I’ve been fascinated with Lytro since the company published its first “living” photos in 2011. Having gotten into semi-pro photography well after the shift to digital, it was exciting to get swept up in the idea that we might be quickly approaching another big revolution. So you could say I was thrilled when we finally got our hands on the Lytro Illum, a newer, better version that actually looked like a camera and not a tube of lipstick.
I instantly loved the Illum. At the outset there were what seemed like tiny little problems — the tap-to-focus action on the camera’s touchscreen wouldn’t always register, for example — but just 20 minutes spent shooting around Bryant Park had me beaming. The challenge of composing an image with subjects on different planes was fun, and it made me think completely differently about what kinds of images I should make. Back in the office I was still running high on the experience, particularly while I was using the perspective-shift feature. Sure, photos or video can evoke similar feelings, but this was different. Photos I took hours before were now making me feel like I was back outside; I could practically feel the heat in between rows of cars stopped at a red light or the spray of a fountain.
It wasn’t until I brought the Illum to a concert at Brooklyn Bowl that I realized just how quickly I’d bumped into the ceiling of its capabilities. The camera has an ISO range that stretches up to 3200, but images start to break apart with noise at about 1600. The constant-aperture f/2 lens, which is admittedly really nice, is front-heavy and has no image stabilization, so it is hard to keep steady when zoomed all the way to 250mm. You can change the white balance, but only to other presets like "Tungsten" or "Daylight," and the Auto White Balance (the setting I typically use when shooting concerts on my 5D Mark II) is too slow to keep up with the constantly shifting lights of a venue.
You're constantly running into the Illum's limitations
To compensate for all of these issues I turned on the camera’s quick-burst shooting, only to run into more problems. Firing off a few shots back-to-back was fine, but the camera’s buffer would quickly fill up and take far too long to clear, putting me back in what was essentially single-shot mode. To top it all off, at the end of one series of burst photos the Illum decided to shut right off on its own, leaving me worried that I might have just bricked our review unit.
We also started to run into other problems with the desktop editing program, but these (and hopefully the camera's issues) should be resolved with eventual software updates. As frustrating as the entire experience was, I still have hope. I'm left thinking about all the terrible photos that I took growing up, or the times my brother and I would goof around, burning through rolls of film just running around the house taking pictures of whatever. What if we had been doing that with a camera like the Illum, and right now I could pull up an image that I took back then and still explore the room I had been in? Maybe I could click to focus on the bookshelf in the background and see the books I read as a kid, or drag around the perspective of the scene and get a sense of what my old room looked like. Right now it might still feel like a parlor trick, but light-field photography still has a lot of potential. This really is just the beginning.
The biggest problem Lytro has to fix to win over pro photographers is apparent here and in too many other photos: sharpness. Even if you do everything right, some parts of the image that you swore would be in focus are just too far from tack-sharp to be acceptable.
Whether your autofocus just didn't get the job done, or your eye for manual focus wasn't spot-on, there's nothing more frustrating for a music photographer than just missing the shot. The relief of racking the focus from the drum kit to the drummer might someday be worth the price of a light-field camera alone.
Shooting at the widest angles of the Lytro's lens makes it harder to really end up with a dynamic image. I found myself shooting at or over 100mm most of the time, allowing me to compress the foreground and background.
Lytro hopes the Illum will be used in typically tough photographic settings like sporting events. It won't be replacing any part of a sports photographer's arsenal, but it certainly could be used to make some unique images.
It wasn't always easy, but getting subjects that were extremely far from each other to end up within the focus range makes for a fun challenge, conceptually and technically. One thing's for sure: you want make sure your different subjects are in similar light, or else the exposures will be too far apart for even Lytro's editing software to recover.
The Illum absolutely works best in daylight, where you can keep the ISO low while still cranking the shutter speed to the thousandths-of-a-second range.
High ISO shots from the Illum tend to be murky, and even the perspective shift begins to break down when there's a severe lack of light.
Images like this are why I would love to keep trying the Illum along with my other cameras. The technology has a way of adding life and a sense of place to already lively images.
This is about the best I could manage throughout the night at Brooklyn Bowl as far as good-looking action shots go. Mostly everything is sharp as you click around (even back to the set list hanging up), and it's not full of high-ISO image noise.
Even the most gimmicky of images taken with the Illum can still inspire awe.
When I came back into the office after the first day of shooting, this was the first photo that struck me. It's nothing spectacular, but when using the perspective shift I suddenly felt just as nervous staring down these cars as I had hours before.