Welcome to the World of Light Field Photography
A few months ago I was alerted (thanks again Simon) to the development and planned launch of what was reported as a potential game-changer in photography called the 'Lytro'. If you follow the @CaptureNZ account, or read the side columns, you may already know that on Monday I got one, via that well known 'delivery only to an American address' route. (Cheers to my cousin's hubby and family also.)
The box sat on my desk for a bit while I contemplated what might come out of it. Truly new technology has this tendency to create a sense of expectation that the actual product is hard pressed to live up to. Would it have arms and make me coffee? Well, maybe this is just me.
The Lytro Camera was the result of research by a team at Stanford University headed up by Ren Ng, who is now the founder and CEO of Lytro, advancing work on the Light Field (Plenoptic) Camera technology first proposed by Gabriel Lippmann in 1908. The technical details take some time to come to terms with, and if you are serious about getting into the depths of the technology, I recommend you read first the abbreviated Tech Report, then Ren's Dissertation on the subject from 2006. All 203 pages of it. If you could write me a summary and send it to the email below, that would be great.
Here's the abstract from the tech report;
This paper presents a camera that samples the 4D light field on its sensor in a single photographic exposure. This is achieved by inserting a microlens array between the sensor and main lens, creating a plenoptic camera. Each microlens measures not just the total amount of light deposited at that location, but how much light arrives along each ray. By re-sorting the measured rays of light to where they would have terminated in slightly different, synthetic cameras, we can compute sharp photographs focused at different depths. We show that a linear increase in the resolution of images under each microlens results in a linear increase in the sharpness of the refocused photographs. This property allows us to extend the depth of field of the camera without reducing the aperture, enabling shorter exposures and lower image noise. Especially in the macrophotography regime, we demonstrate that we can also compute synthetic photographs from a range of different viewpoints. These capabilities argue for a different strategy in designing photographic imaging systems.
Basically, it does magic stuff. Try clicking on the 13 below which is out of focus and see what happens.
You can also double click to zoom in, and move the photo around to see close ups of different areas or objects.
Similarly, if you didn't already try it, the ship in the top photo will become clearer, and the glass will go out of focus.
In reality I can see (mostly) how they do this, but the fact it stores the focal points of every object in the photo, and then refocuses at the position you click is really a level of cleverness that may indeed make this the game-changer it was said to be.
In terms of usability, right down to its packaging, the Lytro seems to draw heavily from an Apple style 'out of the box' design ideology. You can turn it on and start shooting immediately. Mine came with an already half-charged battery. The software (Apple Os X only so far) installed easily, and does all the processing and so on you might want. Including connecting you to the Lytro gallery. (Where all images are stored for sharing purposes using their proprietary software, through either Facebook or a new account.)
Once you've taken your photos, just load them on the computer, review them in the Lytro viewer and then share the ones you want to on the Lytro gallery. Through this they have handy share links for Facebook, Twitter, and fortunately for us at Public Address, HTML friendly embed scripts. I only had to fiddle with it a tiny bit to make it expand to full column width.
Yep, it works.
Moving past the squee...
However, I have to admit I was expecting a bit more. Perhaps this is the unfamiliarity of the technology making it a challenge to get the best out of it. Or maybe it is the fact that even in the brightest of conditions, the images have some limitations with regards to depth of field and genuine sharpness of the different objects. The statue above seems quite crisp when it comes into focus, but the trunk at the front was obviously not quite in the light field. No doubt I'll get better at it over time.
Also the 2.5cm sq screen and viewfinder is at the back of an 11cm long box, and as soon as you get an unusual angle of attack on a shot, this is a little hard to see. Not to mention the ratio of thumb to screen being somewhat ridiculous in my case.
The other features such as on-screen viewing and editing are limited, but work well enough. At 16.1mb per image though, if you take more than 10 photos at a time, you will want to go mow the lawns, have a shower and make a cup of tea, while it processes them.
Finally, I can't help thinking I'd have paid a bit more, maybe even several times as much, for something that is more like a DSLR with a Light Field lens attachment. This first consumer version is perhaps intentionally a bit Lytro-lite, and will be great for Facebook users and people running pretty blogs (cough), but for serious photographers there is a danger they will look at the technology and go 'Great, but why put a Hasselblad idea in an Instamatic?'
For all that, you couldn't take my Lytro away any more than you could my Kodachrome, so while the shine is still on, here's some more images to play with.
The whole collection is available through the CaptureNZ page on Lytro, and I'll be adding to it as the opportunities, and ideas, present themselves.