Lytro light-field cameras: shoot now, focus later

Lytro unveiled its light-field cameras this week, which capture "living pictures" that can be refocused and otherwise manipulated after they're taken. How do Lytro cameras stack up against traditional point-and-shoot devices?

The Lytro light-field camera uses both a nontraditional shape and unconventional science.

Silicon Valley startup Lytro has a truly novel way to take photos.

A “plenoptic light-field camera” may sound like the kind of multimillion-dollar lab equipment you’d expect to find at CERN, being used for black hole research. Instead, in its current incarnation, it’s a small rectangular aluminum tube that fits in a pocket and captures light rays rather than flat images, allowing you to refocus a photo after you’ve taken it or even see it in 3D.

Ladies and gentleman, meet Lytro. The company’s much-hyped light-field camera was unveiled this week. For $399, this bit of engineering wizardry (or perhaps, we suspect, actual wizardry) can be yours. Lytro says a special sensor allows its devices to instantly capture 11 million rays of light, cataloging color, intensity, and direction of the rays. That information makes it possible for the image to be refocused and otherwise shifted after the fact – either on a computer or on the camera’s 1.46-inch touchscreen. The company refers to the resulting images as “living pictures.”

The Lytro cameras themselves are pretty straightforward devices. The touchscreen (which doubles as a viewfinder) is positioned at one end of the 4.4-inch tube, with an eight-times zoom lens at the other, a strip on the top for zooming, and a shutter button. That’s about it, really. There’s no video recording, and precious little in the way of on-board settings. The screen shows no extra information beyond the camera’s battery life and a storage meter.

While we’re on the subject of storage and batteries: the cameras come in either 16GB or 32GB flavors, and Lytro says they’ll be able to take about 400 images on a charge. There’s no slot for an SD card or other expansion, just a micro-USB port for downloading “living pictures” to a computer (the accompanying software only runs on Mac OS 10.6 or 10.7 for now, but the company says a Windows version is in development). The battery is sealed in the camera, too – no swapping cells when the charge runs low.

Early impressions are pretty positive, and although many reviewers griped about the tiny viewfinder and low-resolution images, the fact is there’s nothing else like these cameras on the market. Over at tech site This Is My Next, Sean Hollister writes, “We seriously can’t wait to get our hands on a final unit, and we’re already dreaming [of] what this could be like in a high-resolution DSLR-sized package.”

Interested in picking one up? The 16GB model (which holds 750 pictures, according to the company’s website) will set you back $499, while the 8GB model (350 pictures) goes for $399. That’s certainly not cheap enough to make these an impulse buy for some families, and light-field cameras won’t be replacing anyone’s SLR soon, but their uniqueness is a big selling point. Lytro’s filling pre-orders right now, and expects the cameras to be available by early 2012.

What do you think about these cameras? Tempted to place an order in spite of the steep asking price, or are you sticking with your point-and-shoot for now? Let us know in the comments.

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