After months of buzz, the Lytro "light-field" camera appears to be very close to commercialization. When I first found out about the concept I thought a lot about its implications both to me as a photographer and to photography in general. Of course, not having used one, the following is nothing but speculation, but it helps me form my own mind as to whether I see the development positively, whether I think it has a chance as a commercial product and whether I think it's the end of the world (of photography) as we know it.
First, in case you've been living under a rock, here's what we know about Lytro:
- Lytro is a new type of camera that captures light fields as opposed to a frozen light pattern. See it as a super-extended RAW file: in RAW you can manipulate exposure after the fact to an extent. With light-field shots you can manipulate sharpness and focal points after the fact. To an extent also, I'm guessing. The specs say that the camera captures 11 light-fields, although we don't know how these are determined by the camera and the flexibility they allow after the fact.
- It's a new and original "square torchlight" form factor that certainly looks different. It also looks unwieldy to me when it comes to actually shooting photographs, but that remains to be tested, I guess.
- The output format is a proprietary image format that will allow viewers (and not just the photographer) to play around with depth of field and focus when viewing the picture (online). I'm assuming that the processing software (only available on Mac to begin with) will also allow you to output a specific version of the light-field photo to jpeg, but that's pure speculation on my part.
- The lens has a fixed F/2 aperture and no shutter lag, so it should be very fast even in low light (again, to be verified).
- The retail price will be $399 and up depending on flash memory in the camera.
This new camera raises questions because it can either be seen as a gadget that won't last a couple of years or as the most revolutionary invention in consumer photography since the polaroid instant camera. I've heard and read a number of questions about it since I started documenting myself on this, and I guess it might be worth addressing those from my own point of view/ Here are some of the questions I read or heard:
- How will a new digital only viewing format ever become adopted?
That's probably the crucial question and the one that Lytro is betting the house on. There's a number of issues here. The first one is how the format will spread and be shared. I'm assuming that Lytro has tried to anticipate that with smartphone and tablet apps as well as plugins for a variety of social networks, facebook first and foremost. They're also offering hosting for the photos, which will allow them to enable the interactive viewing experience at the same time. Not sure it will work, but it could work if it feels seemless enough to the viewers. The second is will people want to interact with the pictures. That I'm less sure about. If we're talking holiday snapshots of the kids, then the answer might be yes, but by and large I suspect most people will click a couple of times to change the focus or DOF for novelty effect and then stop interacting. If that's the case then the whole point about the Lytro is actually questionable. Finally, will the images ever be anything else than files? Certainly if the Lytro is to have any future in fine arts, they will need to be, but if displaying a picture in a gallery requires an ipad, that's going to be an issue...
- How will it change photography?
Assuming the Lytro enjoys a commercial success, will it change photography as we know it? My own view is that this initial camera won't and can't. Simply because at the price point it's at, it's unlikely to produce high quality pictures. There will be some severe limitations to the output and as such will not be of great interest to anyone who is serious about photography. To the average holiday shooter it might make a difference in that it will eliminate the risk of badly focused shots. If the public loves the Lytro and it's a commercial success, then we might see the emergence of higher end cameras that could actually produce high quality output and start encroaching on the territory of current photography.
- Will it make every bumpkin with a Lytro think they're a pro photographer?
It might. Again though, unless the output is of amazing quality and more importantly unless processed photographs exported into traditional formats (assuming that's possible) can compete in terms of exposure, dynamic range and sharpness with good quality cameras, the public will see the difference. In fact, thinking that shooting sharp or mastering depth of field is all that distinguishes a good photographer from a casual photographer is missing the point. The Lytro won't help you frame, expose, choose your subjects or any of these skills acquired through hard work and experience. So a Lytro wielder might think it makes him more of a pro, but I doubt it'll make that much of a difference.
All in all, while I don't think this will be the revolution it's touted as, and certainly think that Lytro has an uphill commercial battle ahead, I'm still curious about the device and would love to try one. I shoot concerts, and I'd be interested to see the possibilities that this offer in post processing to rethink shots in low light where sharpness is hard to obtain and the compromises are many. I'm also curious to see what talented photographers could do with it.
But I think photographers can sleep easy. The Lytro might be an interesting development, but it's not going to rock their world for a long time to come, if at all...