Notes on the Lytro

by Leo Hsu

Issue 51

“The Lytro camera lets you create living pictures that you can endlessly refocus after you take them.” – from the Lytro website A “living picture” is a pretty intriguing sell. Pictures do live, in a way; at their best, photographs reward repeated viewings with new experiences and perhaps new revelations. The Lytro’s living picture is a little different. It also promises to reward extended engagement, but the emphasis here is on the picture’s ability to be refocused, using the camera’s light field technology. Can the Lytro produce pictures that have emotional or aesthetic depth? I’m not sure that this has happened yet, but I’m hoping that it will.

What new expressive or documentary possibilities might a refocusable picture offer? And how does the emergence of a new technology provoke a consideration of our assumptions built on current technologies? The consumer Lytro is being marketed as a novelty, but it certainly holds other potentials. I recently had the opportunity to attend a Lytro workshop at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where I was able to try out the camera. What follows are some notes and thoughts on some of the possibilities and implications of light field photography.

Digital photography, when it was first developed and introduced in consumer products, was marketed as an improvement on existing consumer film cameras: less expensive storage and capture media; image fidelity across endless copies; the possibility of editing the image with precision. In the last ten years or so other capacities have emerged that have redefined how we think of photography. The print is no longer the only vehicle for the image. The digital paths through which so many images are shared and through which they mark experiences are now inextricable from the software and the networks that enable their creation and movement.

The Lytro is a consumer “plenoptic” camera based on light field technology, enabled by both hardware and software innovations. Thousands of microlenses in the focal plane measure the light rays before they hit the camera’s sensor. The capture information, which includes both in-focus and out-of-focus data, is then sorted to allow the software to reconstruct a “synthetic” image- the image that a camera would have made had it been focused at a certain distance. A large (but not infinite) number of possible camera focus settings can be produced in this way. So every time you make an exposure, the camera creates a single capture from which any number of individual hypothetically focused cameras’ captures can be synthesized. (At least that’s how I understand it. It reminds me of a science fiction description of quantum physics, where multiple realities are produced every time a decision is made.)

The Lytro is the brainchild of Ren Ng and is based on his graduate research at Stanford. His is not the only research in light field photography; the idea of the plenoptic camera follows from Nobel physicist Gabriel Lipmann’s 1908 Integral Camera, and a number of cameras using technologies similar to the Lytro have been developed around the world. The Lytro, however, is the only one that is currently available to consumers.

The Lytro camera itself is a small tube-like box, its ends square. The design is elegant and simple: one end is the lens and the other is a display, and the whole thing is covered in a grippy material. Apart from a shutter button and a touch-sensitive slider, all of the settings are accessed through the touch screen display; it’s a point and shoot (though with a very fast shutter response as there is no need to focus). Everything is shot with the aperture wide open, so the exposure is set by automatic adjustments to shutter speed and ISO.

Captures are then transferred to a Mac running Lytro software, through which images can be shared to Facebook, Twitter or Google+, or to the Lytro site. Processed images are essentially little Flash pieces; clicking the mouse on the image refocuses the image to that point on the image. The current marketing around the camera emphasizes the sharing of pictures, like Instagram. We flood each other with images; the Lytro, we are told, offers users the opportunity to interact with these images, creating an active, rather than a passive experience. And there is something to this: not unlike a stereo photo, the audience of a shared Lytro picture, by having to physically act on the image, has a different kind of experience than one that is purely visual.

But apart from the consumer novelty angle, what is possible with light field technology that was not previously possible? How might existing visual language extend to accommodate light field technology? Will our concepts of photographic honesty and rhetoric adapt to this technology? Whether or not light field cameras will lay the groundwork for a new branch of photography, the imagining and realization of this technology is evidence of how elastic our assumptions are right now of what photographs are and what they can be.

Four implications of light field photography come to mind:

First, the audience’s manipulation of the image sets up a new kind of relationship. As physical participation becomes part of the viewing experience, the audience takes ownership of the experience in a way that differs from a static visual experience. I’m not referring to empathy or the revelation of evidence, but to the sense in which any kind of physical operation enhances one’s sense of complicity in the creation of an experience. Other examples of physical engagement include the aforementioned stereograph, drawing aside a curtain protecting a light sensitive image, moving through a gallery installation, or turning the pages of a book. But these examples do not impact the form of the image itself.

Second, the act of refocusing implicates the user in an extended moment of interaction, and as a result decisions about form may take the experience of time into consideration. The Lytro is similar to video or film in some ways: like the rack focus effect, a relationship is established between the various focal positions of the image, and with this relationship comes dramatic potential. More so than the relationship between synchronous spatial elements, the relationship between spatial elements in time presents the opportunity for reveals. At the workshop we are told that a good image – one that showcases the refocusing effect- is one in which there are both far background and close foreground subjects.

Third, the light field capture embeds possibility. It’s not that the focus decision has been deferred; it’s that every focus decision is possible. The capture cannot be experienced in its totality at once. Photography, conventionally, has been characterized by multiple creative moments: the decision to make a picture, the decision of how the picture is made, the decision of how it’s edited, and perhaps the decision of how it is printed. Is the photograph made when the exposure is made, or when a negative is realized as a print? Do we think of photographs so much as information to be communicated that a picture does not meaningfully exist until it has an audience? These aren’t new questions, but the Lytro brings them into focus, as it were.

Fourth, the light field capture actually does defer the focus decision. Lytro captures can be exported at any focus decision as a jpg. This could be a boon to a photojournalist: every image will be sharp since the photographer does not need to focus; and less time thinking about equipment is more time to be present with one’s subjects. This freedom also offers editors down the line the chance to make decisions about the image. Just as a take is edited, just as the camera raw image is the starting point for the processing necessary to present an image, so the light field capture is the raw material from which a flat image is ultimately produced. And just as in other aspects of editorial photography, there will be situations where the photographer cedes control of the image to the editorial process, as editors will be able to select the focus of the picture.

As further light field equipment is developed, I hope that we’ll see more creative uses of the technology. I’m not aware of any photojournalists, documentarians, or artists using the Lytro seriously. But the possibilities are there. In this era of rapid transformations in photographic scope and languages, there is some interesting potential here. Every technological development in the history of photography has led to unexpected applications that have nonetheless shaped what photography looks like thereafter. Camera shake and motion blur accompany handheld equipment; small cameras with long lenses introduced out-of-focus foreground matter into the visual lexicon, and 35mm film introduced photographic grain as an expressive element. Full manual control, fully automatic, fine grain, lo-res; each feature speaks to some kind of directness, to a lack of intervention in some aspect of the process. It’s the invitation for the audience to intervene, for a hand to refocus, that makes the Lytro interesting, the suggestion that the form produced by the photographer is neither final nor absolute. I look forward to seeing where this dynamic will lead.

Support Fraction and buy your Lytro cameras and accessories here.

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.