Three years ago, Lytro unveiled a new kind camera with the goal of revolutionizing cameras and photography forever. At $400, it was a tough sell. Now, Lytro's back with the Illum, a new light-field camera that better resembles and handles like a DSLR. Can the Illum succeed where the original Lytro fell short?
More Camera Like
The original Lytro camera was somewhat of an oddball camera. It was a shaped like a long block and it had a puny little square screen. And you held the Lytro like a telescope, only not up to your eye. It was a weird camera.
The Illum's design goes back to the basics. It has a lens, a grip and a screen on the back, just like a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Nobody will mistake it for a telescope, that's for sure.
Three years is like an eon in the tech world, so of course Lytro's made a boatload of improvements. The Illum uses a custom 40-megaray lightfield sensor, has 8x optical zoom (30-250mm equivalent) that works at f/2.0 throughout, 1/4000 second shutter speed, extreme close-up macro focus, a 4-inch touchscreen, and a hot shoe that's compatible with all major external flashes.
Competing With Smartphones
While the Illum sounds like an absolute technical beast, it may already be too late. They may not have the same kind of image quality, but certain smartphones already let you do the whole "shoot now, adjust focus later" thing.
Smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the certain Nokia Lumia devices with a camera app use software to let you mess around with the focus after a picture's taken. Other devices such as the HTC One (M8) use two cameras to collect depth information.
I've used or tried all of them, and while I can say the effects leave a lot to be desired, they're "good enough" for regular people to use. Just as smartphones have all but replaced point-and-shoot cameras, the same is already happening for the small market that Lytro wants to dominate.
For Enthusiasts Only
Like the original Lytro, the largest barrier is once again pricing. You can preorder the Illum for a whopping $1,499. And that's just a "special introductory price". Regular price will be $1,599. Yes, you'll get a good lens that works at f/2.0 across the zoom range, a high shutter speed, a large touchscreen and all that stuff, but it's hard to deny that $1,500 is still a lot of cash for a very specific kind of photography.
Impressive-looking as the Illum is, I can't see it having mass appeal outside a very limited niche. Specifically creatives and professional photographers who just love this kind of technical nerdery. If you happen to fall into that niche — great. You can preorder it and it'll arrive in July. For everyone else, it might be better to just wait for the tech in your smartphone to mature a little.