Russian Soldier on Red Square, Moscow © Images, all rights reserved

Russian Soldier on Red Square, Moscow. With Lytro you could focus on the blue baret instead. But what's the point?

Something exciting seemed to happen in photography land. What if you could decide on the focus of an image afterwards?

That sounded like crazy, but Lytro used some existing technical possibilities for a new way of looking at light. They posted some flash movies where you can click on an out of focus part of an image which automagically would refocus on that spot.

Or least it appeared so.

For several months the photographers around the world were made curious: what would the camera be, would it cost $20,000? What could I do with these images? Which lens system will it use?

This week the announcement was made: the Lytro camera is out and for sale for $399 (8gb storage) or $499 (16bg storage).

From their press release:

Unlike conventional cameras, the Lytro light field camera captures all the rays of light in a scene, providing new capabilities never before possible, such as the ability to focus a picture after it’s taken. The pocket-sized camera, which offers a powerful 8x optical zoom and f/2 lens in an iconic design, creates interactive ―living pictures‖ that can be endlessly refocused. The camera is available in two models and three colors, starting at $399

It is clear from the comments on the Lytro blog that many if not most potential users have been very disappointed.

I also got the pre-order email (with a non-working link/code), which would give me access to pre-order the camera, which would be shipped in spring 2012. But then I started to look at the specifications and specifically the lack thereof. Let me make a list of positive and negative points about the new Lytro Camera as I can see them now:

+ What I like

  • New technology: it is just great if smart people come up with ways to re-define an old technique. Well done.
  • The size/form of the camera. Small and unobtrusive, which does not look like a camera at all. Great for stealth photography
  • I like the simplicity. One button operation, seems like a 21st century Holga/Lomo.
  • 8x zoom is probably nice, but see comments below.
  • F2 aperture across the zoom is very ice, as low as my 135mm Canon L lens
  • The format: images are square, which to me is limiting in an interesting and creative way.
  • The price: as mentioned above, such new technology could have cost 10 times as much and would not have surprised me.

Still the positive points don’t matter much as this point in time. Here are the negative points:

– What I don’t like

– Technical & practical aspects:

  • Mac-only software. I mean come on. I have Mac & Windows computers, but I edit all images on Win7 64 as the machine is simply faster and better. Doesn’t matter which platform you prefer, no Windows version (will come ‘in 2012’) is simply ridiculous. No go there.
  • Still the resulting images will apparently be put online using Flash, which leaves out all flash-blocked browsers (like my Firefox) including the new Windows 8 Metro version as well as iPads, iPhones etc.
  • There are 2 versions, the only difference  is $499 for 16gb, which is $100 extra for 8gb extra memory. That is theft and very typical for Apple products.
  • 3 Nepali kids in the Khumbu valley © Images, all rights reserved

    3 Nepali kids in the Khumbu valley. with Lytro you could focus on the wall behind them if you wanted.

    Of course, this comes together with not being able to actually replace the flash memory (else you would be able to upgrade yourself for 1/10th of the extra costs). But this has additional negative results: you can only take 350/75o images before you need to transfer them to a Mac. Not useful for long trips and once the flash storage is corrupt (yes that happens), you have a $399 paperweight.

  • Then again, it probably doesn’t matter much as the battery is also not replaceable. What? Yes. You cannot take an extra battery with you. This is not an outdoor camera as you need your plugs nearby. You cannot plan to take it into the wild, to cold places or to countries without electricity (1.6 Billion people live off the electric grid). Batteries age quickly, I have a mobile phone that needs a new charge every day, but I can replace the battery. Not with the Lytro, once the battery is dead -> paperweight.

– Commercial/marketing decisions:

  • I need to decide withing a week if I want to be one of the ‘few’ that gets the camera before the rest of the world. Still it will only be delivered in a few months, so basically the first adopters get to finance the entire production.
  • Again, also this does not matter: as suddenly it is only for US customers, with a US credit card, so I could not even order it  even if I wanted (and why was I invited anyway, they knew where I was from and what operating system I use?)
  •  My images will be hosted publicly online and can be embedded by anyone anywhere? I guess it is the Youtube business model, with ads around my images etc. No thanks.
  • Rights-grabbing terms: Lytro can use my images to sell their products? Big No go.
  • In addition, our first camera owners will enjoy free storage for the light field pictures they’ve uploaded to” So this means that the only way for a later buyer who is a windows user to share the images is to have to upload them on a paid website?

– Limited useful technical info:

More questions are raised than answered by the press release and website. What photographers want to know is:

  • What does 8x zoom mean if no start or endpoint is given?
  • How big will the images be in pixels?
  • What does ‘HD’ mean with square images? 1920×1920? 1080×1080? 720×720?
  • What does the software do? What can it not do? How big are the flash files and how many focus points are actually in one?
  • Can I make prints from my Mac (and later PC), choosing my point of focus?
  • ISO speed & light sensitivity of the camera? Can this be chosen, if so, what limits? What about the sensor quality? Light limitations?
  • What about motion blur?
  • Can I set the shutter speed to ‘freeze’ or blur a waterfall, sports or animal?

Conclusion: will I buy one?

Chinese border guard at Nepal -Tibet border © Images, all rights reserved

Chinese border guard at Nepal -Tibet border. I wanted the background to be blurry, it is part of the story and do not want the viewer to refocus.

I think it will be a nice gadget. But in the end of course the images are what make the difference and maybe there is the biggest question mark for now. I checked plenty of images on the Lytro Image gallery (once I figured out I needed to allow flash in my browser to actually see something), but have seen absolutely zero nice images that made me think: wow, I need that.

I have seen no Lytro examples that have more than 3 or 4 different planes of focus, definitely not infinite, it almost seems like 4 different focuses images were merged in a simple flash file. And -maybe the worst-: none of the examples is actually sharp/in focus at all, in any part and at any ‘re-focus point’.

Besides all the pointless omissions (no windows software, no useful tech info, no replaceable battery or memory – can anyone see some Mac parallels there?), I just don’t see the point of the system as it is now.

I don’t want others to embed my photo’s in their Facebook page anyway, but definitely don’t want them to re-focus something that I focused on purpose. It can make a great image useless because suddenly the dreamy bokeh turns out to be your aunt picking her nose. No Thanks. What if you want everything to be in focus? The only fun way this could work is probably in porn, by hiding naked people in bushes, giving the FaceBook moderators a hard time (no pun intended).

As a user & photographer, I want to be able to print full size prints; I do not want to pay to have some small images on the Lytro site or else have to show how I can refocus on the 4cm Lytro screen itself. Half the people won’t even be able to tell that something is or is not in focus at that size.

It is a bit unfair to review something I have not even touched, let alone used. I welcome new technology and probably down the line a professional variation will get my creativity going. Let’s wait what version 2 brings unless the marketeers of Lytro have killed it before that by limiting the system, its practical usage or by some copyright and/or advertising scandals.

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Chinese border guard at Nepal -Tibet border © Images, all rights reserved

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