Is Lytro a one-trick pony, or the future of photography?

Lytro StackedThis week, Lytro gave camera owners a nice surprise by turning on a feature most of us didn’t know existed: Wi-Fi. With a companion iOS app that launched at the same time, Lytro added fun enhancements like social sharing and animated GIF to the camera’s highlight feature: the ability to refocus at any point after it’s been shot.

There’s no doubt about it: Using the Lytro is fun, once you get the hang of it.

As possibly the most groundbreaking camera technology since color, the Lytro camera has thrown everything we have learned about autofocusing out the door (we called it our 2012 camera of the year). The Lytro’s magic is that you can refocus on any part of a photo after it has been shot, letting you spend more time on composition instead of fussing with settings. Once a technology found only in labs, the Lytro is the first portable device of its kind that’s now available to consumers.

While the camera gives us a new way in how we look at images, and new features are being added, it begs the question: What else can it really do? Now that the camera is officially on sale and we’ve had the chance to look at one, we ask, “Is the Lytro a fad, or early-adopter tech that’s on the road to something truly revolutionary?”

What it is, and what it isn’t

The Lytro is a device known as a light-field, or plenoptic, camera. The science behind light-field photography is highly technical, but to put it in the simplest laymen’s terms, the Lytro camera captures all the light information in the scene through an array of tiny lenses – including the light’s direction and color – in one shot. With all this information at hand, the software is capable of achieving its killer refocusing feature. Click on the blurry background behind a clear image of a flower, for example, and magically the background comes into clarity while the flower blurs; click on the insect flying toward the flower, and the focus point changes again. Because there is no autofocusing involved, there’s no shutter delay.

So, the Lytro is relatively fast and easy to use, and images can be refocused afterward – sounds like a formula for an amazing camera, right? Unfortunately, the Lytro is not a replacement for a traditional camera. As our review indicates, image quality is average at best – comparable to a smartphone – and the refocusing effect doesn’t always work unless you put some thought into composition (see below). Plus, the physical shape of the Lytro camera can be awkward to use, not to mention the annoying zoom function and a small touchscreen LCD that’s very difficult to see and use. And, the proprietary format means you can’t view the effects using any software, so you can’t simply e-mail a Lytro-fied photo to friends (although you can pick a focus point of a Lytro photo and then export it as a 2D JPEG); to share photos with the refocusing effect, you can only upload your images to Lytro’s servers, where it has control over how they can use your images. You’re also limited to shooting square-sized photos (not a big concern for today’s Instagramming youth). For general photography, you’re better off with a traditional camera or even a smartphone.

Instead, think of the Lytro as a fun gadget (albeit an expensive one) that lets you play with photography in a new, more creative way. Lytro in no way is marketing its device as a replacement for the camera you have now, but more of an innovative tool to create artistic, dynamic images through a new form of photography. However, at $399, the steep price will keep many people at bay. If you plan to buy one, know that you’re purchasing an experience, not just hardware.

Lytro image options

While the first-gen camera itself will cater to a small group of users, there’s great promise for light-field photography ahead. In the near future we could see the technology show up in the latest smartphones (Toshiba and Pelican Imaging are two companies with prototype micro lens arrays, with Nokia investing heavily in Pelican Imaging); it’s been purported that late Apple CEO Steve Jobs met with Lytro CEO Ren Ng to discuss incorporating the technology into an iPhone, prior to his passing. Light-field technology could also be used to capture 3D.

As for the current Lytro camera, it comes down to experience over hardware shortcomings for the user. While the experience of playing with one is exciting, it’s fleeting and makes the product a bit of a one-trick pony. The great thing about its recent firmware updates, however, is that the company can add new features along the way. But they mainly play a supporting role to the refocusing effect, and are more toys than actual hardware improvements. What we want to know is where Lytro goes from here: Does it continue to “surprise us” by updating the current product with slight enhancements, or is a major product unveiling with superior hardware on its way? If light-field photography does show up in everyday smartphones soon, where does that leave Lytro and its $399 camera? Lytro’s Director of Photography Eric Cheng has said there’s more to come, but stops short of anything tangible.

We know that light-field photography has a potential future, but how Lytro itself plans to evolve from here is the big question.

How to best use a light-field camera

So, you’re interested in getting your hands on a Lytro camera or you just got one as a gift, but you’re not exactly sure what it is that you’re suppose to do with it. The best way to use the Lytro is to think about the depth of field.

When you take a photo with a shallow depth of field using a traditional camera, such as macro photography, you get an image with a clear, isolated part of the foreground that’s in focus, while the background is blurred out. Of course, advanced photographers intentionally do this because the effect can be stunning. The Lytro is actually designed for this; in fact, the Lytro’s refocusing effect works best with an image that has some type of depth of field, what Lytro calls Living Pictures. The beauty, of course, is that you can refocus on the background or anything in between afterward.

In order to achieve refocusing effect, however, you need to spend some time composing the image. Simply pointing and shooting will not deliver the desired outcome, which could lead you to think the camera isn’t working. As you frame your shot, consider the foreground, middle ground, and background. Subjects in each of these areas should have some distance from one another. Lytro recommends a 5-inch distance between your camera and the foreground subject, although you can also use the camera’s zoom to get close to the foreground subject (if you are using zoom, add extra distance between the foreground and background subjects).

But for casual photographers, oftentimes they want everything to be clear, or a deep depth of field. Lytro says an “all in focus” feature will arrive in a future software update, as well as the ability to tilt-shift a photo. (As of now, the new features added include perspective shifting – a 3D effect that lets you move around the photo – filters, and Wi-Fi connectivity with an iOS device.)

Once you have this concept in mind, the creativity in how you compose those shots is up to you. Portraits become livelier: You can take interesting up-close portraitures in front of a landmark without sacrificing focus of either subject. While the Lytro camera is designed to be an automatic shooter that handles shutter and exposure settings for you, or what it calls Everyday Mode, the company has added in some manual features in the latest software update that lets you set the ISO (80 to 3,200) and shutter speed (1/250 of a second to 8 seconds). The manual features not only make the Lytro function more like a traditional point-and-shoot, but it also allows you to take unique shots like long exposures.

Although you can use the Lytro in a low-light environment, the quality of the image still depends on the amount of light available. As expected, the shots we took indoors with soft lighting produced noisy images, however, the refocusing effect still worked. The Lytro camera works best outdoors, although the camera can suffer from overexposure if there’s too much light. In manual mode, you can enable the Neutral Density filter to reduce light intensity. The camera works fast, so don’t be timid about taking multiple shots.

There’s no doubt about it: Using the Lytro is fun, once you get the hang of it. But eventually, it may leave you asking the same question: what’s next?

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Smart Home

Facebook Portal and Portal+ video-calling devices gain new content and features

Facebook's Portal devices are video smart speakers with Alexa voice assistants built in that allow you to make calls. The 15-inch Portal+ model features a pivoting camera that follows you around the room as you speak.
Deals

Want a fun, affordable instant camera? The Fujifilm Instax Mini 7S is just $49

Instant cameras have had a surprising resurgence of late, and no brand is better recognized in the instant photo space today than Fujifilm Instax. Walmart is currently offering the Instax Mini 7S for just $49.
Photography

These are the best action cameras money can buy

Action cameras are great tools for capturing videos of your everyday activities, whether it's a birthday party or the steepest slope you've ever descended on your snowboard. These are the best money can buy.
Photography

From DSLRs to mirrorless, these are the best cameras you can buy right now

From entry-level models to full-frame flagships, many cameras take great photos and video. The best digital cameras, however, push the industry forward with innovative sensors and improved usability, among other things. Here are our…
Social Media

#ThrowbackThursday is only the start: Instagram hashtags for every day of the week

Not getting your hashtag fill with #ThrowbackThursday or #ManCrushMonday? Here's a list of some of the more popular Instagram hashtags, so you can outfit your next post with the proper tag, regardless of what day it is.
Photography

Photographers can now customize the layout of Lightroom Classic controls

Tired of scrolling past Lightroom tools that you don't use? Adobe Lightroom Classic now allows users to reorganize the Develop panel. The update comes along with new sharing options in Lightroom CC, and updates to the mobile Lightroom app.
Mobile

Leave the laptop at home, the iPad Pro is the travel buddy to take on vacay

The iPad Pro is a powerful tablet that's perfect for creatives and professionals. How does it fare when traveling with it as a laptop replacement? We took it on a two week trek in Japan to find out.
Social Media

Instagram could be making a special type of account for influencers

Instagram influencers fall somewhere between a business profile and a typical Instagram, so the company is working on developing a type of account just for creators. The new account type would give creators more access to analytical data.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Photography

Canon holiday sale features the Rebel T6 2-lens kit for just $449

If you have a budding photographer in your life in need of a real camera, the Canon EOS Rebel T6 could make the perfect gift. Canon is currently offering the camera in a two-lens bundle for just $449 through December 29.
Emerging Tech

Light, speed: Lighting kit for DJI Mavic 2 lets you fly and film in the dark

Lume Cube, maker of small battery-powered LED lights for mobile photography, has announced a new lighting kit built specifically for the DJI Mavic 2 -- the first of its kind. Already our favorite drone, this makes the Mavic 2 even better.
Social Media

Instagram’s 2018 year in review shines a light on where our hearts are

What did Instagram users share the most in 2018? A lot of heart emojis, heart face filters, and heart GIFs. The platform recently shared the year's top trends, including hashtags like #fortnite and #metoo along with a few surprises.
Photography

Not just for Lightroom anymore, Loupedeck+ now works with Photoshop

Loupedeck+ can now help photographers edit in Photoshop too, thanks to physical controls for swapping tools, running actions, and more. The photo-editing console expanded to include Photoshop in the list of compatible editing programs.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.