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With Lytro, Shoot First and Refocus Later

A camera start-up might just be the biggest thing to happen to cameras since digital photography. Or it might be a gimmicky fad.
October 4, 2011

The first time you try it, it’s downright uncanny. Go ahead, click on the background of the picture below.

Photographs aren’t supposed to do that, right? A photograph is a moment frozen in time; it’s static, not interactive; it’s an inanimate cross-section of life.

Well, it was those things, before Lytro got to it. The camera start-up based in Mountain View, CA, uses a novel kind of image sensor that captures “light fields.” As Lytro explains on its site, a traditional camera doesn’t actually record all the information that’s out there. A light field camera, by contrast, captures “the amount of light traveling in every direction through every point in space.” It’s almost as though you’re not capturing an image, so much as you’re capturing a piece of reality, which contains many images.

Lytro’s camera is actually an array of miniature cameras, bundled with software to crunch the stores of data they bring in. “Relying on software rather than components can improve performance,” says Lytro, “from increased speed of picture taking to the potential for capturing better pictures in low light.”

Now, photography teachers will not only have to contend with students who ask, “What’s film?” They’ll have to contend with students who’ve never heard of a focus ring, or f-stops, or depth of field. The notion that there was ever a fair amount of preparatory work to be done prior to taking a photograph will be alien to them.

Lytro debuted back in June (a few months after I wrote about a similar concept from Pelican Imaging), but then went into semi-stealth mode, readying its hardware for a late-2011 launch and sending out some early units to professional photographers to build interest. In July, a supermodel took interest, which is always a good thing. Now, reports AllThingsD, the company is gearing up for a proper launch. Though you can’t order a Lytro camera just yet, in the meantime, you can play with the many Lytro-enabled photographs the company is posting on its site.

Many folks out there have guzzled the KoolAid on Lytro. And what they’re offering is doubtless compelling. But there is something off-putting in the way the Mountain View start-up implies that photographs during the years B.L. (Before Lytro) were somehow lacking. “No more flat, boring, static photographs,” they promise. Has our digital distraction grown so severe that old-fashioned photographs have become “boring”? Do we necessarily need to denigrate the old forms of an art in order to welcome the new?

But enough moralizing. Here, click on this fun photograph!

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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