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The Lytro: Photography May Never be the Same

After months of gearing up, the Lytro has landed.
March 9, 2012

Among the many gadgets I’ve chronicled, few have excited me as much as the Lytro, which I chose as one of my two favorite emerging technologies of last year. (Unfairly, my top technology was an entire category: the non-iPad tablets.) The Lytro is the first commercial light-field camera; that is, a camera that captures “the amount of light traveling in every direction through every point in space.” The upshot? Photos you can refocus after the fact. Don’t believe me? Click on the below.

And now, after months of gearing up, the Lytro has landed. It’s available for purchase in two models, a 16GB version at $499, and an 8GB version at $399.  Reviews are trickling in, and it turns out that–with some caveats, to be sure–much of the hype was justified. First, let’s get warmed up with a new video from Lytro itself.

Obviously Lytro’s going to be excited about the launch. But how about the technorati? Here’s what a few folks are saying.

Engadget has an exhaustive review; for an extremely in-depth look at the device, start there. The review’s author, Dante Cesa, has mostly praise for the camera, which managed to take a complicated idea and make its implementation relatively simple. This simplicity is first evident with the design of the hardware itself, which is extremely pared down and elegant. “It feels as if Lytro’s engineers were incapable of closing the chapter on their masterpiece until they stripped it of everything but the essentials,” writes Cesa. He also has mostly praise for the user interface and battery life, and he walks us through the basic image editing software included with the camera (that software only works for Mac, for now, with a Windows version supposedly on the way).

Cesa definitely finds some limitations, though. In particular, the Lytro doesn’t perform especially well in low light conditions (“prepare yourself for copious amounts of noise”). Ironically, though the camera performs best in bright light, the display becomes rather difficult to see under those conditions. Then again, the nuances of focusing aren’t a principal concern with this camera, so just having an impression of what’s in the viewfinder and an understanding of the principles of what makes a good Lytro shot should be enough for you. Cesa sums up by declaring the Lytro essential purchasing for camera enthusiasts; general consumers, though, may want to wait till the tech comes of age (and perhaps is even licensed for use in smartphones).

XConomy’s Wade Roush likewise has an interesting mix of great praise and faint damnation for the product. He predicts that Ren Ng, Lytro’s CEO, will “wind up in the history books alongside photographic pioneers like Mathew Brady, Eadweard Muybridge, Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton, Edwin Land, and George Smith and Willard Boyle.” At the same time, though, he contests some of Ng’s claims about just how disruptive the device will be, declaring “the company will need to keep tinkering with the product before it has a real hit on its hands.”

Finally, CNET’s Joshua Goldman is a tad lukewarm on the device. He’s particularly bummed, it seems, about the fact that Lytro’s proprietary image file format can only be manipulated currently on a Mac, and he found elements of the design, like the zoom strip, “both interesting and frustrating.” If you think the Lytro’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later philosophy means it doesn’t take practice to master, then think again, he suggests: “while it’s easy to pick up the Lytro and take a living picture, making one that doesn’t suck takes some creativity and knowledge of how to best frame your shot.” (Even so, to rate a revolutionary product 3 out of 5 stars merely because it’s not platform agnostic from the get-go and because it requires some practice to master, seems a tad harsh.)

Without having gone hands-on with the device yet myself, and without being a huge photographer personally, I may want to slightly revise my assessment of the Lytro. It’s still one of the technologies I’m most excited about–but it’s more from the perspective of a consumer of pictures, rather than a producer of them. I’ll let others sort out the mild headaches of Lytro picture-making, and will be clicking away on the photos they send me to my heart’s content.

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