Lytro: Focus on the future

This week, the revolutionary Lytro camera starts shipping in the U.S. It offers mindboggling re-focusing possibilities and a whole new take on photography. Will it also lead to a re-think of underwater photography?

Posted on Mar 7, 2012

With the Lytro camera, you don't have to worry about getting your focus right - you can re-focus the image as many times as you like after you have shot it! Not only does this offer a whole new way of shooting images - it challenges the entire concept of photography.

The Lytro is called a light-field camera, and is hailed as one of the greatest revolutions in photography and camera technology.

It works by capturing the color, intensity and direction of light on a modified sensor. Instead of just capturing a single plane of light like a traditional camera does, the Lytro captures the entire light field, which is all the light travelling in every direction in every point in space.

Lytro doesn't even classify its camera by the familiar megapixel measure. Instead, the company says their "living images" has a resolution of 11 megarays - in other words, it can capture 11 million light rays.

In the trenches defending old-school photography

In a recent post on Wetpixel, I commented on Alex Mustard's questions and thoughts about how new technology impacts photography. I realized I was quite the traditionalist, and felt I had to defend traditional photography in the sense that getting it all right in the camera before shooting the image was the superior way of doing things.

» Read more: Time for a change in philosophy?

This somehow made me feel unconfortable, and I was annoyed and surprised that the notion of doing things differently made me dig trenches. I wanted to embrace the new ideas, but felt like I couldn't - it was in way like dismissing all my knowledge and admitting it was not good enough. But then I realized how I've gotten to where I am today - by learning new things.

Shouldn't new technology propel me forward instead of making me feel like I'm part of the Jurassic Park lizard line-up?

Since then I have read up on what the Lytro camera is capable of doing. Not only am I impressed and tempted by the possibilities, but I can also feel my layers of restistance peel away. When seeing the re-focusing examples made available online, I find myself just smiling and wondering about how this can be adapted for underwater use.

Try it yourself and see if it makes you smile - just click on the image!

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to get every picture you shoot in perfect focus? Wouldn't it be a great thing to never again miss that otherwise perfect shot because the eyes of the shrimp were slightly off? I'm definitely warming to the idea, and fast. I think that once I get to try it out, I will be hooked immidiately!

After all - why should I be the one stuck in the stone age, and let someone else (they surely will!) take advantage of the great new ways of creating images? Why shouldn't I be the one to explore what the Lytro has to offer and leave others to discuss whether it's 'real photography' or not?

I'm still not too keen on computer post-processing, composite images and digital manipulation in general, but I feel the Lytro is different. To me, this is just another type of lens. If all lenses had been made like this from the beginning we would shout cheater! when someone started using a lens that captured just a single plane of light.

The Lytro might actually be a piece of technology that will help me to look even further into the future instead of being retrospective.


I imagine that re-focusing capabilities like those of the Lytro would have its biggest impact on macro and super-macro photography, where pinpointing the focus plane is both so difficult and so important: Slightly off, and the image is ruined.

The Lytro seems to be able to eliminate this problem alltogether, and the manufacturer has even promised that it will be possible to make images that are sharp all the way from the front to the back sometime in the near future. Hallelujah! Had they only been able to squeeze more megapixels out of the camera...

The images made by the Lytro are meant for display, not printing, and it won't be until we see a much more powerful version that this will have its full impact on photography. Until then, the Lytro is a creative tool and probably a great way to get to know this new technology. But will it be available at all for underwater photographers?

To begin with, the Lytro is not much more than a toy. You cannot post re-focusable images outside the special software or on Facebook, and the resolution is too low to think about this as a replacement for your dSLR. Lytro doesn't even want to talk about megapixels, but the in more traditional terms it is said to be around 1 megapixel.

The Lytro is operated by a touchscreen at the end of the camera, and has only two buttons. Although underwater casings with touchscreen capabilities has already been made for the iPhone, this may prove inadequate for use at depth. But something similar may be possible for a Lytro underwater housing - or perhaps it could be operated via the USB port on the camera. Creating an underwater housing for the Lytro might prove a challenge.

Apart from keeping the Lytro dry, the biggest issue seems to be the lack of a flash. Although offering an unusually large f/2 aperture lens, getting enough light would still be a challenge under water. We need a flash to be able to trigger external strobes, and as we all know video lights doesn't quite cut it. Or maybe they will?

Traditionally, strobes let you "freeze" the image and make it sharp. But this might not be a problem at all with the Lytro, since you can re-focus later. Maybe video lights is the perfect or even obvious choice?

In spite of the challenges I would not be surprised to see one of the major manufacturers announcing plans for a Lytro housing - unless of course Lytro decides to make a waterproof version of the camera...

Could a Lytro dSLR lens be the underwater solution?

It is concievable that someone (maybe even Lytro themselves) will put the re-focusing technology inside a lens that can be attached straight onto a standard dSLR camera. A little software is all you would need to take advantage of the Lytro's capabilities. A lens like this would tell the electronics exactly when to trigger the dSLR flash, and you could put the whole thing in your existing underwater housing. The Lytro measures just 4.4 times 1.6 inches square - smaller than many lenses used today. A larger version of the Lytro might also allow for more megapixels, making this figment of my imagination a serious contender to traditional lenses. Having both the megapixels and the re-focusing ability certainly would knock the socks off any setup available today.

The Lytro needs special software to store the images and to perform it's re-focusing magic. Currently this is only available for Mac users, but there is a free, online service where images can be re-focused and a Windows-based app has been promised by the end of 2012. As of today the Lytro does not shoot video, but both this and 2D/3D switching is on the manufacturer's roadmap.

While the re-focusing can so far only be done in the accompanying software, you can export JPG's which allows all editing levels, cropping and cloning in PhotoShop. These JPG's cannot have their focus changed, but since this would be impossible on print anyway it does not pose a problem - but the lack of adequate megapixels does. For online media, on the other hand... well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Being first generation new technology we're bound to see improvements in the time to come. The image resolution is not up to speed in comparison with dSLR's, but we might still be looking at one of the possible futures of photography.

Anyway, the Lytro offers capabilities far to good to be left alone. I haven't even tried one - just reading about it and seeing the image examples has me convinced. I'm amazed at how quickly I was able to go from being a die-hard traditionalist to a believer in new technology - but knowledge often eliminates the fear of the unknown.

This process has made me make a desicion not to be so hung up in my traditional ways, and try to see the imaging capabilities of new technologies for what they really are - new ways to get better pictures. After all, the viewers or buyers of my images mostly don't care about how I shoot them, they're only interested in the result.

Writing this post was almost like therapy and yes, I will order a Lytro as soon as they ship outside the U.S. I can't wait to get my hands on one! It will be fun even without an underwater housing, and I'm counting on better minds than mine to crank up their creativity and produce a suitable housing - hopefully soon.

From now on, I'll try to focus more on the future - and if that doesn't work at first, I'll just re-focus!

One the Lytro homepage you can learn more about the camera, its capabilities and see lots more of re-focusing examples.

» Please click here to visit the Lytro homepage

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Amazing capabilities
The Lytro light-field camera captures the entire field of light, which enables the user to choose the focus plane in the image after it has been shot. The camera records the colour, intensity and direction of 11 million lightrays through a special composite lens integrated in the sensor.


• Resolution: 11 Megarays

• Measurements: 4.4 x 1.6 x 1.6 inches

• Optics: 8x zoom, f/2 aperture lens

• Capacity: 350 to 750 images (16MB files)

• Re-focusing: Unlimited

The Lytro comes in three versions, capable of storing 350 to 750 images. The optics and capabilities are otherwise the same. Prices start at $399 and the revolutionary camera is set to become a big seller.
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