Lytro is only a few years old but the company is about to release an extraordinary camera. The new gadget not only lets you focus pictures after they’ve been taken but also produces 3D images that can be seen without special glasses. It’s a revolution - the biggest change to the field since the 1830s - and the best part is the camera will be on the market by the end of the year.
The quantum leap is based on light field technology. Every camera commercially available today operates by capturing a snapshot of light - but a light field camera records the color, intensity and vector direction of every single ray of light. Whereas a traditional camera records a singular amount of light hitting a sensor, Lytro’s camera essentially saves the entire imageable data from a given scene. This trove of information offers end users many benefits, not least allowing them to focus after the event has happened. To play with its potential, click on different parts of the light field image below:
According to Lytro, their light field camera captures a scene like the human eye - by swallowing everything. Founder and CEO of Lytro, Ren Ng, explained: "The light field fully defines how a scene appears. It is the amount of light traveling in every direction through every point in space – it’s all the light rays in a scene. Conventional cameras cannot record the light field."
In fact, the light field camera goes further than that. A human eye naturally has a focus point (you’re focusing on this computer screen for instance) but Lytro’s camera can focus on anything after the event. It is fundamentally more powerful.
The story of Lytro began in 2006 when Ren (below) submitted a 203-page dissertation for his doctorate at Stanford. The subject of the work – which went on to win the internationally recognized ACM Dissertation Award – was light field technology. The paper criticized the functionality of conventional cameras because they don’t 'capture moments' as they claim. The pictures they take are often blurred or focused on the wrong point. Essentially they miss the moment.
Light field technology has been around for a few years but traditionally required about 100 cameras to work. Ren has since built a team at Lytro (partly consisting of academics from Stanford) who’ve taken that technology and instilled it in one portable camera. What’s more, the competitively priced compact will produce similar sized data files to a conventional camera.
The Silicon Valley startup has attracted some of the biggest investors in the world, raising US$50 million at its last round of funding. It’s a lot of money, but bringing a camera to market is expensive and Lytro will make all the parts itself. One of the key investors is tech guru, Ben Horowitz, who said the company “blew my brains to bits” and he’s likely to be followed by the world’s consumers.
However amateurish you're photography, the camera will never fail to capture the moment. For instance, if you’re watching your daughter collect a prize and snap her the instant she shakes the headmaster’s hand – a light field photo will focus perfectly, indefinitely, after the event. You won’t miss it. This feature is aided by the camera’s speed. Whilst cameras on the market today take a considerable amount of time to turn on and autofocus, Lytro’s goes from zero to snapped in one second. The moment itself won’t pass you by.
An interesting knock on effect is there’ll be little need for trained, commercial photographers. The reason is simple. If the technology is as good as they say it is, you won’t need top quality sports photographers anymore. Anyone will be able to shoot a focused picture. You just need to click the camera at the right time – regardless of whether it’s focused or not - and you’ll have that sporting moment in perfect clarity. Once you get back to your computer of course.
The 3D effect has obvious appeal, but because the camera captures the entire light field it also excels in low light. This feature will make it the camera to take on a night out. Another beautiful element, meanwhile, is its simplicity. Other powerful cameras have various knobs and buttons but with Lytro’s you'll just snap and reap the rewards later.
One man who’s impressed by the technology but also concerned by it is Hong Kong photographer Jeremy Jangord. He said, “It’s definitely not going to be photography any more. It’s going to be – I don’t know what – but they’re going to have to think up a new term for it like ‘editing visual information.’ I think photography is the cameraman using the lens to interpret the world. What this camera will provide is the opportunity to not use the lens to make that decision. It will be the computer.”
Like many photographers, Jeremy believes in the method as much as the end result so he won’t be buying one but he says many other professionals will be chomping at the bit. “I think a lot of photographers will be excited about it because they’ll have some security,” he said. “One of the main concerns of the photographer is getting the moment. That’s the big one.”
What’s also intriguing is that people might start to pay more attention to the way a photograph is composed. After the advent of digital cameras people started taking photos in their thousands but the majority of those photos are skimmed past or never looked at again. With Lytro’s power, many consumers will take one picture instead of several and then play with it for a few seconds on the computer to generate the image they want. This process of manipulation should give them a better idea of where a focus point should be and how to compose a scene. Essentially more care will be taken over each photograph, theoretically at least.
On the flip side, because the camera will allow anyone to take quality photographs, the value of photography is likely to plummet. According to Jeremy, it’s actually already in freefall. “I think photography is in a dire state,” he admitted. “The world is over saturated with images so we start to filter them out. I know personally I start to tune things out. It’s one of the reasons artistic photography has gone so downhill in the eyes of the public. People take photos all the time so don’t see it as a lot of work. A painting seems very different because people can’t say ‘I can do that.’”
Sadly, if Lytro’s camera means everyone’s able to take good photographs (and if people keep taking pictures in vast quantities) the value of quality photography will diminish further. What’s more, memorable photos capturing a moment of clarity in a sea of madness – such as this year’s iconic kiss during the Vancouver riots (above) – will become commonplace. People will be able to find juicy nuggets in all their photos. Whether hiding in the foreground, hiding in the background – there won’t be any hiding any more and that’s a sad thing for quality photography. It’s intriguing that even though Lytro’s ground-breaking technology is likely to improve photos immeasurably – it’s also going to render quality photos meaningless.
Though much will depend on the first model, Lytro’s camera will change the world of photography forever. It’s a watershed moment - a new form of photography will be born. There will always be purists like Jeremy using traditional cameras - and there’s something reassuring and romantic about that idea - but for the majority of us, light field will be the norm. We’ll no longer struggle to capture that snapshot of a lion’s roar on safari, or that freak, emerald wave breaking on the shore. Mario Testino, here we come…