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Lytro review

You've never seen a camera like this before

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Lytro hero (1024px)
Lytro hero (1024px)

There are a few easy ways to make a digital camera better: make the sensor bigger, improve the quality of the lens, speed up the processor. But those are incremental improvements on a basic technology that hasn’t changed much in a long time. Lytro scrapped all that and built the self-titled Lytro camera, a digital camera that neither looks nor operates like any camera you’ve ever seen: it measures megarays instead of megapixels, captures light fields instead of light, and lets you focus your pictures after you’ve taken them. The company promises more impressive, more malleable, and more useful pictures than you’ve ever gotten from a camera before. We’ve been following the Lytro since its inception, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the camera represents a huge technological achievement, but will you be ditching your DSLR for a Lytro, or even your point-and-shoot? Read the full review to find out.

Video Review

Video Review

Light Field photography

Light Field photography

Light Field photography is some crazy sci-fi stuff

The most important thing about the Lytro isn’t its image quality, or its performance — it’s the tech. The camera is the first-ever consumer product using Light Field Technology, which Lytro Director of Photography Eric Cheng called "the first major change in photography since photography was invented." After using the camera for a week or so, it’s hard to disagree.

Basically what’s happening inside the Lytro is that in addition to measuring the intensity and color of light like a typical camera, it also measures the direction the light is moving at any given time. Instead of just opening a sensor and absorbing light for an instant as it hits the camera, the Lytro is measuring all of the light in a scene, and then recreating the whole three-dimensional field of light more or less exactly as it was. It’s collecting light, translating it into ones and zeros, and then processing the data for a variety of different uses.

It all stems from research into what’s known as plenoptic cameras, which have been around since the early 1990s. Plenoptic cameras used multiple microlenses to capture light simultaneously from a variety of different perspectives, and then the camera’s processing algorithm puts the photos together into one malleable shot. Lytro’s founders participated in much of this research, most of which required large rooms filled with large cameras, but now the company has boiled it down into a device that fits in the palm of your hand.

Two analogies help to understand what’s happening with Light Field cameras. One is that the Lytro is creating the Star Trek holodeck, virtually recreating an entire physical space as viewed from a single perspective. The other analog is an orchestra. If a traditional camera records the entirety of the orchestra at once, hearing the totality of the sound as it’s projected out, the Lytro records each member of the orchestra individually. That gives it a tremendous advantage in terms of detail recorded, but also in terms of mixing later. If you want to hear more saxophone, it’s far easier to do so when you’ve recorded every member individually than if you had an overall sound and tried to turn up the sax.

Light Field cameras make pictures similarly flexible. The incredible feature of this Lytro model is its ability to focus your photos after they’ve been shot — when you first take a picture, you don’t need to focus at all. Then later, when you view the photo on your camera or computer, you can choose what you want to be in focus. It legitimately feels like magic the first few times you try it, and even now amazes me to watch a photo I took shift its focus on my computer. The company has much bigger plans for its cameras — more on those below — but it’s not hard to believe that Light Field technology is going to upend the way we take pictures.

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

You've never seen a camera like this before

The Lytro doesn’t actually look much like a camera — it’s more like a retracted telescope, which could explain why I kept wanting to put it up to my eye and be Christopher Columbus. It’s 4.41 inches long and 1.61 inches both tall and wide, with an LCD on one end and a lens on the other. It has a rubber grip and an anodized aluminum shell, available in "Red Hot," "Graphite," and "Electric Blue," and with either 8GB or 16GB of internal storage — the colors and storage are the only differences among models. It’s an extremely good-looking device, largely because it’s so simple: there are a few controls, but all are camouflaged into the camera so it looks as minimal as possible. After testing camera after camera that’s littered with buttons and dials, the Lytro is a nice change of pace.

It's gorgeous, but not totally practical

That said, one of my biggest wishes for the Lytro is that it were built a bit more like a traditional camera. I never really got used to holding the Lytro, and I’d happily accept a larger body if it meant a slightly more ergonomically friendly design (and a larger display, but I’ll get to that). The Lytro’s also hard to hold steady, since you don’t really get a grip or a way to balance your hands against each other, and pressing the power button always makes you push the camera down a bit. The Lytro feels like a long, skinny lens that you could attach to a DSLR or a Micro Four Thirds camera, and I wish that were the case.

Lytro also makes some tradeoffs to get such an attractive product, and in doing so sacrifices some of the camera’s usability. Take the zoom control, for instance: atop the camera are a series of raised touch-sensitive bumps, and you slide your finger along them to zoom in and out. It’s nice that it blends into the camera, but it’s not a good solution — it’s hard to avoid since you don’t know where it is until you touch it. Also, zooming all the way in takes about five swipes along the pads (and thus a long time to zoom), and it can be overly sensitive, reacting even when you brush it slightly and unintentionally. The hidden power and shutter buttons are both soft, with a nice travel and soft response, though the power button can be hard to find unless you look for it. Other than those controls and a Micro USB port that’s hidden by a rubber flap, nothing mars the Lytro’s good looks.

Display and battery life

Display and battery life

Such cool pictures deserve a better display

The Lytro’s display is by far the worst thing about this camera. First of all, it’s tiny: 1.46 inches diagonal. Second, it’s kind of terrible — its viewing angles are so bad that it’s impossible to see even when you’re only slightly off-axis, since colors go virtually negative. It’s also only 128 x 128 pixels in either direction, and it feels like you can see every single dot. I’d be upset with this display on any camera, but it’s even more of a problem on the Lytro since so much of the experience is based on subtle changes in the photos’ focus, and you can’t see them on such a small, bad display.

On a more positive note, the touchscreen features of the display work really well, especially for such a small screen. When you’re shooting photos, you can tap on the screen to expose your shot for that part of the image — that’s really useful if you’re shooting a darker subject against a bright sky, for instance. To review your pictures, you just swipe left to right, and then flip through old shots by swiping between them. The first time you load a particular picture, it takes about three seconds to process, but the interface is otherwise seamless. You can double-tap a picture to zoom in, and then tap once to re-focus on a particular spot. All the camera’s settings are also accessible via the touchscreen, though there aren’t many to speak of: swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access a menu that displays battery level, storage capacity, and shooting mode (more on the last one in a minute). There’s not a lot you can do at the moment, but the interface is super intuitive and usable.

I had to charge the Lytro about every 400 shots, which isn’t great, but isn’t surprising either given how much processing is happening inside the camera. The camera takes several hours to charge, too, but it charges when it's plugged into the computer, so it wasn't really an issue.

Image quality

Image quality

Here’s the thing about the Lytro: for a particular type of shot, it does a better job of capturing a photo than anything I’ve ever used. If you’ve got a close-up subject and a far-away background, and lighting is good, the effect is really remarkable — you can seamlessly switch between foreground and background focus, which is a seriously cool effect. It can even focus on reflections, which is the closest thing to a real-life "ENHANCE!" effect I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, that’s the only situation in which the Lytro really shines (which explains why the company’s example shots are all alike). The focus-shifting effect lessens as the subjects of your photo get closer together, and without the effect all you get is the Lytro's otherwise-mediocre photos. In anything other than perfect lighting, photos were consistently grainy and noisy, not to mention just dark since you can't really control the shutter speed or aperture — there’s not even a flash on the camera to poorly solve that problem. Lighting quickly reaches a point where the focusing effect doesn’t work that well either, and photos are so noisy as to be unusable even at small sizes.

The camera has an optional Creative Mode, accessible via the on-screen menu, which lets you choose where you want the focusing range to be centered. That helps improve the re-focusing effect a bit — if you have two subjects that are relatively close together, you can place the center between them, and you get a slightly more drastic shift switching from one to the other. It also unlocks the full 8x zoom, instead of the 3.5x zoom available in Everyday Mode, and opens up a Macro mode that lets you shoot pictures with your subject basically touching the lens. Everyday Mode is the camera’s standard mode, and everything is optimized to give you the most intense focusing effect; Creative Mode gives you a little more control, but there’s also more room for error.

The silver lining here is that most of Lytro’s work in the future can be focused around software, and even the earliest adopters will benefit. As reps put it to me, there are two things required with this camera: collecting all the light and converting it to data, and manipulating that data to do cool things. The former problem seems to be mostly under control, so now the company’s goal is to come up with new ways to use the ones and zeros the camera collects.

We got to see a few of the company’s next developments, like a 3D view and a view that lets you pan inside an image and slightly change the perspective. Both are absolutely wild — as you pan around an image, people’s reflections on a glass of water shift to match your new perspective, as if you were moving your head slightly — and both will be rolled out to Lytro owners without any new hardware required. My hunch is that some of the camera’s bigger problems, like its low-light performance, will require new and more powerful hardware — a better processor, improved microlenses, and the like — but if you buy the Lytro, you’re buying a camera that’s definitely going to get better with time.

The effect is amazing, but the photos aren't

Photo management

Managing and sharing photos

Special photos call for special software

Since the Lytro shoots what the company likes to call "Living Pictures," it forgoes the universal and ubiquitous JPG for a proprietary format. That means that Lytro has to also use its own software and system for managing your pictures, and sharing them around the web. The desktop software is on the camera, so the first time you connect your Lytro to your computer — Macs only for now, but a Windows app is coming soon — the software automatically installs. Once it’s on your computer, the Lytro app launches every time you plug in the camera, and automatically starts importing your photos.

Getting photos from your camera to your computer takes a long time. Each photo weighs in at about 16MB, and there’s also a fair amount of processing to be done on the computer before a shot is ready to be used; I imported 72 photos, and it took more than 20 minutes before the photos were available. The process is also seriously resource-intensive — my MacBook Air could barely handle the task, forcing the fan to spin so loudly I thought my computer was going to lift off.

Once imported, you can easily organize your photos, group them into events, and the like. You can also flip through your photos Cover Flow-style, and you get all the same click-to-focus features you get on the camera itself. You can upload photos to either Facebook or, where you get a free account with (for now) unlimited storage.

If you’d rather use your images some other way, you can export a JPG with the focus you choose; the resulting JPG’s resolution is 1080 x 1080, though, which is both a strange aspect ratio and quite small (only about one megapixel). Fortunately you don’t really need to do much exporting of your photos, since Lytro has a really good online photo viewer. You can share photos to Twitter, Google Plus, and the like, and photos will automatically be embedded in Lytro’s Flash / HTML5 player, so anyone can play with the shot’s focus or zoom. There’s also an embed code for every photo, so basically any website that supports HTML can display Lytro shots in all their "living picture" glory.

The technology is incredible, but the Lytro's not yet everything it could be

There’s no doubt in my mind that Light Field cameras are the future of photography, or at least part of the future. Light Field photography gives you photos that are so immersive and manipulable that it’s quickly easy to forget that 2D photos are useful at all, and the technology is only going to get better as the processing ability and software in the cameras get more powerful and mature. We’ve heard about a Lytro for video, and rumors have flown that we’ll start seeing the technology in smartphones — it really seems like the sky’s the limit here.

But the first iteration of the Lytro isn’t quite there yet: it’s hard to use, its display is terrible, and outside of a few particular situations its photos aren’t good enough to even be worth saving. It’s not even close to being able to replace an everyday camera, and at $399-$499, for most people it would have to. If you’re curious about what’s next in photography, you should definitely buy the Lytro — if nothing else, it’s one of the best conversation starters I’ve encountered in a while, and the variable focus never fails to impress. But otherwise, it’s a great companion camera if you already have a point-and-shoot or DSLR you like. Lytro’s not quite ready to be your only camera.