Review: Lytro still in early-adopter territory

lytro, light field photography
Credit: Alice Truong/DVICE

The first time I came across Lytro last spring, a member of the product team explained to me that this revolutionary camera — purported to let you shoot now and focus later — isn't just for early adopters.

This is the much buzzed-about camera that evolved from a PhD dissertation considered one of Stanford's finest. A device that captured new data never seen in an image before. And this is something ordinary folks would use, she continued, emphasizing Lytro's innate ability to shoot in-the-moment photos. Because it can capture the entire light field, this newfangled camera lets you refocus images after the fact, so theoretically shooting required less effort and thought. Made sense to me at the time.

In recalling this moment almost a year later, I decided to pack Lytro into my bag as I was heading on holiday. About mid-way through my two-week reprieve from work, I realized just how entirely frustrating it was to try to use this as a vacation camera with its awkward form factor, small screen and cumbersome controls. This is not to say I don't see Lytro's lure, but the experience proved to me that this is still very much in early-adopter territory.

Lytro’s limitations

lytro, light field photography

Lytro's often referred to as camera 3.0, following film (1.0) and digital (2.0). Though a trailblazer, its focus later prowess is so mainstream now that it has even inspired copycats, albeit from consumer electronics behemoths, such as Toshiba. By capturing a wealth of information — we're no longer dealing with megapixels, but instead megarays, or millions of light rays captured by the sensor — we're able to see images like never before. Partly effective marketing, the company refers to these as "interactive living pictures," which take on the proprietary light field picture (lfp) file format.

While Lytro requires us to think differently about photography in a number of ways, the single characteristic that requires the most adjustment is the unconventional shape.

lytro, light field photography

Designed to be held — more so gripped — by the dominant hand, Lytro sports a rectangular prism shape (at 1.61-by-1.61-by-4.41 inches). Different for the sake of being different, this form factor and one-handed approach make for occasionally shaky shooting — and motion blur is something you can't refocus after the fact. When it comes to shooting, the camera excels at macro photography with 8x optical zoom and a minimum focusing distance of zero. Still, even at its widest, it's impossible to take any good scenery. (Subpar images below)

The other limitation with the long shape is the small LCD display. Reliving the living picture you just snapped is stymied by a teeny square screen and grainy results (yes, even in megarays). Shooting itself isn't a piece of cake. With the exception of the shutter and zoom, everything else is controlled on the touchscreen, which measures 1.52 inches diagonally.

Last fall, Lytro introduced manual controls, but adjusting the settings on such a small piece of glass is challenging, especially if fat fingers are involved. Hell, it’s even difficult for my dexterous tiny fingers. I eventually relied entirely on auto, but I have to say that regardless of my settings, my photos rarely came out well. Images are never quite as sharp as I want them to be, and the colors are often much more muted than in reality. When I first got glimpse of interactive pictures, I was often wowed — distracted even — by this refocusing technology. But now, when I look through the examples on Lytro's website, I pay more attention to how the "stills" look. Zooming in on these frozen living pictures, I see low-quality images I don’t desire to share.

Closed ecosystem

lytro, light field photography

But let's say I do want to share my photos. There's something very unsettling about hosting such images solely on Lytro's servers. This bothers me because it feels like my photos are no longer mine. If I want to distribute them as living images, I have to go through Lytro for both image hosting and to use its player. Parts of its terms of use further amplify my concern (emphasis mine):

We do not claim ownership of your living pictures; they are yours. To enable us to operate and provide its services and functionality, with respect to content that you submit to you grant us a non-exclusive, fully-paid, royalty-free, worldwide, sublicensable and transferable license to:
  • Copy, store, display, and distribute such content;
  • Modify and create derivative works of such content by using our light field picture player or another player approved by us. We may allow our users and visitors to create other modifications or derivative works and print your content for their personal use;
  • Transmit copies of such content to, and embed and display such content on, other websites, including our social channels such as Facebook and Twitter;
  • Display the Lytro trademark with such content; and
  • Display and feature in public areas of, at our discretion, certain of your public living pictures selected by us.

Also, reasonably, Lytro reserves "the right to impose, from time to time, limitations on users' accounts such as, for example, number of accounts per user, amount of free storage, or limitations on the number of pictures in your account." Prolific Lytro shooters might find no avenue to display large quantities of their work, another point illustrating how your images don't feel like yours. Of course, there's always the non-ideal option to export a puny, listless 1080-by-1080 pixel JPG as well — and you're free to host that wherever.

This is only an issue because Lytro's sitting on the cutting edge. Our existing technology can't support this proprietary file format, and we simply don't have any other way to present such data. It irks me that I can't manage these images with Lightroom or Aperture or edit them in Photoshop, but that's because such software aren't equipped to do so. It's perhaps a bit wishful to hope a Lytro plug-in could arrive for our favorite photo apps instead of having to use the bundled software.

Untapped potential

lytro, light field photography

With all that aside, what excites me about Lytro is its potential. With the vast amount of data captured, it can do things even our eyes can't, such as the ability to focus on objects so close that they're directly in front of or on the lens itself. Shooting and refocusing will continue to be the highlight of this camera, but there are others in the works as well. Since its debut, the folks in Mountain View have slowly turned on a few more features, the latest being perspective shift and living filters. The former lets you see images in a new light by letting viewers shift the camera's perspective slightly from all directions depending on the depth of the photo. Living filters will satisfy the Instagram fans among us, except in this case, these robust filters will add much more dimension to photos. Notably, both of these can apply to all Lytro images since the light field picture format is extensible to support future capabilities with a simple update to the desktop software.

Visually, the output of Lytro leaves a lot to be desired and points to its impracticality. The $399 to $499 price tag is hard to justify if you're looking for a solid, reliable everyday camera. But it's not for early adopters excited about its technology and possibilities. We’re still tapping into Lytro’s potential, and other cool features are just waiting to be unleashed. I might never shoot anything truly amazing with Lytro, but I'm hoping to be stunned with completely new ways of viewing and thinking about photography.

All images taken by Alice Truong for DVICE.

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