15 minutes ahead of time, my phone rings. While clearing space for my guests, I look down the hallway and out to the street and see some faces peering in. Crunch time. What I’m about to see has all the hallmarks of a pebble of immense potential, in the face of tranquillity at the pond of my photographic understanding.
My well-dressed guests from out of town come in and bags of gear settle themselves amongst the furnishings. Lytro’s Jeff Hansen is unpacking a gear bag as introductions occur, and with him are Eamon Drew and Chris-Horsley-Wyatt from Blonde Robot, Lytro’s Australian distributor. Two smartly-presented Lytro Illum cameras appear amongst the action and in no time at all, the focus is on them.
Which is probably an apt segue into the engine under Lytro’s hood. Lytro’s scene is plenoptic/light-field and computational imaging. While conventional digital cameras record the intensity and colour of light hitting a sensor in order to render a static image, a plenoptic camera goes further in that it makes use of an array of microlenses that assist in measuring the directionality of incidental light rays. The significance of this is that through the wizardry of computation, the collected data is capable of being reassembled in a non-static, interactive image reflecting to an extent how objects relate to each other in 3-dimensional space.
Lytro refers to these images as ‘Living Pictures’. Loosely put, Living Pictures fall somewhere between bullet time (as popularised in The Matrix, where moments appear frozen while the viewer’s perspective moves around them) and the framed pictures on the walls of Hogwarts. In a Living Picture’s final form such as a webpage-embedded image, a viewer can adjust the focusing point to move the actual depth of field around in an image (as differentiated from merely masking out something uninteresting with a blur filter), and to a limited extent, even shift one’s perspective, giving images an extra dimension in an attempt to immerse viewers in the viewing experience.
The Illum is the second camera of its kind by the ambitious Mountain View startup. The first camera, an unusual little box of a thing, was generally considered by the public to be a proof of concept that delivered what it set out to, albeit without the refinements and polish of a more mature product.
The Illum is a different beast altogether. Amongst other things, it features better image resolution that addressed the first camera’s popularly perceived main shortcoming. In addition to that, the Illum gained a familiar form factor similar to an SLR, manual control dials, a hot shoe, built-in WiFi, a responsive 4” articulated touchscreen and a sensor upgrade (1” compared to the previous camera’s 1/3”) that promises cleaner, higher quality images.
Despite the Illum’s size, which is not inherently dissimilar to a standard DSLR, it felt relatively light- the total weight with the lens being only a touch over what a standard full frame DSLR body alone weighs.
Additionally, the Illum features a deliciously enticing 30-250mm f/2.0 lens. If you’re anything like me, this is possibly the line you read before you discovered all the other snazzy things about light-field imaging. I personally shoot with a range of gear consisting of f/2.8 zooms and fast primes but whatever one shoots, the allure of fast glass is ever present. With an 8x zoom range at a constant f/2.0, one does consider the possibilities. And it gets better. In the way that the technology is implemented, the camera shoots with f/2.0 brightness all the time (I guess you may need an ND filter) and you can choose the depth of field, up to f/16, in post.
In the realm of creative imaging this ability does open up a range of possibilities. If one were to consider a beach landscape shot often seen on postcards, starfish in the foreground, and sand going to the sea with perhaps a sunrise in the background. You would not really need to stop down to a small aperture and deal with long exposures or worry about the diffraction-limited aperture, nor would you have to fork out a couple of grand for a tilt-shift lens so that you can change the focal plane and so that you can shoot with a bigger aperture and still get everything in focus. You just get your Illum cosy with the starfish, adjust your depth indicators on the articulated screen, take the shot and work out the depth of field you want in the Lytro Desktop software.
Furthermore, the Illum’s hot shoe is currently capable of triggering common off camera flash units such as Canon’s Speedlites or Nikon’s Speedlights, forgivably currently sans trimmings such as TTL, and this provides further opportunities for creative expression. As an aside, I attempted to mount a Canon 580EX II to the Illum to test this out, and it did work, however not before (easily and non-permanently) removing the rubber weatherproofing gasket at the base of the unit. Jeff did mention that Lytro had plans in relation to a proprietary off camera flash unit, but did not provide a timeframe for this.
On Lytro’s Lytro Desktop software (I tested version 4.0.0), having familiarised myself with The Verge/David Pierce’s 30 July 2014 Lytro Illum Review, I was preparing myself for the worst, or to quote the review, an experience that was “impossibly clunky”. For housekeeping sake, I was working on my probably faster than average mid 2011 3.4Ghz i7 iMac with 32Gb of RAM, OS on an SSD, on which I do the majority of my photographic work. From the external spinning Firewire drive on which I dumped 2Gb of data, I imported the 37 clicks I had time to do on the Illum. The import process seemed quite slow, and I made myself a cup of tea while waiting for the spinning icon on greyed picture previews to stop, and for the thumbnails to come into colour. Midway through, I glanced the thumbnails, and could not instantly determine what the progress was. If I could make a suggestion to the software developers, a progress bar with percentage indication would be nice. Unless it’s already there and I missed something obvious.
The software is simple to navigate, featuring a similar interface to Adobe’s Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture (R.I.P.) and I did not encounter any hiccups or hanging in my brief foray into it. The available adjustment sliders are easy to understand, but admittedly the RAW images do not contain the same latitude for adjustment as a standard DSLR RAW.
Which brings me to my next point- the Illum is not a DSLR killer. Just like the proverbial apples and oranges if one were looking at a light-field camera as a DSLR substitute, one might be left somewhat nonplussed. An Illum’s RAW file does not appear to have the same flexibility in post as say, an offering from a Canon or Nikon DSLR. If one exported the Illum RAW as a flat still, the image does not have the tack sharpness of a conventional still. That being said, a conventional still image from a DSLR does not have depth information, nor are they interactive. Similarly, it’s like comparing a video camera to a stills camera. You could export a still frame from a video camera’s footage, but it wouldn’t generally match up to a DSLR still, and conversely, a still frame doesn’t tell the same story as a video. What the new medium promises though, is a novel way in which to communicate a story, and on that front, it succeeds.
On a slight tangent, a particularly astute, geeky observer might point out that one could compare a still frame from video to a conventional DSLR’s still frame and give it a run for its money, if one were cashed up enough. Cinematographer Abraham Joffe did a write-up a while back on the 4K-shooting Canon 1DC and the resulting stills, which are undoubtedly very impressive. And that would be a fair observation. As technology pushes along, the lines demarcating where various storytelling mediums converge will inevitably blur. As for now, the Lytro Illum would hope to occupy its own space one’s camera bag, complementing a photographer’s existing arsenal.
Attempting to take shots with the Illum, I quickly learnt it was not the same as my conventional DSLR gear. It took some time to get used to composing images without an optical viewfinder and not having the luxury of extended access to a unit on which to hone my proficiency, it was a steep learning curve. I also found myself trying to compose images at which the Illum excelled, in particular, images with subjects at dramatically different depths that, admittedly, I probably don’t shoot as much of as I’d like to in my current work. I tell myself this would be different if I had a TS-E 17mm f/4L, or if I had more time to bother with focus stacking.
It felt as if the Illum willed me into attempting to shoot multiple subjects at either wide angles with a very close front subject (and it can get very close, with the minimum focusing distance located within the lens), or at the telephoto end with multiple subjects in different focal planes. To not do so, appeared to provide results that were consistently ordinary at best, the sort most likely to elicit responses such as, “why didn’t you just use a normal camera?” From the samples on Lytro’s Living Pictures gallery however, one can see that in the right situation, the medium can work very well.
My brief experience shooting with the Illum cemented my understanding that the Illum was essentially another unique piece of kit to augment one’s visual storytelling ability. Just as in some scenarios one might decide a scene would be best expressed with a high-end tilt-shift lens, or a super telephoto lens, a drone, a slider, an underwater camera, the list goes on, in other scenarios one might want to recount a scene with in an interactive image.
Lytro also appears to be setting the groundwork for the medium to become more ubiquitous and easily integrated into any website without the need for plug-ins, by making the code for its WebGL based Living Player open source. Furthermore, a recent partnership with well-respected photography sharing platform 500px, where the site now supports and elegantly displays this new interactive image format, promises that Lytro has got something good going.
So now to the bottom line- should you get onboard and spring for an Illum? Well, it would be hard for me to say categorically because it would be akin to asking someone if you need a drone. Or a tuba. Lytro’s Illum comes in at approximately the same price as a nice lens for your existing DSLR kit, and just like that lens, it would augment your ability to express a scene. The Illum’s interactive output is primarily a screen-based medium; you would probably get nothing out of it if you intended to take stills for print. On the other hand, if your playground or stage is online or screen-based; if you highly value interactivity; if you are looking for something novel to differentiate your stories from other electronic content; if you feel the urge to spend your bumper tax return on something different; if you want your techy colleagues to beg you to let them stick their memory cards into your camera; or if you just want to potentially be able to tell your progeny that you were there when the future began.. go for it.
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