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Review: The Lytro camera

Review: The Lytro camera

It seems like the perfect idea: Take the photograph, focus later. That’s the principle behind the Lytro light field camera. I got my first chance to try one out a few weeks ago when I borrowed one from a co-worker.

Of course, it wasn’t a good sign when I realized he had only shot two photos with it and returned it to the box.


I talked about the camera in a few of my Los Angeles Times Framework blog posts about a year ago, noting how focusing after the fact should make photography really simple.

After the announcement, write-ups on major websites (including those of the Wall Street Journal, Engadget, Wired, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times) and the subsequent release, I finally got a chance to try out the light field technology, a special sensor camera that captures all the different directions of the rays of light in a scene.  I haven’t actually seen anyone using one of these cameras in the wild.

The idea sounds great — snap your picture and don’t worry about focus. But really, who thinks about focus anymore? Most people just point-and-click compact cameras; they don’t even think about focus. Most cameras today do it all for you; it’s almost impossible to shoot a bad photograph. The emphasis is on snap and share. Just look at Instagram or Facebook — these companies built their fortunes on photo sharing, not focus. Convenience is the other important factor. Who wants to carry another camera? Today’s camera manufacturers are battling those pesky cellphone cameras.

The Lytro camera is certainly a technology I will never understand. But in photography today, it’s not about understanding the science, it’s about taking photographs. And if you can make the photos square and throw in a few cool borders or vintage filters, you’re instantly looking at a successful business model. The Lytro camera hits one of these marks well: the square image. It has a limited number of filters.

I did enjoy taking the camera out for a spin. When you plug it into the computer for the first time, it downloads the Lytro software. The unique-looking camera features an aluminum body, available in five colors, and is simple to operate, with just the shutter and on-off buttons, a LCD screen and a touch slider across the top for zooming. Due to the narrow, sporty design, the camera’s viewing LCD screen is very small.

A bigger LCD screen would be better, especially for me with my reading glasses. Also, it wasn’t the brightest screen.  The camera bucks the trend seen in most digital cameras, which are striving to have the biggest displays possible and a compact size that is easy to slip into a pocket or purse.

Problems first started when I hit the on button and nothing happened. Refusing to be discouraged, I persevered by checking the Lytro support area of the company’s website.  I found an article about this kind of problem, and it suggested I restart the camera by holding down the shutter and on-off button simultaneously. Once I got this figured out, I was ready to take pictures.

Now for the challenge: taking photos that showed off the cool, changeable, focus-later feature and the camera’s 8X optical zoom f/2 zoom lens.  According to Lytro: The digital image sensor captures the color intensity and direction of the light entering the lens, which the company figures to be 11 million light rays.

This is starting to sound like work. When I’m out taking snapshots, it’s usually for fun. I’m like most people: l don’t want to think much about the technical aspect. I went to the park where my kids where playing football with friends; my first attempt with the camera was a near and far photo of two footballs. This certainly was nothing I would photograph with my regular camera. I needed to step it up to get a better example of the technology.  My next outing was a trip to a flower stand and nursery. I found it tough to get a dynamic photo.

Next, I took photos of a few vintage cameras. This worked well to show the focus points, but they were not photo masterpieces.

A pier was my next adventure. I did get a few looks from people wondering what kind of camera I was using, and the odd-shape camera caught people off guard. Because of the variety of the subject matter, this turned out to be my best location.

Next, I needed to process the photographs.  Again, this veered away from my normal workflow of using Photo Mechanic, Lightroom or Photoshop. The camera is connected via USB, which opens the installed Lytro software. The software opens with a screen to view your photo image thumbnails and then sends the photos to the Lytro website. From here, you can share your photo on Facebook and Twitter, and get a direct link or an embed code. I used the embed code in my Framework post to display some of my photos.

After using the camera for a couple weeks, I found it to be a fun and interesting challenge. It seemed like the “shoot now, focus later” technique was well-suited for a cellphone app, but I’m sure there would be major technical issues with squeezing it into such a small-form factor. It will be interesting to see what Lytro comes up with next.

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  1. February 17, 2013, 12:07 pm

    Why would anyone need this?

    By: John
  2. February 18, 2013, 11:22 am

    That's like asking why someone would need glasses. Blurred = bad. Focused = good. This lets you take an out of focus picture and correct the focus after the photo has been taken, not before. It's clever, ingenious, and a major breakthrough for the world of photography. It seems pretty obvious why someone who shoots a picture would want it. Sure it's not something that anyone would necessarily 'need', but then again we don't actually need anything other than food, water and oxygen.

    By: Scott
  3. February 18, 2013, 12:31 pm

    It's a bulky, clunky expensive one-trick pony with lower resolution than my phone (which autofocuses flawlessly.)

    It has a crappy screen. It is useless without additional software.

    I feel sorry for the investors; they will lose everything.

    Not everything that can be made should be made.

    By: John
  4. February 20, 2013, 12:09 pm

    Riiiiight, and I still use my bulky, clunky Apple Macintosh and my floppy discs. Actually, I use a MacBook Pro which would never exist if it wasn't for the creation of that Apple Mac. The Lytro is a technological advancement. Ya, it needs a lot of improvement, but things aren't just born into perfection as you seem to expect. If everyone thought like you, we'd still be living in the stone age saying, "Look at this stupid one-trick rock that I can only throw and smash things with." The fact of the matter is, though, that rock can be sharpened and used as a knife, or attached to make a spear or an arrow which are far more useful than the rock as it once sat. Creativity breeds inspiration, and everything that can be invented should be invented in hopes of inspiring someone else to create something even greater. Open your mind and see the possibilities of success rather than shunning someone's invention for not being up to your standards of immediate perfection.

    By: Scott
  5. February 26, 2013, 10:40 am

    There's no possibility of success. The Lytro adds one oddball feature no one was asking for, while compromising all the features that people want.

    It's DOA.

    By: John
  6. March 8, 2013, 2:49 pm


    It is an answer to a question no one asked; an ergonomic and functional nightmare.

    Why would I want to do twice the work just to take a picture?

    Why not get the focus correct the first time?

    This is too complicated, frustrating, clunky for an amateur despite the square "I'm a Hipstamatic-type format too!". Any cell-phone camera is a better choice. Besides, with the crappy pictures most people take, no one really seems to care if it is in focus.

    Pros have no need for something with highly mediocre image quality that creates more work, is gimmicky, and is an additional thing to carry.

    What is the market? Who will buy it? Marketing-hype believers and people who are born every minute.

    There is a reason the reviewer has never seen one of these "in the wild."

    Oh, and Scott, I would start looking for a new job, the one you have at Lytro will be coming to an end soon.

  7. March 10, 2013, 1:44 pm

    Scott most likely works for Lytro. The article made it very clear why this "focus later" adds real value to very few situations and why the size and other limitations of the camera will limit any real person's probability of actually holding the Lytro at the exact appropriate time.

    Need? Not.

    By: Ted
  8. February 24, 2013, 3:41 pm

    These guys developed a free, at home method to create the same effect as the Lytro.

    By: Jill
  9. March 13, 2013, 8:59 am

    I'd like to know if you have looked at the Raytrix High Speed Light Field resolution cameras from Germany? Obviously not affordable for the average consumer, but we are still trying to find a commercial application for this technology. They have an Android app which will display the photos on your phone or tablet.

    By: princessfoto

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