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Michael DelGaudio
Photo geek, Director of Training and Support for RPR. Any opinions expressed here are mine, and not that of my employer.
Photo geek, Director of Training and Support for RPR. Any opinions expressed here are mine, and not that of my employer.

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My review of the Lytro Camera

Sample images from my first outing with my Lytro are here:

I applaud the Lytro team for the technical marvel they have created. If they can continue, and refine this over time, I believe it can and will change the overall ease of photography. There is opportunity here, and they are the brave souls who are taking the first pass. I want them to succeed.

That said, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a day with the Lytro today, and I must say that I find myself disappointed with it. I don’t want to diminish at all the incredibly hard work that went into the technology that this represents. But, I find myself in the position that I’m frustrated in using the camera, rather than joyful or amazed. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

I was incredibly enthusiastic about this camera and the technology, but what Lytro delivered falls short so far. From my standpoint, the minimalist design detracts from the usability and usefulness of the camera, and the image quality is not where it needs to be.

As I contemplated my disappointment, I considered possible users for this device, in case I was not the intended audience. I think that's where the problem lies. This is a device without a clear audience.

Possible Audience 1: Point and shooters who don’t want to mess about with all those controls.

I think that this group is the real target segment for the camera design, and who will benefit in the long run.

If you’re a casual snapshooter and just wants to capture your kids playing without the hassle of "hold still while the camera focuses", you’re out of luck here too. Perhaps you want to just want to take pictures of your friends and family, and not suffer the embarrassment of having a tack sharp background with a blurry face in the foreground. That happens all the time, right? The Lytro certainly sounds like a perfect use-case to eliminate that from ever happening again.

I shot dozens of images today, and quality is just not there. If you’ve been around long enough to have had a 1 or 2 megapixel camera from days gone by, that’s about what you can expect. The images reminded me of screen grabs from early digital video cameras. I think this comes as a result of the auto-ISO, auto-white balance, and low resolution.

The exported images are right around 1 megapixel. At 1MP you’ll be making wallet sized prints and not much more. Most likely, the pictures your Lytro takes will never end up on a wall or in a photo album, which is a shame.

In my first day of shooting, I still shot perfectly sharp backgrounds, and faces in the foreground that I cannot get to focus. I think it’s a camera shake issue due to the way you hold the camera, although the blurriness doesn’t look like typical camera shake, it looks more like a lack of focus.

Possible Audience 2: Photo geeks and early adopters.

I enjoy photography as a hobby ( I am interested in something could change photography as we know it. This may be a glimpse of the future, if we consider the Lytro as a proof-of-concept. What we have right now is a camera that lacks all basic adjustment functionality except shutter actuation and zoom. Good for a POC, but it means we are not ready for prime time. This technology needs to mature. Right now, everything is designed towards the focus-after-the-fact feature.

It lacks:
• Exposure compensation
• White balance
• ISO Adjustments
• Timer / Delayed shutter
• Editable Shutter speed
• Aperture adjustment

Since you can’t make any of these adjustments at shutter time, you might expect that you could fix some them after, as if you were adjusting a RAW image from a typical digital camera. Unfortunately, as of right now, you cannot. You can only adjust an image, if you export a JPG and import that image into iPhoto or similar.

You have to install the Lytro software on your Mac to view your images, but the software does not give the ability to adjust “in post”. Hopefully this will come in future updates.

Right now the Lytro desktop software only allows you to click around and temporarily refocus the image. The resulting images are probably more easily compared to an analog Polaroid image from days gone by in that you-get-what-you-get. There is a “Share” button that allows you to post your images to Facebook. Rumor has it that there are more features coming, such as perspective shift and the ability to generate a 3d image from the raw file.

But for now, there are no exposure adjustments, dodging, burning, retouching, neutral point or saturation adjustments, or even the ability to make a black and white image. Cropping your image is also not available – but at ~1 megapixel, there isn’t much to crop anyway.

Perhaps such editing is contemplated for later versions of the software. I believe it will be essential to adoption. People are accustomed to what iPhoto or Picasa, or even Hipstamatic provide in photo manipulation, and Lytro will have to get their software to that point.

As it stands right now, I can’t even view my images full screen.

I’m sure the Lytro team had been going great guns just to get to this point, and I am hopeful that future versions of the software will start to include basic photo editing capabilities.

Possible Audience 3: Creative types who want to create artful compositions.

Perhaps the target niche is artists who want to create interesting storytelling images that reveal themselves through exploration and refocusing. That seems a possible direction since the photos allow themselves to be progressively revealed.

If that’s the case you might expect that the artist might want precision in their composition, with the ability to attempt several exposures from the exact same spot. They may want absolute crispness. However, ensuring that would be predicated on additional tools typically found in the art photographer’s kit.

A tripod, for example. Surprisingly, there is no tripod mount on this camera.
There is also no ability to trigger flashes. This camera is natural light-only. Since the camera really suffers graininess in even moderate low-light, this is tough. Indoor shots are are almost completely ruled out from the beginning.

Finally, the postage stamp screen and in-camera UI fail on two main points. First, the zoom indicator only appears when you are actually using the zoom… very unhelpfully it retracts from the on-screen UI when you are not touching the control. In practice this means you have no idea if you’re actually zoomed in unless you touch the control. And since the control itself offers no tactile feedback to know that you are manipulating it, it’s altogether too easy to adjust the zoom inadvertently when you are not peering into the view screen. Just resting your finger casually on the camera can adjust the zoom. I found myself inadvertently at half and full zoom several times. I longed for physical buttons to set zoom. Secondly, the viewing angle of the display itself is far too narrow. If you look at it even a little off-axis, the screen becomes essentially unviewable. Since the camera lends itself to attempting interesting layered compositions, I found myself trying to use it at arms length to get the right angle, but I could not see what was being composed in the viewfinder. Hopefully future models will have a screen more akin to what is available in today’s smartphones that have very wide viewing angles.

So… what do we have here?

Right, now, I think it can be summarized as an interesting $400 proof-of-concept device. A novel, if watershed moment in photographic history, if you will. If you try and consider it a full-fledged everyday use camera, it is one that creates small, harsh, grainy, non-adjustable photographs via an unwieldy design whose minimal controls can be inadvertently triggered. I feel bad giving such a harsh description for a version 1.0 device, but I’ve come to expect more from any photographic device over $300 dollars. Novel technology notwithstanding.

The end result is that I still have to use the camera, and view the resulting images. So far both aspects have so far been below my expectations. When showing the results to other people, the “Yeah, but you can refocus it” cool factor does not offer enough compensation for the sub-par quality of the image.

For the usability, I really think that Lytro tried to strip away everything that they thought wasn’t essential to the image-making experience. It seems they tried to get to a dead-simple, elegant interface that got out of the way and allows you to create beautiful images effortlessly. In practice, this reduction only makes it more clear that all those adjustments are essential to making quality images that are worth contemplating, and viewing a second time. Stripping photography to one button with no hope of adjusting the end result just doesn’t work in practical application today.

Perhaps this means that the final form factor is more akin to a big DSLR with a long lens attached. That would give the camera room to have a big enough sensor which allows for images consistent with, say, a 4 MP or 6MP, camera. It would have room for adjustment controls and a tripod mount.

All that said, I will not return this camera to Lytro. I want to make sure Lytro has the money to improve and grow this technology. I knew the risk I was taking when I bought this camera, and that it doesn’t yet live up to my expectations does not mean that I want the technology to die. Far from it. I want it to succeed and flourish so that some day soon I can have a high quality 11x14, beautifully colored 3D print hanging over my desk with an absolutely crisp face in front of a nicely out of focus background that was color and focus-corrected after the fact. That only comes if there is funding to get the technology there.

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Got my #Lytro today. It arrived with a completely depleted battery, which was a bummer. After charging I only had time for a couple shots. My very first shot, wouldn't focus -- apparently you can get too close to the subject.

So I set up a ruler to see how close I could could get and till get acceptable focus.

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A chilly run.

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Stand in opposition of SOPA and Protect IP. If you do nothing else today, tell your government representatives not to support these bills. This will take you less than 5 minutes, I already did it myself this morning here:

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Atop the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh

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Burnside bridge - A quick panorama test of the new Galaxy Nexus. 

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