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The Continuing Story of Lytro

When Lytro originally announced their revolutionary "light field" camera back in the fall of 2011 I was more than intrigued — I preordered one. Since they were late on releasing software for Windows to go with it, I returned the camera for a refund. Now Lytro is back with their next generation Illum light field camera. Ahh, what to do.

Trees, Lytro style.
Click on the left side, then click on the right side

First off, if you haven't already read the tale of my first encounter with Lytro. I so wanted to love the thing. A light field camera records the path of light rays passing through it in three dimensions rather than merely capturing a projection of those rays focused onto a two dimensional sensor as does a traditional camera. It's unquestionably cool technology. Admittedly, I am a bit of a geek, but this is such an advance on how cameras have been since the beginning of photography as to make it almost more than mere photography. No longer do you need to focus. By capturing the actual paths of light rays the "image" has sufficient data to focus after the fact. You don't move lens elements back and forth to change how those rays project on the sensor, you record everything and computationally do the equivalent of focusing later via software. Lytro terms the result "living pictures." You can click on them and focus to that point. Then click somewhere else and the image refocuses there. Cool technology indeed.

But all this new technology doesn't come without a price. When first released, that price in terms of money was $399 for the base model with 8 GB of built-in memory. A hundred dollars more got you one with double that.

The price in terms of usability though is harder to quantify. Remember, we're talking about first generation technology here. Neither allowed the user to add more memory nor use pretty much any other accessory either. They were sealed boxed (long, rectangular boxes, quite literally) with a lens visible on one end and a tiny LCD screen on the other. There was just a single button to take a picture and pretty much no other control whatsoever other than an on/off switch and an exceptionally well hidden slider to zoom the lens in and out. But since you didn't need to focus, and the aperture was fixed, they tried to keep things simple and left out everything else. No tripod mount socket. No flash hot shoe. You get the idea.

When my pre-ordered Lytro arrived in the spring of 2012, I was in a quandary. Lytro had only released software for Mac OS X so us Windows users were out of luck. And so I returned my original pre-ordered Lytro. Since it was severely crippled without software I could use, it really made no sense to keep it, regardless of how cool I thought it should be. Lytro did finally released Windows desktop software in July of 2012, but by then it was too late. The offered 30-day return period had long since run out.

Fast forward to December 2013. Over time, the price for a Lytro had dropped some and they periodically offered limited time offers for even lower prices. Since Lytro still had me on their mailing list as a Lytro owner (nobody apparently clued them in I had returned mine), I got all sorts of email offers from Lytro. When the price came down to $199 with free shipping for a one-day sale, I bought my second Lytro which I still own.

Mt. Saint Hellens

Unfortunately, I still don't honestly know what to do with it. Yes, I can now take pictures with it and get them out of the camera to my computer, but there are serious limits affecting what pictures I can take with it. As a camera, its poor indeed compared even to many mobile phone cameras let alone digital SLR cameras. No, its sole strength lies in its ability to capture an entire scene in depth, allowing you to focus on the part you want after the fact by clicking on the image. This makes the serious user totally rethink their relationship to photography. Rather than attempting to control aperture and depth of field to do everything possible to convey what is intended to the viewer, the Lytro makes you look for scenes with multiple possible planes of focus, each of which could convey a part of the story. That is, rather than produce a finished work the viewer then looks at, you must create an interactive "image" that the viewer then interacts with to see each part of the story as they click their way around the image.

At least for me, that's the only thing that makes sense. As I say, it seems nuts to try to use one of these as one would a regular camera — it simply doesn't measure up as a regular camera. Instead, I've found myself doing my best to capitalize on the singular selling point that a "light field" camera offers, that of capturing the light passing through the entire scene — and thus its depth — rather than focusing on any one projection of those light rays on a flat sensor plane.

And as of this week, Lytro is releasing their new camera, dubbed the Lytro Illum. Comparing specs, it's a huge step up from the first generation Lytro. Images from my Lytro are sized at 1080 x 1080. The Illum images export as 2450 x 1634 (yes, they are rectangular 2:3 ratio rather than square as mine are). It captures 40 "megarays" rather than just 11 megarays as does mine. And it's shaped much closer to a traditional camera form factor (though not quite) rather than the "stick of butter" shape that mine has. And it has a built-in tripod socket, hotshoe, and more intelligently placed (and more plentiful) user controls. It even has a shutter release cable, a removable battery, and yes, an SDXC/SDHC card slot. Amazing.

But is it enough? Once again, I find myself tempted by the coolness geek factor that Lytro unquestionably has. I held off on pre-ordering the Illum, not wanting to repeat the odd situation that pre-ordering last time resulted in. This even when Lytro was offering current customers a discount on pre-ordering the Illum. I really would rather wait this time, at least until I read more Illum reviews by other photographers. If you have one, I'd love to hear about your experiences with it. If you work at Lytro and want to send me one to evaluate, I wouldn't mind that either of course, but I'm not holding out for that. I am though holding out until I hear real world experiences with Illum by other folks. This time, I'm not among those blazing the trail, but I am quite interesting in whether Lytro has gotten it right with the Illum.

For now at least, I'll resisted the temptation to order an Illum. How long that will last, I can't say. After all, it is cool, and I love cool.

Date posted: August 10, 2014 (updated August 17, 2014)


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Lytro: Very Cool, and not Like Any Camera You've Ever Used Before
The New Lytro Paperweight for Windows, or the Tale of a Disappointed Windows User

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