Lytro camera, despite flaws, is groundbreaking (video)

Consumer Reports News: May 02, 2012 01:08 PM

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The Lytro is a very new kind of camera: It lets you adjust a photo's focus after you've shot it. For example, you took a wedding photo of the happy couple cutting the cake, but you accidentally focused on Uncle Mike in the background. If you were using a conventional digital camera, you've missed the moment and are stuck with a blurry bride and groom. The Lytro (16GB, $500; 8GB, $400) promises to rectify that dilemma.

Using a special light-field sensor and a powerful built-in micro computer processor, the camera lets you change the focus of the image after you've transferred it to your computer or when viewing it on the camera's touchscreen display. In the example of the wedding photo, with the click of a computer mouse or one touch on the LCD, you can refocus the image and bring the newlyweds back into sharp focus.

There's no doubt that the science behind this camera is fascinating, and it's generated more buzz than almost any single camera has in a long time. But the Lytro has major drawbacks. It's pricier than most point-and-shoots on the market, and at the moment, you can use it only with a Mac computer to transfer your photos. (The company plans to introduce a PC version later this year.)

The Lytro also has a very weird shape that makes it somewhat difficult to keep steady and compose photos. And it has no flash, video capture, or manual controls. It does have a rather clunky 8x optical zoom lens (which does not appear to have wide-angle capability). Finally, the LCD is a touch screen, which is nice—but it's only 1.5 inches, much smaller than almost every other current camera screen.

Despite these flaws, the Lytro contains groundbreaking technology. I've been shooting with a model we acquired for testing, and here's what I've found.

How the camera works. I enjoyed shooting photos with the Lytro, despite its weird shape, small display, and limited features. The shutter button was fairly responsive, without much noticeable shutter delay. I also liked the feel of both the brushed metal and the rubberized section of the camera body; I didn't feel like it would easily slip out of my hand. And the small LCD displayed a clear image for composition and playback (although in bright sunlight, images tended to wash out). The menu system is very limited but serviceable.

To shoot photos, you can use one of two modes: Everyday and Creative. The modes aren't that different from each other. In Everyday mode, I was better able to control exposure, and in Creative mode, I could control which subjects were in focus, though my results were hit or miss. In Creative mode, I was also able to capture better macro (close-up) photos. Overall, shooting the photos was easy.

To zoom, you stroke the rubber on top of the LCD. I found this process clunky, but it worked pretty well. The specs claim that the 8x optical lens has an f/2 aperture (which is fairly wide) throughout the range of the zoom, which means that you have a shallow depth of field at almost any zoom setting you use. This wide-open aperture also means you'll most like be able to generate the refocusing effect.

But there is a downside to having a constant f/2 aperture: For the camera to adjust exposure—when you're moving from low light to bright light, for example—it must automatically set the shutter speed and readjust the ISO sensitivity. (I confirmed this when I used the Lytro software to find out info on my photos.) So when you're trying to photograph action in low light, you're likely to get blurry shots.

Although the square-photo format is unusual, I like the resulting images. But they're very low-resolution—1,024 x 1,024 pixels, which is lower resolution than a 2-megapixel photo when you export the image from the software.

How the software works. The Lytro is one of the most computer-dependent cameras I've ever used. To view, export, or share photos, you need to install the Lytro software, which again, is compatible only with Macs. For many of us, this is a drawback.

If you don't install the software, you are unable to view the photos, aside from looking at them on the camera itself. This is due in part to the fact that the photos are not traditional image files (in JPEG or RAW format) but are created in a new file format called LFP, or light field picture. And to view images, you must connect the camera (via the included USB cable ) to your Mac and transfer them.

Once they're transferred, you can interact with images and change their focus. For example, I took a shot of my son playing baseball from behind a chain-link fence. In the software, when I click on my son, he snaps into focus, and the fence is blurred. When I click on the fence, it snaps into sharp focus, and my son disappears into a wonderful blurry haze.

This composite shows the same Lytro photo with two different areas brought into focus.

This is simply fascinating and quite addictive. But aside from letting you interact with the exposure of the photos (which Lytro calls "living pictures"), the software is quite sparse. You can rate photos, discover exposure details, and do a few other things, but it offers no real editing features.

If you want to export an image, you need to go into the thumbnails view of the software, click on the photo, right-click, and choose Export to JPEG. Your image is then exported using the focus points you set when interacting with the photo. Since the JPEGs are low in resolution, you won't be able to print a very large image; even a 4x6-inch photo may be pushing it.

You can also share your shots online. I found it easy to upload my photo to Facebook and to the site. Once a shot is on, you also can share it on Twitter or Google+, e-mail it, or embed the code of the image in a website. You can interact with the photos the same way you can when you're in the software.

Testing the Lytro. Because the Lytro camera shoots photos in a proprietary format, we couldn't test it in its native format; we had to export a JPEG file (via the Lytro software) and use that file instead. We tested the camera for dynamic range, color, ISO noise, and image quality.

The images displayed good dynamic range and and limited ISO noise. The images even had excellent color. But image quality was poor, and in our camera tests, that is the most important attribute. So although the Lytro has the unique ability to change the focus of images after the fact, our tests reveal that it lacks the quality of many conventional cameras.

Bottom line. Some early adopters and enthusiasts may consider the Lytro to be a must-have camera, but I think most consumers will hesitate because of its limitations: low-resolution photos, a quirky software interface, the lack of editing features, and the Mac-only requirement. I think they'll also quickly tire of interacting with the photos. The Lytro is fun, but it's just not very practical when compared with what most conventional cameras can do nowadays.

This type of technology may someday be included in every camera. But for now, this version of the Lytro needs a lot more tweaking before it's ready for prime time.


Terry Sullivan

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