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Focus and Simplicity

The Lytro light field camera increases clarity by reducing control.

By / Posted on 24 October 2011

Lytro Cameras

That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. — Steve Jobs

How many times has this happened to you? You’re at a park, out with friends, visiting family, whatever, and you take a photo to commemorate the occasion. You spend several moments futzing with the camera settings to get the right aperture setting, focus range, et cetera, after which the moment is lost OR you skip those steps and get a blurry photo where the trees are more in-focus than your friends. In this day and age where most people have better cameras on their phones than the dedicated cameras they carried around just a few years ago, why is it that our cameras still can’t capture an image the way our human eyes see the world? Why is the photo-taking process still so… mechanical?

Lytro is a new upstart out of Mountain View, California, looking to create the next great innovation in point-and-shoot consumer photography. Their first product is a compact and affordable light field camera—a technology developed over fifteen years ago using a series of cameras connected to a supercomputer in order to collect all of the light from every direction on a subject rather than just the light aiming at the specific angle the lone camera lens is perceiving. Lytro’s product is unique in that it takes that room full of cameras and crams it into a tiny product with a form somewhere between a stick of lipstick and a pencil case. It does this by using an array of lenses all connected to a standardized light field sensor.

Lytro cross-section

It all sounds very technical, but the end result is this: point, shoot, done. The Lytro takes in all of the light instantaneously, with no lag for focus on shutter, and you go on with your life, confident that the moment was captured exactly when and where you wanted it. Here comes the cool part—remember how there was no “focus” step in that picture-taking process? That comes later. As in after the photos have been taken. Plug the camera into your computer via USB, open up the photos in the Lytro desktop application, and click anywhere you want in the photo to adjust the focal length. Suddenly you can focus crisply on the flowers in the foreground, your friends in the middleground, or the mountains in the background and feel free to change your mind whenever you want. The software even lets you do this after the photos are shared online. Here are a few examples (click anywhere to refocus):



The benefits here are obvious. No need to fiddle with controls, excellent post-production, ease-of-use, no shutter lag, slick industrial design. Hardcore photography nerds (self included) are likely to be a bit upset about the lack of manual control, though. No aperture or shutter speed settings means no experimentation, and as far as options, the Lytro is a bit of a one-trick pony in the light field department. Still, it’s a heck of a trick, one that already has a community of gadget lovers and amateur photo dweebs (self included) frothing at the mouth for preorders. As the first on the consumer market, Lytro is sure to make waves and develop a name for itself, but it’s only a matter of time before these type of lens arrays and light field sensors find their way into more full-featured cameras. That said, no-frills point-and-shooters who would like cleaner, clearer photos and aren’t afraid of a little post-production time on the computer (Mac only, for now) could do far, far worse than to pick up one of these little beauties which start at $399. Preorders are open now, with cameras shipping in 2012.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.