Lytro: The Digital Camera that Lets You Shoot First, Focus Later

“Living pictures” captured with the Lytro camera can be refocused after they’re shot.

Photography is all about choice: Where do you focus? How much depth of field do you want? What’s your perspective? When the shutter closed in the past, you were stuck with your choices. But not any more.

A new type of camera technology, called light field, makes it possible to refocus a picture, change the perspective and see a part of the picture that had been previously obscured – after the picture is captured. The world’s first light field camera is made by a Silicon Valley company called Lytro, and you can buy it right now at a number of retailers including Best Buy, Target and Amazon. You may have heard about it a few years ago, but the technology has matured, it's now available for iPhones and other iOS devices and it can do more than in the past.

The Lytro camera uses an array of tiny lenses to capture many light rays so the image it creates has much more information in it than a picture snapped by a conventional digital camera. After the picture has been taken and processed by software embedded in the camera and in accompanying applications, it can be viewed by anyone, whether or not the person has the special software; the image itself contains all the required digital information.

So if I wanted to share a picture I took with the Lytro camera, I could post it to Lytro’s site, email a link to a friend, and then they could view and manipulate it. My friend could also post it to Facebook or Twitter or embed it on a website, as I did with the picture above. You can mouse over my image, click on the faces of the women to see how the focus changes or use the controls to change the perspective.

Changing the focus of a picture after the fact is impressive and it makes sense, but the camera’s ability to “see” an object that’s partially obscured by something in front of it seems counterintuitive - until it’s explained. If you remember your physics lessons, you know that light curves, so some of the light from an object travels around whatever is in front of it and reaches the camera. The camera doesn't give you Superman’s x-ray vision, but if someone is standing behind a tree or other object, and they're not completely blocked, you’re able to see it in a Lytro picture. Changing the perspective also lets the photographer give pictures very different points of view.

Lytro’s founder Ren Ng developed the technology while earning his PhD in Computer Science at Stanford. Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal told me to "Think of Lytro as Moore's Law meets photography. We're taking components of cameras like lenses and optics and image sensors and replacing them with software and computation to build better and more powerful cameras than the world has ever seen.” (You can read my interview with Rosenthal here.)

A 16GB version of the camera sells for $399, and the retail price for the 32GB version is $499. The software is free and runs on Macs, PCs and iOS devices.

Images courtesy of Lytro

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