LYTRO ILLUM: Is The Photography Industry About To Get Shaken-Up ?


Lytro has long been a fascinating company. It was only a matter of years ago my colleagues and I were debating the truth to rumours there was a company who had developed a lightfield camera that allowed users to refocus the image to any particular point, after taking the photo. Then in 2012 the company introduced the Lytro Light-Field Camera, a nifty little gadget that looks like a lipstick that allowed you to do just that. It was and is a pretty great piece of technology, if not somewhat a novelty due to its strange dimensions. We haven’t seen any upgrades to the Lytro since then, leaving consumers and analysts speculating on the company’s success and strategy. But now Lytro has revealed its plan to stamp its mark on the photography industry, betting the future of of the industry on an “DSLR” camera that isn’t really a camera, called the Illum. Traditional cameras print refracted light onto a sensor, recording a “pure” image that results from the combination of the right light, exposure, aperture, ISO, focus and depth of field settings predetermined by the photographer (unless you’re using automatic in which case the camera does it for you).


Nonetheless, a professional quality image requires skill, an understanding and control over the device. Illum records the direction in which light moves, working on the mantra “taking everything in at once”, betting the bank on a software based solution and then crafting their hardware around that to ensure a sharp, crisp image later on, even if the photographer decides to change the focal point in post production. In that sense, it could be argued that the new Illum actually records more data than a traditional camera, which only records only the specific data dictated by the settings you use. On the other hand it could be argued that Illum’s process is actually more inefficient, scooping up a bunch of “loose data” which a processor puts together for you later; that it’s lazy photography, even. I haven’t had a chance to get a hands-on with the Lytro (call me!) so without having spent some hands-on time it’s difficult to say. I’d be less concerned if Lytro was also building quality hardware to support its vision. But founder and executive chairman Ren Ng already admitted to The Verge that its software solution meant “you can make cheaper lenses if you want”: “You can make lower-quality lenses acceptable,” he said. He also said that it meant you could “build new lenses that have higher performance than you’ve ever seen before,” hedging his bets somewhat.


Or it could mean the company plans to create a range of cameras suiting both ends of the market, and potentially professional grade cameras too, but I somehow doubt it. The Illum camera may let you refocus an image to any point in the frame but the irony is you’re taking photos with no depth of field. In order to achieve this refocus effect in post-production, your images would all need to have a high aperture value with an F-Stop of 5.6 or higher. So when it’s night time and you need to use f1.8 or 1.2 in order to create that blur and that depth of field, you’re in trouble because the hardware can’t be manipulated to take in enough light to deliver the goods. And companies like Nokia, Google and HTC all offer refocusing apps for their smartphones, even though from a hardware perspective they still sport the more traditional camera which prints light onto a sensor. It’s an odd decision that Lytro hasn’t opted to offer the best of both worlds, using both software and hardware solutions. I can’t see it getting much take-up from professional photographers who are likely to stick with their Canons and their Nikons. It’s only a matter of time before the Illum is dubbed the camera destroying the photography industry.


I can just hear the Facebook comments blowing up: “Now everyone will think they’re a bloody professional.” For the prosumer, the Lytro Illum is likely to be a sales success and to the ‘tog snobs I say it’d do well to remember that consumers and professionals want completely different things from their gear. For consumers who just enjoy photography and who don’t want to or can’t afford to spend a fortune, at US$1599 (US$1499 if you pre-order before July 15) the Illum is a all-in-one alternative, and a decent price for a DSLR. As a point of comparison the Canon 5DMKIII retails around $2700 and the Sony Alpha is around $1,300. Maybe it’s ok that they don’t feel they need all that hardware stuff. Maybe it’s ok not wanting to spend hours learning how to use their camera.


Maybe they just want a camera that lets them capture a moment without needing to know every setting. Snap first, think later. What’s wrong with a camera that gives you more control in post-production? Lytro’s software coupled with a decent editing program like Adobe Lightroom give consumers all the control they need. That being said, there’s no supplement for good hardware. That means a nice heavy piece of glass (and a manual zoom).


Sharpness comes down to a good lens. The Illum may let you refocus using software but it can’t deliver that crisp, sharp image that comes with a quality lens. I’d be interested to see an Illum photo side-by-side by with one taken on a Canon using an L-series lens, or a Nikkor for the Nikon fans. Ten bucks says they’d win by a mile. Still, the Illum is likely to turn a lot of heads this year and probably get up a few noses. And anything that can shake up the camera and photography industry is a welcome change. ( By Claire Porter from ) For more information do not hesitate to follow the link below.