Pros: Build quality. Interactive results.
Cons: Screen can be tricky to view, which can make it hard to frame a scene, especially outdoors. Bit of a gimmick.
The Lytro is a camera unlike any other camera that we have ever used, both due to its form and its function. It's designed with a special lens that is capable of capturing all of the light rays in a scene, regardless of that light's direction (this is called the "light field"), with the end result being a photo in which the depth of field can be changed and selected after the photo has been taken. It's an interesting camera, for sure, and some fun can definitely be had with it, but it's not a camera for the average Joe; mainly, it's a camera that creative types and serious photographers can appreciate.
While it's something every Digital Arts readers is likely to want in their Christmas stocking, it's not out in the UK yet (I got one as I'm in Australia). Lytro says it's working on UK distribution, so keep your fingers crossed. In the US, the Light Field camera costs $399 (around £245) for one with 8GB of storage or $499 (£310) for one with 16GB.
The Lytro camera was 10 years in the making and a first of its kind. It has a shape that is distinct from every other camera on the UK market (or the Aussie one either), which will definitely stand out, and it might even earn you a few stares when you're snapping shots out in public. It employs a long, rectangular shape rather than a conventional camera design, and part of this is due to the large array of lens elements that are arranged inside the device, which sit in front of the magic sauce in this device: the Light Field sensor. Lytro showed us this sensor when they demonstrated the product to us, and when you look through it you can actually see all of the light traveling in all directions. It's a very beautiful thing and it's said to be capable of capturing 11 million light rays. What it captures can be processed by the Light Field engine and played with on a computer using the supplied software interface (for both Mac and PC, using HTML5 and Flash, respectively). You can also turn the shots into interactive web presentations using the Lytro website (below).
On the outside, one end of the Lytro camera has the lens (which can be protected by a cool magnetic lens cap, but which has the tendency to fall off if you place the camera in a bag with all of your other stuff), while the other end has the square LCD viewfinder. The lens has an f/2.0 aperture and a zoom range of 8x. There are no immediately noticeable buttons on the unit. The shutter button, power button and zoom control are all located seamlessly under the rubberised grip that takes up about a third of the body. The battery is sealed inside the unit, as is the storage (there is no external storage), and the weight of the unit is comfortable. We love how solidly built this thing feels.
To use the Lytro, all you really have to do is point it at your subject and press the shutter button. It's touted as a camera with which you really don't have to focus, and that is true for the most part, but if you want to get really creative then you have to learn how to frame objects properly, as well as how far away you need to be from them and how spaced out different subjects need to be within your frame.
While it's fairly straight forward in that it's the ultimate in point-and-shoot photography, there is one thing that can make this camera hard to use: its small LCD screen. The screen is actually a touchscreen through which you can also access a sparse menu system — there isn't really much to play with on this camera. It can be very hard to see the screen due to it having narrow viewing angles. When we framed photos during our tests, a lot of the time all we saw in the LCD screen was a dark scene that lacked contrast and definition. We had to take a picture and then play it back to see what it looked like. We found it best to view the screen by looking at it from directly in front, but looking at the screen in this way was not always possible for the scenes we wanted to capture. When used outside in bright light, things became even more difficult.
Once framing has been completed, the next step is to point to the spot on the screen that you want the camera to use for metering, then press the shutter button. In creative mode, pointing to a spot on the screen is also required for setting the refocus point. Refocusing is the action that this camera is all about. It means that once you take a picture, you can then theoretically point to any point in the picture to bring it in focus. Generally, the refocus point should be in a space between the foreground and background elements in a picture. This is also the point at which the camera will meter the photo, so you'll need to pick a spot that you want to be properly exposed, otherwise your photos might end up looking way too dark or way too bright.
Indeed, there are two shooting modes that can be selected through the touchscreen's on-screen menu. The first is everyday mode, which is a full wide angle mode that works best from 10cm to 15cm away from your subject, with the camera able to select the refocus point on its own. The second mode is Creative mode, which is good for close-ups and for zooming in to frame your main subject in front of a larger, distant subject. As mentioned previously, in creative mode you'll need to select a refocus point on your own for best results.
Pictures are taken with no lag as soon as the shutter button is pressed and they are captured in a 16MB RAW format that can then be manipulated on your computer and through the Lytro Web site once your photos are shared to it. Getting pictures off the camera requires you to plug the camera into a computer, be it a PC or Mac, and this will also charge the device. One of the reasons for this design, apart from simplicity, is so that users don't miss out on firmware upgrades due to never plugging the camera into their machine. By forcing them to plug it in to transfer images, then checks can also be made for new firmware. The onboard memory (8GB for the Graphite version we reviewed, and 16GB for the more expensive Red Hot version) can hold about 350 photos and the battery can last about six hours. The Lytro desktop software needs to be installed in order for you to be able to download and process your photos — you won't be able to see the camera as a storage device and won't be able to drag-and-drop files from it.
A powerful CPU is required to process the images from the Lytro, and depending on how many images you have shot in one session, you might be well advised to plug in, start the transfer and then go and prepare a meal or take the dog for a walk. We ran the Lytro on a three-year-old, six-core AMD Phenom II X6 1055T-based computer and the Lytro software commanded up to 60 per cent of it. As soon as the photos have been processed, you can click on them to view them and, of course, to change the focal point of the image. If you like a particular focal point, then you can export it as a JPEG and do whatever you want with it — this is good for posting to Flickr or printing. Photos will be 1080x1080 pixels and suitable for printing to a size up to 5x7in.
If you want to add some interactivity to how end users perceive your photos, you can sharing them on the Lytro Web site (you'll need to create an account) and embed the photos in your Facebook feed or a client project (or this page, as we've done).
The Lytro Light Field camera is a worthy gadget for any photography geek and it's perhaps a sign of things to come if the Light Field sensor eventually finds its way into mainstream cameras. However, we're not convinced that being able to change focus in post is enough to make you give up your usual digital SLR – and while we're sure it's possible to create compelling interactive projects using the variable focus effect, it's a bit of a one-trick pony.