Sunday, March 04, 2012

A personal review of Lytro Camera

I just received my Lytro camera on Friday.  I played with it for 2 days, carrying it almost everywhere I went. There were a lot of 'pro' reviews on the camera, but very few consumer ones, so I thought I will write down my thoughts on it.




Quick summary on Lytro as a camera:


What I liked:
  • It is a very well built camera. It feels great in the hands, and its construction is high quality.
  • Its fast. There is no shutter lag. The touch interface works great and is easy to use.
  • It charges via USB when connected to the computer.
  • Software is minimal but decent. Lytro uses its own image format, so you need the software to view the photos. There are tons of other things I wished it did, but it does the job for now.
  • Image quality (besides the resolution) is pretty decent. 
What I didn't like:
  • The screen is horrible. I can't believe they put such a poor quality screen on this camera.
    • The demos that they have on their site are definitely not with a real camera.. the screen in their demos is crystal clear.
    • It has almost no viewing angle other than 'straight'. Makes it difficult to take pictures, specially because you have to rely on looking at it so much.
    • Its almost non-functional in sunlight.
Direct view -  you can see the highly pixelated image
View when tilted by about 15 degrees. The image almost looks like a 'negative'.
  • The final resolution of pictures (when exported as jpeg) is 1080 × 1080, which is ok for sharing on facebook but too low for most other uses.
  • The camera actually requires you to take pictures that are out of focus, which can be corrected using the software. So you can't be 100% sure while taking a photo if you will get the focus you want.

Taking Photos


Lytro only has 2 buttons - Click and Power. It also has a touch-slider to zoom which is pretty responsive. This makes it easy to capture photos.


It took me a few hours to get used to the camera, especially because of the lack of a good display and mediocre preview quality. It also takes a bit of work to get used to how to pick the right focus range.


According to their tutorial, you have to take the photos so that the main subject is slightly blurred, which can then be brought into focus later using the software. I had a lot of shots where it went out of the focus range - like this sample photo from gizmodo's review so I could not get it as sharp as I wanted. I guess this is something that will improve by practice, but its a bit tricky to take an 'imperfect' photo and trust the camera to make it 'perfect' later.

Overall speaking, I got used to most of the stuff and was able to take acceptable photos within a day. The camera literally has no 'settings', which is nice.



Living Pictures


Lytro touts this camera as 'click now, focus later'. This is cool for marketing, but is just a way to bridge the gap with existing cameras. Current SLR cameras are quite fast, and I can see exactly what the picture looks like while taking it, so the 'focus later' part of lytro doesn't seem very useful to me personally.


However, the whole concept of 'living pictures' has added another dimension to the photographs. You can craft the picture so that the user discovers something new when he clicks on the blurred part, which really makes the photos feel 'alive'.

For example, the picture below looks like a standard rope with blurred background. Any camera with a decent lens can do this. There is nothing that stands out. However, clicking on the background reveals a new detail that makes the photo more interesting.



This is a whole new paradigm in photography, beyond just 'decide the focus later'. It adds a new meaning to the photo which has been historically lost with traditional photos.







Focus Range


Lytro does not have an infinite focusing (or refocusing) range. While taking pictures, you have control over this 'range'. As far as you are within this range, you can focus on any object inside it. 







There are also some interesting tricks. For example, in the picture below, the frame of the mirror is on its own focus plane, but what you see inside the mirror and what's in front of the scene is on a separate plane. Clicking inside the mirror or on the house in front of the car focuses both the regions. 





Until now, we have always been dealing with Aperture, Shutter speed, etc. but the Lytro adds a new dimension which is fun to play with. 


The software currently does not allow you to create a photo with infinite depth of field, but I believe that a future update will make it possible.


Low Light Performance


The camera does OK in low light, definitely not as good as my 40D at f1.8, but better than my compact powershot camera. Here is a sample:









Conclusion


Lytro a pretty solid camera as version 1.0 of a brand new technology. With the amount of data that the camera captures, it might be able to do amazing things like 3D and HDR. However, they have started with a simple use case - excited to see where it goes from here.


After using it for 2 days straight, I have already started missing the ability to click anywhere in the photos I took using regular cameras.. wondering 'what was hidden there'.


As for now, it does not replace a regular camera, but is something fun to have and make photography more interesting.


If you are interested in photography, already own a bunch of lenses and a nice SLR, and have  $400 to spare, this is going to be a very fun ride.


Here is  my public stream on Lytro, have fun! 


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Btw, if you want your significant other to get you one, let them know by adding it to your wishlist at theicebreak.com.