Lytro light field camera review
Digital cameras haven't really changed since their inception - we might have more megapixels and more sensitive sensors now, but the basic concept has stayed the same. Lytro is looking to do something different with the first consumer Light Field Camera. It captures more than just , which means you can adjust the point of focus after you've taken a picture.
Lytro has been available in the US for over a year, but the camera has finally made its way to the UK. That new technology isn't cheap though, with the basic 8GB Lytro costing a whopping £399. Annoyingly it also costs the same amount in dollars too, when a price nearer £310 would be fair, even including VAT. So just what is Light Field photography all about and is it worth all that money?
FIELD OF DREAMS
Light field photography uses a special sensor and a microlens array between that and the main lens. This combination of elements allows it to capture not only the colour and intensity of light hitting the sensor, but also the direction that light came from. This data is then processed to create what Lytro calls a 'Living Image'.
The Lytro captures an 11-megaray light field, rather than an image measured in megapixels. However, you'll notice the similarity between the megaray figure and the resolution of many standard digital cameras. Essentially the Lytro sacrifices image detail to add depth information to its images. The images themselves only have a 2D resolution of 1,080x1,080 pixels – that's just 1.2 megapixels.
The real fun comes afterwards, as knowing where every point of light in a given scene came from lets you re-focus the image after taking it. You can click on the screen to choose any focus point you like. The software then analyses the captured light field and moves the focus point just as if you'd set the focus there on a standard camera when taking a picture, with depth of field based around the fixed F2.0 aperture. Once processed you can even shift the actual point of view around like a 3D image, though this is limited by the size of the lens array and so only amounts to very small shifts in perspective.
Click to change the focus point or click and hold to change the perspective
Changing the focus point is fun but the lack of sharpness in the final image means that subtler shifts are largely unnoticeable – say picking out an earring in a 3/4 angle portrait rather than the eye of the subject as normal. It works well with split compositions, with one item heavily foregrounded, but this quickly feels like a bit of a one-trick pony.
OUT OF FOCUS
With no focus to worry about the Lytro should be the ultimate point-and-shoot camera, it takes a pic instantly when you press the shutter, but there are other issues. The camera itself looks a little like a blocky flashlight, with the lens at one end and the viewfinder at the other. The shutter button and touch-sensitive zoom slider are at the top, so you can control the camera with one hand. A power button and micro USB port are on the bottom.
On the back is a tiny 1.5in LCD display, which has a very low 128x128 pixel resolution and very poor viewing angles, which cause colour and contrast to shift wildly unless you're looking at it face on. Given the shape of the camera, that's often a challenge. The user interface is purely icon-based, to squeeze as much onto the screen as possible; it's gesture-controlled, with swipes to the left and right to browse photos and a swipe upwards to bring up the menu. Double-tapping a photo in the camera roll will zoom in, or you can use the zoom slider, but both methods require the camera to re-render that portion of the image. It takes between one and two seconds, and even then it's tough to see details on the tiny screen.
It takes some getting used to, as you can accidentally obscure the screen when holding the camera outwards. Instead, we found it best to hold it as if it were an oversized dart - hardly comfortable, but with the best view of the screen. The rubber grip covers about one third of the camera's length, so larger hands may end up spilling over onto the aluminium casing.
You can choose between the two shooting modes. Everyday mode can be used point-and-shoot style, with elements like ISO and shutter speed controlled by the camera. Tapping the screen will set the metering point. Once you've snapped, you can refocus the image as you see fit, from extreme close up to infinity.
Creative mode gives you a little more control, letting you set a specific focus point. The camera then creates a range of focus around your selection, which means greater emphasis on certain details but no way to focus to infinity.
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