If you haven’t heard about the Lytro, start with our introduction to the camera.
As a refresher, the Lytro is a digital camera like no other. Instead of merely capturing “flat” light – colour and brightness – the camera’s sensors are capable of measuring the trajectory of the light itself. The big advantage to this is that the whole notion of what is in focus at the time you take the photo becomes irrelevant as focal distances can be decided after-the-fact and altered using software to suit your needs.
When the company announced its first product last year, it was clear from the beginning that they were onto something huge. Their demo “living photos” were very impressive displays of what the technology could do, and the cameras themselves were as different in their design when compared to traditional cameras as their photos were.
But as with any new technology, the truest test is how it fares when put through its paces by reviewers out in the real world.
The Lytro seems to have passed the test – though not without a few caveats.
In The Verge’s review, David Pierce notes that “the effect is amazing but the photos aren’t.” His experience with the Lytro shows that while the camera definitely does what is says it can do, it can’t do it reliably under all shooting conditions, with low-light being an especially challenging scenario.
There are some minor quibbles with the overall design of the Lytro itself, but Pierce reserves his biggest criticism for the camera’s screen which he deems too small and “kind of terrible.”
Walt Mossberg over at All Things D, is equally upbeat about the Lytro’s technology but doesn’t seem as concerned as Pierce when it comes to the camera’s physical attributes. He does however make the point that there is a learning curve when it comes to taking good photos with the Lytro – words to remember for those who are eager to get their hands on one.
Both reviewers note that the engineers behind the Lytro plan to release software updates in the future that will further enhance the camera’s capabilities without necessitating a hardware upgrade which should be comforting for those looking to be first in line for the ground-breaking device.
What Lytro’s debut proves more than anything is that the technology is real, it works and it’s the most amazing advance in photography since the beginning of photography itself. And, as with any technology, there is plenty of room for improvement. With any luck, Lytro will succeed in licensing its innovations to major manufacturers and in the future we’ll all be snapping “living photos” regardless which camera we happen to choose.
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.
Ever wonder what drives someone to undertake an enormous challenge? I sure do. I wonder what drives people to climb mountains, run across deserts or swim vast tracts of ocean. Frankly, most of the time I’m suspicious of their level of sanity. That’s because the only way you’ll ever get me to run any distance is to set a pack of wild dogs on me.
I’ll never really understand what pushes them – these incredible feats of physical endurance can only be accomplished through a personal determination that few of us can relate to.
And as impressed – and often awed – as I am by these exploits, I’m also somewhat saddened that there are only two products of these kinds of monumental endeavours: a deep sense of personal achievement for the person who completed the effort (and anyone who helped them) and – not to be underestimated – the inspiration their success provides others.
But sometimes, a monumental effort can lead to an enduring legacy that can be shared by all. The Photopic Sky Survey is a great example.
The Survey is a 5,000 megapixel photo of the entire night sky and the largest, all-sky, true-colour survey of the visible universe ever created. It exists online and can be viewed from any angle, with or without an overlay of constellations and major stars and nebulae. And it was done by one man – with a little help from his dad.
Go ahead, check out Nick Risinger’s work, I’ll wait.
The Survey was brought to my attention by a colleague, who simply sent me an email with a link to the interactive page. He didn’t give me any background or other info. Just the link.
My immediate thought was, wow, I just love that organizations like NASA or the European Space Agency pull together images from the Hubble Space Telescope or other multi-million dollar observation platforms and compile it in such a way that we can zoom all over the starry skies with nothing more than our laptops. Ain’t science awesome?
But shortly after that I clicked the “about” link, and that’s when my jaw dropped.
This gorgeous and humbling experience wasn’t created by any government-funded scientific organization, or even by a well-endowed private think-tank. It was assembled, as a labour of love, by a single person with a personal determination that few of us can relate to.
The hundreds (thousands?) of hours it took Mr. Risinger to complete his task, the endless nights he spent monitoring the progress of his equipment as the custom-built camera rig traced the passage of stars across the sky, capturing photons that had been travelling billions of years before reaching earth – you can read about all of this on his site. It’s nothing short of amazing.
Thanks Nick Risinger. Your incredible effort has left an enduring legacy that can be shared by all.
Now, Nick I hate to sound ungrateful, but any chance you could make it iPad compatible? It was meant for that device. :-)