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 of 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 to have everything in focus, Lytro says an update coming this year 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 is necessary for transfers, management, and uploads, and it's fairly bare-bones. You're also completely stuck working within its limitations until Lytro updates the software.
For example, given that each LFP file can be upward of 16MB depending on the complexity of the image, it can take some time to transfer. That makes it all the more irritating that there's no preview so you can't choose the images you want to transfer. If you took a hundred photos you know you don't want, you'll have to delete them one at a time on the tiny LCD before you connect to a computer or wait for them all to transfer and then delete them off your computer.
Once they're in your library, you can view them, click around to select the subject you want to focus on, and share. You can upload to Lytro -- public or private -- and send to Facebook. Once they're uploaded to Lytro.com, you can share them on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, or get the embed code and put them in a blog.
When you share them from your library, the last focal point you picked will be the starting focus for everyone who views your living picture. Your friends and family can click on whatever they want, but it always goes back to the story you want to tell after it's refreshed.
The software will also let you quickly convert living pictures into 1,080x1,080-pixel-resolution JPEGs. They're not good for much beyond Facebook sharing, especially low-light shots, but it's something. 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 whether this or, say, the inability to use your favorite software effects is a deal breaker.
Photo quality is a tough thing to judge with this camera. For the most part, if you consider the photos from your iPhone or any other high-end smartphone to be "good enough," you'll likely be pretty satisfied with the Lytro's living picture quality. Yes, at high ISOs/low-light conditions the photos look grainy; again, they're on par with smartphone shots or lower-end point-and-shoots under the same conditions. In this respect, it acts like a normal digital camera: the more light you have, the better your photos will be.
The f/2.0 lens does help, and since it's constant throughout the zoom range, you get the benefit of having more light reach the sensor regardless of how you've framed your shot. However, there's no image stabilization, so you'll still have to hold the camera still when you're shooting, which gets trickier as you zoom in.
Also, while the living pictures do allow you to focus on different subjects in a photo, nothing ever looks really sharp. Well, with one exception: macro shots taken in Creative mode can look reasonably sharp.
Probably my biggest issue with the photo quality is that there's no way to adjust anything except exposure, which you can't even do in Creative mode. I'd settle for just white-balance control because under incandescent and fluorescent lights, it's terrible. Plus, the software currently only allows you to rotate photos and add captions -- that's it for editing. You cannot crop, adjust color or exposure, use your favorite lo-fi filters, or even change a shot to black and white.
There's not much to say about shooting performance with the Lytro. In Everyday mode it does, in fact, shoot instantly. You can press the shutter release to turn on and give it a quick second press to shoot, all in a little over a second.
In Creative mode, where you are actually required to select focus, the lens ends up doing some hunting, which can take some time, and on occasion it wouldn't focus at all and I'd have to tap on my subject again. Chances are, though, if you're in this mode, you've got time.
It's difficult to review and rate a first-and-only-of-its-kind product. The Lytro Light Field Camera does everything that the company says it does. Though Lytro talks about what's possible with the camera and technology, it never promises or, at least, overpromises on what's actually going to be available. 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 to buy a $400 camera 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.
If you need a camera that just takes simple snapshots, captures full HD video, creates large JPEGs, or shoots great low-light photos, there are plenty of those to buy. If you're a gadget-loving early adopter with deep pockets who really likes to compose photos and be creatively different, well, this might be your dream device. Much like 3D cameras, I can see there being a dedicated following of Lytro users creating ever-more complex compositions to show off just what the technology is capable of. It's up to you if you want to be part of that club now, later, or never.