We looked up at birds and created planes. We went from smoke signals, to letters, to telegrams, to phone calls, to email, to cell phones, to satellites and video calls. We went from film to digital. We went from the darkroom to the computer screen.
The imagination and innovation of the human species seems only limited by the technology we have developed thus far.
For many years, poor Charles Holland Duall (the US Commissioner of Patents 1898 to 1901) was reported to have said at the turn of the 20th Century; “Everything that can be invented has been invented”… A pretty narrow minded and dumb thing for a person to say. Especially a person who makes his living from people inventing new stuff!! This was later proven untrue. Duell actually said; “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold”.
Two blaringly opposing statements. One incredibly wrong, one incredibly right… And how right he was… In the end.
…What’s my point?…
Well, somewhere around the middle of 2014, a little company named Lytro announced their newest creation. Lytro had previously gained a small cult status in the photographic/nerd world by inventing a little funny shaped low resolution camera. Not impressed yet?… This camera could take a picture, then have the user focus AFTER they had snapped the image.
What?!?!?! How can this be possible? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure of the science. But it worked. Picture quality however, was a bit shit.
Fast forward a few years, the beautiful design of the new Lytro Illum was revealed. It looked like something Captain Kirk would use after he’d talked one of his alien bedchamber companions to pose for a couple of nude pics. A beautiful design that promised the world!
With a 40 MegaArray sensor (yes, “Mega-Array”) and a constant f2.0 lens with 28-250mm equivalent zoom, I hear you all ‘Ooo-ing’ and ‘Aaah-ing’ and rightly so. Quite an amazing spec list. My best Nikon zoom lens with a constant aperture is only f2.8 and 70-200mm. Pft. Pathetic.
Hopping back quickly to that ‘MegaArray’ thang. Does it mean 40 whopping megapixels?? Technically yes… Un-technically, no. The best way I think of this, is to imagine the sensor inside the camera is not flat but 3 dimensional. So image data is being read on multiple surfaces at the same time. However, you take that beautiful data and place it on your computer screen and we’re back to flat 2d again…. Boring!
Boring it is not. All that data is still there to be accessed, with the right software. However, if you are looking at just the flat ‘traditional’ style image, it’s the equivalent to a 4 megapixel shot. So where did the other 36 MegaArray-Pixel-Things go?
Fire up the Lytro software and suddenly, you can move around your still image, shifting the perspective and adjusting the focus. Cooool! With a bunch of groovy presets, you can record a short ‘animation’, bringing your image to life.
I had such high hopes for this technology. I got on the pre-order list and committed to a $1,500 price tag to be one of the first to get this optical marvel in my hands.
When I finally received the camera… On my birthday! (how’s that for perfect timing), I carefully removed it from the beautiful packaging. The camera was so well crafted. The right mix of heavy quality with portability. It looked f’in cool too! I charged the battery, updated the firmware (as recommended) and popped in an SD card. I focused on a nearby object and hit the shutter. A satisfying ‘crunch’, confirmed my shot had been taken. There it was on the rear touch screen. I tapped on different parts of the screen to shift focus. Super awesome… Or was it? In my opinion, the Lytro Illum sensor is just too small (I would guess it’s the equivalent to a micro 4/3 sensor). I’m not talking about the number of megapixels, I’m talking about the physical sensor size. As you may or may not know, a larger sensor equals a more pronounced depth of field. Some techy stuff known as ‘Circle of Confusion‘ governs this. So to really see an exaggerated manipulation of the depth of field, you needed to use the widest aperture and zoom in as close as possible.
But wait, zooming in narrows the focusable area considerably! Just like with a regular camera and lens, DOF (Depth of Field) will be more pronounced with a longer zoom. So that means that anything more than a couple of feet behind the main object being photographed, cannot be placed back into focus with a tap on the screen.
My imagination had already outgrown the camera… Bummer.
Please don’t get me wrong, this is amazing technology. Stuff that Sci-Fi dreams were made of just a few years ago. I see amazing developments in this area of photography in the future, however we’re just not there yet.
I would have loved to have kept the Illum, just so I could have it in the future. When this technology grows into something that can be used in a more practical fashion, it would be like owning a Superman Issue 1 comic book (I hear that’s a big deal in nerdville), or a ’69 Mustang, or the very first Polaroid camera. But I just could not bear to see $1,500 sitting on a shelf gathering dust.
There are definitely applications for the current model, just very limited. If you visit the Lytro website, you can see some fantastic examples of what other artists had created before delivery began to the general public. Some of the results are truly beautiful.
So for now, I will have to revert to focusing my image correctly as I take it and wait for an updated version of the illum, or for another manufacturer to bring something to the table. However, by the looks of things, I might not have to wait very long!
Sony (you may have heard of them) have supposedly filed a patent a couple of years ago for a lightfield sensor. In addition, they have seemingly solved the problem of the lost resolution!
No official word yet from the electronics giant when they plan to do anything with this, or if they plan to do anything at all… Fingers crossed though.
If this is the case, you can definitely put me on yet another pre-order waiting list.