New Lytro camera comes to Canada, is it revolutionary or just gimmicky?

TORONTO – Its makers say it represents “the first major shift in photography since the invention of photography.” But a skeptic might say it just sounds a little gimmicky.

It’s called Lytro, a boxy digital camera that takes so-called “living pictures.” Basically, photos can be refocused at any time after they’re taken, so something in the foreground can be made sharp with the background blurred, or vice versa. Interactive Lytro photos can be shared online for friends and family to interact with.

The effect is possible because the Lytro is a light field camera, explains director of photography Eric Cheng.

“The light field is defined as all of the light travelling in every direction at every point in space — and the key component there is direction,” Cheng says.

“Light field is what travels through a traditional camera but (the camera) throws away most of the information, you have a bunch of different light rays hitting one point and they all get averaged into a colour. But if it were possible to separate those light rays out, the data you’d be capturing would be this rich light field data they’ve been talking about in computer graphics theory for decades.”

The Lytro first went on sale in the U.S. about a year ago and was released in Canada last week, with an eight-gigabyte version selling for about $400 and a 16-gigabyte model going for $500.

Many tech and photography enthusiasts rushed out to buy one, but now the company is trying to go after the mass market (in the U.S., the Lytro will appear on Target store shelves). But Cheng concedes the Lytro will be pushed as a second camera for consumers, not a replacement for low-end point-and-shoots or full-featured digital SLRs.

The average consumer will probably have fun with its refocusing ability but the Lytro also has other notable features, Cheng says, including a powerful 8X zoom, a large aperture width to allow more light into the camera, and no appreciable shutter lag.

“You can pull the camera out, turn it on and take a shot instantly and not have to worry about missing focus,” he says.

“Refocus won’t necessarily hook everybody, of course — some people will just say, ‘Why don’t you just focus to begin with?’ — and that’s OK.”

But there are some drawbacks to choosing the Lytro. The camera is print-unfriendly with a resolution of just 1.2 megapixels (consider even the cheapest of point-and-shoot cameras typically have 10 times the pixel depth). The photos are also square-shaped, so cropping of the already-small digital file is necessary if you want to print a photo.

Cheng explains that the Lytro was designed for the type of photographer who mostly views their photos on a screen and rarely prints. He does acknowledge that the company does want to increase photo quality in the future.

“We do think (more pixels) is important (but) this particular camera is really meant for screen sharing, (for) interactive pictures shared to the social web,” he says.

“That’s kind of how we designed it, of course a lot of people are happy to keep it on their desktop and some people print. In practice, we found very few people actually print but we do want to support people who print.”

Another potential snag for some PC users is the minimum requirement of having the 64-bit version of Windows 7 installed. There are still many PC users out there using Windows XP or Vista (or the 32-bit version of Windows 7) and they won’t be able to get their photos off the Lytro. Apple users must be using Mac OS X 10.6.6+ or later.