Lytro "Light Field" camera - interesting but limited tech, unusable software
2012-03-18 17:40:00 -0400
I've taken around 300 pictures with the Lytro ("shiny red" 16G model.) since it arrived 3 days ago. Initial impressions:
- the lens and aperture are impressive for the size of the device - but to get a narrow enough depth of field for The Effect to work with, you still need to be relatively close to your subject. There's a reason the demo pictures are "flower closeup with stuff behind it" and "focus on one friend with other friends not too much farther away" - that's basically the only kind of composition that gets any benefit from this hardware.
- actually there's one exception to that: shots through a screen or through a rain-spattered train window. You can click on raindrops and get a "mood" shot with rain and blurred detail, or click on the distance and actually see the intended subject. (That said, many pocket cameras have an explicit "window" or "aquarium" mode that fixes the problem...) (update: see http://www.flickr.com/photos/eichin/6849258944/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/eichin/6995382171/ )
- the ability to recover a "bad" shot is less valuable than you might think, if you've got any experience "riding" the autofocus on a modern camera. (And remember, if it wasn't obvious, this doesn't help at all with motion blur, just focus-point blur.)
- the screen is unusable in "sufficient daylight to want sunglasses", compared to the Canon S100 for example. This is tempered by the shape making it surprisingly easy to point the device at your subject, though it's very different than pointing any other device.
- the touchscreen is too small to do anything more than basic "did I get The Effect at all?" testing.
- the progressive rendering it does on pan when zoomed in actually obscures the refocus effect - it took me a bit to learn to wait and then refocus, otherwise I'd be fooled into thinking there was a difference that was only due to it "catching up" on rendering the image at all.
- on a more positive note, it feels like the fastest small camera I've ever used - this may just be because there's no focus delay; though it does have basic autofocus, it clearly doesn't wait for it to take a shot (after all, it doens't need to :-) The lack of review-delay also helps it feel fast, though that's kind of a bug (first camera I've seen in a decade that didn't have a review-timeout option.)
- the mechanical design is very cool - you hold it entirely differently from other cameras, it has a very science-fictional feel to it - "artifact of a different design-timeline" sort of thing. One grip I tried almost felt like using a paintbrush to "dip" pictures off of a palette... definitely worth fooling around with. I found myself holding the device away from me when taking shots far more than I do with pocket cameras.
- the user-experience design is bad:
- no affordance at all for the optical zoom. (When I saw the early videos, I even assumed you twisted the whole thing somehow, maybe with some kind of piezo torsion sensor between the rubber grip and the metal body.)
- half a dozen "swipes" to get the zoom from one end of the range to the other; looks dorky, feels dorky, is tedious - if I swipe and hold it should just keep moving until I let go! (and if you're trying to get The Effect outdoors, you're going to be going to full zoom often.)
- glorious symmetry means even with the lanyard, it's hard to find the shutter orientation by feel - frankly they should have just put trigger buttons on all four sides and been done with it.
- at best an "accidental" affordance for actually looking at recent shots... if you notice that the shot "slides" off to the left, it might occur to you that you can "swipe" it back from the left to look at it again.
As for the specific horror of the Mac(-only) software (and the reason I'm writing this post without having any pictures to attach to it, it's still not finished running):
- 300 pictures took 20+ minutes to pull down an initial "backup", which produced three opaque 250M files and a small database.
- after that, it started chewing on images. I first thought "ok, I'm going out to take more pictures while it does that", pulled the camera - and got an error, and all of a sudden it only had 16 pictures and wasn't working on the others. What?
- when I plugged it back in, it started showing the other pictures and chewing on them again - and the existing ones are down at the bottom labelled "new story", I haven't figured out if I can undo that yet - because 40 minutes later, it has only processed a third of them. (update: drag and drop worked here.)
Also, the license has terms that I would never agree to for a normal camera... or even normal software:
- it informs you that they will be collecting data for performance improvements. You do not opt-in or have an opt-out option - it's just part of the license
- "software updates will retroactively mess with your older pictures, and it's not our problem"
- this license expires in 75 years (not something I've seen in other licenses, and even for digital photography, it kind of horrifies me)
- there's a spelling error in the first couple of paragraphs :-)
If it weren't for the fact that I want to screw around with an alternative approach to photography, and am already putting up with a lot just for early access to the toys, I'd return the device just for the license terms; at least in the short term, I'll put up with it, but it's very much not something I can recommend to others. (Fortunately, the device is also so limited on the photography side that I can tell people they're not missing much...)
Most of the result of shooting with it is that I want the tech in a dSLR, so I can use it with a 250mm lens, which is where I find focus and depth of field actually matter. Basically the only shots I've ever wanted to refocus were extreme zoom with very narrow depth of field, and it's always been "missed the subject", not "want to swap subject and background".
All of that said, I suspect a non-photographer (say, someone who only takes pictures with a cellphone) would have a different perspective, and possibly get more out of the device - as a substitute for learning (and doing) in-camera composition.