Thoughts On Lytro… Fab or Fad?

In case you’re wondering, yes, I came up with “fab or fad” all by myself ūüėõ

So this last week or so the¬†Lytro¬†camera was released for pre-order, and shown to the world in a small compact and (for the most part) affordable package.¬† In case you don’t remember, the Lytro camera is the “Light Field Camera” that you don’t need to focus.¬† It uses magic technology to capture the light rays in such a way that you can focus¬†after the fact¬†and just basically (to coin a phrase) point and shoot.

The fact that this exists in the consumer space now is quite frankly, amazing.  When the camera was first announced I thought to myself:

  • There’s no way this is going to appear on the consumer market for less than the price of a RED camera (lets say $50,000) or at minimum the cost of the current top of the market DSLRS at the $5000+ mark
  • There’s no way that this thing doesn’t look like something that’s strapped together by¬†Doc Brown¬†and has something needing 1.21 gigawatts to power it

Well, the proved me wrong on both cases, providing a fairly sleek, sexy, and unique package for under $500 USD.  According to the site the technology works as it was demoed a few months back.  Your images are in a proprietary format that you view in their software (plugins available for facebook and website embedding of course) and you can simply click on an area in the image and it refocuses on that section.

The Lytro picture gallery is full of great examples of images that benefit from this, with butterflies close to the lens and trees in the distance, or a surfer with his board ready to take your clicks to put him, the board, or the ocean in the background in focus for you.

Spurred by some conversation on a podcast I was listening to, I thought a bit more about the reality of it and who it’s for and how this technology will be used and have some questions I thought I’d ask out loud.

The theory of the Lytro is that you never have to worry about focusing, because you can do this after the fact.¬† One of the things about photography, beyond snapshots anyway, is there is some sort of artistry behind it, and great images are generally great not only due to their subject matter, but how it’s presented.¬† Anyone can take a picture of the mountains in Yosemite, but not everyone is Ansel Adams.

Three quick links to three images.  First pretty much anything by Annie Leibovitz, second the Afghan girl from National Geographic and last the cover of The Beatles Abbey Road album.

Imagine if those images were Lytroed.  Lytro-ized? Lytromaticized?  Anyway, part of the power of the three images is the focus, how much of it and where it is.  If you were to see the Afghan girl image and she was all blurred out and the background was in focus would you stop, and be arrested by those amazing eyes, or would you even bother to click and see what would pop into focus as you click on the Lytro widget?   Would the Abbey Road cover with it the depth of field showing the road and everything behind it be as interesting if there was only a thin depth of focus requiring you to click on John and Ringo and the boys, or the cars in the background to see what was all in the frame?

The master photographers, the ones who you hear about or that even the people you know who are the¬†farthest¬†from being “artsy” or appreciating art recognize their images become this way by knowing how to make an image that grabs you, be it subject, framing, or something else.¬† I think that something like Lytro will dilute this process in such that unless the artist gets control of what you see and how you see it, they won’t bother (at least not for serious work).

So I don’t think the pro’s are going to be using this at any of their gallery shows anytime soon.¬† Of course, they can’t because you can’t print out a Lytro image, you can only print out a “slice” of one (or at least, I assume so, there are no specs or details of the software or processing of the images).

So silly Alan, you say, this isn’t for pros, pros have those big fancy cameras that get the right focus all the time, this is for the soccer mom not wanting to miss a shot of their kids playing or blowing out candles or something.

Ok then fine reader, that’s probably an astute observation.¬† So lets say Betty the soccer mom has been convinced to spend $500 on a Lytro instead of buying a point and shoot camera for $100 and is now using it.¬† They take the shot and now have to do…¬†something¬†with it.¬† To view or display the image they have to (again, I assume) use the Lytro software and can’t use the iPhoto, Windows Image Gallery or Elements gallery software they’re used to.¬† And while I assume you can probably upload to facebook with a special widget with that as well, even if the software is as smooth and magical as a Steve Jobs keynote, you have a raft of things that can go wrong, from plugins in your browser, inability to print out a shot for mom, and how do you email granny a Lytro?¬† Maybe granny doesn’t have a computer that can deal with getting a link to some site, with maybe a special URL or login (like the Flickr concept with friends and family access).¬† Lots of other sites and software have solved these issues long ago but they all deal with the “normal” image files that we’ve been used to.

Heck, even the Lytro web site doesn’t work all the time, going there tonight I got the screen below when trying to look through for this article.¬† It just sits there and remains a static image that’s un-re-focusable.¬† And I’ll be honest, that’s just a crappy picture of an out of focus butterfly when it’s not lytro-ized.


Later on when browsing a second section of their site I found this:


I know this is new stuff, but is that something you want to talk gramma through why she can’t see little bobby hit the baseball?

So if pros aren’t the target, and amateurs are the market, then who is?¬† I see the middle ground as having the same issues as both pro and amateur combined.

So my end conclusion is that this is a both a fad and the start of something fabulous.¬† It’s not “real” technology in that it’s not really something that will solve a problem we have in a decent way.¬† It’ll solve the “oh crap I wish I’d focussed on her eye instead of her nose” problem, but the way it does so is akin to dealing with hunger by travelling to bolivia to get a meal cooked by a specific villager who can make a really great sausage stir fry instead of just getting yourself a sandwich.¬† Ok so I’m not that great at analogies, sorry ūüôā

Don’t get me wrong, the technology is awesome, perhaps the start of a revolution of some sort like the computer, the DSLR, or the iPhone were.¬† Pieces of magic that the world scoffed at as silly, impractical, and hey, who could ever use a computer in the house for anything other than organizing recipes right?¬† I’d love to play with one, and anyone from Lytro reading this, prove me wrong, please!

However until I hear different I’m going to chalk this up as something that simply won’t work for a normal person and which won’t solve the problems that they have in a way that doesn’t cause more problems.