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Camera of the year: The Lytro

Anybody who has ever used a camera – whether it’s an analog SLR of yore or the one built into your phone – knows that the most important part to taking a photo is making sure the shot is in focus. But what if there were a magical camera that eliminated the need for focusing? All you have to worry about is composing your shot, and you can change the focus point anywhere on the picture after it has been taken, readjusting the depth of field at home. This implausible-sounding device actually exists and it’s called Lytro, our pick for the best new camera technology of 2012.

Calling a first-generation, unproven product a “best of” anything is highly risky. In the world of tech we see many promising new ideas that only end up crashing and burning, either because consumers never accepted them or they just plain sucked when used. We pitted the Lytro camera against another “first” for the title, Android-based cameras like Samsung’s Galaxy. But putting a mobile phone OS into a camera is only a natural evolution; existing camera user interfaces are pretty lousy, so it’s a no-brainer to incorporate an intuitive UI more than 70 percent of smart phone users are familiar with (depending on which market analysis you subscribe to). The Lytro, however, can truly be called innovative.

In an industry that, year-after-year, continues to tout higher megapixels and longer zooms as advancements, there hasn’t been as much excitement in cameras since perhaps the introduction of mirrorless technology. Lytro’s light-field camera has a feature that’s not only groundbreaking and convenient, but goes against everything we have learned in photography school. Before you wag your finger at us, we are well aware of the many drawbacks: The camera itself is not convenient to use, in particular the small display and zoom, and picture quality is average. There were times when the refocusing didn’t work with some images we took, but when it did, it was truly compelling. 

The Lytro is expensive, but first-generation products are never cheap. Headed by a Stanford light-field photography researcher with funding from Silicon Valley VCs, Lytro surely has plenty more up its sleeves, and we’re excited to see where the company goes next. (If you can’t afford a Lytro right now, there’s a hack that lets you manipulate Lytro-like depth of field using a DSLR; traditional camera companies should pay attention.) The established camera manufacturers are adding evolutionary features like Wi-Fi, GPS, and 3D, but it’s enriching products like Lytro’s that will resonate with users. As analyst Christopher Chute of IDC told us, it’s start-ups like Lytro that can offer unique value to the customer, not major companies that only seek to satisfy shareholders.

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