Editors' note: On July 24, 2012, Lytro released a Windows 7 (64-bit) version of its desktop software, which is required to offload and process pictures from the light-field camera. The Lytro camera can now be used with Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later and Windows 7 (64-bit) computers. This review and the product rating have been updated to reflect this availability.
The Lytro camera won't be ignored. Just one glance at the arresting design of this long, rectangular device and you'll understand that the Lytro represents a complete rethink of the camera industry as we know it.
Instead of relying on the standard sensor found in other digital imaging devices and cameras, Lytro outfits this camera with an array of microlenses that allow it to capture the color, intensity, and vector direction of rays of light. Called light-field photography, the technology allows the camera to shoot instantly without the need to focus first.
When you press the shutter release, the camera collects light from all directions. Next, the camera's software compiles what's basically a 3D map of the captured image. Once you post the photo, anyone with the URL can refocus the image by clicking on a new area of focus.
The technology is amazing, without question. The radical rethinking of photography holds promise, and we will continue to revise this review as Lytro updates its flagship camera. But my job right here is to tell you whether to buy the Lytro camera. For most of you, the answer is: not yet.
The smooth, two-tone metal box -- 4.4 inches long and 1.6 inches square -- strays far from what you expect a camera to look like. It's basically a metal tube housing its lens with a constant f/2.0 aperture throughout its 8x optical zoom.
Its controls are just as simple, with nothing more than power and shutter release buttons, a tiny touch-sensitive strip for controlling the zoom, and a 1.5-inch touch-screen LCD for adjusting exposure, framing, and viewing. Both battery and memory -- 8GB for about 350 shots or 16GB for 750 shots -- are built in and nonremovable, and a Micro-USB port is used for charging and transfers. There is no tripod mount built in, but you can buy one for about $20 that slides around the body.
At first I found the design awkward to use, but after a while I ended up holding it with two hands like a telescope with the small LCD up in front of my eyes. That actually works well and kept hand shake under better control. That is where you have to keep it because going even a little bit above, below, or to the sides of your eye line basically results in an inverted image, making it very difficult to frame your shot. Never mind that it's ridiculously small for framing shots to begin with.
The zoom strip is both interesting and frustrating. There's not a lot of fine control, but a single long swipe across it will fully extend or retract it. On the other hand, it is placed in such a way that when I would frame shots and put my finger on the shutter release, I would end up accidentally zooming in on my subject. On the upside, the design works for shooting left- or right-handed.
Shooting with the Lytro
Autofocus and shutter lag are huge stumbling blocks for regular point-and-shoot cameras, so eliminating that from the equation is certainly a selling point, even at the camera's high starting price of $399. Ask yourself how many fleeting moments you've missed over the years while your camera was focusing or, perhaps even worse, how many shots you got only to find out later that your subject was completely out of focus, and you'll understand why the capability to shoot first and focus later is a breakthrough for snapshot photography.
However, the big hook for Lytro isn't just focusing after you've shot. It's that you can refocus an image over and over again using Lytro's software, giving you what the company calls a "living picture." Just click on any area of the photo and that portion will come into focus. It gives photos a level of interactivity that can't be matched with a regular camera.
The camera has two shooting modes: Everyday and Creative. Everyday mode lets the camera set the refocusing range -- the distance between objects in the foreground and background that can be refocused. It limits you to about a 3.5x zoom, but doesn't require anything more from you than to point and shoot and, depending on your lighting, tap on your subject to correct exposure.
The Creative mode allows you more control over the amount of blur and is best for when the distance between two subjects is what would normally be too close to focus. It's good for extreme close-ups because it basically lets you rest the lens against your subject. Or if you extend the lens some and zoom in for a portrait, you can get a nice soft and blurry background. This is also the only way to get access to the full 8x zoom, so you can still get close to a distant subject and get a picture with refocus.
I've seen a lot of reader comments about how this is basically a shortcut to creating images that photographers practice to master. That's really not true. This camera actually takes a lot of thought to get a good living picture, let alone an interesting one.
Part of the reason for that is that you have to be very close to your closest (foreground) subject, about 4 to 6 inches. There also has to be some perceivable distance between your closest subject and other (background) subjects. If your subjects are too close together or look like they are on the same plane when you're framing the shot, then you won't have much of a refocusing effect. Again, while it's easy to pick up the Lytro and take a living picture, making one that doesn't suck takes some creativity and knowledge of how to best frame your shot.