Friday, December 2, 2011

Another look at the Lytro Light Field Camera

Note: Cross posted from Rubble.

From 2011-12 (Dec)
Thanks to Sean S. for spotting this one!

Wired took a look at the Lytro camera through the eyes of two professional photographers…  I suspect the article may have been written from a press release, but there is some useful information there.

The first time I posted about this camera, there were a couple questions I had.  One question was how pro photographers felt about it after having a chance to take it out for a decent field test.  The second question was about the camera’s unique shape and whether or not this was a good or bad thing.  The Wired article suggests some answers to those questions.

As for the former, “ recently chatted with photographers Stephen Boxall and Richard Koci Hernandez, who have been using the Lytro for two months and four months, respectively.”  As I said, this article actually had more of a press release chat, with quotes from the photographers presented by Lytro rather than asked by Wired, a feeling not helped by the fact that Boxall’s images are featured on the Lytro web site (perhaps Boxall’s too, but I didn’t click through very far), but let’s see what they say anyway…

Mostly they talk about how simple the camera is to use and Hernandez says that he “loves seeing the reactions of his friends and family as they’re viewing the light-field pictures he’s taken.”  These would be the digital images on his computer, of course, not prints, because the reactions are to the novelty of clicking around the image, refocusing it…

Yes, that can be fun.  For a minute or two.  A few seconds for each photo.  But, it also feels pretty gimmicky. 

My interest is in creating beautiful, static images.  Obviously, especially depending on the shooting environment, especially in a fast paced environment where you have little to no time to set up and frame your shots, this after the fact editing capability seems like a very useful tool.  Having this functionality in a camera would have been great while out shooting the recent Occupation protests. 

However, for the landscapes and for most of the photography I shoot, I have all the time in the world to set up my shots.  Those mountains aren’t going anywhere for millions of years.  In these cases, it is the quality of the final print I am the most interested in and not the ability to change the focus of the photo after the fact in editing.

Which leads into another question I had about these images.  Okay, we get it… “These micro-lenses capture up to 11 million rays of light.”  Very exciting.  A big number, very spectacular.  But what does that mean?  Really?  How does this compare to megapixels?  What sort of prints am I going to be able to make with these images?

Here is where the pros knock a little enthusiasm out of the sails.  The article indirectly quotes Hernandez as saying, “the living pictures the Lytro camera takes are square-shaped, and most closely proximate a 6MP to 8MP image.”

Now that is not terrible.  As Ken Rockwell points out, “even the cheapest cameras have at least 5 or 6 MP, which enough for any size print.”  Though I am concerned that, with the square shape, cropping these images into more traditional print proportions may further effect the resolution. 

Again, probably not too much of an issue for several varieties of photography, fine when the trade off is being able to focus the photos later in editing when shooting in high pace, frenetic environments where I might not be able to get the perfect shot without such capabilities (compromise is always an issue when editing with traditional digital photos shot in these environments). 

Still, I think when it comes to my landscapes, I’d prefer to keep the megapixels.  Because, often, in those situations my editing is usually more about cropping than it is about focusing.  All to often I’ll notice, when I sit down and look at the image on my screen, that the real picture wasn’t the one I was shooting, but a detail in the frame itself.  Different eyes at a different time, dealing with the low resolutions of the on camera screen, etc.   There are many reasons why this happens and there is definitely some flexibility to be lost in editing when dealing with a five to eight megapixel image.

So, bottom line, where do the pros stand?  Well, suspecting the source of these quotes is a press release, obviously they are pretty enthusiastic.  But I do notice making a point, when it comes to resolution, that they refer to “living pictures” and not photographs, separating these images from a traditional photograph. 
And, as the Wired writer says, “In its current form, this camera is a great tool for the amateur photographer, these two professionals suggest.” 

That is where my opinion is leaning on this camera, too.  Maybe, though, I’d step it down a notch from “amateur photographer” to casual user.  Kids, family reunions, weekend trips to the zoo… 

Although, I think I would also consider throwing one of these cameras, even in its current form, into my bag as a second camera.  My thoughts, I am setting up in a field, taking pictures of mountains in the distance, when a herd of elk wander through.  I grab the Lytro, get some fun, closer up, dynamic photos of the critters with narrow depths of field and funky focuses, then turn back to the traditional camera and take the picture of the landscape and geology.

The second question I asked at the top of this piece has to do with the shape of the camera.  For those who haven’t seen one yet, here is an image from the Lytro web site

As I wrote in my first post:
Some of my concerns have to do with the actual physical design of the camera itself.  Was the design influenced more by the marketing department or by actual, working professional photographers?
I had a pretty negative initial reaction to the shape of the camera, but after playing with its possibilities in my head for a bit, it is growing on me... slowly and slightly.  I'd have to use one for a day to really know if I like it or not.
Now I notice a little hic-up in the Wired article on the design.  The writer throws this out, sounding like she is plagiarizing a Lytro press release, “Hernandez is also a fan of the Lytro’s unique design.”  A closer look at the words that follow make Hernandez seem a bit more ambivalent on the shape.   He is indirectly quoted as saying “he sometimes doesn’t know quite how to hold it.”

When it comes to design, while there is no actual right form or shape for things, there are shapes and forms that daily users of items are familiar with and have built up long muscle memory over years of use.  When I am in a high paced environment and am grabbing my camera to take a picture that will only be available for a fleeting few seconds at most, I want that muscle memory to work. 

I don’t need to fumble with my camera and have to pause to remind myself where the shutter button is, I need the camera to feel like a natural extension of my body, like all the other cameras I’ve been using for the last 30 years…  If it is not, I run the risk of missing my shot. 

And since this sort of high paced environment is the type of environment where  I suspect I’d be using this camera the most?  Well, If this happened more than once or twice, I think the new camera would end up living in my bag and rarely seeing the light of day.

All in all, it is hard to say.  I would love to play with one of these for a day.  I might even like to have one, as I said, as a second camera. 

Another possibility that does excite me a bit is suggested by this article as well, that this technology might be merged into more traditional cameras, adding to the traditional camera’s capabilities instead of replacing them.  Now that sounds like the true photography revolution they are trying to hype the current Lytro camera as.

Until then, however, it still feels more like an entertaining gimmick to me at this point.

Lytro Camera: How Pro Shooters Use Its Amazing Lens Technology | Gadget Lab |

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