Friday, March 30, 2012

Lytro Longterm: Fun and Crazy

Wow, I've had my Lytro for almost a Month now. When I first got my Lytro, I admit that aspects of the Lytro felt like a bit of a letdown. Today, after shooting hundreds of photos with it, meeting CEO Ren Ng and Director of Photography Eric Cheng at the Lytro Photowalk, I've decided that using the Lytro is a lot of fun.

How is the Lytro fun? Well first of all, it looks different. Folks don't recognize the little aluminum tube as a camera. The way some folks give it worried glances, I wonder if they don't think it's a Geiger counter or some other measure of danger. "Daddy, why is that man checking his food for radiation?"

If you start pointing an electric-blue aluminium tube at things, folks will want to talk to you about it.

Speed makes the Lytro fun too. When the Lytro is in "Everyday mode," the photographer can just bang away on the shutter release if the exposure looks OK and the subjects are within the Refocus Range. The only editing you can perform to the photo is to set the initial focus point for the image when you share it -- vastly restricted editing saves time too.

But most of all, the unusual capabilities and limitations of the Lytro turns photography into a fun, thoughtful game. Sometimes that game drives me crazy and I pick up my SLR. Sometimes the Lytro game really encourages my creativity and I forget about my SLR. Besides "fun", I use the adjectives "challenging", "weird", and occasionally "maddening" for the Lytro. You'll see why as you read on.

Refocus Range

The term Refocus Range describes a certain Lytro behavior fairly well. Photos taken with the Lytro allow you change the focus of a photograph after it has been made, but only within certain bounds.

It is not possible to refocus a Lytro image from 0 inches to infinity after the fact -- not in one exposure. If you thought that unbounded refocusing was the promise of Lytro, I bet you're not alone. Until I received my Lytro, I didn't understand that the ability to refocus depended on the configuration of the camera when the image was taken.

When the Lytro is set to Everyday Mode, the Refocus Range seems to always extend to infinity, but the closest end of the Refocus Range varies depending on the zoom level. In Everyday Mode, the zoom is limited to 3.5X. I suspect this design decision was made because the minimum refocusable distance would start getting very far away if the further bound were still pinned to infinity.

As Ren explained to me at SXSW, at the widest focal length  (i.e. 1X zoom) and in Everyday Mode, the closest end of the Refocus Range is a bit less than the length of the camera's body away from the front of the Lytro. Setting the Lytro to Everyday Mode and setting the zoom to 1X seems like the easiest method to quickly grab close-up photos and to shoot street photography.

When fully zoomed in while in Everyday Mode, the closest end of the Refocus Range falls about six to eight feet from the end of the Lytro. Zoomed in, you lose the flexibility of close-up shots.

In Creative Mode, the user gets to select the center of the Refocus Range by tapping the screen. I think. I'm actually not sure if it sets the center of the range or if it sets the closer end. Like Everyday Mode, the Refocus Range gets smaller as you zoom in -- and you get a lot more zoom in Creative Mode.

To capture the most dramatic refocus range, you'll want at least one object at the closest edge of the Refocus Range. I find it quite easy to take a photo with no noticeable ability to refocus, so this rule is useful to keep in mind while shooting.

Shutter Speed

Photographers can't control the Lytro's shutter speed, and speeds higher than 1/250th of a second aren't possible. Of course, in many cases, this works out fine. However, stopping motion or resisting camera shake would be a lot easier if I could force a faster shutter speed. 1/250th of a second is great except when the Lytro is zoomed in close or the subject is moving.

Speaking of camera shake, the Lytro has no optical stabilization and no threaded tripod mount. I really hope the next generation of Lytro has some way to mount the device to a tripod. In case you're wondering, no, I don't feel like a tripod mount would be a replacement for a faster shutter.

Experienced photographers might wonder how the Lytro gets away with a fastest shutter speed of 1/250th of a second at f2.0. I'm fairly certain that the Lytro has an internal neutral density filter that automatically snaps into position when the amount of light exceeds the required shutter speed. I can hear it clicking when moving from indoors to outdoors. 


The Lytro's exposure works similarly to that of the camera on the iPhone when in Everyday Mode. The user taps the screen to select the area to expose for. If you don't tap the screen, the device seems to slowly move towards an averaged exposure setting for the scene.

This brings up hint #1: if you want to expose somewhere between the average exposure and the spot exposure from tapping the screen, tap on the screen and then wait for the exposure you want. If you have a bright back light, but want to under-expose the foreground objects a little bit, tap on the foreground object. Once the exposure is set for the foreground object, wait a bit. The Lytro's exposure setting will slowly settle back to the average exposure. Take the photo when it looks good. Update: Hmm, this trick doesn't seem to work like I thought. It looks like the exposure set by tapping is held unless the camera detects that the scene has changed -- then it switches back to average exposure. Sorry!

All of this would be easier if you could set an exposure compensation. Perhaps a future firmware upgrade will add the feature.

In Creative Mode, the Lytro only performs an averaged exposure of the image. According to the manual, touching the screen will only change the focus, not the exposure.

Static Image Size

Lytro advertises their first camera as an 11 Megaray Light Field Camera. The files it produces weight in at about 16.1 MB each. However, exporting the files to JPEG from the Lytro Desktop Software produces a square image 1080 pixels on a side. This is about 1.2 Megapixels. Scott Bourne has indicated in his Lytro review that this will produce an acceptable 5 x 5 print, which seems about right.

The concept of 5 x 5 inch prints seems OK to me, but in reality the size and shape sound a bit inconvenient. Where do I print a 5 x 5 photo? How do I frame it?

Perhaps Lytro will go into the printing business, or partner up with a printing business to make this easier. Or perhaps Lytro will sell square digital picture frames with touch screens to hang on your wall -- that would be fun.

The Lytro image quality documentation implies that the resolution capabilities might be improved with future software updates. In fact, there are a lot of features and image quality areas which seem possible with future Lytro software updates and the same hardware. The notion of improving resolution with a software update boggles my mind. I'm really excited to watch new features roll in with software upgrades!

Desktop Software

The Lytro Desktop software manages the process of getting the photos off the Lytro, on to the computer, and then optionally sharing them to Facebook or the Lytro web page. The software also allows the user to "star" photos, caption them, and see standard information about each photo including: shutter speed, ISO (ranging from 80 to 3200, as far as I can tell), focal length, date, mode, and f-stop (always 2.0).

As I mentioned in my previous article, you can also "star" images from the camera itself. When you plug the camera in, the starred photos get downloaded and processed first, a brilliant idea. And speaking of processing, it takes some time for my 2nd generation MacBook Air to churn through processing the images.

The big Lytro User Manual indicates that an "All in focus" feature will be coming to the desktop software sometime in the future. This isn't quite the comprehensive focus control knobs I was asking for in my previous post, but I'm sure I would still occasionally use the feature.

Among the critical things that the software doesn't do (but maybe should) is allow the user to create multiple image libraries. My hard drive is rapidly filling up with hundreds of 16MB Lytro files.

You might expect that I could copy the library to a different volume and open it by double clicking. Unfortunately, if the library isn't in your Pictures folder, double clicking on it will cause the Lytro app to create a new library in the Pictures folder rather than actually open the library you double clicked. Frustrating!

I really hope that Lytro updates the software so that I can move some libraries on to my Drobo redundant storage. I probably can do some file juggling tricks to achieve this now, but I'd prefer a less annoying way to manage my photos.


When refocusing works, the effect can feel dramatic. When it fails, the effect can be annoying. I have taken several photos which just don't seem possible to focus. It doesn't matter what focal plane I'm clicking on, the result never seems sharp. This problem drives me bonkers.

At least some of these photos were shot in Everyday Mode, so I don't think that I have the Refocus Range set incorrectly. I'm not sure what causes the problem, but my current theory is that my hand was shaking too much when I took the photo. Unfortunately, looking for softness on the tiny Lytro screen makes me want to sigh in exasperation.

Refocusing can also seem futile if my composition doesn't result in a visible change of focus. Without nice refocusability, why didn't I just use a SLR so I could at least make a big print and do lots of editing?


As I previously noted, the Lytro comes with a magnetic lens cap. I love the idea. In practice, the tiny rubberized square falls off way too easily. At the SXSW Lytro photowalk, one of the other owners had already lost their cap. I think the cap needs stronger magnets or a lanyard.

I'm also a bit concerned about packing the Lytro. The device seems strong, but I'd still like some padding for it and some protection for the lens other than the cap which frequently falls of. Right now I'm protecting the camera with a LensCoat BodyBag that I use for my SLR. The LensCoat is far too large, but I'd love a similar neoprene case form-fit for the Lytro. Maybe it could have a pocket for that pesky lens cap, and a clip or loop for attaching it to my bag or belt.

What about tripods? As I mentioned previously, I'd like to be able to use the Lytro on a tripod. A standard threaded hole or add-on mounting accessory would be appreciated.

And while I'm at it, I'd love somebody to make a ring light accessory for the Lytro. It could be as simple as a square of white LEDs that fits on the end of the camera for macro shots. That would rock.


The square shape of the Lytro photos offers photographers a nice creative challenge. Like traditional photography, you want to separate or juxtapose different objects in the frame. Unlike traditional photography, you also want to separate at least one object on a different focal plane. Lining up objects in different focal planes works OK, but often feels more cramped in the square format.

One composition idea: consider dividing the image into quadrants and putting different focal planes into at least one quadrant. An interesting foreground object against an interesting background also works well.

Another nice trick I've seen  really creative photographers use is to hide a surprise in details which will be hidden by focus blur until a viewer explores the image. These seem more difficult to pull off.

Imagine an expensive sports car parked on the street. Until you click on the parking meter, you don't realize that it's expired. Oh, and if I click on the background -- is that a meter maid on the way? These reveal shots will be fun.

Shooting reflections can be interesting too -- the reflecting surface will be on a different focal plane from the reflected object. I tried this with the scratched-up display of my phone, but it didn't quite turn out. A few more attempts would probably get this working. I recently saw a photography blog post titled "Photographing Cars Is Basically Like Photographing Mirrors". Does that give you any ideas?

What is it Good For?

The Lytro excels in a few fun areas of photography. Macro photography can look amazing in a Lytro photo. Typical macro photos have a very narrow depth of field unless the photographer had lots of light available or a still subject and tripod. In a Lytro macro photo, the viewer can explore the image even though only a narrow sliver of the photo is focused at a time. The Lytro benefits from lots of light too, but it seems far easier to take a casual macro photo with the Lytro than anything else.

The Lytro loves lots of light and bright colors. The Lytro can go up to 3200 ISO, and it looks OK there (not spectacular). It obviously looks best at lower ISOs, but if the subject is interesting enough the noise shouldn't matter. 

In everyday mode, the Lytro is fantastic for street photography. The Lytro is small and doesn't look like a camera, so it won't necessarily occur to your subjects that they should pose for the camera. The lack of focusing and relatively fast shot-to-shot time means that it is easy to fire off several different shots quickly.

The shape of the camera complements the speed. Because it is easy to see what the camera is pointing at, I can take photos without even looking at the screen. I don't care too much for the screen, so this feature is useful. You can also jam the Lytro into awkward to reach places to snap a few shots without having to focus or look at the screen.

For portraits you can hold the camera in unusual orientations and eyeball the framing with a decent success rate. Try holding the Lytro above your head or below your waist to tell a different story about your subject. Fun! They Lytro desktop software will automatically rotate images for you if you shot a photo upside down.

Final Thoughts

I enjoy taking photos with the Lytro because there is so little to do after taking the photo. The Lytro is like an old-fashioned Polaroid camera -- after you take the photo, you either keep it or toss it. The lack of editing responsibility allows me to generate a constant stream of photos to share. I don't have a Lytro editing queue, but I have a long editing queue for my SLR.

The lack of editing also encourages the photographer to look for a good story. Without funky filters to play with, a good story is the best way to keep a photo interesting. I enjoy the challenge.

I expect that in the future, a lot of this missing functionality will be added in software updates. Some Lytro folks at the SXSW photowalk mentioned the possibility of filters for the desktop software. I also got to see a tiny, but impressive demonstration of the upcoming 3d capabilities yet to be unlocked in the current Lytro. I'm super excited to see that released.

The design intent of the Lytro seems to aim at turning the fun and interesting knobs up to eleven. It isn't attempting to replace SLRs, or even high-end point and shoot cameras -- not in my opinion. Since getting the Lytro, I've kept it in my camera bag right next to my Canon 7D. When I'm looking to have some low-friction fun, I pull the Lytro out. If I see an opportunity where the Lytro would excel, it's in my hands taking photos in a heartbeat.

If you're a serious photographer looking for the one camera to carry everywhere, the Lytro probably is not the one. Not yet, at least. But if you're a photographer who enjoys a fun challenge and would like a tool to help create unique photo experiences, take a serious look at the Lytro. The Lytro has me taking photos when I wouldn't otherwise think to reach for a camera.


Photofocus: Ten Things People Don’t Know (Or Have Wrong) About The New Lytro Field Camera
My Personal Lytro Photos

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