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Lytro Light Field Camera: Snap Happy Or Photo Gimmick?

Tim Brookes 22-03-2012

Described by an employee as “the first major change in photography since photography was invented”, the Lytro light-field camera is certainly a revolutionary device. The camera shakes things up by replacing much of the heavy and sensitive technology in your typical camera with software.


Whether or not it’s worth your hard earned money at this stage is still unclear, however. Even the earliest of early adopters might want to think twice about the Lytro, despite the amazing technology and interactive results that are possible. Here are a few facts and examples to help you make up your mind.

A Revolutionary Device

A typical camera measures the intensity and colour of light of a scene, be it captured on a roll of film or the sharpest digital sensor. Once you’ve taken your snap, Photoshop aside, there’s very little you can do to change the point of focus on a static image. That’s where Lytro differs.

lytro light field camera

By capturing the direction light is moving and then reconstructing this along with color and intensity, Lytro allows you to change your point of focus once the image has been captured. This is called light field technology, and it’s bound to revolutionise the way we take photos. You can see an example from the Lytro Photo Gallery below:

Click different parts of the image and the picture will refocus accordingly. The lack of a focusing motor means there’s no shutter delay, which is another nice step forward. The camera also features an 8x optical zoom lens with a constant aperture value Learn & Practice Camera Exposure Settings With CameraSim Understanding camera exposure can often take the joy out of taking pictures. Cameras like the Canon 50D or the Nikon D80 are fairly affordable, but you may not get your money’s worth if you only... Read More of f/2.


It’s important to remember the technology that’s enabling this is truly the star here, perhaps more than the photographer themselves.

A Simple Device

The Lytro is an incredibly simple device to use, which is both great and limiting at the same time. There are only two modes included with the camera – Everyday and Creative, and both are fairly automatic – good old point-and-shoot, worry about focus later. There are literally no standard settings for anything on the Lytro, you just adjust the exposure and focus range (in Creative mode) by tapping the rather small touchscreen then shoot.

light field camera

And this is my first issue with the Lytro. Anyone who owns or has learned to use an SLR or prosumer camera will be familiar with the modes – aperture, manual, shutter and so on – as well as other camera terminology like exposure, ISO and white balance. If taking pictures is your passion, the Lytro won’t suit your love for the finer details, the mastery of a camera or the post-production process.


Why am I warning the cameraphiles? Because if the latest advancement in your field had recently been released to the public for $399 and revolutionized the picture-taking process then you’d probably have a passing interest too. Unfortunately, the limitations continue.

light field camera

Lytro have also yet to develop a way of editing your “living pictures”, so there’s no exposure tweaking or colorization to be had here. No black-and-white high contrast Create Stylised High Contrast Black & White Masterpieces In Photoshop With Adobe Camera RAW Read More plane-shifting, no HDR (not that that’s a bad thing It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and in photographic terms generally produces an image where the entire scene is balanced, and evenly exposed. Recently I’ve not been seeing much of this on the web. I’m... Read More ) or any Photoshop wizardry How To Edit RAW Photos in Adobe Camera Raw Read More at all. Of course you can take a still from your “living picture”, but you’ll unfortunately be left with a 1,080 x 1,080 (about 1.2MP) JPEG which is fairly disappointing to say the least.

Which musters another complaint – while the effect (and science) is astounding the first few times you use it, the picture quality is nothing special. What’s more the effect doesn’t work on every scene, because not every scene has the makings of a perfect Lytro photo. Notice how many of the photos in the Lytro gallery are similar – close-up foreground object against a distanced background with plenty of depth of field. Now take the “living picture” aspect away, and you’re left with a less-than-stellar exposure that would pass the Instagram 6+ Sites That Enhance The Instagram Experience Read More test but leave much to be desired once printed and framed on a wall.


Of course many new features can be added to the Lytro with a simple software upgrade, and though this won’t necessarily do wonders for image quality or low-light performance it will give you something else to do with your light field camera.

A First-Generation Device

There’s more bad news I’m afraid. If you’re a Mac user then you’ll be able to jump right in, transfer your photos, process using supplied software and then upload (via Lytro’s website) to share. There is at present no Windows support, but a small “A Windows application is in development” message afoot the camera’s description on the official website. Without this software your pictures will be trapped on the device until you borrow a Mac or till the application is released (“early 2012” apparently).

lytro light field camera

The camera also lacks a number of other things, but they’re really not that important. There’s no video, but then this is a light-field device designed for those “living pictures” after all. You still need to connect the device to your computer using a cable, no deal-breaker but wireless would have been nice. There’s also only 8GB of non-expandable memory available in the $399 model, though if you fancy coughing up $499 you can have 16GB – considering all digital cameras now use memory cards, an SD or Micro SD card slot isn’t asking too much.


So just who is the Lytro camera for? Photographers won’t enjoy the limited settings and lack of after-touch, and many would rather spend the $399 on new equipment for existing collections. The asking price puts it out of range for the average Facebook’ing teen and when it comes to placating them with presents wouldn’t your sprogs opt for something like an iPod Touch or PS Vita instead?


Is it just me who sees the click-able “living image” as more of a gimmick than having a real-world use? Won’t it get – dare I say it – boring after a while? Light field technology is a relatively recent advancement, and one that is set to continue to thrill us for many years yet. For the Lytro though, in its current stage of development, I’d probably recommend against the purchase unless you’re completely bowled over by the “living images” and have a lot of Facebook friends to show them to.

Maybe after a few software updates have landed the Lytro will look that little bit more attractive.

Have you bought a Lytro? Are you considering a purchase? Let us know what you think of this and the future of light field photography in the comments below.

Related topics: Digital Camera, Photography.

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  1. David
    February 4, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Since this article was written, there's been changes to Lytro product line. It would be nice to perhaps have a revisit/updated review for our MakeUseOf readers.

    Notable changes since:

    * new Lytro Illum camera model (think 2nd generation) - closer to DSLR in look/feel and function with SD card requirement/support now. But by no means comparable to a DSLR.

    * better training videos on how to use the new Lytro Illum (vs the first gen camera, I think but not sure, don't see/recall any videos for first gen camera on a brief look at Lytro site)

    * Lytro desktop software version 4 - can now export video of the zoom in/out effect you can see from Lytro photos, along with other Photoshop-y enhancements

    * Lytro first gen camera can be found for ~$100-150 (refurbished) online, maybe less as well. So for that price, it's more decent to experiment with than the previous/new $399 price tag.

    * also, a side note that you can rent both Lytro first gen, and Lytro Illum at BorrowedLenses.com. Lytro Illum is better rented for those that might want to try it since it's way pricey at $1200+. But Lytro first gen is cheaper bought refurbished online.

    • Anonymous
      April 26, 2016 at 10:03 pm

      Agreed, it would be nice to see an update to this article.

      Lytro has also recently come out with VR technology and an even newer Cinematic camera for shooting light field video. Not for the average consumer, perhaps. Still, seems like their technology has advanced a few years in the interim, as has their desktop software, which works just fine on Windows. I think I heard they now have workflow in Photoshop, etc.?

      Interested to know how current generation technology stacks up against G1 & Illum.

      Also, interested to know what folks think of new competitor Light.Co which promises a higher resolution output via "computational imaging" [image stitching from multiple lenses / focuses, exposures] not entirely dissimilar, though a bit, from Lytro's Plenoptic "Light Field" imaging. And Light.Co's sensor arrays will fit into appx a cellphone form factor (slightly larger at launch, but I'm sure they'll miniaturize it slightly for use in cells / tablets, etc.). In theory, it will also support "simultaneous HDR," 4K video, mild dust / water resistance, etc.

      Could be interesting. :)

      • Tim Brookes
        May 4, 2016 at 3:34 am

        And Michael — thanks for brining Light.Co to my attention, somehow they had slipped under the radar. I will certainly be checking them out, hopefully we can get hold of a camera for review at some stage (though I notice they're all out of stock at present).

    • Tim Brookes
      May 4, 2016 at 3:07 am

      We're on it David, we'll see what we can do about taking a look at the new Lytro offerings — though only the Illum and original are consumer devices, with the VR and cinema offerings well beyond the budget of most people.

      I've been looking for a second-hand Lytro myself recently (original) just as I have a bit of a thing for cameras, and it strikes me as a fun device to shoot with. Unfortunately getting one for a decent price here in Australia is quite tough, but that's to be expected to be honest.

      Do you own a Lytro yourself?

      • Anonymous
        May 12, 2016 at 5:24 am

        Yes, I do own a second hand 1st gen Lytro :) and use it as a toy camera. I briefly rented the Lytro Illum with a work discount to just try it out. For the price and size, I prefer the 1st gen Lytro, although the Illum is nice in that it uses SD card storage.

        • Tim Brookes
          May 12, 2016 at 5:27 am

          Did you know that Lytro have since stopped producing the Illum? I recently tried to get in touch with them to try and source one. I've had no problem getting hold of an old first-gen, which should be in the mail, but the Illum is quite hard to come by down here in Australia.

          I'm going to optimistically assume that means they're working on the successor to the Illum and that we may see a new "consumer" light field camera soon ;)

  2. X
    March 29, 2012 at 12:54 am

    I see uses in security cameras. You know - that top-down view of the shopping mall. Incident happens in background, you can focus on it. Perpetrator runs away towards camera and face is clear in foreground, you can focus on it.

  3. DBell
    March 27, 2012 at 7:25 am

    I was fortunate enough to win one of these in a contest.
    Here are my thoughts after a few days of playing...

    This is revolutionary technology, but still in its infancy. This first-generation device is NOT going to replace your DSLR (and won't replace your iPhone camera either). That's not the point. I see it as a proof of concept.
    The first commercially viable light field camera (where previous LFCs have been huge arrays of multiple cameras in a university lab).

    The camera turns on practically instantly, and taking a picture is as quick as you can press the shutter.

    As has been noted, at this point, the only 'fun' Lytro picture involves at least two subjects, near and far, so there's something to shift focus between.

    There are very few controls other than zoom (8x optical), choosing a point in the frame to use for exposure, and in 'creative mode' you can choose a specific distance for the 'middle' of the focus range... allowing you to bring an object practically in contact with the lens and be in focus (though infinity will not be able to be brought into focus for that shot).

    Right now, you can't select the ISO or shutter speed, but software upgrades can (and will) add more functionality to the user interface of the camera.

    The post-processing software has no cropping tools, and no way to adjust exposure, white balance, or saturation... but since you are storing the raw light field data, future planned software upgrades will be able to reprocess pictures that you take today.
    The standards for a 'Light Field Raw' (LFR) file format are currently being defined and refined, and will be made open source at some point.

    Am I having fun with it? ABSOLUTELY!

    The scientist/gadgeteer in me sees the amazing potential for future applications as sensor technology improves and drops in price... particularly for doing things like rack focus for video in post processing, not having to re-take due to an out-of-focus but otherwise great shot.

    Would I have plunked down $399 for this? Probably not (but I don't spend $120/month at Starbucks either, which doesn't seem to be a problem for many other people). Lytro is currently scrambling to fill all of the orders...and I've heard that there is a waiting time of several weeks right now.

    I look forward to seeing what the future brings... my sense is that there are many things that will be possible that haven't even been thought of yet.

  4. Mark
    March 26, 2012 at 5:52 am

    Its really amazing and it will rock this world ,a next generation camera device

  5. Dave Parrack
    March 24, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    It's an amazing bit of kit but I don't see it, in its current form at least, being anything more than a gimmick.

  6. Achraf52
    March 24, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Hi, this is pretty amazing but only if they would integrate it on Smarphone camera the tiny chip, it would also need a proprietary format like .ljpg so it could be read universal, much work is to be done here but I do not want to buy this device for $399 just to be able to change focus .

  7. Joe
    March 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Tim, You mentioned the iPhone 4S camera (which I can't wait to see and use first person), but I wanted to give a shout out to the superior 8mp camera on the EVO 4G (NOT to be confused with the newer model but far inferior camera on the EVO 4G 3D). I now use a Motorola Photon (al (which has a HORRIBLE 8mp camera), but I still have my EVO and it *still* takes far superior pictures than any other cell phone camera I have seen (again, though, can't speak for the 4S quality yet). I saw several sites dedicated to the previous iPhone picture galleries that were raved about on tech blogs, etc. about how advanced the camera technomogy was, and they were not the quality of my EVO pictures. My EVO has superb picture quality and incredible low light sensitivity and a professional looking shallow depth of field, and macro. When I posted pictures from it on my social sites, people were flabnergasted that thwy were taken from a cell phone and also were not doctored (direct uploads, no vinette/hipstamatic/instagram use either. It was awesome having it as my cell as it was exactly as if I had a virtual point and shoot with me at all times. I desire the dual cores and significantly higher storage capacity of my photon, but I truly lament with a n audible grumble evwry time I use my photon to capture an image and may move back to my EVO just for that 'always present' point-and-shoot advantage.

    • Tim Brookes
      March 22, 2012 at 10:40 pm

      It's funny but this is often the case. I have an iPhone 4 and my girlfriend has the 4S. While I consider my camera to be pretty decent hers clearly outshines it in speed, quality and low-light abilities. I'd say the iPhone 4 is usable, but in low light it really struggles with white balance and grain (but then again it's a phone camera, so it's not that bad).

      What you said is funny because I've encountered it before. The camera on my (pretty terrible) Sony Ericsson Satio was brilliant, had a real flash and while it was a slow and cumbersome phone to use the photographic results were pretty good. The only thing it didn't do was HD video, but that was down to poor software/update support rather than hardware limitations. Sure, it won't beat my iPhone but for its age and compared to the rest of the market at the time it was awesome.

      I guess if you use your EVO just as a camera you'd get pretty decent battery life out of it, right?

      Thanks for you comments!

  8. Joe
    March 22, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    I was (and still am to a degree) excited about this camera when it was first announced. But the points you make here are (atypical for most tech posts) sober-minded and I suppose pretty accurate, even if it did take a little wind out of my sails. I purchased a Canon 60D DSLR about the same time I heard about these, and before reading your article, I didn't realize how much the awesomeness of the omnifocus is only practical in very few situations* and is instead merely a gimmick (albeit revolutionary) given it has nothing else to boast to justify the cost. Minus the omnifocus, it looks as though it barely would be worth $100, maybe much less.

    *Practical use of omnifocus would come in real handy for documenting purposes where subjects, or even just one subject, of desired focus are constantly changing positions, IF the shutter speed on these things is fast enough. It also might be good for events with many people (wedding receptions, for example) where pictures encompassing full rooms of people could produce multiple picturesque shots (say, couple in loving embrace in back ground, groom leaning on best man's shoulder at a mid table, little girl stealing a piece of wedding cake from her brother in the foreground. In fact, if I had one of these, I'd just take many shots of the whole room all day and look for cute or interesting interactions throughout the image later. Then crop the relevant sections for non-omni focus 'regular'pictures. That's where this camera would really shine. But again, for that price, not sure it will have a much wider market demand than that.

    • Tim Brookes
      March 22, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      Your uses for the technology are bang-on, but unfortunately at this stage it's just not going to yield good results. Considering it's a first generation device this isn't really much of a problem, as the tech can only improve from now on.

      I like the wedding scenario - you could potentially get a number of pictures (at various points of focus) out of one single Lytro exposure. 3 slightly different focused pictures on a wall in a row would look awesome, but the problem is the picture quality would be bad even compared to shots taken on a decent point-and-shoot.

      I guess we should wait and see what happens over at Lytro before expecting too much! I am looking forward to light-field video as well...

  9. Shab
    March 22, 2012 at 7:26 am

    I'm a hobbyist and love my dSLR. I carry it around more than I would like to admit. I also carry my phone and like to share photos on the web. I see te Lytro as more of a web-sharing camera than a print-your-picture-camera. It's not for photographers who can't live without post processing. I took my kiddos to the zoo today and wanted the freedom of walking around without the dSLR. Took my Lytro. Not every picture needs to have depth of field. I am not always interested in capturing the best photo. More interested in capturing the moment. I've had it for almost a month now and have no regrets. We'll see where the technology ends up, but snapping is so convenient with my 3 and 5 year olds and no worries about focus, etc. if you want to print larger than 5x7, this camera is nog for you. Wait for a newer version that may have better resolution. Also, since most of this is software-based, enhancements are possible with an upgrade to the camera itself.

    So far no regrets here, but I'll admit that this camera is not for everyone. I'm having fun with it.

    • Shab
      March 22, 2012 at 7:34 am

      Enhancements possible "without" an upgrade. Hate commenting from my phone! Sorry about the typos.

    • Tim Brookes
      March 22, 2012 at 8:32 am

      Thanks for commenting. Good to hear it suits you and that you're getting plenty of use out of it! It's definitely a device for the online generation, I just wish the results were a little bigger for the money.

  10. Wits end
    March 22, 2012 at 6:26 am

    Nobody ever seems to mention that to take a photo with a lytro you gotta stay frozen for a few minutes for it to take in everything--- that would be a drag for most people.

    • Tim Brookes
      March 22, 2012 at 7:23 am

      Unfortunately unless you're shooting in good light this is often a problem anyway. A higher ISO setting will help, but your image will potentially turn out grainy unless you're shooting on the best SLRs on the market.

      If you compare the price range of the Lytro to the rest of the market then you could either have an entry-level digital SLR, an iPhone 4S (or other smartphone with a decent camera) or a scaled-down "prosumer" camera. This is where the real comparisons need to be made because, photographically, these devices would provide far more bang for your buck than the Lytro would.

      Then again if you love gadgets and have cash to burn I'd say buy one!

      • Shab
        March 22, 2012 at 7:31 am

        Agreed. Can't compare it to dSLR. You don't have the control. You still get to frame the shot, choose your light, and shoot. No worries about sitting still because the shutter is quick with focus later. Great for kiddos who won't always stop for the dSLR.

    • DBell
      March 27, 2012 at 6:57 am

      Huh? I don't think you have actually used one. There is no shutter lag (since it doesn't have to change focus or flip a mirror up), and the shutter speeds, in my experience, are between 1/60 and 1/250. The entire light field is captured within that (it does NOT take multiple exposures at different focus distances).

      Point and click.

  11. Chris Hoffman
    March 22, 2012 at 5:45 am

    I don't plan on buying this, but the technology here is actually pretty amazing. That last image with the water droplets on the window, especially -- wow.

    • Tim Brookes
      March 22, 2012 at 7:26 am

      Yep, the technology is the real star! You do of course need the right scene to make the most of it, and not every photographic opportunity will match this criteria.

      If you think this is cool then wait till video is able to use this technology! Just around the corner, or so I've heard...

  12. bvhudsif89a
    March 22, 2012 at 1:40 am

    Have you bought a Lytro? Are you considering a purchase? Let us know what you think of this and the future of light field photography in the comments below.

    • A new paradigm
      March 24, 2012 at 12:30 am

      I think most people here are missing the real point of this device by comparing it to the all-too-familiar dSLR and point and shoots (especially discussing printing???). Those create static images. These pictures are natively interactive and stereoscopic. This is as fundamental of a change to the art of photography as the transition to digital from film (allowing for the first 'real' post-processing).

      • Tim Brookes
        March 27, 2012 at 3:30 am

        While I agree the Lytro ushers in a new dawn of photographic capture, a MakeUseOf we have to look at things from a practical standpoint. Much of the time that means examining what you get for your money, and where that money could be better spent.

        Yes, the Lytro is a huge step forward but from a consumer standpoint it is (relatively) very expensive considering the lack of features and quality when compared to normal cameras.

        I didn't say it wasn't great, but I do think that unless you're a very eager early adopter now isn't the time to be investing in light-field technology.