When Lytro’s original “light field camera” arrived on the scene in 2012, it cost $399 and didn’t even ship with Mac compatibility out of the box. Four years on and you can pick one up for 75% less than the original retail price.
You won’t find mention of the original Lytro camera on the company’s website, outside of support documents — but there are still plenty to be found on Amazon and eBay – as well as available in our MakeUseOf Deals store, for $79.99. So is it worth finally picking one up?
Four Years Late
Even though Lytro’s original camera has been replaced (and the replacement, known as the Illum, has also since been discontinued), there still seems to be a haze of intrigue surrounding the fledgling technology. In case you missed it, Lytro specialises in a range of cameras that capture more than a simple exposure but an entire light range, allowing you to refocus your shot and change aperture after you have taken the image.
Judging by the lack of success the company has had in the consumer department, many of Lytro’s potential customers simply weren’t willing to cough up the asking price for such a product four years ago. Even in 2016 the ability to refocus after a shot seems like a gimmick, but with Amazon sellers asking less than $100 to experience it for yourself that gimmick seems a lot more enticing.
The company no longer makes any products geared at the consumer market, and though we’ve reached out to enquire whether they have any plans to do so in future they haven’t got back to us yet. This might be your last chance to own the original light field camera, with plenty of brand new boxed models to be had online.
The Lytro uses a unique design, which fits the niche and once-futuristic nature of the product. The megaray sensor, processor and storage fit neatly into a rounded rectangle, with a lens at one end and an LCD display at the other. It might not be the most comfortable camera to use, but it looks the part and just about fits into your jeans pocket.
The outer shell is mostly made of lightweight anodized aluminium, with a silicon rubber grip surrounding the display end. There’s a shutter button on the top along with touch-based zoom controls, a power button on the bottom, and a touchscreen LCD for setting exposure and navigating menus. Inside the box you’ll find the usual micro-USB cable for charging and data transfer, and a magnetic cap that sits on the lens (which you’ll likely lose because it tends to fall off all of the time).
The version I’m reviewing has 8GB storage and comes in graphite, but you can also pick up the same capacity in blue or pink. 16GB variants can be found only in red, and the difference in price seems negligible depending on where you’re buying from. All cameras have an 8x optical zoom lens, with a constant aperture of f/2 over the whole focal range. The 11 megaray sensor can’t be compared with a standard sensor that uses megapixels, but still images exported from the Lytro measure 1080×1080. You can store roughly 350 photos on an 8GB Lytro.
Lytro were founded in 2006, and by 2012 they had released their first product. When this camera hit the market, it was the only example of its kind and lacked many of the features the company added over the next year or so of firmware updates. The Lytro even launched without official support for Mac OS X, as the technology requires use of the Lytro Desktop software to transfer and process images.
Despite positive-yet-middling reviews, many dismissed the Lytro as a toy and one that the public weren’t willing to spend $400 on. My early experiences with this Lytro camera seem fitting, and sum up the product’s troubled life.
The first thing I noticed was a dirty, dented box — one that I presumed had been sitting in a warehouse for a long time. Upon opening I noticed a layer of dust within the box, even though the outer seal was in tact. The camera itself looked like a scratched refurb until I noticed that it was just dirty.
When I tried to turn the camera on, there was no charge whatsoever. When I tried to charge it, nothing happened — I had to perform a “hold down power for 45 seconds” hard reset to get it to charge at all. Even then it sat on zero percent for 20 minutes before showing any signs of life, and for a good while I thought I had a dud.
Despite a rocky start, within two hours I was ready to take some photos. I’m not sure if the battery and power issues were due to product design, sitting in a warehouse for four years, or simply bad luck, but after connecting the camera to my MacBook and installing the equivalent of 11 firmware updates (with the last delivered in October 2013) I finally hit the shutter.
Taking Living Photos
The Lytro produces 1:1 square images, which is a fun ratio to work with considering most of us are used to 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9. It shoots in two modes, Everyday Mode which provides you only with tap-to-expose control, and Creative Mode which gives you access to refocusing controls. Everyday Mode is great for snapshots when you’re in a hurry, while Creative Mode assumes you have some time to compose and set choose a preferred subject for optimal focus.
The Lytro essentially has a “sweet spot” in terms of refocusing distance. You can’t refocus on anything in the frame and expect every point to be crisp, so if you really want to get the best “living picture” possible you’ll need to use Creative Mode and select a subject. In Everyday Mode the camera handles this for you, limiting you to 5.5x zoom but providing a much faster experience. Just hit the shutter to turn the camera on, hit it again to shoot, and worry about focusing later.
Creative Mode provides more manual control over the scene, and is especially useful when shooting macro scenes or when you want to make use of the full focal range you have available to you. Both modes are fun to use, and you’ll need practice with either to make the most of the Lytro’s abilities. Both modes allow you to take control of the shutter speed and ISO sensitivity, so you can control motion blur and image grain within the shot via the touchscreen interface. White balance controls would have been nice too.
Using a Lytro feels a bit like a lesson in photography, because unless you take images that emphasise depth of field then you’re going to be disappointed with the results. This is practice you can put to good use with a regular camera too, including both foreground and background objects rather than settling for flat scenes. While many creative rules exist to be broken, the Lytro really only excels when used in this manner.
The camera works well for certain types of images, and not at all for others. Playing with reflections is fun — be it a nearby puddle with a distant background, or an item in a window with an interesting foreground reflection. Street photography is particularly suited to the Lytro, taking the heat off the photographer in terms of finding a point of focus before shooting.
The camera holds up better than I expected it would in low light, thanks to a constant f/2 aperture. You can take advantage of this across any focal length, though you’ll need to be careful to hold the camera steady or you’ll introduce motion blur (especially when zoomed all the way in). Lytro used to sell a tripod mount which you might be able to get your hands on, but you could used something like duct tape too since a firmware update introduced a timer feature.
Though image quality isn’t great, and the gimmicky nature of the camera also raises concerns, the biggest let down for me is the LCD screen. It’s of very low resolution, suffers light bleeding from the LED backlighting, and has frustratingly bad viewing angles. Trying to compose a scene while looking at the display from a 45º angle or worse is terrible, you basically can’t see anything. Given the relatively high quality nature of the rest of the hardware, solid construction, impressive optical zoom, and expensive introductory price, the poor LCD seems completely out of place.
Previewing your exposures on the screen won’t fill you with joy, and I was regularly surprised how well a some shots turned out when I got back to my computer after reviewing images on the LCD. I soon decided to stop doing so, adding a “wait and see” element which felt a bit like shooting film.
Processing Your Images
Adding to the “film-like” feel of the Lytro is a requirement to process your images before you can start playing with them on your computer. This is done by connecting the camera via micro-USB, and launching the mandatory Lytro Desktop processor and editor. This software is now up to version 5, though Mac users (of which I am one) will have to settle for version 4.
The Lytro shoots proprietary RAW images in the .LFW format. Once you’ve imported your images, you literally need to “process” them by clicking a button before you can refocus or edit them. As they’re shot in a RAW format, you can get away with making some pretty extensive changes to things like exposure, white balance, black point and so on. You even get a histogram to help you balance the image.
You’ll also get access to a handful of other editing tools that you won’t see from regular cameras, including control over aperture, a feature called Focus Spread which allows you to define zones to be in and out of focus, and even the ability to create 3D images in red/cyan or stereoscopic formats. It’s powerful enough for what it does, and provides a pleasant editing environment with an integrated photo library and the ability to share your images directly to the web.
Because Lytro Desktop is technically a 3D editing environment, it does require a bit more graphical processing power than standard 2D editors. Some GPUs aren’t supported, including some Intel HD integrated models on pre-2012 Mac notebooks, and won’t be able to run the app. It’s also worth mentioning that Lytro Desktop will generate more heat and suck up more battery life, particularly when processing a new batch of imported images.
Lytro has also introduced a mobile app for browsing featured “living pictures” and sharing your own. You can connect to your first-generation camera via Wi-Fi, though the feature seems a little pointless as you can’t do any editing first. It’s a nice touch, but I’d recommend processing on a computer before unleashing your work online.
Though the only featured images I could browse via the mobile app were clearly taken on Lytro’s second consumer camera, the now-discontinued and very expensive Illum; there were some great shots that serve as a promising proof of concept for the technology.
Should You Buy One?
The verdict on the Lytro would have been quite different in 2012, at its asking price of $399. Back then the editing environment was far more barebones, there was no mobile app, and the firmware hadn’t gone through 11 different revisions. If you’re looking for a “proper” camera, my answer would still be no.
But the Lytro isn’t a serious camera, it’s a toy camera. You shouldn’t expect it to hold up too well over time, it already feels old by today’s crisp image standards. For comparison, the camera I used to take the product shots in this review is now ten years old and (give or take a new shutter) will probably still be producing passable images in another ten years. A decade from now your original Lytro will feel ancient.
But in an age when hobbyists spend upwards of $50 on painfully hip manual focus analog cameras, plastic tilt-shift lenses, Holgas and the developing costs that go with them; it seems crazy not to recommend the Lytro as a fun sub $100 toy camera. You probably can’t find a more fun digital toy camera that can do what this one does (and if you can, please tell me about it in the comments below).
Image quality isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. It’s not a serious photographic tool, but it’s fun to shoot with and creating successful “living photos” is a rewarding experience. It might improve you as a photographer, and it’s small enough to chuck in your bag. At this price, with nothing on the horizon in terms of affordable light field photography, the Lytro could be a great addition to your hobby.
At $399 it’s barely a 5/10 proof of concept, but if you can hunt one down for less than $100 it becomes a 7/10 toy for photographers looking to dip their toes into gimmicky yet entertaining technology. I’m probably going to pick one up myself, so make of that what you will.