Lytro’s light field camera: first look

Posted on March 25, 2012 by Jon Arnold

A couple weeks ago at SXSW, I got to see the Lytro folks showing off their new “light field camera.” In case you haven’t heard of this, it’s a new type of camera that captures light data (a.k.a. “light fields”) rather than light focused on a 2D plane like all cameras – digital or film – have done for the last 150+ years.

Lytro light field camera

CameraSim is not really a tech/gadget blog, but the Lytro camera represents such a profound development in the history of photography that I feel compelled to document it here.

But I’ll keep it short. Here is what I saw:

Shoot now, focus later

This is without a doubt the killer feature. Because the camera captures light fields, you focus after you’ve taken the photo. You focus using the camera’s touch-enabled LCD, or with the bundled software after transferring the photos to your computer (mac-only for now). In that way, what RAW is to “exposure,” light fields are to “focus.”

Great design

Put simply, this camera is sexy. It weights about as much as a smart phone, and with few controls (only a shutter button and strip where you slide to zoom) it is not intimidating to use. It’s almost Apple-like.

I did have some nitpicks, however.

Tiny touchscreen

The small touchscreen makes interacting with your photos on the camera rather tedious, and it’s not a very impressive display from a color or resolution standpoint either. Granted, my eyes are accustomed to Apple’s retina display, but it just seems like Lytro cut a corner here.

Low, low rez

You can export standard 2D images (JPG, PNG, etc.) but only at 1.2 megapixels. This will of course improve in future versions, but I’ve not been limited to resolution like that since 1997.

No motion blur

This can be good or bad. Light field technology captures all kinds of data in that precise moment, but it doesn’t currently capture data over a span of time. In other words, you can’t do any long shutter stuff like motion blur, light streaking, etc.

Square photos

I might learn to appreciate this somehow, but I don’t like that the photos are square. It just seems like Lytro threw composition out the window, or perhaps they intended it to be yet another task offloaded to when your photos are on your computer.

These nitpicks are unfair because I’m comparing the Lytro to my DSLR camera, and even Lytro says that this camera is not a DSLR replacement. It’s an amazing device, and I’m eager to see how it fits into the photography landscape in the coming years.

If you want to geek out for a several minutes, check out the Lytro presentation videos below:


Taking a photo with the Lytro light field camera

The Lytro light field camera software

Shifting perspective in a Lytro light field photograph

Sharing a Lytro light field photo

  • Andrew Bowness

    The first generation of anything tends to be a bit rough around the edges, but technology like this makes me feel like we’re living in the future.

    • Jon Arnold

      Andrew, that’s a good way to put it. There were a lot of gasps and applauses during Lytro’s presentation that day…it was pretty exciting.

  • Chris Washburn

    a finished print.. no matter what brand or make of camera.. canon, nikon or lytro will still look pretty much identical in the end….

    imho, a lytro is like going to a food court instead of just going to regular restaurant …. you just have more focus choices… other than tech savy folks, photogs and nerds alike… my mom would be impressed with maybe for 5minutes before putting it down, and moving back to her point&shoot….

    • Durand

      On the contrary, I think it might get more popular with the general public rather than photographers. You can’t really be as creative with it but for most people who just want to take a photograph and not worry about how it will turn out this will be perfect.

  • Anonymous

    I heard of this before, and I agree that this could potentially be revolutionary; it definitely it different from how photos were taken for decades.
    I used a digital camera first in 1994. Of course it was laughed at, compared to film at the time. But look today, 19 years later. What happened to film? (yes, let’s not get into that discussion, but I think you get my point.)
    I see the same possible here, but it depends a lot on the consumers. Most readers of this site are probably ‘elite’ in the sense that they know about exposure and depth of field. Regular birthday snapshot photographers what two things: “well lit and everything in focus”. The artistic effect of selective focus is lost on most people. That said, “fake blurring” like in instagram or similar apps enters the mainstream toolkit, and this may make this technology very interesting. Lytro will have to do a good job marketing and explaining that to the world.

    Thanks for the preview of the first generation. I’m very curious where this will be in a few years!

  • PerrynBecky

    Don’t think my D3100 has any worries of being replaced by this. Sorry, but I am not impressed. The images are extremely blown out and flat. I don’t see the appeal.

    • Anonymous

      Apples and oranges Perryn, you’re completely missing the point. This is a new technology and a completely new way of approaching the art of capturing light. It’s not meant to replace your dslr camera. And if you aren’t impressed then I think you probably don’t really understand what’s going on here.