Shoot Now and Focus Later with a Lytro Camera

You could be forgiven for thinking I had mistyped the title of this blog post. Many people would know that cameras rely upon the user focusing upon a subject or a particular field in a shot prior to capturing a picture (most notably with SLR cameras). Otherwise, you end up with a blurred photo with little you can do after the fact. Putting aside the use of Adobe Photoshop and other tools you really need to get the best possible shot at the time of capture.

So how do current digital cameras work?

At a simplistic level, digital cameras simply capture the pixels comprising an image that hits the sensor inside the camera. Colours, lines and curves are captured “as is” as well as the current state of focus across all of those pixels. As obvious as it sounds, a photo taken with current digital cameras is a static snapshot that, in its original form, cannot be refocused after the fact (requiring a brand new photo to capture the change of focus). The photo is treated as a single beam of light.

Sure, you can tweak the colours and contrast but things such as depth of field are a completely different matter.

So what makes a Lytro camera any different?

The Lytro camera incorporates a new type of sensor called a “light field” sensor. To try and put it simply, a light field represents how a particular point of view appears through the amount, colour and direction of light traveling through it. So rather than just capturing a copy of the image that hits the sensor a light field camera captures all of this extra information instead. This allows a scene to be visually recreated as it existed at the point of capture based upon all of these individual paths of light instead of a two dimensional grid of pixels.

I guess you might be wondering what the benefit of using “light field” sensors over a standard sensor might be?

Well, coming back to the title of this blog post, this technology allows a photo to be refocused after it was shot through the use of software processing. If you wanted to change the focal point from something in the foreground to something in the background you can do it quite easily. With the demo below, you can click on any part of it to refocus the picture at that point. Try clicking on the foreground flowers on the left, then the ones on the right and finally the hills in the background.

Another (arguable) benefit of plenoptic photography is that a scene can be captured in 3D. I’m still figuring out how this works and whether or not this requires two lenses to work or the combination of images from different vantage points but it does seem to be possible.

Anyway, images captured with a Lytro camera become “memory points” instead of just a static snapshot. I’m not a hardcore photographer by any means but I think this sort of technology really does have the potential to bring professional grade photography to regular people. That said, cameras such as the Lytro camera probably won’t come cheap initially much like the original digital cameras were when they first came out but it will signal the beginning of what I reckon will be a new and exciting chapter in digital imagery.

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    • Andrew Stow on July 8, 2011 at 21:16
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    Great article there Boyd. You got me excited!

    Family snap shots where the camera happens to focus on the tree behind the toddler playing at the park are a quick download and click away from being restored to the happy snap you envisaged. Mum and Dad photographers the world over will eventually be greatful to this new technology. The same can be said for the average punter turning their hand to social, architectural or wildlife shots on their grand tour.

    What was disappointing for me from the example images on their website was that these pictures only refocussed on a single selected focal plane. I think a lot of the power of this technology is in providing added depth of field to the photos. What I would like to have seen is the capacity to totally manipulate the depth of field in the image without being constrained to one focal plane. ie. everything (or nothing for that matter) can be in focus at the same time. They claim this is what their technology can do and it would have been nice to see it.

    Equally important for me is the ability to shoot photos with the aperture wide open. Low light settings and fast action photos will be drastically improved as you will be able to get light to the sensor without compromising on shutter speed. The atmosphere killing flash may become a thing of the past at parties if this camera system does what it claims. And the real challenge may be to find a way to get motion blur registered on the sensor so you can add excitement to some of you action shots. What a problem to have!

    What once pushed the boundaries of the best photographic equipment is now potentially only a quick click away. The challenges of composing a good photo will remain but you will be able to make an entire new set of decisions editing after the fact. It will be interesting to see the software they bundle with their camera.

    I’d sure love to get my hands on one to test drive.

  1. […] by Boydo The title pretty much gives it away but I have pre-ordereed a Lytro camera which I have previously written about here. I went with the graphite 8GB model and it is expected to ship in early 2012 (whenever that ends up […]

  2. […] those who don’t know what makes the Lytro camera so special check out this prior article I wrote up about […]

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