The New Camera that Lets You Focus
After You Take the Picture. Yes, After.

THINK MOST of the picture just below is out of focus? Think again, Mr. Magoo. Click anywhere in the photo, and then read about a new basic invention that changes the nature of photography.

All photographers, pro or amateur, have a secret gallery of almost photos — pictures that would have been good, maybe even great, if the shots had been in focus when the photographer pressed the shutter button. Almost great is destined to become a thing of the past, at least where focus is concerned that is until now.The new lytro never out of focus camera!

Lytro, Inc., a start-up in Mountain View, CA, last week released the first consumer camera that lets the photographer, or anyone looking at a picture onscreen, to correct the focus on any object in the photo, whether it’s an inch or a light-year away.

The camera is called the Lytro Light Field Camera. It represents one of those rare happenings in science called a “core technology,” which means, basically, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. What you do see however is nothing short of miraculous. For the first time, focusing is not an issue in photography. Let me restate that. What is in focus in a photo is still an aesthetic consideration, but whether a lens was set to capture the aesthetic focus that a photographer was after–that’s no longer an issue.

Wait. This is a topic better explained in pictures than words. So take a look at this picture.

Aw, now, isn’t it a shame that the butterfly isn’t in focus? Why, if only there were a way to step back in time and change the focus…. With Lytro, a photographer can do that. So can you.

Here are the instructions. Position your pointer anywhere in the butterfly photo. Click twice to zoom–not that zoom is all that exciting compared to the next instruction: Put your pointer on the butterfly and click once.

Amazing, right? And this isn’t just a one-trick butterfly. Click once on the red flowers in the foreground, or the flowers behind the butterfly, or the trees in the background. Once you’ve started tearing up the basic natural laws of optics, you’ll want to play some more. And you can do that with the following sampling of Lytro photos. It you need a strong fix, go to Lytro’s Living Pictures Gallery.

Have fun, and when you’re through, come back and we’ll take a look at how a light field camera performs its miracles.

Just a thought before we delve into the eerie world of light field. A week or so ago at its MAX 2011 event, Adobe demoed its own Photoshop feature-in-progress designed to correct out-of-focus pix. It was pretty impressive–for a few hours. Then someone piped up to say the demo was rigged. Adobe knew the Lytro was coming. Is that why Adobe announced a a technology they didn’t really have yet? Hell, if I know, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing a story about how Adobe fudged the truth when it didn’t have to.

How the Lytro Works

The abilities of the Lytro are not in its focusing mechanism. It has none. Instead they reside in a new combination of lenses and light recording microchip. And in a fourth dimension. Let’s start in our better known three dimensions. In your everyday snapshot, with no fancy lighting, rays of light strike an object — say a red flower — from all directions. That’s true point to point light raysof each of the infinity of points that make up the surface of each photosensor.

This gives the camera the information necessary to measure the angles of the incoming light rays. That, in turn, provides the information needed to calculate the distance each ray of light has traveled and which rays to use to extract the the 4th dimension and back again!information needed to change the photo’s focal plane. But first, the data must tale a little side trip through a fourth dimension.

Ren Ng, the CEO of Lytro, came up with the idea of passing the numerical values gathered by the photosensor through a mathematical fourth dimension. Using an algorithm known as a Fourier transform, the process produces a collection of values that have a point-for-point equivalence to each of the original point values captured by the camera. (Those wanting a more detailed explanation of the process can read Ng’s doctoral thesis.)

It is the transformed values that are saved as a multiple image. When a reverse Fourier transform is applied to a collection of values representing a specific focal plane, the result is a picture in which the corresponding slice of the photo is in focus. Select a different set of values, reverse their transformation, and a different plane of the photo is suddenly sharp. There is enough information in a light field photograph to created pictures with a virtually endless depth of field–everything is in focus — and 3D stills and video, although those two tricks are not in the first Lytro cameras.

The Fourth Dimension in your Pocket

When Ng was developing a light field camera at Stanford University, he started out with 100 cameras photographing the same scene and pumping their images through a supercomputer to perform the Fourier transformations. Today, all thatinside the lytro camera has been boiled down to a pocket-sized box — 1.61 inches by 1.61 inches by 4.41 inches, 7.55 ounces — with a lens on one end and a square LCD touchscreen viewfinder on the other end. Exposure is set by touching the screen. The zoom is controlled by sliding the front, anodized aluminum part of the housing back and forth.

As significant as what the Lytro has is what it dosn’t have. Unlike conventional zoom lenses, who aperture ranges chagnes with the focal length, the Lytro’s aperture is fixed at F/2 to capture as much light information as possible. There goes the aperture control–and the need for a flash, even in low light. Naturally, the Lytro has no mechanical focusing mechanism, eliminating the delay, however slight, that comes with other cameras while they move elements in the lens to focus. There’s none of the usual lag when you turn on the camera, a delay that can make you miss the perfect shot. The Lytro’s ready to shoot the instant you press the on button.

The lytro modelsThe Fourier algorithms that originally took a supercomputer to run are now included in the Lytro’s light field engine, which sends photos into the fourth dimension through the camera’s built-in processor. The Lytro also embeds a light field engine into each photograph so that you can send your pictures to friends, who can explore the multiple focal planes of your snapshots without needing any special software or hardware beyond a personal computer.

When you go to buy the Lytro — and you know you want to — you have options only in the color of the front section–red, blue, or gray.–matched to the sizes of the onboard flash memory that stores pictures. The red Lytro, at $499 list, has 16GB, enough to store about 750 pictures. The gray and blue editions each have 8GB and are priced at $399. So, what does this new camera mean? For one thing, it means there is no longer any excuse for fuzzy pictures of Bigfoot–or of Uncle Ted or your daughter’s graduation. It’s true, this is a new core technology, the first fundamental change in photography since the Polaroid. But that doesn’t guarantee wide, lasting acceptance. Seen anyone carrying a Polaroid lately?

It’s ultimate success will depend on Lytro completing its promised 3D and “everything-in-focus” versions. It should also provide an app to display and play with light field pictures in the iPad, Android tablets, and smartphones. For immediate acceptance, Lytro has to get the kids onboard. Lasting acceptance depends on including the technology in the high-end Canons, Sonys, and Nikons used by pro photographers. If Lytro can get Annie Leibowitz to use one of its camera to shoot a spread for Vogue, it’s a safe bet the Lytro is a camera with legs.

So what do you think? Is the Lytro just a gimmick or a genuine, advancement to the state of photography? Do you see yourself buying one of the first models? Or will you wait and see how early adopters react to them? (You realize, of course, that early adopters hate to admit they made a mistake.) Or is the Lytro just a bunch of hooey that can’t begin to replace the umpteen thousand dollars of real photo equipment? You know, the equipment in a trunk in the attic. Let us know. Leave a comment below or write me an email with your thoughts!

Lytro photo galleries courtesy



  1. Wow… I’m speechless Ron (probably for the first time in my life)!

    As an amateur photographer, I put a lot of time into getting the depth of field and focus just right. Talk about a game changer! Just zoom, shoot and let the camera and post edit do the rest. Wow…

    • Until recently, when I had cataract surgery, I was so nearsighted that getting things in focus was a hail-Mary process. Now, after the surgery, I’m no long nearsighted, but it really hasn’t helped me tell when the camera is in focus. I’m always amazed when I call up a picture file in Photoshop for the first time to see something I thought was sharp look like its growing mold all over its surface.

      The Lytro is cool, no doubt. But you don’t have interchangable lenses, and Lytro itself admits that 8X10 is about the limit for enlargements. I’m really waiting for when the process is developed further and license to Sony, Canon, and Nikon.

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