If there was one camera that got people talking about the future of digital photography last year, it was the Lytro. Just looking at it you know this isn't an ordinary point-and-shoot digital camera.
The smooth metal, two-tone box--4.4 inches long and 1.6 inches square--strays far away 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 to control 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 nonremoveable, and a Micro-USB port is used for charging and transfers. Inside, though, things get more interesting.
Instead of the traditional sensor designs in other digital imaging devices and cameras, Lytro's camera uses a technology called light-field photography. Without getting too bogged down in the science of it, the technology allows the camera to shoot instantly without the need to focus first. It does this by collecting light from multiple directions, which the camera and processing software translate into what's basically a 3D map of whatever was photographed.
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 focuses or, perhaps even worse, how many shots you got only to find out later that your subject is completely out of focus, and you'll understand why the capability to shoot first and focus later is a breakthrough for snapshot photography.
And if you want to go beyond simple snapshots, the camera has a creative mode, giving users access to the entire 8x optical zoom; the default mode only uses a 3x zoom and is limited to Lytro's default settings. The Creative mode lets you focus up close to objects for macro shots, shoot portraits with background blur, and set the focal point and zoom in and out of the picture while maintaining the focal point to compose your photo.
What you get after you shoot, though, is not a standard photo. Instead, you get what Lytro calls living pictures that allow you to refocus the image over and over again using Lytro's software. 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.
Software plays a major role in shooting, processing, and using the Lytro camera's images. Unlike a regular digital camera that produces JPEG or raw files that can be used with any number of image-editing programs, the Lytro camera creates LFP files--essentially its equivalent to raw files. These files require Lytro's software to offload images from the camera and process them for sharing. This is both good and bad.
The good part is that since you're working with the original image data collected from the camera, Lytro can continue to add new editing tools or develop different ways of interacting with the living pictures. This could also potentially mean that the results you get now from the camera could be improved down the road. As the software gets better, so should your images. A good example of this is that while the current software won't allow you have everything in focus, Lytro says an update coming in the first half of 2012 will allow you to do this. Another software update will add a perspective shift feature that will allow you to slightly change the angle of view of your photo just by clicking and dragging on the image. Do it back and forth and you get a 3D effect.
The bad part is that you're at the mercy of Lytro, the editing capabilities it wants you to have, and its software development schedule. For example, the desktop software requires Mac OS 10.6.6 or higher; there is no Windows version. It's in development (still no firm date yet), but if you're a Windows user, your living pictures will be trapped on the camera since the software is required to offload shots.
Similarly, should you get a really great shot that you'd like to print or use outside of Lytro's player, you can convert the images into small 1.2-megapixel JPEGs. But judging by the current image quality of the living pictures, they likely won't be good for much. The living pictures are meant to be viewed locally on a computer or shared online so that you, family, and friends can poke at them. So really, it's up to you as to whether this or, say, the inability to use your favorite software effects, is a deal breaker.
Lytro is very good at talking about possibilities, while promising nothing. Case in point: Lytro confirmed there is a chip inside with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, but said nothing beyond that. That's fair because I certainly don't want to hear promises of features that will never come. But it's also a big leap of faith when buying a $400 point-and-shoot that someday, maybe will do what you want it to, if and when Lytro gets around to it. Such is life for an early adopter of a first-gen product, I guess.
Editors' note: The Lytro images embedded here were shot by Brian Tong. We will have more information coming soon on new features and capabilities the Lytro camera will have this year, as well as a full hands-on video and test photos.