Shoot Now, Focus Later

The world of photography is about to be revolutionised! Or maybe not? In case you haven’t heard: The Lytro camera has just been launched yesterday. The Lytro is a consumer camera which claims to take “living pictures”. Essentially, what it does is *catch all*: The camera takes a picture of the whole scene, no manual setting involved in all. It is the “point and shoot”-concept at its most basic. Focussing of the image will happen later in fully automatic post-production. Apparently. And therefore images like this would be a thing of the past:
A shallow dof shot where the focus was misplaced on the wrong part of the sculpture.
So how does this “revolutionary” camera do it? First of all, it doesn’t confuse its users with a plethora of buttons. There are only three manual “settings” to use: on/off, the shutter release and a slider that controls the zoom. And there is an interactive touchscreen.
The interesting thing is the insides of the Lytro: The camera comes with a constant f2 lens. So no matter where you are and what you are shooting, the aperture will be at f2 and the shutter speed will automatically and accordingly be set by the camera. That gives a nice shallow dof – which under normal circumstances means that whatever you have focussed on will be nice and sharp, everything else will be blurred out. That is a particular aesthetic which a lot of people like, myself included, but can lead to desaster, as exemplified in my shot above: If you happen to focus on the wrong part of the image – maybe because of only a slip of the wrist while half-pressing the shutter release to get the little focus “beep” – you can throw the image into the bin.

The revolutionary thing about the Lytro technology is that the camera not only record *one* particular focus, but *all* possible focuses (plural? foci? focuuuuuuuuuuuuuuus??? – It’s a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?) through an array of mini-lenses which can record the various directions from which the light is hitting the sensor. And thus then the focus can be adjusted afterwards, as all this information has been stored on the camera.

In practice that means that had I taken the above image with the Lytro, I need only click on the sculpture’s face and the software would change the focus onto the face and blur everything else out. Pretty cool, I must admit. And Lytro is taking this even another step forward: The camera is marketed as an interactive device in the sense that the images can then be uploaded into social networks or albums and other users can make their own changes to the focus of the image.
So is this going to revolutionise photography forever? Will we be pointing colourful little tubes at models and still lives and landscapes from now on? I seriously doubt it. In my opinion, this is all quite clearly a novelty, sensational and interesting, but also strictly directed at the amateur market. No serious photography buff would be interested in giving up manual control of the camera. I mean – what is the point of photography if you don’t use the various parameters to manipulate the image aesthetically?
The interactivity of the concept is laudable on the one hand: I am waiting for camera manufacturers to finally WiFi-enable cameras for quick and seamless picture uploading straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. (And incidentally Canon has incorporated that in their recently launched 1D X, as far as I know.) The Lytro lets you upload straight from taking – hence no memory cards needed. A great thing, if you want to get your pictures into the social network of your choice with no delay. The interactive concept also includes the unlocked manipulation of the image. I.e. an image that is accessed by third parties on Facebook can then be refocussed to their tastes. Great if you have been caught in flagrante delicto and want to pull the focus away from you… That, on the other hand, is a serious offense in photographers’ eyes: A picture once finalised by a photographer is a finished product that cannot be re-manipulated by others. It certainly shouldn’t be – because it leaves questions about the authorship of the re-focussed image.
My conclusion: If this camera could incorporate manual settings, it would be an interesting tool for photographers to use – because even the best of us occasionally slip up with focus. But there would also have to be a way of “locking” the final image in order to control the manipulation of it. Sure, if someone made my image better by refocusing it, I would have no problem with the openness of this concept, but what if people change it for the worse, with my name still on it???
Anyway, what do you think? Is this going to catch on? Who is going to buy this and what for? Or is it a gadget and a fad and another step into a dumbed-down future? I’d be interested to know!
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