Lytro – The Positives and Negatives

Back in June of last year, I read about an amazing new camera created from the award winning thesis of a Stanford University supergeek. A photographer who was testing an early prototype compared the resolution to his other point and shoot cameras, but the Lytro was something that never needed to be focused.

I emailed the company with my interest, put in an order in October and finally I was among the first bunch of recipients to get the camera last week.

The reason I was so interested in the concept is because I shoot interiors and architecture. I thought this would be a wonderful tool, where different elements of an interior or different buildings could be clicked on to accentuate them. That vintage sofa would stand out, that single building on the street could be isolated from the rest. I presumed it would be like the popular tilt/shift effect, only taken a stage further. (Manhattan Henge, Summer of 2011)

I was wrong. Last weekend I was commissioned to shoot a Manhattan office. As I was taking still shots and a video, adding the Lytro seemed like a good idea. Once I had finished taking a 60Mb digital photography, I balanced the flat Lytro (it is fixed at 1/60th second exposure at f2 and only the ASA changes) on the hotshoe and took what the company describes as a “living picture.”

Over the weekend I also took some images of friends and family, indoors and out in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  One thing I will say, is that everyone is either intrigued when they see the camera and thinks it is cool, or knows what it is and thinks you are cool owning one. My photographer friend Philip Mauro (www.philipmauro.com) lives in Greenpoint, so I thought I would take the Hipster trail – the L train- get off on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg and wander down to his house. I must have had 8 people stop me and want to talk about the camera or just tell me, “that’s sick.” I felt like the pied piper with this bright red flute, drawing hipsters and geeks to my object of wonder. Luckily the backstreet route was quieter but Phil’s teenage kids took one look at the Lytro and said, “that is so amazing. Dad can I have one,” before they even knew what it was!

So I suppose the hype and product design is definitely right on the button. The packaging for the Lytro is typical “Applespirational.” White boxes, minimal components beautifully laid out so it is revealed on a plinth. It felt like opening the box which might hold HAL’s back up battery from 2011: A Space Odyssey. The camera feels quite heavy and cold – with the combination of metal body and rubber ends. Apart from having the LYTRO name stamped into the lens cap and below the lens, the only other text is a tiny patent number and the legend “Designed in California. Made in China.” on the base. This phrase may have sounded cool 3 months ago but not so much now, after all the recent negative Apple and Foxconn press.

Lytro Camera Review

Photographed using a Lytro. Photo Credit: Adrian Wilson

The lenscap is just one of the annoying  features of the Lytro. It is magnetic because there was no way to have a screw thread on a square shape (which also means no conventional filters can be attached), but I found it fell off much to easily while being handled. It had no loop so that it could be attached to the camera strap, so expect that sooner or even sooner, that thing will get lost. Scratch the lens on a Lytro and you may as well throw it away. So if that cap comes off in your pocket next to a coin or key and you’re done.

Taking images is easy enough as it is all automatic. Apparently there are different settings, but as the camera came with no instruction manual and clicking on the “menu” button did nothing except give focus and delete options, I never did find any other settings. There is a neat row of raised rubber dots which control the zoom but I found that they are too close to the shutter button and would be used by mistake. The standard view of the lens is probably about the 60 mm equivalent on a full frame SLR and it zooms to about 150mm.

So let’s talk about the images. The biggest fault with the camera is its very low resolution. It is hard to change or spot the change in focus when any part clicked on is so soft or grainy that it looks out of focus anyway. Here is one example http://pictures.lytro.com/AdrianWilson/pictures/24276 and you can see that the image is equivalent to a 1990′s cell phone image with grain, softness and bad edge definition on high contrast areas. Clicking on the main area of the image does not change anything and the effect is only apparent if you click on the light bulb at the top of the image. Despite what was written back in June, this image is in no way comparable to a point and shoot camera. Maybe I am being unfair showing an image from an interior so how about a brighter exterior? Try clicking on the post office lettering or the building far away on the right and I can’t see much change at all: It is all soft focus and that is as bright an image as you will get – a white building with direct sun.

It seems that if all the subject is over about 4 feet away or not well lit, there really is no point using the lytro and there certainly seems little or no professional use for me.

Here are some examples:

Where the Lytro does work is in the same way 1950’s 3D movies work – as an over exaggerated gimmick.

Maybe food photographers and blogs will enjoy the very close up capabilities

I am sure kids will love playing around with extreme portraits as much as Philip and I did.

Click on my stubble or the reflection of the trees in my glasses and it is a wow factor:

or the background and then face here:

But once that wears off and you have posted a few facebook photos, $500 is a lot to pay for a gimmick and I am fairly sure you would want to take your real camera to document your life properly and sharply. Sure, there will be the photobooth and instagram type devotees but would you really accept a camera, even on your cellphone, which looks to be the equivalent of about 1Mp? It’s a shame that the theory, hype and product design is let down by the poor resolution. Everything else is in place and though the company talks about 3d being the next software update, I am not interested in a soft and grainy 3d image either.

If you want to be one of the few people in the world (it’s only available in the US) to own a truly unique and huge leap in camera design which will impress everyone around you, get a Lytro. Look at this shot from HBO where I mistakenly got the Canon’s lens shade in the bottom of the frame and the Lytro can focus on it or the lobby 50 feet away. That is truly amazing.

However, it’s just a photographic gimmick. Like tilt/shift, Lomo, HDR, retrocamera and all the others. Do yourself a favor and do it the old school way. Shoot at f22, not f2 and everything will be in focus all at the same time or even take two or three shots of the same scene with different focus points, combine them in photoshop and make an animated gif.

I, for one, have sold mine already.