The Lytro camera is an amazing technological achievement: a marvel of design that really is like nothing else on the market. But innovation aside, it may not prove that useful or fun just yet for advanced photographers – or even everyday snappers.
The Lytro has been available in the US since early last year, and has only just become available in the UK – initially through Dixons, John Lewis and Harrods.
The model selling here is the same hardware as was released in the US in 2012 (and in Australia too, where it was reviewed by my colleague Elias Plastiras).
However, its maker has added new features through upgrades to the camera's firmware (its internal software) and to the software you run on your PC or Mac. The Lytro company has also released a handy iPhone app to let you post interactive photos on Facebook, Twitter and the like from wherever you are, while an Android version in is in the works. More on these later.
So what does the Lytro let you do that other compact cameras don't? The concept is relatively simple: you shoot photos, then after you have downloaded them onto your computer – or access them using the iPhone app – you choose where the focus should be. Either way, it's designed to allow you to shoot 'depth of field' shots – where one part of the shot is in focus and the rest blurred – easily and quickly.
Despite the Lytro's unusual shape, the process of getting it to take photos is the same as a conventional camera: you point the lens end of the camera at your subjects, frame with the large postage-stamp-sized touchscreen at the other end, touch where you would like the camera to sample the shot's exposure and then press the shutter button.
Lytro camera: creative mode
If you want more control, there's a Creative Mode – Lytro calls the standard one Everyday Mode – that allows you to choose the initial point you want the Lytro to build its refocus around, so you can get really up close to something, or someone, in a similar fashion to a conventional camera's macro mode (or to help it with difficult shots). Creative Mode also gives you access to manual controls if you want them, including changing the shutter speed and adjusting the ISO sensitivity.
You might think that the camera will let you run around snapping first and focusing later, saving the time and effort of getting focus initially right. But this isn't the case. While the company is positing the Lytro as a fun (albeit expensive) gadget, shooting good shots with the Lytro still takes just as much care, attention and photographic knowledge as shooting a traditional depth-of-field shot with a digital SLR or interchangeable lens camera. And unfortunately the results from the Lytro are rarely in the same league.
Carefree snapping won't deliver great results. You need to position the camera – and that means move yourself – to get usable shots. Close up shots using the Creative Mode are easy – just stick the Lytro right up until it almost touches the small subject (with the lens zoomed out) and touch somewhere on screen that appears to be halfway between near and far focus.
More traditional portraits with depth-of-field effects require you to put some distance between yourself and the subject, then zoom in, as you would with a digital SLR. Some people will really get into contorting themselves to achieve this – I did, but then I like doing this with other cameras as well if it helps me get great shots. (See also: Hands-On: Lytro Light-Field Camera Offers Flip Simplicity, Futuristic Features.)
The end result is an interactive photo – what Lytro calls a 'living picture' – where it's up to you where the focus lies. If you don't want to choose yourself – or allow people to see different parts of a photo while retaining the depth-of-field effect – you can post interactive versions of the shots to Facebook, Twitter, personal blog or your company or brand's website. Here viewers can choose what they focus on, as in the shots below – and if you've not seen it before, it's pretty cool.
Another way to interact with the image is to click on it, hold and drag – try it above. You get a neat perspective effect that's fun, though its appeal does wear off pretty quickly.
The interactivity isn't the only 'hey, check this out' thing about the Lytro. Its design will also get you admiring glances and more than a few enquiries from friends, colleagues and even passers-by (or at least it did for us).
A mix of smooth metal and gridlined rubber, it's oddly reminiscent of the brick towers of industrial factories (or the Tate Modern). There are four colour variants: silver, blue, pink and red. The first three have 8GB of memory built in for £399 – the red one has 16GB and costs £100 more.
Its square tube is about two-thirds lens – the metal end – with a few controls on the rubber grip. The only real controls are the round indented shutter button, a strokeable set of bumps that control zoom and an on/off button on the bottom, next to a pop-out rubber cover that hides a USB port for connection to your computer. Everything else is controlled through the touchscreen.
The unusual zoom works well once I got used to it. Initially after sliding my finger the full length of the touchstrip to zoom in, I'd move it back to stroke it again to zoom further – and find myself zooming out again. I had to learn to lift my finger further off than I would naturally, to avoid this. Thankfully it didn't take long to build the new habit. See all camera buying advice.
Lytro camera: touchscreen
The touchscreen also largely provides a fast effective way to check your shots and to get into the camera's more advanced control. While shooting you swipe left to access your previous shots, and up to get at a slideable short menu to access the camera's secondary Creative Mode, delete photos. You can also turn on Wi-Fi to connect to your phone for on-the-go sharing.
Where the touchscreen falls down is in its two primary functions: framing shots and setting the refocus point in Creative Mode. I found it too small and lacking in contrast – which gets even worse if you're not looking at it dead straight on. Anyone used to an iPhone or Galaxy phone will find it curiously low-resolution too. Trying to frame a shot and set a refocus point is frustrating enough, but the poor quality screen makes it really tricky to tell if you've nailed the shot or not (and the same is true when checking your shots afterwards). Quite frankly, the screen often prevents you having fun with the Lytro and needs a major upgrade soon.
We tested the Lytro under a variety of lighting conditions – including a long shoot on a narrowboat on a bright sunny day, and the preview of a new exhibition at the Design Museum. You would have thought a narrowboat would have been the perfect environment to use the Lytro – a lot of people standing and sitting in lines away from the camera, and with rolling Sussex countryside alongside them. However the uneven lighting played havoc with the results in a way our main camera – a professional-grade Canon EOS-1D Mk IV digital SLR – had no problem with. Even iPhone snaps appeared higher quality.
Low-light shots could be rather noisy, and there's no flash – which would mess with the light field sensor I suspect.
Overall, I found I had to use Creative Mode whenever possible to get shots that had the level of crispness I was happy with – even correctly arranged shots in Everyday Mode often ended up with a choice of not-quite-completely-focused focal points. This slowed down shooting to a speed I'd describe as 'serious photography' rather than 'happy snapping'. Some of you will be comfortable with this, some not.
What you're able to do with your shots after you've taken them is an area which Lytro has expanded greatly since the camera was first launched. Back then the only way to work with your shots was via some clunky Mac-only software. The latest version of the software – rechristened Lytro Desktop – is available for Mac and Windows.
Here you can download your photos, check if your shots have come out okay, apply a range of stylistic filters and output images to a gallery page on Lytro's site (or post individual shots to Facebook).
After downloading the images to your computer, you must let Lytro Desktop process the images. This can take a while on older computers. Even on my current-generation MacBook Air, there was usually time to both make and drink a cup of tea between starting to download a day's worth of images, and all the images being ready to play with. And unfortunately I was often disappointed that fewer shots were usable than I'd hoped.
Lytro camera: filters
The filters you can apply to images are what you'd expect in the age of Instagram – a mix of retro and silly, although some really do tap the Lytro's knowledge of a photo's depth. So you can turn the background of an image into a mosaic or apply circus mirror-style warping without affect the foreground (or vice versa). The best is 'Pop', which just emphasises the difference in sharpness between in-focus and out-of-focus areas for a pleasing effect.
What's missing from the filters is any kind of corrective effect – rather than artistic ones – and it's not like you can do this in your usual photo editing software (such as Photoshop Elements or CC) unless you decide on a single version of the photo and output it as a JPG.
Removing colour casts caused by indoor lighting and adjusting exposure levels should be here as standard – especially as it so tricky to get the latter right when shooting.
Also useful would be the ability to choose a pleasing 'poster' image for each photo, an initial state based around a focus point you choose that would be used on the online gallery and on Facebook. The standard way Lytro presents each photo is based on where you set the exposure point, but you're probably going to want to choose a different point (such as with a foreground figure in focus), to create an attractive initial state that will draw in friends or visitors to start interacting with the photo. A blurry image won't necessarily do this.
If you want to post an image when you're out shooting, you can turn on the Lytro's built-in Wi-Fi capabilities – which you connect to using a network name and password displayed on the Lytro's screen just like connecting to a mobile hotspot. Load the Lytro app on your iPhone – an Android version is 'out soon' – and you can see your images in much better detail, which I'd imagine is great for explaining why you've spent £400 to confused friends unimpressed with what they can see on the camera's paltry screen.
You can also use the app to view your gallery on the Lytro site, post to it, and post to Facebook too. It's slick and seamless, though the photos never actually get transferred to your iPhone. Visit Photo Advisor.