Light Field Cameras - The Future of Photography

Light Field Cameras - The Future of Photography


 By Mel Morton

camera lens

Photography has evolved dramatically through the ages from the first camera obscura in the early 1800’s. 

Before the end of the Victorian era, the Kodak roll-film camera had arrived on the photographic scene and was followed by the first 35mm camera in the early 1900’s.  In the 1950’s came the Polaroid camera, then instant colour in the 60’s, and the first digital camera in the 80’s.

Now, the latest scientific discovery that is set to reach the consumer market in the USA is the light field camera. Lytro, a start up company based in Silicon Valley, California are set to launch their light field camera by the end of this year, and believe that the development “represents the most significant shift in photography from film to digital in 1988.”

But what is different about a light field camera and why is it so significant?

“The Lytro camera is completely different from any other camera on the market and will revolutionise how we take and experience pictures,” Lytro told Ask the Experts.  “Unlike conventional cameras which can only capture a scene in two dimensions, the Lytro camera captures all of the available light in the scene, offering never before capabilities including focusing a picture after the fact."

“This is the next big evolution of the camera,” says Lytro CEO and founder Dr Ng. “Now you can snap once and focus later to get the perfect picture.”

For many amateur photographers this could offer hope and a welcome end to the disappointment of trying to capture memorable events with a camera, only to discover later that they are out of focus.

Whilst the company are not commenting on many specifics of the camera they do say that there will be “simple and free tools available from Lytro to enable you to interact with the living pictures.”

Features that make the camera unique include you being able to focus after you have taken the picture, and the way in which the camera captures everything.

“Only the Lytro lets you capture the light field, which is all the light travelling in every direction in every point in space.  Capturing this fundamentally new data gives you capabilities you’ve never had in a camera.”

The camera is expected to be fast to use because there is no delay, or shutter lag, as it is called.  And because the camera captures vast amounts of light, you can get a better shot even in a dingy environment and you don’t need to use flash.

There is also is the ability to shift between a 2D and 3D image or “shift the perspective of the scene,” and without the need for specialist software.

“Living pictures are inherently 3D,” Lytro told Ask the Experts.  “Special light field algorithms will be applied to the light field data to enable 3D viewing on any 3D display.”

There will also be easy accessibility to “Share the love” as Lytro call it, by uploading your living pictures “from the desktop or from to friends and family on Facebook, Twitter, email or your blog.”

The technology behind light field cameras is not new.  “Light field science and computational photography have been extensively researched for more than a century in academic environments,” Lytro acknowledges.

During the past few years other companies have paved the way of discovery.  First came the Adobe light-field camera prototype with nineteen lenses, which many photographers were excited about.

For the past year the German company Raytrix have been selling light field cameras created for industrial purposes.  The Raytrix camera relies on the same light field techniques as Lytro, however it remains attached to a pc for software processing.

The breakthrough for Lytro became possible after Dr Ng discovered a way to turn the science into a workable, hand-held, consumer-based camera.

“Until recently, light field cameras involved a roomful of hundreds of cameras tethered to a serious of computers in a lab,” Lytro said.  “Dr. Ng has dedicated more than six years to researching this science to bring the technology out of the lab and make it available to everyone.”

But what market is the light field camera targeted at within a culture that increasingly uses a mobile or Smartphone to take a picture?

“We believe Lytro will be most popular with amateur photographers who are interested in trying a new and creative way to capture and share living pictures online with friends and family,” Lytro said.

“The Lytro camera can be used to capture every day moments – just as you’d use a point and shoot.  The difference comes in the consumer’s ability to create living pictures… We can’t wait to see the tremendous creativity and innovation this camera will unleash.”

Will this latest advancement in cameras also interest professional photographers?

Lytro says yes.  “Unbound from the constraints of depicting a multi-dimensional world with 2D tools, we’re seeing professionals like Richard Koci Hernandez, Jason Bradley and others explore exciting new artistic avenues.”

There’s no doubt that the advanced technology is impressive, but will compromises in the camera have been made?

Professional Photographer, Chris Pearsall, of Chris Pearsall Photography told Ask the Experts that he believes that the compromise will be in the resolution.

“Plenoptics uses the pixels of a sensor array in a different way to a normal camera in order to capture an image, effectively, at all focal lengths.  The trade-off is that in the 2D resolution, or “sharpness” of the image.

The image samples on the Lytro website, Chris says, “lack the sharpness of a conventionally focused image from a high-resolution digital camera."

So is this the light field camera the future of photography?

“It’s got novelty value like HDTV and 3D Cinema.  It may appeal to the masses but not to professionals as yet,” Chris told Ask the Experts.  “I like the concept, but not the implications, as it removes creativity from the process of taking a photograph.”

“However clever it is,” Chris added, “it still won’t stop your Mum from cutting peoples heads off!”

Lytro launch light field camera in the USA later this year and plan to expand to other markets in the future.  You can reserve your light field camera on their website, although no price has currently been announced.

Lytro In Action
Click to focus. Double click to Zoom. 

Relevant Links
Lytro's Official Website
Chris Pearsall Photography