I first wrote about Lytro a while back when they introduced the first consumer grade lightfield camera to the market. It was an exciting development as this kind of technology was out of the reach of pretty much anyone prior to the original Lytro. Still whilst it was interesting from a technological perspective I just couldn’t bring myself to buy one, especially not after I picked up my DSLR again. Ever since then though I hadn’t heard anything further from Lytro, neither new developments nor tales of their demise, so I was left wondering if the Lytro that I envisioned was ever going to eventuate. As it turns out whilst we might not be seeing Lytro sensors in all DSLRs we will be seeing a serious piece of camera kit and it’s quite incredible.
Lytro announced the Illum which is their first entry into the upper end of the photography market. It looks very similar to a lot of the mirrorless 4/3rds that are available now although it doesn’t have an interchangeable lens system and lacks a viewfinder of any description. Normally these would be things that would count heavily against it but the specifications of the Illum are, honestly, so incredible that if anyone else had announced them I’d say they were fake. That lens is a 30-250mm F/2.0 thats capable of doing 1:3 macro that’s made up of only 11 elements in 3 groups which sounds downright impossible when you compare it to similar DSLR lenses like the Canon 70-250mm F/2.8 (19 groups with 23 elements). The sensor has also been buffed up considerably tipping the scales at 40 Megarays which gives you a print resolution of approximately 5 megapixels. That’s well below most DSLRs available today but it’s above the crucial 4MP threshold required for a standard sized photograph. The back also sports a 4 inch touchscreen that includes a depth histogram to aide with taking highly refocusable pictures.
Now anyone who’s made the mistake of becoming interested in high end photography gear will look at those specs, mostly the lens, and wonder how a startup like Lytro was able to do something that the big lens makers haven’t been able to accomplish with their decades of experience. Lytro says that their seemingly impossible lens specifications comes from the fact that they’re doing most of what the lens does mechanically in software instead. This drastically cuts down on the element count and enables the lens to do things that you’d usually require multiple, distinct lenses to do. I’m willing to give Lytro the benefit of the doubt here but I’ll have to see one in action before I make a final judgement on just how good it is.
One thing that I find a little strange about the design is the way Lytro believes it will be used. The Illum angled body isn’t done just for aesthetics, instead it’s been designed to be used as if you’re shooting at hip level rather than at eye level. Whilst any photographer will tell you that one of the fastest ways to grow is to stop shooting everything at eye level shooting at hip level has its own set of limitations and I’m not sure that designing a camera around that idea is completely sound. Again this is something I’d want to see in action first before laying down judgement but it’s something that feels it’s different just for the sake of it.
The low final resolution is also likely to be something that will hinder adoption among more serious photography enthusiasts. Whilst you’ll be able to print the traditional photo size anything larger than that starts to become problematic. This probably isn’t a problem for those who are just viewing them digitally, which more and more people are doing these days, but it does mean that the Illum is probably one step short for the professional and likely a little too expensive for the intrigued amateur looking to move up from their phone camera. The original Lytro was in a similar market position though and was obviously successful enough for Lytro to continue development so there’s probably a market for it that I’m just not seeing.
All this being said I’d really love to get my hands on one of the Illums to see just what its capable of and whether the output from it is enough for me to ditch my DSLR for certain things. The lens on the Illum is what intrigues me the most as its capabilities are just incredible and I really want to see how it compares to similar offerings from the long standing DSLR companies. We don’t have to wait long though as the Illum is scheduled to hit the streets on July 15th for a cool $1499 and whilst I probably won’t shell out for one immediately I’d certainly be interested in borrowing one to give it the once over.
One of my not-so-secret passions is photography. I got into it about 5 years ago when I was heading over to New Zealand with my then girlfriend (now wife) as I wanted a proper camera, something that could capture some decent shots. Of course I got caught up in the technology of it all and for the next year or so I spent many waking hours putting together my dream kit of camera bodies, lenses and various accessories that I wanted to buy. My fiscal prudence stopped me short of splurging much, I only lashed out once for a new lens, but the passion has remained even if it’s taken a back seat to my other ambitions.
According to posts made by Boudoir photographers in CT, one of the greatest challenges is getting the focus just right so that your subject is clear and the other details fade into the background, preferably with a nice bokeh. I struggled with this very problem recently when we threw a surprise party for my wife and one of her dearest friend’s birthdays. Try as I might to get the depth of field right on some of the preparations we were doing (like the Super Mario styled cupcakes) I just couldn’t get it 100% right, at least not without the help of some post production. You can imagine then how excited I was when I heard about light field technology and what it could mean for photography.
In essence a light field camera would give you the ability to change the focus, almost infinitely, after the picture had been taken. It can do this as it doesn’t capture light in the same way that most cameras do. Instead of taking one picture through one lens light field cameras instead capture thousands of individual rays of light and the direction from which they were coming. Afterwards you can use this data to focus the picture wherever you want and even produce 3D images. Even though auto-focus has done a pretty good job of eliminating the need to hand focus shots the ability to refocus after the fact is a far more powerful advancement, one that could revolutionize the photography industry.
I first heard about it when Lytro, a light field based startup, mentioned that they were developing the technology back in June. At the time I was thinking that they’d end up being a manufacturer or licensor of their technology, selling their sensors to the likes of Canon and Nikon. However they’d stated that they were going to make a camera first before pursuing that route and I figured that meant we wouldn’t see anything from them for at least another year or two. I was quite surprised to learn that they have their cameras up for pre-order and delivery is expected early next year.
As a camera it defies current norms almost completely. It’s a square cylinder with an LCD screen on the back and the capture button is a capacitive notch on the top. From that design I’d assume you’d take pictures with it by using it like a ye olde telescope which will be rather comical to watch. There’s 2 models available, an 8GB and 16GB one, that can hold 350 and 750 pictures respectively. The effective resolution that you get out of the Lytro camera seems to be about 1MP but the images are roughly 20MB big. The models come in at $399 and $499 respectively which, on the surface, seems a bit rich for something that does nothing but take really small photos.
However I think Lytro is going the right way with this technology, much like Tesla did when they first released the Roadster. In essence the Lytro camera is a market test as $400 is almost nothing compared to the amount of money a photography enthusiast will spend on a piece of kit (heck I spent about that much on the single lens I bought). Many then will be bought as a curiosity and that will give Lytro enough traction to continue developing their light field technology, hopefully one day releasing a sensor for the DSLR market. From the amount of buzz I’ve read about them over the past few days it seems like that is a very real possibility and I’d be one of the teaming masses lining up to get a DSLR with that kind of capability.
They’re not the only light field camera maker out there either, heck they’re not even the first. Raytrix, a 3D camera manufacturing company, was actually the first to market with a camera that incorporated light field technology. Looking over their product range they’ve got quite the selection of cameras available for purchase although they seem to be aimed more at the professional rather than consumer market. They even offer to convert your favourite camera into a light field one and even give you some rough specs of what your camera will be post conversion. Lytro certainly has its work cut out for them with a company like Raytrix competing against them and it’ll be interesting to see how that develops.
On a personal level this kind of technology gets me all kinds of excited. I think that’s because they’re so unexpected, I mean once auto-focus made it easy for anyone to take a picture you’d think that it was a solved problem space. But no, people find ingenious ways of using good old fashioned science to come up with solutions to problems we thought were already solved. The light field space is really going to heat up over the next couple years and it’s got my inner photographer rattling his cage, eager to play with the latest and greatest. I’m damned tempted to give into him as well as this tech is just so freakin’ cool.