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Lytro Illum review: this is the camera of the future

It's almost time to forget everything you ever knew about photography

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Ten minutes into using the Lytro Illum, I’m throwing out everything I’ve ever learned about photography. Taking great photos with this camera has a different set of rules, a different guiding principle. Forget the rule of thirds; shoot for depth. Frame from below, because it makes everything look more dramatic. And most of all, stop half-pressing the damn shutter and expecting something to happen. Focusing doesn’t matter anymore.

The Illum is Lytro’s second product, but its first real camera. This is what Lytro executives say they’ve been building for seven years. The last one was made to prove light-field photography is real science. This one is a statement that the next phase in photography is already here. The Illum has a remarkable lens, a big, hefty body, and lots of manual controls. It shoots photos that you can refocus later. That you can look at from a number of different perspectives, or view in 3D. Photos that start to answer Lytro’s fundamental question: what becomes possible when we don’t have to print pictures anymore?

The Illum is made to show a certain class of photographers (mostly pros with $1,499 burning a hole in their pockets) a glimpse of the future. Over a week of shooting with it, I did get that glimpse — but that future still feels far away.

The Illum’s design is a perfect microcosm of what this device is supposed to be: the marriage of present and future, emphasis on the future. It looks, in a reductive sense, like a DSLR: there’s a big, cylindrical lens on the left side of the camera, a round grip on the right, buttons and a screen on the back, and a hotshoe on the top. You’re meant to hold it in your right hand with your left underneath the lens, spinning the two dials to zoom and focus. (In fact, it’s so heavy that using both hands is pretty much a necessity.) There’s no mistaking the Illum for anything but a camera.

It's coming for you

There’s also no mistaking it for any other camera. Partly because its slanted back (designed so you can see the screen while you hold the camera at chest-level) gives the Illum a vaguely aggressive look, like it’s coming for you and your loved ones. Partly because the matte gray body with blue accents looks like it maybe fell from a spaceship or was lifted from the set of Battlestar Galactica. The Illum is big, bulky, and almost intimidating. I love the way it looks.

On that slanted back, next to four customizable buttons and a scroll wheel (there’s another one on the front, too), there’s a sharp, articulating 4-inch LCD. This is where you navigate the Illum’s menus (such as they exist), where you pick among the few options available to you as you shoot. There’s no viewfinder, and few buttons — it’s on the screen that everything interesting about light-field photography takes place.

Check out our ongoing gallery of photos from the Lytro Illum

There are more complicated and nuanced ways to describe it, but at its core light-field photography is just a more powerful and detailed way of capturing light. Instead of capturing it on a single plane, freezing an image in time and space, a light-field camera also captures the direction in which light was moving. Its processor then essentially renders a 3D scene, complete with the knowledge of distance between objects. A light-field photo represents not only everything in the scene, but a spatial understanding of the things in it.

Light-field photography is fundamentally about collecting more data

Armed with all that data, Lytro’s core innovation was to offer a way to refocus your photo after it’s been shot. Over time, Lytro also added the ability to subtly shift perspective on an image, as if you’re moving your head around slightly. It gives photos a certain depth, an immersiveness that is a lot of fun to play with. Lytro rolled out 3D processing, too, and has much more planned; everything comes as updates to the software you use to view the photos, so your photos just get better over time. You don’t just look at Lytro’s "living pictures" — you explore them.

All the light-field technology, particularly the "microlens array" that captures light and direction, sits inside the Illum’s massive lens. It extends from 30-250mm, and shoots everything at f/2 but later offers the ability to stop down as far as f/16. It’s one of the most versatile lenses I have ever used, equalled only by the Sony RX10 and a small handful of others. That much range is rare, especially with an aperture that fast, and it makes almost any shot possible with the Illum. Its shutter can fire as fast as 1/4000th of a second, which neatly solves the horrific slowness of the previous model. It can focus on things literally touching the lens. There’s not a burst mode so much as a keep-pressing-down-and-it-shoots-sort-of-quickly mode, but it works fine so long as you’re not shooting the last play of the Super Bowl.

Except it never really feels like everything’s working properly. If I captured too many shots too quickly, the camera would freeze or crash spectacularly. Once, I framed and fired a shot, and all the Illum recorded was black. The touchscreen picks odd moments to be slow or just unresponsive. Each image takes a few seconds to process, after which it either will or won’t refocus when you tap on the screen for no reason. The Illum’s autofocus is basically nonexistent, meaning you’re stuck manually focusing for every shot. There’s no image stabilization, so if you’re zoomed in you either need a tripod or the world’s steadiest hands. It feels like every time you push the Illum, try to explore its capabilities, it just breaks down. And if there’s one way to immediately alienate the customer who’s most likely to part with $1,500 for this camera, it’s to build a product that can’t hack it under pressure.

This is Lytro’s biggest problem, the most frustrating thing about the Illum. It’s made for and sold to professional photographers, those pushing at the creative edges of their profession. It can’t replace a DSLR (though I wish it could), and Lytro knows that. But buyers with $1,500 to spend on a second or third camera want certain things: fine manual control, quick access to settings, sharp images, adaptive performance to any conditions, easy processing, and much more. In way too many places, the Illum doesn’t deliver to the expectations of its target audience.

Shooting with the Illum requires a complete rewiring of the way you look at a scene. A great living picture has two subjects, one in the foreground and one in the background. I began trying to fill every photo with as many things as possible, to put a telling detail or funny image right behind the subject of my photo. The Illum has its own set of rules for how to get a great shot; it comes with a huge, fun, strange learning curve, and it’s unlike any camera I’ve ever shot with. You’re shooting with layers, shooting something that people will be able to interact with later.

Shooting with the Illum is a completely new photography experience

When it works, the Illum is capable of producing really remarkable pictures. (It still doesn’t shoot video, though Lytro says that’s not far away.) It still stumbles in low light — I avoided shooting above ISO 1000 — but as long as the conditions are right you get good, accurate colors, and impressive dynamic range. And that Lytro moment, when you shift focus from the person in the foreground to the city in the back or from the tip of their finger to their smiling face, never stops being amazing. But images are never quite tack-sharp as you move the focus around (Lytro says any given spot maxes out at four megapixels), making it look as if everything’s out of focus rather than in focus. That makes Lytro’s living pictures totally impractical for printing or exporting as simple JPGs, and even dulls the magic of refocusing.

There’s a button on the camera to help you maximize the effect, helpfully called the Lytro Button. (Using it is only recommended in moderation, since it turns the thousand-shot battery into something more like dozens.) It displays on top of whatever you’re shooting, showing the depth range of your photo with scattered dots. Blue represents the closest part of the shot that you’ll be able to get in focus; orange is the farthest away you’ll be able to make sharp.

For a few days, I used the Lytro button for every shot, but eventually, I trained my eyes to see what the Illum’s lens sees. The distance between subjects; the story I could tell racking from one to the other; the sense of space and size I could create with perspective. I started shooting faster and more confidently, and still got great shots.

Unfortunately, shooting is only half the battle. The other half is the Lytro Desktop software, which is currently somewhere between flawed and unusable. It’s designed to be sort of a lighter version of Lightroom, offering simple organization and editing tools. You can change white balance and sharpness and contrast and more within the app itself, and even export photos to Lightroom itself for heavier editing. It’s all fairly straightforward.

As with the shooting process, though, there’s more to think about with living pictures than just colors and light. Lytro offers "animations," which let you walk through certain transformations — a focus shift here, a perspective move there, zoom in — and then export the finished process as a movie. It’s like the Ken Burns effect to infinity, manipulating the most manipulable photos ever.

It’s all well-conceived, but there are two problems with Lytro Desktop. One: you need huge power to run it with any kind of success. Each 53MB light-field picture takes about 30 seconds to import and 5 seconds to open, and stutters endlessly while it’s being edited — and that’s on the gaming powerhouse MSI laptop Lytro loaned me during my review. Which, by the way, froze and crashed repeatedly, and at one point completely lost its library and just booted up blank. That’s the second problem: in its current form, Lytro Desktop is kind of broken. Eventually, I’m told, there will be mobile apps (I’ve seen a preview build, which worked quite well) that will allow you to view and maybe one day edit compressed versions of the photos. Here’s hoping that’s a better option.

For every great shot I captured, processed, and uploaded, there were just too many false starts, too many crashes, too many frustrations. They make the future seem much further away.

A glimpse at the future — not at your next purchase

Every once in a while, the Lytro Illum blew my mind. I’d take just the right picture at just the right moment, and I’d suddenly have it captured in a way that felt more real, more alive than anything else I could’ve done. For every one of those moments, though, there were three or four moments where I felt like I missed it: I didn’t get the shot right in time, or it didn’t have the right composition or light. I just wound up with a plain-old photo, and not a particularly good one. Too many times I wound up wishing I’d just grabbed my phone.

I’m more convinced than ever that light-field photography is the next step in how we take, share, and view pictures, and that it’s going to be a big one. Sure, most phones can blur spots in a photo and make it look like it’s shifting focus, but the light field’s ability to mix photography and computer graphics offers a much bigger and more powerful future than that. But the $1,499 Lytro Illum is not the product that will usher us into the brave new world. For the most enterprising photographers, its many headaches might be worth it for the results that it can sometimes deliver. But it’s too expensive for the average user, too frustrating for the time-crunched professional, and not quite high-quality enough for the pickiest of photographers. So who, then, is it for?

It’s for a museum somewhere, on display as the first real product in what might someday turn into something world-changing. Lytro is doing remarkable work and the Illum is another clear step forward in its vision. But it’s not a great camera. Not yet, anyway.

Photography by Michael Shane and Sean O'Kane. Additional testing and reporting by Sean O'Kane.