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Review: Lytro Illum Camera Has One Amazing Trick

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

Photography has evolved a great deal since the 1800s: from metal plates to paper, from black-and-white to color, from film to digital. But the process has never changed: aim, focus, shoot.

Two years ago, a startup company called Lytro came up with a way to change that sequence. Its $400 camera let you aim, shoot — and then focus, after you’d taken the shot. Once the picture was on your computer, you could adjust which parts were sharp and which were blurry.

People viewing the photos could change the focus, too. So you could post a picture online — on Facebook, let’s say — and then followers could play around with your “living picture,” focusing on different elements by clicking.

Here, try it yourself. Click the background. Then click the foreground.

Refocusing after the fact was a revolutionary idea; the Lytro camera was showered with awards, headlines, and hype. (Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of how it works.)

After many delays, the Lytro camera finally came to market in 2012. We’ve established that it was a technical breakthrough, right? Well, in the market, it sank like a stone.

Original Lytro camera

Time to refocus this product.
In two years, I’ve never seen a single person using a Lytro camera. And I’ve never seen a single refocusable picture on Facebook or Twitter.

There were so many problems with the first Lytro. You couldn’t swap the batteries. You couldn’t swap the memory card. You couldn’t record video. The print resolution was only 1.2 megapixels. The camera’s viewscreen was tiny and coarse.

Above all, the public had trouble seeing the Lytro trick as more than a parlor stunt. It’s cool that you can sharpen the background of a photo as you blur the subject — but why would you? Most of the time, isn’t a photo supposed to be a picture of something? When would you want anything but the subject to be in focus?

Lytro licked its wounds and returned to the lab. Now, two years later, it’s back with another model, called the Lytro Illum (“il-LOOM”). The minute you see this thing, you know that Lytro has been doing a lot more refocusing — and, this time, it has refocused the whole purpose of its existence.

Lytro Illum camera

Meet the Illum
This camera is big (3.4 × 5.7 × 6.5 inches), heavy (2 pounds), and expensive ($1,600). But, otherwise, every aspect of it is an improvement over the original.

Now the touchscreen is 4 inches diagonal and very sharp. It tilts slightly downward — enough to compensate for the back of the camera’s slant — but tilts all the way to 90 degrees upward.

Lytro Illum with tilted touchscreen
Lytro Illum with touchscreen tilted 90 degrees

Not as odd-looking
Now you get a zoom ring and a focus ring on the permanent 8X zoom lens (30-240 mm equivalent). Now both the battery (1,000 shots on a charge, the company says) and the memory card are removable. Now there’s WiFi built in, so you can instantly send your photos to your smartphone for posting online. And there’s a hotshoe on top for attaching a flash.

The sensor inside is much larger now (1 inch diagonal), so the camera works much better in low light. It’s also higher resolution. Lytro doesn’t like to speak of megapixels, because its sensor captures the directions of the light rays striking it (it’s a “lightfield” camera). But if you must know, the Illum captures 40 megapixels of data (Lytro calls them “megarays”), which flattens down to 4 megapixels if you need a printout.

All the buttons and dials are programmable; you can even customize the onscreen menu. The lens is f/2, meaning it lets in a lot of light, and it stays that way over all of its 8X zoom range (30-250 mm equivalent). Fixed-aperture zooms like that are rare (see my review of the Sony RX10).

In other words, Lytro no longer thinks it’s in the consumer camera business; the Illum is for professionals and advanced (or rich) amateurs.

The company no longer thinks that all photographs need refocusability, either. Wisely, Lytro realizes that refocusable photographs fill, at best, certain niches. Advertising, say. Fashion. Catalogs.

Or maybe there are certain situations where the photo tells a story—where important details unfold only when you refocus it, like this one:

New guides
A big problem for owners of the first Lytro was figuring out how to use its special capabilities. You had to put a lot of thought into composing a refocusable shot. Not only did you have to ask, “What’s the point of refocusing this shot?” but also, “How can I make sure the resulting shot will be refocusable?”

If you don’t set things up just right — if the various elements of the picture weren’t the right distances away — you’d get very little blurriness and refocusability, or none at all. For example, in this shot, you can click till your fingers fall off, and you’ll never make the subject completely sharp:

To help you through this swamp of optical physics, Lytro has added two useful new guides on the screen. First, there’s a graph, where color-coded peaks show you how much of the picture will be refocusable. (In graphic form, it shows what a photographer would call the depth of field.)

You can see this graph widen or shrink as you back up from the subject or use the zoom lens. But I never did fully grasp how to interpret it to predict the success of a photo.

The second, more successful helper is a new Lytro button on top of the camera. When you press it, dancing pixel crumbs appear around anything in the scene that will be refocusable in the final picture: blue for close-up objects, orange for background.

Lytro Illum screen with background and foreground items highlighted

Eventually, you learn that the most dramatic refocusing potential lies in pictures where the foreground subject is very close to the lens. In this photo, you can click each line of the postcard to sharpen it, because the card was super-close to the lens:

In this shot, there’s not much blurriness to the background, because I wasn’t close enough to the foreground woman:

You can focus on things that are very close up — the camera can even focus on a fingerprint on the lens — making it fantastic for macro (close-up) photos. Here again, though, success comes through trial and error. In this shot, you can make the foreground image super-sharp, but the background never gets fully sharp:

When you get everything exactly right, cool effects are possible. In this shot, for example, you can focus on either guy, or the “Carousel” umbrella behind them, or the trees behind that, or even the buildings in the very distant background:

One sure-fire setup: Make the foreground subject very close and the background only a few feet away. Here’s me fooling around shooting my leg; every inch is refocusable.

Lytro Desktop
Lytro also has overhauled the software that comes with the camera, called Lytro Desktop. It’s a full-blown Adobe Lightroom-style program (Mac or Windows), for organizing, editing, and posting your pictures.

Lytro Desktop

The usual adjustment controls are here (exposure, tint, sharpness, contrast, and so on). Especially cool is the aperture slider: Here you can change the depth of field after you take a picture. That is, you can make everything in focus, near to far; or you can make only one “slice” of distance in focus and make everything else blurry.

(If your head hasn’t exploded yet, get this: You can even tilt the plane of focus, or rotate it so it’s not parallel to the camera’s lens anymore, as though you’d used a tilt-shift camera.)

You can also drag to change parallax, meaning that you can actually shift your point of view slightly. Try dragging around in this picture, for example:

You can now click a Play button to view an animation that cycles through focus ranges and parallax and zoom level. You can even program such animations, stage by stage, using keyframes:

Lytro Desktop

You can  export a Lytro photo into Photoshop or another program for more sophisticated editing, and then bring it back, edited, into Lytro Desktop for further tweaking and posting online. The process is incredibly clunky (you export the picture as seven TIFF files, which you must edit individually in Photoshop; then you save them back into the same folder, overwriting the originals; then you import them back into Lytro Desktop). But it works.

The options for exporting and sharing are rich and complete. You can post to Lytro’s own online gallery, post to Facebook or Twitter, export to a non-refocusable format like JPEG or TIFF, and so on. You can export your animated photo as a movie file, too.

Lytro Desktop also creates 3D photos easily, which you’d use 3D glasses to view.

August 1? Probably not
Lytro says it expects to start shipping the Illum August 1, but I’ll bet that deadline will slip.

The loaner camera I tested seemed complete and smooth. But I didn’t get to try the Mac software or the phone apps, and even the Windows version isn’t in installable condition yet (Lytro provided it to me on an awful Windows laptop).

Illum photo files are huge, around 50 megabytes each; they require a fast memory card and a fast computer. The Windows laptop Lytro lent me took about 20 seconds to import each photo; a representative said importing would be even slower on a MacBook Air, but faster — like 10 seconds per photo — on a MacBook Pro.

On a few photos, I found ugly, blocky or colored artifacts on the edges of foreground objects, like these:

Closeup of photo with artifacts
Closeup of photo with artifacts

(“We are always working to produce better processing to get rid of those errors,” the company says.)

Looking sharp
Lytro 2014 offers a lot of good news. The camera is infinitely better and more usable than the original (though four times the price). The software is, too.

Above all, Lytro has repositioned the camera as a remarkable creative tool — but something you’re not expected to use all the time. “The Illum won’t replace your SLR,” as a product manager puts it. Instead, “it will go into the bag with your other tools.”

Now, anyone could have predicted the failure of the first Lytro. It was far too nichey for consumers but far too limited for pros.

The new camera, the Illum, is still hard to learn, still can’t capture video, and still isn’t a good choice as a regular camera. Even its one special feature doesn’t always work; you have to set up the distances and angles just so, or the refocusing thing won’t happen.

In other words, you’re paying $1,600 for what’s still a one-trick pony. It’s a breathtaking, spectacular trick — but Lytro may be optimistic in imagining how many people will pay to see it.

You can email David Pogue here