Review: Lytro Illum Camera Focuses on Everything

A Camera Uses Light Field Technology to Give Photos New Depth; Game-Changer or Gimmick?

Lytro's latest camera lets viewers shift focus and perspective on photos after they were shot. Personal Technology Columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler tests whether this is photography's next chapter, or just a neat gimmick. 

What might photos look like if your camera could capture more depth?

Rewind with me for a moment to that scene in pretty much every crime investigation show, where good guys studying security shots "enhance" the image to reveal the villain.

Everybody knows that real blurry photos can't be made sharp after the fact. But that's exactly the premise of the new Illum camera from a startup called Lytro.

Instead of snapping a solitary image, the Illum captures a whole moment—known as the light field—so you can change focus and shift perspective after you've taken the shot. Just by clicking around a screen, the viewer can focus on a birthday cake candle, the person blowing it out, or partygoers in the background. These "living pictures," as they're called, even let the viewer look a bit behind the closest objects. The effect is a little like the portraits in Harry Potter's newspaper: a hint of depth where you weren't expecting it.

The Lytro Illum, which goes on sale Friday for $1,599, makes this mind-bending technology remarkably accessible to avid photographers. But you have to work within some technical and artistic constraints. Over a week testing the Illum, I took striking portraits and close-up shots that appear to come alive, but struggled to get as much use out of it for landscapes and action scenes.

The Illum offers great tools for experimenting, but remains a ways off from being essential for serious photographers. The jury is still out on whether light-field cameras will define a compelling new kind of photography, or be remembered as a fun gimmick.

If the name Lytro sounds familiar, that's because Illum is the company's second attempt at a camera that can do these kinds of tricks. Its first, just called Lytro, came out in 2012 and failed to catch on despite a wave of attention and a relatively low $400 price tag. That camera—a 4.4-inch-long tube that looked more like a colorful toy than a cutting-edge instrument—stayed under the radar because it had poor image quality and was hard to control via a tiny screen.

Lytro's reboot follows the counterintuitive path of quadrupling the price and redesigning the product for people accustomed to DSLRs. The Illum actually looks like a camera, with a big 8X optical zoom lens fixed on the front and four times the resolution of its predecessor. You control shutter speed, exposure and other image factors through a tiltable 4-inch touch screen on back. When I walked around with the Illum, the camera's near-futuristic lines prompted bystanders to compliment it.
The Lytro Illum, on sale this week, retails for $1,600. Lytro
Behind the lens, the Illum's sensor captures a lot more information about a scene than the typical camera, including the path the light takes on its way through the lens. Though it has just one sensor that captures one image, think of it essentially as a 3-D camera, taking shots at every possible focal point. From that moment's data, you can create an interactive image that feels like a video, where the viewer gets to choose the focus and perspective. Or you can extract a single 4-megapixel image—half the resolution of an iPhone 5S photo, but good enough for a 5x7 print—with your desired point of focus.

There's a learning curve to capturing images that take advantage of the Illum's capabilities, but by my third day, I was taking decent shots. When you're composing an image with the Illum, you have to think in terms of depth—what's near and what's far. The more dispersed your subjects are, the more interesting the shot.

To help you create shots with more artful blurring, Illum has a special "Lytro" button; press it, and the camera colors parts of the live image preview on its screen with shades of blue (near) and orange (far). You can adjust the amount of each in a shot by changing the center of focus, using the zoom or just moving the camera around.
I found that close-up portraits of people or pets generally have enough dimension to produce interesting images that make you feel closer to the subject. And busy images—parties, gardens, street scenes, markets—are great for letting you shift focus, concentrating on different parts of a scene.

Landscapes are much harder. I went to the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny day to practice, thinking that its layers of towers, cables and fog would be perfect for the Illum's depth effect. I couldn't have been more wrong. My shots turned out flat, like those of a regular camera.

When I showed my boring bridge images to Casey McCallister, Lytro's creative content manager, he explained that on such a massive scale, the entire bridge scene was at a point photographers call infinity—that is, beyond my ability to shift focus. Under those conditions, I should have put another object—a tree, sign or another person—within 4 feet of me, to add usable dimension. (Lytro offers tutorial videos online.)

Soon enough, I found myself looking at scenes differently. Instead of clearing obstructions out of the way, I was adding them in. Power lines, plants and fire hydrants all work. Try turning your family into mobile props.

The Illum's screen lags just enough from reality that it was hard to use it in action situations. Still, the camera can capture 2.5 photos per second. Like midrange digital SLRs, it also has challenges with night shooting, producing grainy images. And shooting outdoors on sunny days can be difficult, as the LCD screen can be hard to see.

The magic happens once you move the Illum's giant 53-megabyte image files to the Lytro Desktop editing software. (Warning: Working with so much data in a single image requires a workhorse of a computer, and even then is slow.)

The program lets you make basic photo adjustments such as exposure, color saturation, sharpening and cropping. You can also choose to highlight a single point, blurring all the rest, or bring everything, foreground and background, into focus. You can export these images as flat JPEGs, images that can be seen on 3-D TVs and monitors, or short videos that tell a story by shifting focus and perspective.

The most interesting option is to turn shots into what Lytro calls living pictures. This allows the viewer to change the focus or perspective themselves in real time on Lytro's website or mobile app and other photo-sharing sites like

Illum undoubtedly advances photography in an era where most other high-end camera-makers make only incremental improvements. But what good are these new capabilities in the hands of artists and photo enthusiasts?

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About Doru Somcutean

Hello, my name is Somcutean Doru and I'm from Romania.

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