The New Year is traditionally the time to herald new things, starting with the Epiphany of the Christ Child on January 6th and the chance to play and replay my Desert Island carol, Peter Cornelius’s “Three Kings from Persian lands afar”.

So a happy New Year to you all. At my age things no longer occur, they tend to recur, and it’s rare to encounter something that appears to be completely new. Continuing the religious references, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes thunders “Is there any thing whereof it can be said, See, this is new?”

What I’m writing about today is a camera. That’s not new. But a light field camera is new to me, that’s for sure.

A light field camera? A field camera is one of those bulky great things with bellows, a permanent tripod, and a hood so the photographer can view the upside-down image on the 10×8 plate in darkness. Great for architectural photography, less useful for sports.

A light field camera is nothing like that. ‘Light field’ is the word phrase, and it refers to the way the device captures light data. The ‘light field’ is defined as the light travelling in all directions through all points in space. In conventional cameras — digital or film — the image (or light data) is captured on a flat plane at the back of the box. This can either be film or a digital sensor. The rays of light are combined and recorded as a single unit of light and shade.

In a light field camera, it is claimed that its sensor can capture the colour, intensity and vector direction of all the rays of light in a scene, providing much more data from which to compile an image.

What does this mean? Well of course the science is beyond me, but what I really need to know is what does this mean for the photographer, and obviously as a picture librarian, for image sales? In what way is the resulting picture different? Note that I didn’t say better. It’s not a field camera, after all, which is the gold standard for image quality.

My first thought is lots of data means big file sizes. And what do we do with all that extra data? The answer is nothing, at the moment. We’re back to 1950s Britain, where you couldn’t buy garlic or olive oil because “there’s no call for it.” At the moment, there is no call for it — there is no commercial need for the additional data a light field camera can produce. Here in 2012 fotoLibra has the ability to supply 8 bit, 16 bit or 32 bit images; we can supply HDR images. We don’t, because we’re not asked for them. At the moment professional picture buyers are content to buy 8 bit JPEGs.

I didn’t see the point of an HD television until I got one. But I can totally see the point of a professional quality light field camera to create images of record for museums and archives. Imagine being able to focus and study every plane of Nefertiti’s head. Wow.

Because here is why an image taken on a light field camera is different. You can refocus on any part of the image — after the picture has been taken. This is not the same as an Ansel Adams image at f64 where every part of the image is pin-sharp; these are images taken at f2 with a very shallow depth of field — which you can subsequently vary at will.

It is fascinating. I can play with these images for hours.

A light field camera has just been launched for the consumer market in the United States. Its brand name is Lytro, and I guess that could go the way that Hoover and Biro (and Kodak once did) to become the generic name for a light field camera. The first Lytro has an 8x optical zoom and an f2 aperture lens. It doesn’t look much like a camera, more like a square tube, and it comes in three colours and two storage sizes, 8 GB and 16 GB — 350 or 750 photos. It costs $399 (£255, €206) and $499. The aperture stays constant across the zoom range, which allows comprehensive light capture in the foreground, the mid ground and the background. The images it produces are 1.2MB JPEGs, which are at the lower end of the quality scale.

Do I want one? No, not yet. Remember, I’m not a photographer, I’m just a bloke who has a camera. Will it be more than just a curiosity? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly cheap enough for many people to be able to buy on a whim and play with, experiment with. Would I recommend you get one? If you’re a curious and inquisitive photographer who’s not strapped for cash, then yes, definitely. I would love to see what real photographers can achieve with such a tool.

At the moment the Lytro doesn’t meet the fotoLibra quality standards set out in our Submission Guidelines.

But I think we’ll make room for it.

Even though ‘There is no new thing under the sun.’


Add your comment


17 Responses to “A completely different type of camera”

  1. peta says:

    I saw this in the New Scientist a while back… future shock!!! They said it would be years before one was on the market for the casual consumer. So it turned out to be months… Do I want one, definitely! Will I buy one. Nope too many other bills to pay!

    Good blog Gwyn, thanks for the heads up.

  2. Mick says:

    well, you’re right not to wnt one, there is probably a novelty value to it, wow, look at what we can do now. I’m an engineer, always used mechanical measuring devices like micrometers and verniers, then some bright spark comes along with electronic tools. Any idiot can read them, just read the numbers off the screen. However, that is not my beef, for years we have been using mechanical devices and whatever we made worked, now everything has to conform to specs that ar far too precise. Yes, we need that precision for the space programme but not much else, I used to make medical equipment and worked to very fine, accurate and adequate tollarences. This camera is displaying the same quallities, how to take incredible quality pics that are going into mags that will be looked at and then go for recycling.

  3. Dave Tait says:

    Well, the Lytro hardly looks like a camera does it? Constant f/2? Nice for some situations, useless for others i’m afraid. There should be great bokeh with the shallow depth of field and it could be nice for indoor work and night work. But, I cannot see landscape being a photo topic, or indeed anything where a slow shutter speed is/was needed. But, is a slow shutter speed needed now with this device? Indeed is “shutter speed” a phrase of the past now?
    Really, reading this blog makes me wonder if it is not something that should have appeared in early April. The Lytro website gives some sort of insight. But, I think you need this oblong box in your hand to make any kind of judgement. I see no kind of control or switch on the box ( sorry I cannot bring myself to call it a camera ) so, is ISO now also a thing of the past? Indeed, it seems many of the functions we now take for granted would be missing.
    The design leaves a lot to be desired and I wonder if future versions might incorporate some of the features we are used to. At the moment, the Lytro looks like an unwieldy oblong box and it will certainly win no prizes for its good looks.

  4. moris kushelevitch says:

    there are new toys every day and there are more than enough players

  5. Cliff Belton says:

    Looks like the ultimate raw file, I can’t see any advantage in processing all the data to a 1.2mb jpeg. Have to agree with Mick, what’s the point of military specification date collection to produce newspaper quality pics

  6. Mike Mumford says:

    Have you seen this Light Field Camera, if it has taken 15 years to get this far, I am not over impressed.
    To move around an image you will have to have a greater 8X magnification to make an impact.
    It is an interesting start not having to focus first, by collect all the reflective light and storing it electronically you can then enhance it later like CCD cameras.
    Give the camera manufacturers another 15 years, it may be yet be a common standard feature?


    Light Field Camera.
    The very first light fields were captured at Stanford University over 15 years ago. The most advanced light field research required a roomful of cameras tethered to a supercomputer. Today, Lytro completes the job of taking light fields out of the research lab and making them available for everyone, in the form of the world’s first Lytro Light Field Camera.

    Light field cameras offer astonishing capabilities. They allow both the picture taker and the viewer to focus pictures after they’re snapped, shift their perspective of the scene, and even switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D views. With these amazing capabilities, pictures become immersive, interactive visual stories that were never before possible – they become living pictures.

    • John Strain says:

      Thanks for showing us that Gwyn, very interesting.
      I had read something about it in Amateur Photographer.
      I think it looks great as a carry everywhere compact. It also looks great fun. I wonder what it it like in low light and if it compensates for camera shake.
      I just wonder about the very low resolution: OK for the web but perhaps not much else.
      Maybe this is the shape of things to come.
      Happy New Year everyone,

  7. Adrian says:

    That’s a cool feature to have on a digital camera, refocusing after the picture has been taken. Soon this feature will be available on the pro cameras as well.

  8. Mervyn Benford says:

    New technology is all very well but the ultimate quality factor will surely remain the eye. I have around 50 000 35mm transparencies and at least 20% of them are unsurpassable for image interest and/or quality but I have never had more than a moderate level camera, often bought secondhand. I saw the new camera described in OP and I am sure it has its innovative appeal- so not deriding it- but will technology ever make mere photographers redundant? In education over 50 years I have supposed images in whatever form might survive in terms of job prospects for young people seeing so many other vocations lost to machines.

  9. peta says:

    Just a thought, the world is not only flat, but the sun revolves around it!!

    This is just the beginning, just like AF was at the beginning. Of course this camera is a piece of crap at the moment for a ‘pro’, never the less this is a BIG threat to those who feel like they can talk the talk (but may not be able to walk the walk). Like desktop publishing was a threat to typography (I was a top skilled professional typesetter), sorry guys and gals, bend over and take it!

    But remember, the camera is such a small part of being a good photographer, there is so much more. I love the technology… mmm, Give me!! I made a fortune with the old school skills plus convenience of DTP. A skilled photographer will embrace this, not deride it.

  10. This is certainly ‘drool-worthy’ technology, but keep in mind that this camera’s adjustable-after-exposure ‘pictures’ can’t actually be printed on any conventional media.

    In order to ‘consume’ or to view these pictures they need to be displayed – like an animated Flash rendering – on a PC or a tablet or (of course) on an iPhone.

    But give it a couple of short years and I predict these images will be the new ‘norm’ on the social media sharing sites!

  11. Mark says:

    It all sounds very interesting & would be a fasinating camera to have play with .But , hardly worth while going out to buy one unless that’s what you really want or need.

  12. nair .GC says:

    Man made food always Good– But Computer made food always– some thing spl. but not all time — , we can go our father/ mother era- camera-s– they are made Art in light & paper– today no art- but money–? what is purpoe of money without Art?

  13. Aslan says:

    As for me it is too sad to understand the best film cameras are not popular. And people devote themselves to digits.

  14. Ian Hooker says:

    Looks great potential but not today. I found this article via google:-

    I might buy one as a compact camera to suplement my SLR when
    1) it can be used on a Windows system (not just MAC)
    2) you can convert it on that windows system to a jpeg and then post process it, and
    3) when the resolution is higher. The current 1,000 by 1,000 is inadequate for pretty well all but social networking. 3,000 by 3,000 would be fine for me.

    Lytro do seem to have released it a bit early. Let’s hope it’s current deficiencies can be fixed and do not impact their potential customers’ long-term enthusiasm! Including mine!

    I wonder if an SLR version (with interchangeable lenses for zooming) is technically feasible!!!???

    Great heads up though, Gwyn, thanks.


    • PAul says:

      Useful article, should stop enough people buying one so that I can get one 🙂

      The article seems to have missed the point, talking about all the data in jpg format images; that just doesn’t happen.
      It’s hit the nail on the head though with the viewing software.

      It’s spot on about the Mac centric nature. Again I don’t see that as a bad thing. I see it as a necessity to get a stable OS and hardware feature set that you can rely on.
      Like music production, you can fight to make a PC work with small enough latency and end up building your own custom system, or buy a Mac off the shelf and have it work first time.

      Their biggest issue will be getting the functionality it promises on the web with HTML 5 as it stands today.

  15. PAul says:

    I’m excited about it.
    Excited enough to go and read the founder’s original research paper to see what it’s al about, rather than the blatherings of journalists who probably haven’t even heard of ray tracing let alone QED.
    It has a lot of potential and many of the features can be redefined in software, so having enough processing power and capacity for serious software pgrade will be essential.

    I don’t know how it will fit into the paper and print world, I suspect it won’t.
    Even in the web 2.0 world, and with HTML5, I can’t see that it will work with native files because of the need to support heavy rendering processing across multiple incompatible browser platforms.

    At present it looks as if the “refocussing” is driven by clicking on regions and displaying a different jpg image, not by recomputing from the original raw lightfield.
    Smoke and mirrors.

    At the moment it appears to be using a 10×10 pixel matrix under each microlens. Which is why the resolution is being measured in rays not pixels. The sensor underneath is about the resolution of a medium format camera sensor.

    I’m sure this technology will eventually be a game changer for web imaging, but when?