Learning To Use A Lytro

Lytro cameras started shipping a few days ago.

Since then, major news and tech sites have published a flurry of reviews and write-ups, describing what a Lytro is (the world's first lightfield camera for the consumer market) and offering a range of opinions about the camera, the underlying technology, and various pros/ cons.

If you're unfamiliar with this new camera, I'd suggest you visit the Lytro website to get a quick overview. Particularly useful are the videos that describe the basics of how to use a Lytro.

Thanks to my friend Eric Cheng, who is the Director of Photography at Lytro, I've had a bit of a head start playing with and learning about the camera.

Given the number of sites and well-informed people who have opined on the Lytro, I'm going to steer clear of discussing anything remotely technical. Instead, I'm going to tell you about my own experience of getting to know the Lytro over the past couple of weeks, and why I think this camera is meaningful.

Lytro camera, 16GB Red Hot model
Lytro camera, 16GB Red Hot model

First off, let me put the overall experience in context…the Lytro is different.

This may seem like a major "Duh!" statement, but just how different the experience of photographing with a Lytro is…is something that's difficult to appreciate until you've spent some quality time with one.

The best way I can think of to describe what I mean is to draw a comparison between photography and verbal communication: If acquiring a new lens or camera body is like adding vocabulary; and if figuring out how to use new photo techniques is like refining nuances of grammar and syntax; then shooting with a Lytro is like learning a new language.

It's that different.

The basics of photography obviously still apply, but the unique characteristics of this new camera make it imperative for you to re-examine how you look at and interpret a given situation, and most importantly, how you decide to communicate a message with it.

What Makes a Lytro Image Different?
With the benefit of some hands-on time with the camera (and a reasonable amount of head-scratching), I've worked out that what makes Lytro images unique is the ability to infuse multiple dimensions into a single scene…to convey a story by enabling the viewer to explore into a given "living image".

It took a bit of time for me to figure this out. As is typical, I didn't look at the Lytro site or otherwise seek advice before going out to shoot. Eric gave me a rapid-fire rundown on the basics of how to turn the camera on, turn it off, zoom, etc., but beyond that, I basically just experimented…which is pretty much how I approach anything new (yes...I never read instruction manuals).

I'm not ashamed to admit that I didn't really get it at first. I took photos as I normally would, and ended up with shots that, well…didn't do much for me, either aesthetically, or in terms of making use of the Lytro's re-focus capability.

My Eureka! moment came when I decided to devote an entire day to fiddling with the Lytro. I waited for good weather, then hopped over to visit the large Buddha at the Kotoku-in temple in Kamakura, Japan, where I took this photo:

As soon as I reviewed the picture on the Lytro's built-in LCD, I knew I had a keeper. I realised that a big part of the reason the photo worked was that I had thought of the "story" I wanted to convey first, and then took the photo.

As I walked into the temple grounds, I thought: "Wouldn't it be cool if I could show my friends that I visited the big Buddha statue, and also illustrate that the admission tickets have an image of the Buddha printed on them?"

Of course, this would've been possible to some extent with a normal photograph (or series of photos), but with the Lytro image, I'm able to let the viewer explore one aspect of the story at a time…to use the "depth" engendered by the re-focus capability of the Lytro to convey multiple, inter-related messages within a single, static image, but in a dynamic manner. (Click on the image to re-focus.)

With this understanding…that dynamic multi-dimensional storytelling is at the core of a Lytro image…it quickly became easy for me to spot situations that might be suitable for a Lytro picture.

This photo, for instance, communicates the pleasant experience I had of purchasing nicely packaged osenbei (Japanese rice crackers) from a very helpful saleswoman:

Clicking on the branches in this photo highlights the accumulation of snow on branches, while clicking on the person immerses you in the experience of someone enjoying the snow:

In all of these images, the ability to dive into and explore various parts of a picture adds a new dimension that doesn't exist with traditional still photographs.

Why Should You Care?
I'm sure there are people who won't see value in photos like these. Some will no doubt deem Lytro images a fad, a one-hit-wonder that'll pass without much lasting effect on photography.

It is, of course, impossible to predict the future, but for what it's worth, here is my take:

The Lytro is a version 1.0 device. It's simple, and it's fun on its own; it has created a novel way to communicate with still images; but more importantly, I believe it represents an initial step toward what will be a fundamental transformation of imaging technology.

Think about it.

Though resolution is relatively low now, it'll improve. It's just a matter of time.

Though controls and functionality are dead-simple compared to other cameras on the market today, that'll no doubt change soon as well, perhaps with software updates, or maybe with future changes in hardware.

Though it's only possible to have one area in a photo in focus at any given time right now, that'll no doubt change. Imagine having pinpoint-control over exactly what you want to be in- and out-of-focus. It's just a matter of writing the appropriate software and having sufficient computing power to process more data.

Though the re-focus capability is applicable only to pictures now, it's not difficult to imagine how this could apply to video as well. That's also just a matter of time, appropriate software and sufficient computing power.

In fact, the Lytro represents a fundamental shift from hardware being the major determinant of the type of imaging that is possible…to software.

Mull that over for a while.

In every other instance I can think of when software has replaced hardware as the determining factor for any endeavour, the pace of advances has increased exponentially, opening up all sorts of new opportunities not just for technology, but also creativity.

That is why I care, and why I believe you should as well.

Disclosure: The Lytro camera I used for these photos is on loan from the company.