When Lytro made their announcement on Wednesday to unveil the design and price of their new camera, I didn’t think I had more to say than I said in June. In a nutshell: Hello computational computing! It’s very cool technology. It demos well. I’m not sure, however, that posting Flash-based do-dads on Facebook allowing anybody to refocus the images after the fact is all that interesting in the long term. It feels kind of faddish. Still, impressive technology.
After a few more days of thinking about it, however, I have to say it’s very interesting that Lytro is going after the consumer market instead of trying to cater to professionals or enthusiasts. Perhaps part of their rationale for this is driven by the fact that Lytro is ventured funded and the consumer market is where the big returns are likely to be. I don’t think it’s that simple, however. I think that Lytro is making a very smart decision based on the benefits that their technology offers and the tradeoffs needed to make the technology work.
The first of these tradeoffs is resolution. The Lytro specifications talk about capturing 11 mega rays of light, but the resulting images look to provide about megapixel of detail. Maybe less. If you’ve slogged through the background material about how the tech works, this makes sense. If I had to guess, I’d say that the Lytro probably has a standard consumer 10-12 megapixel sensor behind an array of a somewhat less than a million micro lenses. Maybe fewer. There’s no free lunch here. The process of using multiple photo sites on a sensor to capture the additional data necessarily cuts down resolving ability.
The second tradeoff seems to be absolute sharpness. After working my way through the Lytro sample images again, it seems to me that while any point can be brought into acceptable focus, very few of the resulting views are really super sharp. This makes sense if you think about what Lytro is doing as stacking a bunch of focus zones. You get to take advantage of lots of depth of field, but as you know, even when you have lots of depth of field, you only get one super thin plane of tack-sharp focus in each focus zone.
The third tradeoff looks to be in low-light performance. While the f/2 lens is nice and bright—and a real luxury at the price point—you’ll notice that most of the samples are taken in fairly bright light conditions. The few that are in somewhat lower light, such as the one of the rocket sculpture on the Embarcadero in SF, show quite a bit of noise, especially in the shadows. My guess is that the photo sites on the sensor aren’t all that big. After all, you need lots of them behind each micro lens to capture all those rays of light in the light field.
Like many choices in technology, these tradeoffs aren’t inherently good or bad. Furthermore, the first and third tradeoffs will be minimized over time by the rapid progress in both the ability to squish more pixels on sensor and make them less noisy. The second tradeoff can probably be addressed over time as well with more refined implementations of the basic approach. This is the first almost-shipping version, after all. Give it 5 or 10 years and lets see what happens.
Right now, for the kinds of things I use a camera for, the tradeoffs are a net negative. They may be a net negative for you as well, at least if you were to use this as your only camera. Here’s the thing that’s so easy for avid photographers to forget: Your average Jane or Joe on the street doesn’t want to fiddle with camera controls and—thanks to modern exposure systems that take care of aperture and shutter speed—lag and error in camera focusing is the number one barrier to getting a decent photo that captures the memory they want to make.
The Lytro takes care of that and the tradeoffs needed to do it don’t even matter to the average person that wants to use a camera. Just enough resolution to put online or make a 4" print? That’s fine. That’s the only way the photo was going to be used anyway. Sharpness that’s not super tack sharp, but only acceptable? Sure! It’s all worth it to never have to worry about focus again. In fact, I can’t help but think that the beautiful and non-camera like design of the Lytro with its emphasis on the shutter release might just be the ultimate implementation of George Eastman’s 1888 promise: “You push the button, we do the rest”.
It’s brilliant. I’m not going to rush out and get one, but I think that they’ll do well with it. I hope so. After all, one of the most noble things we do with cameras is capture memories and I think the Lytro will help more people do that.
I still think, however, that the embedded Flash-based living pictures thing is a gimmick.