Talk about buzz. The biggest photo news on the planet at the moment is the announced launch of the Lytro "light field" camera for early 2012. Articles in the mainstream press are blooming like kudzu, and the Lytro website is being blasted with traffic.
We've covered* the plenoptic principle before. Essentially, it's a camera that you can focus in software after the fact, similar to the way you choose white balance in the raw converter after the fact when you shoot raw. The just-announced cameras have a unique and new user interface, which is probably best demonstrated rather than explained: this CNET video shows you how it works.
This technology will doubtless be beloved of the public, which never really understood focus to begin with and considers focusing a camera to be an impediment interrupting the picturetaking process. And so it might be, in a few years' time.
Photographers aren't necessarily the ones who are most excited about this development, but that may be because the inital examples we'll be looking at (the first versions will cost $499 and $399) will be roughly analogous to the third- and half-megapixel digicams of the mid to late '90s. It'll come along. If every smartphone doesn't have a plenoptic "light field" camera by 2016, I'll eat my hat. Ren Ng seems a similarly safe bet to become technology's latest wunderkind billionaire (although I don't know how much of the IP he actually owns or controls).
So (since I'm unable to resist a touch of commentary, even though it's not really appropriate for a news item) have you noticed that every innovation these days seems to be directed at making fewer demands on the photographer's decision-making? Adobe's Image Deblurring that we covered the other day promises that the photographer no longer has to hold the camera steady; light field photography means the photographer no longer has to choose the plane of focus before the moment of exposure. The "photograph" of the future will likely be a still frame grabbed from a video flow, refocused to taste, and displayed on an electronic screen. The activity we now think of as "photographing" might take place increasingly at a desk, at leisure, after the fact, rather than in the field.
The Lytro buzz does seem to indicate, though, that the next ten years could be just as interesting as the last ten years have been.
*The comments to that linked post seem particularly good.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Evan: "I struggle to see how these innovations are in any way a threat to 'traditional' photography.
"The box camera gave way to (easy to use) roll film, opening the door for amateurs to use cameras. Somehow, professional photographers struggled on. Instant film was introduced, destroying the creative process of the darkroom, yet somehow a few select artists forged ahead. Cheap 1-hour processing opened the floodgates to millions of people with crappy pocket cameras. Many of these cameras made basic decisions (like exposure) for you, undermining the creative process. Bravely, real photographers found ways to outcompete this new technology. Digicams and cell phones...Eh, you get the idea.
"If all 'good' photographers have is the ability to make focusing decisions in the moment, perhaps it's for the best that they become obsolete. Personally I like to believe there's a bit more than that. Real photographers have always been, and will always be, those who use whatever technology exists to its limits to say something new and important."
Featured Comment by Kalli: "So, what sort of a hat do you wear? Just out of curiosity…."
Featured Comment by Richard: "As a professional photographer I have to admit that this has worried me some. The profession is taking so many hits in so many fields. Weekend warriors with a DSLR and a couple hundred dollars worth of software, as well as journalism taken over by cell phones. This camera just makes it easier to take photos for any person. However will it be successful, actually I think not. In its present form it's an expensive gimmick. Yeah the technology will move into other things but here is the problem. Style. There is so much that goes into style, exposure, composition and yes focus but also the lens you use, and how that lens portrays the out-of-focus parts and the rendering of the image itself. At present the Lytro will not have a lot of those style abilities, it will have one style and that's it. I think it will be in cell phones and that's it. If there is one thing customers do recognize is style. So maybe I can still breath for a little longer, or at least till the 'Robot Photographer' comes out."
Featured Comment by Richard: "I think Plenoptic will be the new stereo photography—fascinating but useless. It is an interesting gimmick, but it makes life harder (post-processing) not easier for the average consumer so they won't want it. 'You push the button and we do the rest' is what most people want. I can see it as an app on an iPad for people's holiday snaps and most people will have it set for focus stacking so that everything is in focus, just like it would be with their iPhone camera."
Featured Comment by Dave Fultz: "It's the future...through a glass darkly. I'm delighted with the enclosure design, though, it's the first truly radical rethink of how an imaging device could look and work in years and years. I bet it works better than the naysayers think."
Featured Comment by David A. Goldfarb: "Whenever I see this phrase, 'light field camera,' I imagine a simple folding wooden 4x5" view camera weighing about three or four pounds."
Mike replies: I hear that. At least they don't call mirrorless cameras "view cameras"!
Featured Comment by Cary Siepp: "One of the more interesting aspects of this camera is that it is one of the first whose output is really only intended to exist in electronic form. Yes, you can pick a focus point in software and it will spit out a low-res JPEG for you if you want it, but the distinctive feature of this technology is that the image can be shared online and manipulated after the initial point of capture by anyone who views it. It's interactive photography, which is something genuinely new. Whether it will prove to be just an interesting technical proof of concept or a hit remains to be seen, but it's a fascinating development nonetheless. As others have mentioned and as was alluded to on the DPReview story on the Lytro, 3D imagery, especially video, seems like the most interesting potential practical application of this technology."