Cameras

Lytro Light Field Camera Digital Camera Review

The world's first light-field camera for consumers pushes the boundaries with exciting new technology.

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Introduction

You've probably noticed the elephant in the upper right corner of the page: That's a terrible score, the worst among any current camera we've reviewed. Yes, the Lytro is the first attempt at a new type of camera, and we expect a few rough edges. But it's still a camera, and we can still judge it according to the same standards as any other picture-taking device. This score is justified. Read on to see why.

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.

Video Review

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Sides Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

In the Box

Box Photo

The Lytro takes its packaging cues from Apple products.

• Lytro Light Field Camera

• USB cable

• lens cap

• cleaning cloth

• wrist strap

• quick start manual

• fine print manual

Lens & Sensor

The Lytro has an impressive lens. It's entirely internal—it doesn't extend out of the body at all. The aperture is fixed at a bright f/2 throughout the 8x optical zoom range. (The zoom range is limited to about 3.5x in standard mode, but extends to a full 8x in Creative Mode.) It starts with a pretty narrow field of view—43mm equivalent, though that helps it stretch out at the telephoto end.

Lytro doesn't readily provide information about the sensor in their camera, but they told us that it's a 1/2.3-inch chip—a regular ol' point-and-shoot sensor. Rather than megapixels, they measure its resolution capabilities in "megarays" (11 of them in this case), referencing the number of light rays that it can record.

More important that the sensor is the microlens array. It sits in front of the sensor and helps to record the direction that light is traveling in, rather than just the color and intensity of the light, like most cameras do. This extra layer of information is the secret sauce that allows the Lytro and its Light Field Engine to focus and refocus shots after they've been captured.

It's obviously much more complicated than we can describe here, but Lytro goes into more detail on their website. If you're really ambitious, you can check out Lytro founder Ren Ng's dissertation on light field photography.

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Display(s)

Arguably the weakest aspect of its design, the Lytro has a tiny 1.46-inch square LCD. The viewing angles are shallow and it washes out in moderate sunlight. Sometimes, you'll just be shooting blind. It's a touchscreen, too—more responsive than most camera touchscreens, but it's way too small to comfortably support a touch interface.

Flash

The Lytro does not have a flash, and does not support add-on flashes. We never ran into any instances where we wish we had one, probably because the f/2 lens is bright enough to work in most reasonable lighting situations.

Connectivity

A micro-USB port is the Lytro's lone connection to the outside world. It's the transfer point as well as the charging down.

Durability

The Lytro isn't advertised as waterproof or shockproof, and the company told us that each camera needs to be calibrated individually, so we get the impression that the internal components are pretty sensitive—it's probably a good idea to avoid wear and tear.

But then again, it's a metal object with almost no external moving parts, so it can probably withstand a few wayward drops of water and some light bumps. We carried it around in a backpack or pocket during our review process, and it came out unscathed.

Image Quality

The Lytro captures light field photos—pictures that can be focused and refocused after the shot is taken. But they're still made up of the same red, green, and blue pixels as any other "regular" two-dimensional photo, so we can (and should) judge their quality like any other "regular" two-dimensional photo. At their best, they can look pretty good. The shallow depth-of-field effect (sharp subject, blurry everything else) lends a more "pro" look to the photos than most point-and-shoots can pull off (though it's impossible to have everything in focus like it pretty much is with point-and-shoots; it's a trade-off, but a favorable one we think). Colors are a bit flat and even moderately dim shots look grainy and desaturated, but that's nothing out of the ordinary for a cheap compact camera. Sharpness, though, is the worst we've measured in years. It's not really a surprise, since the Lytro can only crank out 1-megapixel JPEGs. That's really only enough detail for small online sharing. But hey, this is the world's sole commercial light field camera right now, so we can forgive some of the image quality issues.

Sharpness

The Lytro captures light field photos, which lets users experiment with focus after a shot is taken. But when we view the photos, they're as flat and processed as a regular JPEG, 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 MTF50s; with an average point-and-shoot, we usually see around 1200. 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 wedges 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 MTF50s—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 good. Blown up to full-screen viewing, the limitations show, and they're not really suitable for serious printing.
More on how we test sharpness.

Science Section 3 Images

Image Stabilization

The Lytro does not have an image stabilization system.

Color

The Lytro may capture the light field, but it also still captures red, green, and blue pixels like any other camera, so we tested it like any other camera.

We measured a mean color error of 3.94, a mediocre result but within expectations for a compact camera; under 3.5 is a good 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. More on how we test color.

We should mention that our color test shots were slightly underexposed. The Lytro has no exposure compensation and try as we might, we could not get it to auto-expose correctly in our lab, so we ran our test 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.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

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.

Color Modes

The Lytro only has a default color mode—no vivid or monochrome settings here.

Low Light Color

Anecdotally, the Lytro loses color saturation quickly at higher ISOs, so some indoor and most nighttime shots will look pretty drab.

White Balance

The Lytro doesn't offer any custom white balance options or presets, but the automatic option works fairly well. We measured notable errors under daylight and fluorescent lighting, but it does handle incandescent lighting better than most point-and-shoots.

Noise Reduction

The Lytro doesn't offer manual ISO control, 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. More on how we test noise.

Detail Loss

Not that there's much detail to start with, but the Lytro's heavy noise reduction takes the texture out of just about any shot above ISO 200.

ISO Options

The Lytro's ISO range starts at 80 and ends at 3200, though there is no manual control over the ISO settings. Since we couldn't control the ISO level, we couldn't shoot our still life like we typically do—hence the mostly empty table below. Check out our Sample Photos page for more examples.

Dynamic Range

The Lytro doesn't offer enough manual control for us to formally test the dynamic range. But based on our real-world experience, it doesn't handle the d-range particularly well. Sometimes skies will be completely blown out, other times the foreground will be way too dark. That's all typical of a cheap point-and-shoot. More on how we test dynamic range.

Low Light Performance

With low resolution, poor noise performance, and heavy-handed noise reduction, the Lytro doesn't take great low-light pictures. The bright f/2 lens does help it to expose nighttime shots correctly and without motion blur most of the time, which is better than most cheap point-and-shoots can muster. But the resulting pictures are pretty sloppy and desaturated.

Noise Reduction

The Lytro doesn't offer manual ISO control, 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. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

The Lytro's ISO range starts at 80 and ends at 3200, though there is no manual control over the ISO settings. Since we couldn't control the ISO level, we couldn't shoot our still life like we typically do—hence the mostly empty table below. Check out our Sample Photos page for more examples.

Low Light Color

Anecdotally, the Lytro loses color saturation quickly at higher ISOs, so some indoor and most nighttime shots will look pretty drab.

Focus Performance

Since the Lytro is a light field camera, users can focus its shots after they're taken, using the Light Field Engine. There's no need for any autofocus or manual focus system, so shots are pretty much instantaneous in any kind of lighting, and accuracy is irrelevant.

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration isn't much of a problem with the Lytro. Its scores are quite good, and we didn't notice any obvious fringing in our test shots.

Distortion

The Lytro suffers from notable distortion at the wide angle; bright lenses like the Lytro's (f/2) usually run into this problem. At the middle and telephoto settings, distortion is too subtle to notice with the naked eye. But the poor wide-angle score drags down the overall score.

Motion

The Lytro does not shoot video. Lytro's designers have said that conceptually it's possible to film light-field videos, but it probably won't happen for quite a while. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Usability

With a minimalist control scheme and all-automatic shooting modes, the Lytro should be easier to use than it actually is. Handling the block-shaped body is unfamiliar, but not uncomfortable. An overhand chopstick-grip offers the best mix of comfort and balance. Most of the handling problems stem from the crummy LCD. It's distractingly small and low-res. The shallow viewing angles make it tough to frame off-angle shots, and the screen completely washes out in moderate sunlight. Sometimes, you have to resign yourself to shooting blind. Even with the stripped-down control scheme, the Lytro still gets in its own way. The screen is too small to support a touch-based interface, simple as it is. The zoom slider is too clever for its own good—slick, sure, but the placement is terrible and the feel is a bit overcooked. We found ourselves wishing for even just a bit more control: a timer for starters, maybe continuous shooting. The only controls are a tap-to-expose feature, and Creative Mode, which is too difficult to explain in a short summary. Then there's editing and sharing: Everything has to run through the Lytro software, which is Mac-only. 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 but 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 for 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 or Picasa or Photoshop.

Automatic Features

The Lytro is pretty much an entirely automatic camera. In the standard (Everyday) shooting mode, the only controls are zoom, a tap-to-expose function, and the shutter. In Creative Mode, which is a very slight variation on standard mode, tap-to-expose goes away, but the user can self-select the mid-point of the refocusing field (a tough concept to explain, but we try in the Controls section).

Buttons & Dials

The control scheme is minimal, but still gets in its own way. The power button and shutter button are both fine—responsive, well-placed, and straightforward. But the crummy LCD and too-clever zoom slider muck things up. The screen is just too small support a touch-based interface, as stripped-down as it is.

The menu is about as stripped-down as they come. Swiping up on the screen in shooting or playback modes brings up a few symbols—no text. There's a battery indicator, a memory indicator, and depending on the mode, either a trash can (for deleting shots) or a square symbol for switching between standard and Creative shooting modes. A cog symbol in the upper-right corner brings up the setup menu, which offers up an About page as well as Delete All and Reset options. In playback mode, there's a star symbol in the upper-left corner, which gives photos priority during uploading.

Instruction Manual

Taking more cues from Apple, the Lytro ships with only a very simple multi-panel fold-out quick start guide. This camera doesn't have too many functions or features, so the small brochure manages to cover just about all of them.

Lytro also produced a handful of helpful how-to videos, posted on their website. When we installed the Lytro software (by connecting the Lytro via USB for the first time), it took us to a tutorial page with a bunch of those videos.

Handling

Handling the block-shaped Lytro is unfamiliar, but not uncomfortable. It's bigger and a bit heftier than it looks in pictures, but still pretty light. A one-handed overhand chopstick-grip offers the best mix of comfort and balance, though an underhanded grip works better for low-angle shots. You'll need to use a second hand to adjust the zoom or fiddle with the touchscreen.

Handling Photo 1

If this grip looks awkward, that's because it is.

The crummy LCD really drags down the handling and user experience, though. It's distractingly small and low-res. The shallow viewing angles make it tough to frame off-angle shots, and the screen completely washes out in moderate sunlight. Sometimes, you have to resign yourself to shooting blind.

Handling Photo 2

There's no truly comfy way to handle the Lytro.

Handling Photo 3

Buttons & Dials

The control scheme is minimal, but still gets in its own way. The power button and shutter button are both fine—responsive, well-placed, and straightforward. But the crummy LCD and too-clever zoom slider muck things up. The screen is just too small support a touch-based interface, as stripped-down as it is.

Buttons Photo 1

The power button actually has some give.

The zoom control is a little ridged bar, barely visible on the top of the rubber grip, between the screen and the shutter. It works by sliding a finger left or right along the ridges. It's also right where wandering fingers tend to rest, so it's way too easy to accidentally adjust the focal length, or zoom in or out in playback mode. The sensitivity is weird too—a regular stroke seems to extend the zoom by a factor of about 1x, but a hard stroke extends it completely. There's no in-between; it's all the way, or slow and steady.

Buttons Photo 2

The shutter is actually comfy and responsive, but the zoom slider (see those tiny ridges?) is frustrating to use.

Display(s)

Arguably the weakest aspect of its design, the Lytro has a tiny 1.46-inch square LCD. The viewing angles are shallow and it washes out in moderate sunlight. Sometimes, you'll just be shooting blind. It's a touchscreen, too—more responsive than most camera touchscreens, but it's way too small to comfortably support a touch interface.

Image Stabilization

The Lytro does not have an image stabilization system.

Shooting Modes

The Lytro has just two shooting modes: standard (also called Everyday) or Creative, which is a slight variation on standard. Both are very much automatic shooting modes.

Focus

Since the Lytro is a light field camera, users can focus its shots after they're taken, using the Light Field Engine. There's no need for any autofocus or manual focus system, so shots are pretty much instantaneous in any kind of lighting, and accuracy is irrelevant.

Recording Options

Since light field cameras capture light rays in addition to pixels, the sensor output is measured in "megarays" instead of megapixels. We're not sure if that's an industry-standard term or if Lytro cooked it up for marketing purposes, but this camera can capture 11-megaray light-field photos in a square (1:1) aspect ratio, and that's the only quality option. These light field photos (.lfp files) are about 22 megabytes each, comparable to a RAW image file from a standard camera. When the shots are flattened out into JPEGs, they're about 1 megapixel (1080x1080).

Other Controls

The only special control on the Lytro is Creative Mode; no ISO, color, white balance, sharpness, saturation, or contrast controls to be found anywhere.

Creative Mode

Creative Mode is still pretty similar to the standard (Everyday) mode. The difference is that it allows the user to select the middle of the refocusing range for a photo, instead of leaving it to the camera's default setting. It's a tough concept to explain, and even Lytro's tutorial video doesn't quite get the point across, but we'll try here:

So in standard mode, the camera basically assumes that you'll shoot pictures with an object very close to the lens, and an object (or several objects) considerably further away. This creates a start contrast between the foreground and the background, and the resulting shallow depth-of-field when you focus on either object looks very artistic and "pro" in a way that point-and-shoots can't pull off, and even DSLRs with their standard f/3.5 kit lenses struggle with.

But if you don't have such an obvious foreground and background, or if your subject is a fair distance from the lens, the refocusing won't be as effective and the shallow depth-of-field effect won't work. In Creative Mode, you can compensate for that limitation by tapping the object in the frame that should be the middle point of the refocusing range.

It takes some experimenting to really make good use of it (after a couple weeks, we're not totally confident with it), and the advantages aren't always obvious. And a few times, we forgot that we had Creative Mode turned on (it's tough to see the LCD at all in sunlight), and botched some shots that would've come out great in standard mode—we couldn't refocus on the foreground on the Creative Mode shots. It's a mixed bag.

Lytro Software

We don't normally bother to cover proprietary software anymore since so few people actually use the image programs that come with their cameras. But with the Lytro, you have no choice—you have to use the software to view pictures on your computer, to share them, and to crunch them down into JPEGs.

The software is Mac-only (10.6.6 or higher) for now, which cuts out about 75% of potential users. The application installs automatically the first time that the Lytro camera is connected to a computer. Users are asked to create an account at Lytro.com before they start using the software. Any shared light-field photos go onto that Lytro.com account, so unless you're just sharing low-quality JPEGs, you have no choice but to sign up.

Photos can be organized into "stories" and stories or individual pictures can be uploaded to Lytro.com, either as public or private images. Users can copy a link or a direct-embedding code to share the shots. There's no way to share the light-field photos on popular photo-sharing sites like Facebook or Flickr yet, though.

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 but especially on a proper computer screen.

On the whole, Lytro's software is fine, but we'd love to see support integrated into better-developed programs—maybe start with Apple-developed programs like iPhoto and Aperture, for starters.

Speed and Timing

The Lytro doesn't have any of the drive modes that we normally address in the section: no timer, no interval shooting, no continuous or burst shoot either. Not even a smile detector. It's single-shot mode only.

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 3fps 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.

Focus Speed

Since the Lytro is a light field camera, users can focus its shots after they're taken, using the Light Field Engine. There's no need for any autofocus or manual focus system, so shots are pretty much instantaneous in any kind of lighting, and accuracy is irrelevant.

Features

The camera's only real "feature" is the light-field photography, which we covered in the Usability section. There is some noteworthy hardware under the hood—the microlens array makes light field photography possible, but the technology goes beyond the scope of this review. Lytro's website does a solid job explaining the concepts behind it. Otherwise, there's nothing for us to talk about in this section. Carry on.

Conclusion

First-generation products are rarely worth buying, but the best ones can represent something more valuable than their bloated price tags. The first MP3 player held fewer songs than a CD, but it ushered in a new era of recorded music. The first commercialized digital cameras were incredibly slow, bulky, and low-res, but likewise, they kick-started a new era of photography.

Time will tell if the Lytro Light Field Camera leaves the same legacy as the Rio Diamond MP3 player or the Kodak DC40 digital camera. For now, it's a solid proof-of-concept that isn't ready for widespread adoption, at least not for $400.

The Lytro is a lot of fun to play with, and attracted a ton of attention everywhere we brought it over the past few weeks. The unconventional design makes it seem new and exciting; most of our friends couldn't tell that it was a camera right away.

Refocusing really is the entire appeal here. 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. It's just fun to interact with pictures.

We dismissed refocusing as a bit of a novelty in our first impressions preview from CES 2012. But now that we've had the luxury of shooting and re-shooting in familiar locations, importing our own shots, and experimenting with focus on a proper screen, the trick seems much more useful, and more than just a way to "save" blurry shots. It forced us to think about framing and composition differently—a more narrow scope for sure, but there can be freedom in limitations. It became almost a competition to shoot the photo with the most dramatic refocusing range, or with the most refocusable objects.

But one fun, useful, innovative trick doesn't make a great camera. Refocusing is one of many performance metrics; even though we can change the focus over and over again with the Lytro, we still see flat shots on the screen. We can still judge the Lytro's photos like any other photos: based on color, noise, and resolution. And we should judge the Lytro like any other camera, because it's still a tool that takes pictures.

We gave the Lytro a generous amount of extra points because it has a cutting-edge feature with very real benefits. And yet, this camera is still one of the lowest-ranked models we've tested. It just has too many shortcomings. Handling is awkward. The tiny screen is a hindrance. Control is extremely limited outside of the refocusing ability. It has almost none of the features that photographers have come to expect—not even a timer, a removable battery, or expandable memory.

And no surprise, image quality comes up short too. The colors are off and noise is a problem, but poor resolution is the real killer. They're fine for sharing online at small sizes, but even casual photographers will be able to tell that these photos don't have as much detail as they're used to seeing these days.

Light-field photography holds some promise, but refocusing needs to be one feature in a more fully developed camera system. It's one more layer of information to work with, one more tool to use in post-processing. It can't come at the expense of image quality, either; apparently, it doesn't need to.

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, like 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 different lens, different microlens array, different internal construction and so on. Each individual camera also needs to be custom-calibrated, which slows down production and keeps prices high.

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 want to be in on the ground level, then by all means, check it out and have a good time. 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.

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