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What Good Is The Lytro Light-Field Camera?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to get my hands on a demo model of Lytro’s new and purportedly revolutionary light-field camera. This is a camera whose sensor records the direction of incoming light in addition to its intensity and color, allowing the camera to “see” over a broad focal depth. Users take a single picture and focus after the fact.

Not clear? Here’s an insect-themed Lytrograph (is that a word?) by Adam Gould. Click on different parts of the image to refocus:

Call me a luddite, but I don’t think Lytro will upend photography as we know it. I find the Lytro is more a solution in search of a problem than an upheaval of imaging technology. I don’t wish to downplay the technological achievement- I am duly impressed that Lytro has been able to build, inexpensively, a truly novel way to take pictures. Refocusing still images is indeed fun. More than fun, even. I’d happily use Lytro’s images to teach principles of focus and composition.

The fundamental problem for a light-field revolution, though, is that focus is not the limiting factor for most photographers. Fixing focus issues doesn’t add much to a photographer’s tool kit. Light sensitivity, magnification, dynamic range, stabilization, resolution- these are all areas where technological improvements solve immediate hurdles for different genres of photography. Focusing? Not so much.

There is, however, at least one area of science photography where Lytro has great potential: wildlife camera-trapping. That’s the technique where a camera is placed out with some sort of trigger that trips the shutter when an animal walks by. Camera traps are useful for gathering data about wildlife with minimal disturbance.

Image credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Northeast

Since the trapper is not present to compose an ideal shot, a camera that focuses everywhere at once might be rather useful. With a light-field camera, the trap can be set much more broadly than a traditional trap, covering a larger area of forest and casting a wider net. Pictures can be refocused after the fact to bring out the subject’s relevant detail.

If Lytro ever does send me a demo, I hope they don’t mind if I set it out in the woods overnight.


Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. drskyskull 4:43 pm 11/6/2011

    I have a feeling these cameras will not be terribly useful to most professionals, but to amateur photographers (such as myself) who are often stuck with inexpensive cameras with terrible autofocus, they could be very popular.

    A big issue I often have is in taking pictures of animals at the zoo, where the camera is just as likely to focus on the glass of the enclosure as it is to focus on the animal. This can also be a hassle trying to photograph objects in a “busy” scene with lots of features at different distances. Like I said, not an issue for the pros, but to amateurs who can’t afford/justify a good SLR purchase, it can save a lot of hassle.

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  2. 2. Alex Wild 4:47 pm 11/6/2011

    drskyskull- I agree. Lytro showed particular savvy in developing light field for the consumer market first.

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  3. 3. ktkeith 5:49 pm 11/6/2011

    Your comments about the needs of regular users (vis a’ vis focus) are interesting.

    The Lytro was built from a design developed in the company founder’s engineering PhD dissertation. The dissertation is online at the company website:

    The dissertation defines a “focus problem” in photography in respect of certain specific aspects of exposure control. The camera is designed to solve that problem. You may be right that that’s not the right problem to solve, but I think you could have responded to the technology on its own merits.

    Since you have not handled the camera, your review appears to consist entirely of the opinion that the camera does not provide what users need. Surely the users can make that decision for themselves?

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  4. 4. Alex Wild 6:32 pm 11/6/2011


    Thanks for your comment.

    I’m not opining that the Lytro isn’t what users need. I’m opining that advertising Lytro as “revolutionary” is perhaps overselling the product.

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  5. 5. tip184 9:47 pm 11/6/2011

    I agree that most photographers use focus and depth of field as an integral part of the composition, and that the Lytro will not help in this area (it might hurt, by allowing viewers to undo the intent of the photographer).

    In my research I examine earthworms. I look forward to using the Lytro for macro photography of moving worms – very difficult for me to get good focus with my digital camera currently, and I would love to be able to adjust the focus after the fact.

    I think creative and practical applications of this technology will emerge once it is in the hands of the public.

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  6. 6. oldvic 12:04 pm 11/7/2011

    I agree with tip184: any application where you need greater field-depth (and often can’t get it) would find this possibility useful.

    I can think of macro, micro and some types of landscape where you want everything in focus from extreme foreground to infinity.

    Mr. Wild may well be right in his assertion that most people, including professionals, don’t take such kinds of pictures.

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  7. 7. tceisele 5:53 pm 11/7/2011

    I’d really like to try one out too, in some ways the Lytro looks like it would be very useful. It is clearly designed for a “run-and-gun” style, where you aren’t really sure what you are going to be photographing until the last second, but then want to get a picture *right now* even when there’s no time for focusing, charging a flash, or even much in the way of composition. I think they said that its aperture was fixed at f/2, so it would be able to manage without a flash most of the time (and a good thing, seeing as how it doesn’t have one).

    It might work nicely for insects outdoors that won’t stand still. The main issue looks to be that the resolution is limited, so there’s not going to be much scope for cropping after the fact.

    I kind of wish that they had included some sort of filter thread so that it could have used at least some kind of supplemental close-up lens.

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  8. 8. yglick 10:48 pm 11/10/2011

    I think this is fascinating technology. As typically occurs with new inventions, commentary looks at previous century problems solved by the innovation. Alex Wild is right, it is a solution looking for problems, but I reckon the problems it will solve are numerous and important.
    I think it has huge potential. E.g. in multi-frame sequencing or even video where an object can be focus-tracked as it crosses depth-of-field (DoF) lines. Security cameras, for example are forced to low-aperture in order to gain DoF, thus losing detail (e.g. color of the eye of a masked bank robber).

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  9. 9. cgfreebairn 4:03 am 02/12/2012

    What could be very very interesting about this camera, or developments of it, is if it can create a one time eqivalent of a focus stacked image.

    DoF is the number one problem for macro & micro shooters, especially at high mags like MPe65 mm users enjoy, & of course in stero microscope work too.

    Focus stacking is the current best practice solution to this problem, but is of limited value in the field where subject movement is ever likely. Some manage to get enough images to stack in field shots, and more power to – it’s not easy.

    I’ve used MPe65 with MT24 EX flash for years (& noted lesser quality images with this flash when subject is distant from the lens – this occurs as the light angle is closer to the lens axis, best results are obtained when angle is greater – ie at higher mags closer to the lens, regardless of diffusion). I also used a dedicated photomicroscope – a WILD M400 – for years (before digital and during) for smaller stuff like mites, insect parasitoids etc, employing low power top light (ring flash mounted on the objective) with 2 desk slaves as main lights I ie firing from the side not top) to get shadow and depth compared with too much RF top light).

    But back to the point – focus stacking of images w slightly different focal planes. In the shot of the wanderer that Alex shows I note there’s not a different plane available for back & front wings Clicking on back wings does not focus them). This suggests the device as currently configured won’t be useful as I envisage an auto-focus stacking imager, but does suggest it may be possible to make it so in later iterations.

    A macro Lytro that took 5-10 focal plane images and combined them t order afterwards – depending on one’s preferences, or the parallax limitations of some of the more frontal & farthest planes, would really be revolutionary, especially as it would be done on a single flash burst & save on batteries too! Something I think even Alex might be impressed by.

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  10. 10. pleecan 7:49 pm 01/6/2013

    On Dec 26, 2012 I built a prototype Plenoptic Microscope … PL-Zeiss-Lytro construct from used parts found on Ebay. The unit actually works in Bright Field and Dark Field Plenoptic Microscope. The Lytro camera is the heart of the image engine and the optics built around the camera. There are many artifacts characterized by out of focus, noise and hashed diagonal lines but occasionally the odd image does come out good. I have also built a PL-Beck-Lytro Plenoptic Metallurgical Microscope construct a few days later. The 3 plenoptic involves a macro setup using 50mm camera lens. All 3 configurations seem to work.

    Some of my configuration pic are shown here :

    Here is a test image of a Dark Field House Fly Mouth parts… the image is a jpg export from a Lytro file : see link

    Lytro is not concern in developing scientific markets nor industrial markets…. Pitty, so I go it alone without Lytro’s help… Lytro is strictly focused on the consumer market.
    The technology is still young. I just having fun playing with Lytro plenoptic optics.

    I have a public gallery of images taken with various Lytro constructs …

    Peter Lee
    Ontario Canada

    Link to this

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