True paradigm shifts don’t happen often, but when they do they have the power to change our entire way of thinking about a given subject.
Today’s story comes from the field of photography.
As any amateur shutter bug will tell you, other than image composition (how you frame up your subjects in the camera’s viewfinder), focus and depth of field are the most powerful tools in a photographer’s creative arsenal.
When you get ready to take a photo, the first thing you need to decide is where your focus will be. For most of us, the habit of depressing the shutter button half-way to initiate the auto-focus before triggering the capture process is second nature: Choose your subject, focus on it, snap!
The combination of focus and the aperture you’ve chosen leads to the effects we’ve all become familiar with: Portraits where the only the subject is in sharp focus and everything else is soft, landscapes where the entire image is in focus letting you see every detail of a mountain or field, and those clever in-between shots where the foreground and background are hazy but the middle distance is sharp.
These creative choices have to be made by the photographer at the time of the shutter-click.
Everything else – colour, contrast, even exposure can be modified after-the-fact in programs like Photoshop.
Until today that is.
Welcome to world, Lytro, a company founded by Stanford University Ph.D. grad, Ren Ng. Ng and his small team have been working quietly for the past few years to develop a technology known as Light Field Capture.
According to Lytro’s website, “the light field is a core concept in imaging science, representing fundamentally more powerful data than in regular photographs.” What this means in practical terms, is that any camera equipped with a light field sensor is capable of capturing much more than colour and intensity which are the two data points acquired by a typical digital camera’s CMOS or CCD sensor. The light field sensor camera “captures the color, intensity and vector direction of the rays of light. [emphasis added]”
When your camera knows this much information about the scene you’ve captured, it can yield astonishing effects – the most immediately thrilling of which is that you can change your focal distance after you take the photo.
It’s a little hard to appreciate what this means until you’ve seen it in action. Thankfully Lytro has provided some sample images for us to play with.
Take a look at the image below. See how the focus is on the toy that the black cat is playing with in the foreground? Okay, now click on the grey cat in the background.
I know, right? It’s kind of mind-blowing. It’s as though we are still in the process of framing up a photo that hasn’t been taken, and we’re adjusting the focus on the camera. It’s not purrfect (sorry couldn’t resist) – the very furthest objects like the couch remain soft even after clicking on them, but you can see the potential this technology has.
When I showed this example to a few colleagues around the office, the reaction was mixed. Some were thrilled, but others bemoaned the technology as a “cheat.” Their premise being that one of the core skills you need to acquire as a photographer is understanding the correct application of focus and depth of field. They’re right. Or at least, they used to be right.
Lytro has fundamentally changed the way we can now approach our images. No longer are their major attributes locked in place when we push the shutter button. They have become dynamic – “Living Pictures”, to use the term that Lytro has adopted. Lytro plans to bring the first light field sensor camera to market later this year.
And like it or not, I suspect that in less than 5 years, every digital camera on the market will be using this technology. You’ll be able to enable or disable it as you see fit, but most people will leave enabled, for the same reason that most people shoot in full colour instead of black and white. You can always switch to black and white later if you want to, and likewise with light field – you can always change your focus later if you want to.