Lytro hack turns any DSLR into a light field camera

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Lytro’s light field camera created a lot of excitement when it debuted a year ago. The technology it employs allows the user to put different parts of the image in focus after a shot has been taken. Toshiba will soon also join the fray with a new type of sensor that it’s shopping around to device makers.

However, consumers who can’t afford the Lytro’s starting price of $399 (and who don’t want to wait for Toshiba’s technology to come out) can have a little fun with refocusing images now thanks to a new hack from the Chaos Collective. The hack lets people use an ordinary DSLR camera that shoots video to achieve a similar type of effect.

Putting Lytro to the test

To test the hack, I took a Nikon D5000 and a Lytro out for an afternoon by the water, setting each camera up on a tripod and framing the same shot so that the two could be compared. The images below of the same scene are taken with a Lytro, on the top, and the DSLR hack, on the bottom. You can click within each image to see the refocusing capabilities in each picture.

Note that the Chaos Collective tool works only when viewed in Google Chrome browser.

To create an adjustable-focus photo with the DSLR, the camera must be set to video mode, then slowly refocused manually. This creates, in effect, a series of images of the same scene with different focal lengths, which can simulate the effect of the Lytro.

A two- to three-second clip can then be uploaded to an online tool developed by the Chaos Collective, which spits out the adjustable depth of field (DOF) image. And voilà, you get an adjustable-focus image with equipment you already have.

The Lytro works best when part of the image is within six inches of the lens, as in the shot above. Lytro said it was happy to see enthusiasm around adjustable depth of field images, but it says that the hack doesn’t work as well as its own camera.

“We’re always excited to see people use any kind of imaging device in this space that revolves around depth. Having said that, I don’t think it’s the same (as a Lytro),” said Eric Cheng, Lytro’s director of photography.

That's because Lytro does more than just refocus images. The company says it creates 3D depth maps behind each Lytro image, using beams of light from the camera’s sensors. Those sensors allow for perspective shift, a new feature in the software update that the company released a few months ago. You can see the effect by clicking and dragging inside Lytro images. As you can see from my tests, the hacked version doesn’t work as well as the Lytro images.

Adam Kumpf, co-founder of The Chaos Collective, says the DOF hack was created and posted within two days and is not meant to replace all the other things a light field camera can do.

On the other hand, Lytro is less successful as a regular camera. In the shots below, you can see how something about a foot from the Lytro can come out only moderately in focus.

Lytro version

Hacked version

Even Cheng says he doesn’t use Lytro for his primary photography tool, because it’s best for a certain type of photo.

The Chaos Collective hack is a good start for photographers who want to play with the technology. A drawback is that video makes moving figures look blurry when they’re combined into a photo. And devices should be mounted on a tripod for the best effect, making the DSLR hack most useful only for static images.

The cat picture below that kicked off a lust for comparison is a good start. When shot without a tripod, the resulting image can be blurry.

A Lytro is capable of capturing dynamic scenes in a changing environment, as in these pictures from the Lytro Website. But it takes practice to get the same sort of photos set up. And in the two days I spent playing with the camera, and despite some limited Lytro coaching, I hadn’t achieved the perfect Lytro photo.

Sidestepping Lytro’s terms of service

Beyond the learning curve, some shooters are less than happy with their Lytro experience. The quality of the photos when saved in JPEG format is a low 1.2 megapixels, and the licensing terms in Lytro’s user agreement read more like those of a social sharing site than  for a piece of equipment.

Lytro licenses all photos shared to its site and prohibits some Lytro photo use. According to one section of its terms of use: "Modifications, derivative works and printing for non-personal use (for example, commercial or political) require our explicit prior consent."

This language was enough to make one Lytro user—photographer Nida Zada of San Jose, Calif.—return her camera. Zada had signed up in advance for a first generation Lytro, but got spooked by the terms of service. For the first time, she bought a camera that she could not use however she liked, which in her view, is a shift away from photography as a public service.

“That’s not what photography’s about,” Zada said. “It captures alarming images and changes society and I didn’t want to back a camera system that wanted to change that.”

Cheng said the company plans to change those terms of use when it adds commercial-grade cameras to Lytro’s lineup, though another consumer-grade camera is planned first. Another common complaint is that Lytro images can only be hosted on Lytro’s servers, at least for now. That’s partially why the Chaos Collective hack allows users to take a photo and embed it however they wish.

“We temporarily host user content out of generosity … but we’ve made sure to include simple instructions for putting DOF-Changeable photos entirely on your own server as well,” Kumpf of The Chaos Collective said in an email. “It gives creators total freedom over their content, and as creators ourselves, we know how important that is.”

Lytro says it wants competitors like Toshiba’s sensor in the marketplace, to try and push adjustable focus images into the mainstream, so they are as easy to work with as JPEGs are today. And Cheng says its next generation camera will have better quality JPEG output. He did not give a release date. “As sensors scale up in demand, you’ll see that translate to picture quality,” Cheng said.

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