Camera marketers toss around terms like “innovative” and “revolutionary” so casually that we can’t blame the buying photographers if they greet yet another camera hailing itself as “revolutionary” with eye-rolling skepticism. The light field camera technology developed by Lytro founder and computer scientist Ren Ng, on the other hand, is a bona fide innovation in photography.
Whether it’s a useful or meaningful one is an altogether different question.
Lytro’s technology creates images that can have their focus points and depth-of-field altered after they’ve been taken. The resulting images have greater depth and texture than your typical 2D photographs and can be easily animated to bring portions of an image into and out of focus. These images can also be re-focused by viewers in Web browsers if you first upload them to Lytro’s online service and generate an embed code.
The Illum is the company’s second pass at incorporating its technology into a camera. Its first camera, which was consumer-oriented, generated plenty of attention but ultimately failed to catch on. The Illum represents a substantial reworking of the camera body and controls with a pitch toward more serious photographers. We teamed with New Jersey-based photographer David Patiño to put version 2.0 to the test.
The Illum doesn’t use a conventional image sensor. Instead there’s a “40-Megaray” CMOS imager that uses microlenses to capture the direction, color and brightness of all the light within the frame. Images are saved in the company’s proprietary Light Field RAW file format and require the company’s desktop software to process. It’s not helpful to think of the Illum’s output in terms of megapixels per-se, but if you do export a 2D JPEG image from the software, you’re looking at a 2450×1634 picture (about 4-megapixels).
On the optics front, there’s a constant aperture f/2 lens with a focal length of 30–250mm. It can focus on subjects directly in front of the lens out to infinity. Using Lytro’s software, you can adjust the depth of field of any image from f/1 to f/16. The camera has a native sensitivity range of ISO 80–3200 and Program, ISO Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual shooting modes (sorry, no video). You’ll find built-in Wi-Fi and a hot-shoe for adding a flash.
The Illum brings a distinctive design to its distinctive brand of photography. “It feels and functions like a really big point-and-shoot,” Patiño tells us, but adds that it’s quite comfortable. There’s a 4-inch touchscreen display that tilts out from the camera body, which is very useful for framing difficult shots. With its prominent f/2 lens, the Illum looks as if it will weigh a ton but its magnesium and aluminum body keep the weight to 2 pounds.
For a camera pitched at more advanced users, there’s a notable lack of exterior controls. What’s available on the exterior is useful—mostly for confirming focus and adjusting what will be re-focusable—but we would have liked quicker access to settings like ISO and shutter speed.
If you set aside the malleability of the photos the Illum is producing and focus strictly on what they look like, the Illum can’t compete with other cameras in its price range in terms of image quality. Patiño used it in both natural light and artificial light set-ups for product shots and told us he felt there was “a real lack of sharpness” in his images. “Nothing was ever razor-sharp.” The camera is also underwhelming at even relatively low ISOs—Patiño told us his images over 800 ISO were very grainy.
Of course, this isn’t a completely fair standard, since the Illum can do what other cameras can’t. As we discovered with Patiño, how and what you shoot with the Lytro really matters. The Illum performed best in environments where light is plentiful and there are multiple subjects at varying depths in the frame. “When the camera was first launched, it was explained to me as ‘shoot first and focus later,’ but that’s not what this camera is,” Patiño says. Instead, you need to establish up front what areas will be re-focusable using a depth-of-field scale on the camera’s display. It’s a histogram-style guide with blue zones showing you what you can focus on in the foreground and orange zones delineating what will be focusable in the background.
Once you get accustomed to shooting with the Lytro, it does work as advertised. Bringing your images into the company’s desktop software gives you enormous control over what is in focus and the overall depth-of-field. For product and landscape photographers, we can see the Lytro creating some interesting and immersive images for websites. In our GIF-saturated age, Lytro injects some added dynamism into a single still frame. But the images just aren’t super crisp or detailed.
The Illum isn’t really designed for capturing fast-moving action but it starts instantly and there’s a 3-fps continuous shooting mode if you need the speed. Shutter speeds do reach 1/4000 sec, with flash sync available to 1/250 sec. You can also take long exposures up to 32 seconds.
Beyond the camera itself, there’s Lytro’s desktop software to contend with, and it can be a bear. It took Patiño 12 minutes to import 70 images and nearly 30 minutes to export a 10-second video clip on his Mac Pro tower. Other exports were not as time consuming. The software itself features a set of processing tools for color, saturation, etc., that are easy enough to work with and not unduly slow. You’ll be able to adjust the depth-of-field and focus points with ease, in addition to building animated movies from the images using a series of effects—movies can be exported as H.264 files or a series of PNGs in an MP4 container.
For the right applications, the Lytro Illum could be a very useful tool for creating stimulating visuals that will live out their life on electronic displays. On paper, it’s an exciting innovation. In practice, it still needs refinement. The image quality needs to improve, the software needs a tune-up to make imports and exports faster and the design could benefit from placing more controls on the camera body itself.
Just as this went to press, Lytro announced that it had raised $50 million in extra capital and was undertaking a strategic shift. The company claims it’s not giving up on cameras, though, and that a third-generation model is in the works. We hope so. It’s a promising—if still niche—concept, and the third time may indeed be the charm.
PROS: Images can be re-focused and have depth-of-field altered after the fact; great for immersive product photography; large, articulating display; lightweight build.
CONS: Images look soft; software import and export is slow; steeper learning curve than most cameras.