Light Field Cameras – Product Review
If you haven’t already, you should stop by The Positive Page and say hi to Karina. She is an avid photographer and weekly challenge expert. Apparently, she also knows how to make a killer maragrita! We were especially impressed with her article Could this be the end of Digital Photography as we know it? – so much so that we asked if we could use it. Have a look below and let us know what you think…
Could this be the end of Digital Photography as we know it?
You’ll have to excuse me if I sound like I’ve just been through the photographic version of “Shock and Awe”. It’s because I have.
A few years ago, I heard rumblings about photographic technology so revolutionary, it could potentially make digital photography obsolete. Today, I learned that technology is here, and it’s available for purchase.
The cameras are called “light field”, or plenoptic, cameras. Light field cameras don’t make images by recording light on individual pixels the way standard digital cameras do; instead, they record images by collecting millions of individual rays of light, called “megarays”, for each photograph. These megarays include light’s direction, intensity, and color.
Why does this matter? The sheer density of light rays recorded by these cameras means that you can record enough information to have every point in your photograph focused correctly. That means that, when you upload your photographs, viewers can selectively focus AFTER the fact.
Yes. That means that out-of-focus photographs could be a thing of the past. In fact, anyone can focus on any point in a light field photograph at any time, simply by touching the image. That means your friends can do the same thing when you upload your image to your favorite social site (Twitter, Facebook, Digg, StumbleUpon, and so forth).
There are two companies who have these light field cameras available for purchase. One is Raytrix, whose lowest cost camera runs $3,558.10 before shipping. The other is Lytro, whose lowest cost camera is $399 before shipping.
There are, naturally, pros and cons to light field photography. As with anything new, it remains to be seen how it will all shake out in the end. However, after reviewing the press releases, videos, reviews, and FCC teardown information, here are the pros and cons as I see them.
- True point and shoot: Light field technology eliminates the need to focus, so it frees up a photographer to shoot at will, in the moment, and without worrying about ISO, megapixels, or even aperture settings. The implications for amateur photographers are staggering: no more out-of-focus shots! Images are made by simply aiming your camera. The only concerns will be over timing and where you are aiming your camera.
- Speed: Light field technology is super fast. The instant shutters and lack of need for focusing means that there is zero lag time when you shoot your picture.
- Lighting: Light field cameras can make photographs in low light without a flash. Since light field technology uses all available light, a photographer can capture useable images in places where traditional cameras require lighting or flashes.
- 3D imagery/perspective shift: Still in development is the ability to render light field photographs in 3D. Sometime in 2012, Lytro expects to have 3D algorithms in place which will allow users to view images in 3D, using any 3D display. This will also allow for changes in perspective from within the photograph. (Wow.)
- Storytelling: Complex images could be used to tell complex stories, where the background and foreground are layered, changing the meaning in the story.
- Equipment cost: No bulky lenses and no flash units means no more expensive equipment to buy and later upgrade, which translates into potentially significant cost savings.
- Potential for improvement: Light field technology–particularly in terms of inclusion in a salable product–is still in its infancy. We must remember, however, the current crop of digital SLRs, and even multiple-megapixel cellphones, started small as well. My Canon10D DSLR camera had a then-stunning, top-of-the-line 6.3 megapixel capability when I bought it years ago; by comparison, today’s iPhone 4s have an 8-megapixel capability. And that’s in a cellphone!
- Future inclusion with cellphone technology: Speaking of cellphones: as you can see from the bottom news link, Steve Jobs allegedly had talks with Lytro staff about the potential for using light field technology in Apple’s iPhones. Imagine social media photo sharing using the iPhone and this type of image. You think Instagram is hot? Just wait…
- Ergonomics: I am not enthralled with the Lytro’s ergonomics specifically. The shape of a Lytro camera doesn’t look wonderful when it comes to fitting naturally into one’s hand. It looks more like a boxy flashlight than a camera. The Raytrix cameras do look more ergonomically friendly, but are literally almost ten times the cost
- Printability: I am concerned about printability. I have looked and listened and watched, and so far I can’t find any reliable information on how to print and what size image I might be able to get out of this camera, should I choose to print one (although I wonder if that’s even the point with this type of photography). Most of the attention is on the “living image”, which anyone, even your Facebook followers, can refocus at will, as many times as they want. Since these images are embeddable online, and sharable across social platforms and almost any device, including tablets, phones, and web browsers, printing could be a moot point.
- Image size: I don’t know how well you can blow up a light field image. Can it be expanded to a larger size onscreen, the way we can upload multi-megapixel imagery and view it in sizes ranging from thumbnail to full screen, and beyond? The ability to explore an image in detail is something I am very interested in.
- Cropping/wide-angle/Macro: I like to be able to selectively crop an image to facilitate my storytelling, and I don’t know if you can crop one of these images. Also, a fixed lens might limit my ability to change viewpoints, in terms of wide-angle vs. closeup…unless I want to walk back and forth, that is. Also, how macro can macro go? The squirrel (below) is impressive, but how closely can I shoot a flower? Is it close enough to see the pollen in detail?
- Storytelling: If the picture can be focused after the fact, by anyone, it changes my ability to focus their attention in a specific place. If I want my photograph to tell a particular story, the ability to refocus may make this impossible, since attention could be placed on any point within the picture. This could be a problem for journalists and writers who use photography for illustration.
- Operating System: Currently, the Lytro software is available only for Mac operating systems. Lytro is working on a windows-based software package, however, which they expect to be available this year (2012).
Is light field/plenoptic technology going to replace our digital DSLRs today? No.
However, can you imagine the implications of one of these cameras? When the technology is refined, improved, and expanded, light field cameras could be the vanguard of a change in photography the likes of which we haven’t seen since digital memory chips replaced film.
Below is an image, taken from the Lytro Blog. Give it a try:
[lytro photo='1698' show_arrow='true' show_border='true' show_first_time_user='true' allow_full_view='true' width='500' height='515']
Photo by Mugur Marculescu, courtesy of the Lytro Blog: To selectively focus on this photograph,
click anywhere in the picture; double-click to zoom in; click and drag to move zoomed images.
*DISCLAIMER: I have not been paid by Lytro, nor do I have any plans to purchase one of these cameras as yet. I included specific references to Lytro’s cameras only because they have the lowest-cost camera that could potentially be used by the masses, and the technological implications of this are staggering…even though the camera still has yet to ship.
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