Diving in deeper
After the other reporters had left, I stuck around to ask Mr. Cheng a few more questions about the camera, and to help answer some of them, he took out his computer to show me the Lytro software and some of the things that are possible with light field photography.
The setup of the Lytro software is pretty simple; it's very similar in setup to an iPhoto gallery. Once you click on one your uploaded images -- each of which are about 16 MB in size and in Lytro's custom format, .LFP (light field picture) -- it's maximized from a thumbnail to its full size and from there, you can click on different parts of the image to adjust the focus. Within the application, you can also tag photos for upload to Lytro's website (though they are compressed during this process, I was assured that no quality is lost). Not only can your photos be shared through Lytro's site, once your images are uploaded to Lytro's servers, you can share them all over the web (via email, Facebook, etc.) with the use of a Lytro embedded player, much like the one used to share YouTube videos. That way, anyone looking at your photos in the player won't need any sort of extra software, they can just click anywhere on the image to shift focus.
But then Cheng showed me some other features of the software he had that will not be available at the time of launch, but may show up in software updates sometime down the road. And while it was a bit of a disappointment that consumers won't be able to enjoy some of the things I saw, it gave me a good idea of the potential behind light field photography.
For instance, Cheng mentioned that many of the people on the Lytro forums complain that the company is "dumbing down" the technology and, in some cases, believed that the camera was merely taking a handful of image slices -- say, 6 or 7 pictures with different focal points -- each time a photo was snapped (rather than each photo actually having an infinite range of focus beyond 4 or 5 inches). To disprove this claim, he pulled up a picture fiddled with a slider that was off to one side of the image. As his moved the slider up and down, the focus of the image moved further and further back (or forward, depending on which was he was moving the slider), showing that a continuous focus was, in fact, possible.
"Since you can refocus anywhere you want like this, you may find yourself coming across interesting reveals after you take a photo," said Cheng. "This kind of interaction is not something that's ever been possible."
He also showed me how the light field capture could also be used to create 3D effects, both with side-by-side split images and with a traditional anaglyph image. And if you aren't compelled to have sharp contrasts in focus in some of your photos, Cheng showed me how his software had an "all-focus" mode in which the entirety of a selected image would be put into focus (though he did note that if any of the subjects in the image could not be brought into focus in the first place, they would remain blurry when setting it to all-focus).
Perhaps most interesting, however, was when Cheng showed me something called a parallax shift, where he could actually look around an object from different angles within in photo, be it from above, below, or from the left or right. So in theory, if you took a photo of an object, you could actually use the parallax shift to look around the object and see what was behind it. Now, when Cheng showed it to me, he could only move very slightly in any given direction, and part of this is due to the fact that the lens of the Lytro is relatively small; the parallax shift is made possible due to the fact that the camera is capturing the light rays that are hitting the entire lens from all directions. So, the camera is capturing light all the way from the leftmost part of the lens to the rightmost, and from the top to the bottom, allowing you to view a subject from all those different angles.
"The camera is just the beginning of what is possible with light field photography," Cheng said.
And I agree with that. The Lytro camera is clearly just a start, because as impressive as it is, serious photographers will likely be dissatisfied with the quality of its images or its specs or hardware. The Lytro camera seems like more of a gateway, something to get people into light field photography and help them understand it before advancing the quality of the images. Because right now, when one of its pictures is flattened out and turned into a .JPEG or some other kind of typical picture file, its resolution is a mere 1080 x 1080, barely a megapixel. There's also the fact that the sensor is relatively small, and that pictures are taken with square proportions. Harding said that in the event that you decide to print any of your photos taken with the Lytro camera, the ideal size is 5" x 5". Perfect square images are a little odd, especially considering that most people are used to the proportions of a 4" x 6" photograph.
And one major drawback of the software is that, for reasons unbeknownst to me, it will only be available for Macs (with OS 10.6.6 or later) at the time of its launch. I get that a lot of serious and/or professional photographers use Macs for photo editing, but on the other hand, Mac users are in the minority compared to the sheer number of PC users. Not only are there plenty of photography enthusiasts who use PCs, there are also plenty of casual photographers -- or at least many people who are below the professional level -- who are also PC users and will subsequently be left out in the cold. Cheng did say, however, that a Windows version of the software is in development and will be released before the end of the year, though he did not give a specific timeframe.
Lytro has received no shortage of preorders for the camera; in fact, they're pretty backed up at the moment. I could not get an exact release date for the device, but Harding said that the first wave of cameras will be shipped out by the end of this month to those who first preordered the Lytro when it was unveiled late last year. But should you preorder a camera now, Harding estimated that you wouldn't receive it until sometime in May. As far as your choices go, the camera comes in three varieties: "graphite" and "electric blue" colors, both with 8 GB capacities, and "red hot", which has a 16 GB capacity. The 8 GB cameras can shoot 350 photos and are priced at $399, while the 16 GB camera can hold up to 750 pictures and goes for $499.
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