEGs, so we were able to test the Lytro's resolution just like any other camera. The only difference in our testing procedure was that we had to import the light field photos into Lytro's software, refocus on our test chart, and then export the files as JPEGs before running them through Imatest.
The JPEGs are roughly 1 megapixel (1080 x 1080), so as we expected (and as Lytro admitted to expecting), the sharpness scores were very poor—by far the worst we've seen in many years. We measured an average of 328 line widths per picture height at MTF50; with an average point-and-shoot, we usually see around 1200 lw/ph. We're not even sure if the Lytro even deserves that score, since it applies such ugly, obvious edge enhancement—it looks like somebody traced the edges with a black marker.
Lytro suggested a different test to find peak sharpness, which we ran just for the heck of it. Under their ideal conditions, the camera still only managed to resolve 600 lw/ph at MTF50—still very low. The company also told us that each camera is calibrated individually after it leaves the factory, so each camera will produce different results, even in ideal conditions. To put it in perspective, the Lytro's photos are fine for sharing online at small sizes. When they're embedded in text, they look pretty nice. Blown up to full-screen viewing, the limitations show, and they're not really suitable for serious printing.
No continuous shooting, but response time is very quick since the camera doesn't need to focus
We ran the Lytro through our typical shot-to-shot test, even though it doesn't have a continuous shooting mode; we just tried to take five successive single shots as quickly as possible.
The results were actually pretty decent. We clocked just under one frame per second, which is comparable to several cheap point-and-shoots built around CCD-type sensors. It isn't an impressive result, since plenty of affordable cameras are built around speedier CMOS sensors, and since a minimum of 3 fps continuous shooting is almost expected. But for a specialty camera, it's not bad.
The Lytro doesn't suffer from any shutter lag (it doesn't need to focus, after all), which helps matters; we imagine that the results would be even faster if it didn't have to record a 22MB file for each photo.
Meet the tester
Liam F McCabe
Managing Editor, News & Features@liamfmccabe
Liam manages features and news coverage for Reviewed.com. Formerly the editor of the DigitalAdvisor network, he's covered cameras, TVs, personal electronics, and (recently) appliances. He's a native Bostonian and has played in metal bands you've never heard of.
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