(Still) The Camera of the Future


Light-field photography is potentially a very powerful way to shoot. Instead of recording a single still image on a flat sheet of film or silicon, it records the way the light enters the camera. This trick allows the shooter or the viewer to change a picture’s focus, perspective, or otherwise manipulate in 3D. Really, the resulting image isn’t a picture as we currently understand it.


A company called Lytro has been leading the, uh, field of study, and has just introduced its first real camera. The results can be impressive, but unfortunately the Illum isn’t ready for primetime:

It never really feels like everything’s working properly. If I captured too many shots too quickly, the camera would freeze or crash spectacularly. Once, I framed and fired a shot, and all the Illum recorded was black. The touchscreen picks odd moments to be slow or just unresponsive. Each image takes a few seconds to process, after which it either will or won’t refocus when you tap on the screen for no reason. The Illum’s autofocus is basically nonexistent, meaning you’re stuck manually focusing for every shot. There’s no image stabilization, so if you’re zoomed in you either need a tripod or the world’s steadiest hands. It feels like every time you push the Illum, try to explore its capabilities, it just breaks down. And if there’s one way to immediately alienate the customer who’s most likely to part with $1,500 for this camera, it’s to build a product that can’t hack it under pressure.

This is Lytro’s biggest problem, the most frustrating thing about the Illum. It’s made for and sold to professional photographers, those pushing at the creative edges of their profession. It can’t replace a DSLR (though I wish it could), and Lytro knows that. But buyers with $1,500 to spend on a second or third camera want certain things: fine manual control, quick access to settings, sharp images, adaptive performance to any conditions, easy processing, and much more. In way too many places, the Illum doesn’t deliver to the expectations of its target audience.


The price isn’t a big deal for pros used to spending that much or more on one high-speed telephoto lens. But the camera has got to function, flawlessly, shot after shot under field conditions.

I hope Lytro gets serious about producing a quality project, and quickly. For the next generation of photographers, children already used to playing with their images on touchscreens, light-field photography will be as natural to them as switching out lenses is to generations of SLR shooters.

So there’s that — and I really really want one.


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