How Lytro Can Realize Its Full Potential
At a Glance
Lytro's light-field technology is groundbreaking, exciting, and unique. The first Lytro light-field camera is frustratingly limited.
What makes Lytro technology groundbreaking, exciting, and unique is fairly common knowledge by now: With this camera, you can snap a photo and select a focus point after the fact. To choose a focus point, you simply tap parts of the image on the camera's screen, or click different parts of the image after offloading the proprietary .lpf files onto a computer (Lytro's image-management software works only with Macs right now).
To an extent, choosing a focus point isn't even the main draw; the real attraction lies in selecting several focus points sequentially, exploring the entirety of an image, and giving the user something that they can actively infuse with their own creative decisions.
The Lytro device is the only consumer camera that allows you to do so, and that alone is amazing. But that's "all" it does.
For all of that photo-refocusing action, Lytro's first-generation product is more of a Zaireeka moment in the history of photography than a eureka moment. Let me explain.
In the late 1990s, The Flaming Lips released a four-CD concept album called Zaireeka. It wasn't your standard four-disc album; the idea behind Zaireeka was that you'd play all four discs at the same time on four separate CD players, and you'd never hear the same arrangement of the same song twice.
It was a concept album meant to bring an added dimension to listening to music; as you physically changed locations around the room, different elements of each song came to the forefront. Essentially, you could "move around" within a piece of music, and the dynamics of what you were hearing would change accordingly.
Of course, that sort of album isn't very practical. To listen to it properly, you'd need to have four CD players, eight speakers, and enough dexterity (or people) to start each player at the same time. After all that, if you liked the specifics of what you were hearing at the moment, you had no easy way to replicate it by yourself later. And you couldn't listen to the album in its intended form via headphones.
Zaireeka's reviews were all over the map, ranging from zero to a perfect 10. Depending on the review you read, it was a pretentious gimmick, a logistical nightmare, a respectable experiment, or a shining beacon of creativity that pushed the entire music industry forward.
You can find direct correlations between Lytro's technology and that album. Lytro is basically Zaireeka for your eyes. Light-field photography brings a new dimension to a traditional art form, allowing viewers to "move around" inside a still image by selecting their own focus points. The early reviews have been generally favorable--the ability to focus and refocus an image after the fact is undeniably cool--but many of them stop short of saying that you should buy the first-generation camera.
Here's where the Lytro-Zaireeka analogy falls apart: First of all, Lytro is as dead-simple to appreciate as Zaireeka was challenging. In fact, the camera is probably too simple in its current form. Second, it performs its in-camera magic without requiring much operator effort--again, arguably to a fault. Finally, and perhaps most important, Lytro has tremendous mass appeal. I'm betting that you never heard (or heard of) Zaireeka, but going by the number of comments we've received about Lytro, mainstream-media coverage of the first-generation camera, and the honors it received before it started shipping this week, this thing is primed for success.
I'll be the first to admit that criticizing an incredibly innovative first-generation device for the things it doesn't do may seem like bashing a time machine for having the wrong-color interior, but let me assure you: I'm a Monday-morning quarterback with my heart in the right place. We're talking about a product that has the potential to revolutionize digital photography forever, and a few key changes to the device's usability could make that happen. Lytro's light-field camera is standing on the precipice of truly great things, but it's not ready to make that leap in its current form.
I have to note as well that the suggestions you're about to read are based on some very brief hands-on time with the Lytro last year; PCWorld wasn't one of the select few publications that got their hands on a prerelease Lytro unit in the past week. Judging from my hands-on experience and the full reviews I've read, I can say that the camera's aesthetics, usability, and core features haven't changed much since last October.
These six things (plus a couple of bonus features) would make the next version of Lytro's camera a must-buy device.
1. A Much Lower Price (or More Features for the Current Price)
The first-generation Lytro camera costs $500 for a 16GB model and $400 for an 8GB model.
To put things in perspective, the Canon EOS Rebel T3 and Nikon D3000 entry-level DSLRs each cost around $500 as a kit, the Apple iPad 2 starts at $500, and you could buy both a Samsung Galaxy Nexus and a 16GB iPhone 4S (with two-year contracts, of course) for the same $500 price. As amazing as the Lytro's core technology is, all of those products are a lot more versatile in their niches of the technology world.
For the current camera's feature set and its target audience of übercasual shooters, the Lytro's price needs to be much more affordable. That said, $400, $500, or even $700 would be a fair price for a Lytro camera with all of the following features.
2. Additional Focus Capabilities
As it stands, Lytro's camera is all about shallow depth of field, thanks to a constant-aperture F2.0 lens. The camera records an image, and when you select a focus point, it artistically blurs out everything in front of or beyond that focal plane.
In other words, you don't have the option of viewing an image where everything is in focus, unless everything in your shot is the same distance from the lens. Even the most basic cameras allow you to keep everything in focus by setting focus to infinity, shooting in landscape mode, or stopping down the aperture. The Lytro product doesn't have any of those options.
Beyond that, additional focus features could widen the gap between Lytro's capabilities and those of every other camera on the market. For instance, how about the ability to select multiple focus points at the same time while viewing an image, simultaneously being able to bring objects in the extreme foreground and background in focus, with everything else blurred out? (The image here is a quick-and-dirty mock-up of the effect I'm talking about.)
3. Usable JPEG Images
In its current form, Lytro's photographic output is built purely for digital interactions. After selecting a focus point in the .lpf file and saving that image as a standard .jpg, you get a 1080-by-1080-pixel image.
That's a square, 1.17-megapixel image--and we live in an age of 41-megapixel cell phone cameras. The Lytro camera doesn't need that kind of megapixel overkill to make its .jpg output more usable as a "flat" image, but something that's at least on a par with the iPhone 4's serviceable 5-megapixel photos would make it a much more versatile, everyday device.
4. A Bigger, Higher-Quality Screen
Lytro's camera has a 1.46-inch-diagonal touchscreen display. That's small for any type of device. It's absurdly small for a device that forces you to use the touchscreen as a way to navigate and refocus image previews.
It's also not very sharp. The result is a screen that's essentially unusable for anything other than basic shot composition--and that's a shame, because letting your family, kids, and friends view and refocus images on the camera while you're hanging out with them would probably be a lot of fun.
Apparently, the first-gen Lytro camera has a dormant Wi-Fi chip inside, and if the display stays the same size in successive generations, I'm hoping that the chip can help form a peer-to-peer connection to mobile devices for an instant way to share and interact with photos. But at the very least, the Lytro camera needs a bigger, better display.
Of course, a bigger screen would require a dramatic overhaul of the device's tube-like physical design, but that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. For instance, it would allow a lot more space for...
5. Good Physical Controls
There's a lot to be said for simplicity, and the Lytro's control scheme is certainly simple: The camera sports a shutter button, a touch slider that operates its 8X-optical-zoom lens, and a power button. That's it.
However, the controls are all integrated within the camera's rubberized grip, and the tangible feedback when you're using the controls leaves a lot to be desired. The zoom slider is especially odd; it's a ribbed rubber touch strip on the top of the camera, and operating it is an exercise in approximation.
I get it: Lytro's physical design is a visual representation of the fact that it does things differently than a normal camera. It doesn't necessarily have to mimic the look and feel of a traditional camera, but standard mechanical buttons and levers for the shutter and the zoom controls would be a valuable addition to the next-generation device.
6. Exposure Controls (or at Least Some Effects Modes)
Again, I get it: The reason why Lytro's in-camera options are so simple is because it's designed with very casual users in mind. You just point the thing at an object and press the shutter, and the camera instantly does the rest.
But given Lytro's proprietary file format for "living pictures," and the low-resolution .jpg files it produces, it's not a camera that lends itself to retouching images or adding effects during the post-production process--and that makes it even more important for the photographer to have a bit more control over the shutter, the aperture, and in-camera creative effects.
If you think of Lytro's technology as an image-viewing platform, you can come up with so many creative things that shooters could do with the combination of interactive images and traditional manual controls. I'd love to experiment with a combination of slow shutter and the ability to refocus an image; you could experiment with different focus points on the "trails of light" effects you get when shooting car headlights at night, or bring ghosted images of fast-moving people in and out of focus. Or imagine taking a slow-shutter shot while zooming out on your subject, and then being able to adjust the focus point within that "warp speed" effect.
In my mind, this is where the true potential for Lytro's light-field technology lies: at the intersection of traditional photography skills and interactive refocusing tricks.
Bonus: A 'Living Video' Mode
A few cameras let you use a touchscreen to dynamically refocus as you're recording video--Panasonic's Lumix GH2 is the best one we've used, and even Apple's iPhone 4S does it--but you have only one shot to pull off that rack focus, and if the camera's autofocus system searches in and out as you're doing so, it can completely ruin your shot.
Imagine being able to refocus between foreground and background subjects after the fact, where you could experiment with different focus depths in a video without affecting the source footage. Granted, given that Lytro's still-image files are around 15MB, the file sizes associated with similarly refocusable video are bound to be huge, but it would probably be worth it.
Double Bonus: A Ricoh GXR Module
Lytro's light-field photography is dependent on a specially designed sensor and some hard-core image processing, two components that are usually hard-wired into every camera body, from DSLRs to point-and-shoots to phones. However, the Ricoh GXR system uses interchangeable modules that host a lens, a sensor, and an image processor, meaning that you can swap out the camera's guts along with the optics.
The Ricoh GXR system doesn't have a huge market share right now, but a Lytro-built module that plugs into it and offers a light-field sensor, a custom image processor, and the required lens could help both companies out. At the very least, it could give photographers an opportunity to experiment with light-field photography using a traditional camera interface, with lower risk of being locked in to a camera body that captures images only via the light field.