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This article is from March 28, 2012, and is no longer current.

Hands-on: The Lytro "Shoot-Now, Focus-Later" Camera

A new camera has been in the news recently: the Lytro, a $399 camera that allows you to take a photo now, and focus — or refocus — later. Sounds provocative. But does it work? Is this something you should add to your camera bag? I’ve had the opportunity to use one for several weeks now, and I’m pretty gung-ho. Here’s why.
The Lytro uses a technique that is called plenoptic — or light field — photography. The camera captures all the light coming through the lens from all angles, striking an array of microlenses on its sensor. The camera’s inventor, Ren Ng, says that the Lytro captures 11 million “light rays” in every photo.
Here’s one thing to get out of the way: the “focus later” aspect of the Lytro happens in special software after the shoot. The 11 million pieces of data the camera captures are written to a proprietary file that you download to your computer. Once the photo is on your computer screen, you click on any part of the image to bring that point into focus. Click on another part of the same image, and that point comes into focus. Lytro calls these images “Living Pictures.” The first time you see one, and experiment with focus, you will be impressed by how unusual these photos are. Living Picture photos are perfect for viewing live on a Web site, blog post, Facebook page, or other online entity.

This Living Picture, taken form the Lytro Web site, is an example of how you can experiment with focus. Click the leaf in the foreground to put it in focus, Then click the trees in the background to focus on them.
(Editor’s note: The photos that are embedded in this story are indeed Living Pictures by the author so you can experiment with them for yourself. They make take a minute to load and to be fully functional, so please be patient.)
In actuality, the Lytro is a small, low-resolution digital camera with limited purpose. It does not replace your point-and-shoot or DSLR camera. It takes what boils down to a 3MB photo, which is very small. In my world of print, a 3MB photo is laughably small. But the photos I normally take have a different purpose and they don’t have the capability to be focused or refocused after-the-fact.

The Camera

The Lytro is a small hand-held photographic instrument with superb industrial design. It feels good in the hand. Its functionality is — almost — intuitive. That is, when you first got the camera, I wasn’t aware that I needed to focus much less how to focus by tapping on the LCD screen.

The top of the Lytro camera features the shutter button and a zoom control that is activated by swiping your finger across the camera’s lens end.

The bottom of the camera features the power-off button and the USB port for downloading images to your computer.
There is a misconception among people who have written about the Lytro camera that one does not need to focus the camera at all, that it magically does it all for you. Let me focus on that for a moment: I have learned that it’s very easy to take a Lytro photo that is completely out of focus — this cannot be fixed in the software. When you use the camera, you must tap the LCD surface (on the back of the camera) in the area where you want the photo to primarily be focused, and then take the photo.

Tapping the target area on the LCD screen determines where the focus is.
The Lytro cannot create images of infinite focus, especially when there is something in the scene that is very close to the lens. Instead, the camera favors images that have a central focus area. That allows the resulting images to be re-focused closer or further from the point of primary focus. When I use the Lytro, I take photos differently than I do with a regular camera. I compose subjects that will take advantage of the Lytro’s ability to change focus later.

Cardboard letters that are the scraps of a student project for the TAGA Conference in the studio. Click on various parts of the photo to change the focus.

The Images

The best and most dramatic images are those with two or three clearly defined subject areas: a near-field, a middle-field, and a distant-field. The resulting images can be explored on your computer’s display by clicking on the subject you want to be sharply focused. The Lytro software (currently Mac-only) shows the photos in a gallery, and allows them to be viewed with their Living Picture attributes.
To use a Lytro photo in a blog or on a web site, that photo must be linked from the Lytro company servers. The web-based software provides quick links to Facebook and Twitter, and will also provide the HTML code for you to embed in your blog or on your web site. Once inserted into the HTML, the Living Picture has the Lytro focus and re-focus qualities.

My friends Stacy, Whitney, and Steve stand in position to make a good Lytro snapshot. Each one can be focused correctly. Click on various parts of the photo to change the focus.
I’ve used the Lytro in a variety of settings, both indoors and out. I recently had an opportunity to test it as a photojournalist. I took my Lytro to a photo assignment at the local film festival. I was armed with my big and heavy Canon 1ds Mark III, three lenses, and two radio-fired strobe lights. I dropped the Lytro into my pocket thinking that I might be able to use it as an experiment.
When the presenters were on stage with movies projected on the screen behind them, I took out the Lytro and shot a few dozen photos. These turned out to be good photos. Any error in focus can be corrected (except as noted above), and the Lytro’s fast f2.0 lens allowed me to take handheld shots with the camera zoomed to a telephoto setting. I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of these “journalistic” images; I am confident that these can be used in print at a very small size or online at the default Living Picture size.

Sir Richard Taylor, co-founder of WETA Studios in New Zealand, was presented with the King Vidor Award at the 2012 San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Here, he is giving his acceptance speech with images from his studio presented on the screen behind him. The Lytro behaved well for this and several other photos. Its very fast f2.0 lens was helpful, and it makes no noise when you take a photo. Click on various parts of the photo to change the focus.
Using the Lytro as a snapshot camera is mostly wasted, as the photos are just photos that look like any other snapshot. A Lytro snapshot is only 1080-pixels square, which makes it a 1.03 MP camera — very low resolution. Lytro does not yet offer the ability to put the entire image into focus, something the company promises as a future software upgrade.
You can export files as JPEGs for use in print or other media. In JPEG files there can be only one point of focus. Should you want to show several points of focus, you’ll need to change the focus in the Living Picture application and then export again as a new file. When you reopen the file, the Lytro software remembers the point of focus you defined most recently. This feature could be very helpful to professional photographers (when a high-resolution version of the Lytro camera becomes available).

The focus of this exported JEPG file is on the L.

Same picture, different focus. Change the focus to the O in the original file and export as JPEG. The JPEG has changed accordingly.
I printed a few of my Lytro images from exported JPEGs, and they look fine at about two inches square on my Epson ink-jet printer. Much larger than that and they display too many JPEG artifacts.
But the Lytro isn’t really meant for print output anyway. The primary use of Lytro’s Living Pictures is to display them on a blog or Web page, where people can click here and there, and see the photo change focus interactively. That effect causes people to gush when they first see it. I demonstrated the camera and its images to my students, and they were wowed when I demonstrated a “Living Picture” on the projector.

You choose what should be in focus. This Living Picture shows what makes the Lytro camera so intriguing. Click on various parts of the photo to change the focus.

What’s the Use?

Some writers have suggested that the Lytro camera is gimmicky, or worse, that it is a useless technology. I say au contraire! I think the camera is already proving to be very effective in web sites and blogs. I have posted a few on my blog, and I like the quality and the effect of the Living Pictures.
I have spent many of the past weeks thinking about how this technology might be used. At the top of my list is professional cinematography. I can envision a future version of the Red Cinema camera with Lytro technology embedded. (Red, based in Southern California, makes the most sophisticated digital video camera on Earth that’s used to make major motion pictures. Its 5K sensor captures motion-picture quality digital frames).
On the current Red camera, you can tap on a touch-screen, and the image jumps into focus (sound somewhat familiar?). In my imagined version, to do a follow-focus scene, one would simply make the shot, and then edit the scene in post-production where a critical point of focus could be selected in the editing timeline, and a second (or third) point of focus could be selected with a Bézier line between showing the time-to-focus and speed to focus between the points.
Gone would be the awkward process of follow-focus, where a camera assistant (called a focus-puller) turns a knob on the lens to change focus in the middle of a scene. That process is antiquated and far from foolproof. Moving focus to post-production would open up new opportunities for filmmakers, and add tremendous control that is not currently available to editors and directors.
Second on my list is medical imaging. Having undergone a complex CAT scan recently, I appreciate the process of medical imaging. But it was time-consuming and expensive. I can imagine an X-ray imaging device with Lytro technology embedded. With this, a single image could be made, and the point-of-interest selected, after the fact, by the physician. If the doctor wants to see the carotid artery, she would simply click on it, and it would jump into focus. Want to see the knee bone connected to the thigh bone? Click! and it’s in perfect focus.
Third on my list is forensic imaging. Crime scene photography with a high-resolution Lytro-embedded technology would allow CSI lab techs to examine any part of a scene in sharp focus, and the record of evidence would be more valuable than traditional still photography. Extending this a bit, I am sure that the mathematics required for the Living Pictures to be re-focused could also be called upon to reveal millimeter-accurate distances between reference points in the image, or angles of trajectory in degrees, minutes and seconds. The value of such a device would be incalculable.
Fourth on my list is scientific imaging with Lytro-embedded cameras that could calculate information about images including distance, reflection and incident angles, and internal metrology including the quantity of light touching any point in an image. With this technology, astrophysicists could examine light field data, and glean information from it about the speed of objects, their trajectories, distances from each other, and angles of travel.

What’s missing?

After experimenting with the Lytro, there are a few small changes I would like to see. First among them would be very slight ergonomic changes. I would move the shutter button a bit back, and I would make a tactile difference between the top and the sides so the user could find the top of the camera by feel. I would add a tripod screw so that the camera could be mounted on a tripod, and to go along with that, a self-timer to aid in the making a those ubiquitous group photos where the guy on the end is dashing into the scene at the last moment.
I would increase the resolution significantly to make the camera more useful to professionals and “prosumer” photographers. I would improve the quality of the JPEG files that are generated by the Lytro software. Or, better yet, I would allow for the export of a lossless file like .psd.
I would add a few simple editing tools to the desktop software. Arbitrary rotate (level horizon), crop, basic color-correction, and cursor-key navigation would be nice.
For shooting in bright sunlight I would ship a free Lytro baseball cap with a long brim to shade the camera so that you can see the LCD viewfinder. This would be both stylish and functional.

This photo was taken on Morro Strand State Beach. I had a little trouble seeing the LCD viewfinder in the bright sun so the horizon is a bit crooked.

Is the Lytro for you?

If you are looking for an all-around point-and-shoot digital camera, the Lytro is not for you. If you are looking to own a small share of a technological revolution, I say emphatically, yes. Lytro is a showstopper for those who publish online blogs, web pages and photo albums. For social networkers: you’ll love it (Lytro plays well with Twitter and Facebook).
For the professional photographer: buy one if you want a glimpse of the future, and the ability to have some Living Picture fun while you are waiting for the professional model. The current Lytro doesn’t have enough resolution to be of much use to professional photographers.
Additional Reading:
The New York Times had an article and excellent illustration about the camera recently:
“A Review of the Lytro Camera”

Illustration: New York Times
Inside the Lytro

  • Anonymous says:

    Might be good as well to include this capability into cameras in spacecraft for looking at and mapping planetary features.

  • Anonymous says:

    I recently went on a ride-along with an insurance adjuster. Might be a good application for his work when photographing insurance claims.

    Also, taking pics of live stage plays for promotional and directing activities might work to advantage.

    And, say, as long as we are also talking about movie film application, how about instructional videos for things like dealing with machinery or other subjects where you want to direct the student’s attention to specific areas on an overall example. Could be used online for lectures, etc.

    How about in security cameras where focus on suspects is sometimes compromised. Not sure if that would work, but at some point the technology might grow in that direction.

    Similarly, wouldn’t it make face detection and recognition software work faster and more universally when scanning a large crowd?

  • Anonymous says:

    Awesome review. I particularly like your thoughts on new ways this can be used. Thanks.

  • PromWTX says:


    What always annoyed me with my current camera is that after you pushed the button it takes a short while before the picture is taken. The time also depends on the object or if its moving.
    This makes it hard to predict when to click.
    When photographing aircraft I just click and hope for the best using ‘ quick shutter’ or ‘sports’ mode.

    This seems to be fixed with this camera.

    Redbrick Safety Sneakers

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