REVIEW: Lytro light field camera

Photography is a passion, as there’s something special about capturing a unique vision of a moment. It’s a combination of technology and art that is irresistible to me. So when a completely new camera technology that promises a “living picture” that can be refocused. Instead of capturing a single focal plane of light, the Lytro camera captures the entire “light field” so that using special software a picture can be refocused after it’s taken.

a test photo, click anywhere to refocus

The Lytro isn’t just filled with unique technology but it has a unique look as well. Instead of the flat “bar of soap” style of a traditional point and shoot cameras, or the long lenses of digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR), the Lytro is a square metal tube with a viewing touchscreen on one end and the lens on the other. The power, zoom and shutter controls are collected on one end behind a rubberized area that also holds the USB port.

What’s it like?
When you first unpack the Lytro, you’ll be reminded of the iPod — the packaging is simple and well designed. The camera comes with a USB cable, strap, a cleaning cloth and a lens cover that “snaps” on magnetically. When you connect the camera to your computer it charges and you install the software from the camera itself. Also the software is only available for Macs (for now) so Windows users are out of luck.

Here’s a video from the Lytro site that explains some of the camera basics which can explain the experience better than I can

Pros
Not to be obvious, but the pictures that you can get with the Lytro can’t be done with any other kind of camera. You could take a lot of different pictures and try to stitch them together, but it would be incredibly time consuming if not impossible.


yesler is unimpressed

The Lytro controls couldn’t be simpler — just point and shoot. The touchscreen is responsive and there is almost no lag between clicking the shutter button and taking the picture. The zoom slider even has a really nice feature that acts like a dial with momentum. If you drag your finger quickly across it the zoom will keep going. It makes zooming in and out quickly much easier especially since the actual control is a line of raised bumps on rubber end of the camera.

Cons
Where to start. There are just so many places where the Lytro isn’t bad or broken but just doesn’t seem to live up to the hype.

  • Composition with a Lytro takes some getting used to. In order to get the best “live picture” effect you really need to be close to an object or zoom in close and have other objects at varying points in the background. Just a single close object and nothing until the horizon doesn’t give good results at all.
  • The resolution isn’t up to the standards of your basic smartphone. The square images will remind iPhone users of Instagram, but in viewing and composing pictures on the camera or in seeing them on your computer don’t expect to be blown away by the level of detail.
  • Magnetic lens covers sound like a cool idea until you realize that the connection is so weak that the cover slips off every time the lens goes into a laptop bag or coat pocket. It seems like form over function.
  • The controls are placed for small fingers. The “zoom strip” is so faint that it’s easy to miss when you first look at the camera. Also if you rest your index finger as most will before activating the shutter it’s easy to accidentally touch and activate the zoom strip.
  • Lytro’s Mac software is basic, almost minimal and not in a good way and their web site isn’t much better. From the desktop software you can upload pictures to the Lytro web site or post to Facebook but you have to go Lytro.com in order to share to Google+ or get an embed code. Not sure why they couldn’t make the same options in both places.

Recommendation

So would I recommend buying a Lytro camera? Honestly no. It’s a one trick pony with a really limited set of opportunities to use it. It’s not good in low light (in my experience), any smartphone or point and shoot takes a wider variety of shots and does it better. The resolution is too low. The software too slow, and lacks basic features between the desktop and web site. 
However that doesn’t mean Lytro’s first generation is a failure. I really believe this first product is just a proof of concept and designed to drive cost reduction and productization of the light field technology. Today Lytro isn’t compelling, but as this technology matures it will show up in DSLRs and eventually smartphone cameras and that will be a much more compelling option for many users.

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