My first photowalk with Lytro's lightfield camera

This weekend we’ll be in Yosemite with Google+ photographers, including Thomas Hawk, Trey Ratcliff Karen Hutton Scott Jarvie Peter Adams shirley lo and Kimberly Shoemaker. All trying to make a better image than the ones that come up in searches for Yosemite on Google+.

So, to prepare, I went on a photowalk around Half Moon Bay with a new kind of camera: Lytro’s lightfield camera. Lytro’s director of photography, Eric Cheng, gave me a late Christmas present: he let me be one of the first people in the world to actually use one in the wild. Yesterday we walked around and I made 278 images. He shot a bunch too (he’s one of the world’s best underwater photographers, by the way, and has videos of sharks eating GoPro cameras, crazy!). Unfortunately Eric didn’t let me share the actual images online, since this is still a pre-production unit and doesn’t have the final software or viewer yet, but we did shoot a video where you can see some of the results.

I have already purchased a Lytro with my own money, so you know I’m interested in this new camera, that lets you do things like refocus images after you shoot (it does more, too, which we discuss in the video).

So, how was it?

Both disappointing and enthralling.

But first, this is NOT a review. It’s just an early look at a product that hasn’t yet shipped (they expect to ship them sometime in Q1, 2012, so by April 1, although first units might start shipping in February). The software isn’t done, and Eric showed me a few things that they are working on for the future.

You’ll have to wait for an official “review” of the final camera.

So, why was it disappointing?

Well, if you just want the ultimately sharpest photo, this isn’t a camera for you (it won’t do 22 megapixel photos like my Canon 5D MKII will, and the images are generally good enough for on-screen use but if you want to blow them up to wall sized images, this isn’t a camera for you).
If you like having a huge choice of lenses, this isn’t a camera for you.
If you want to shoot action sports, this isn’t a camera for you.
If you want to see through the viewfinder to choose your own focus point, this isn’t a camera for you.
If you want the best low-light performance, then this isn’t a camera for you.

But why is it enthralling?

It let me see the world in a new way. I no longer needed to worry about focus. In fact, I quickly learned that there’s a kind of photo that only works on the Lytro: one where you can get very close to the subject and just shoot, without any worry about where the focus is.

Plus, coming sometime after the camera ships you can turn each image into a 3D image. I saw some examples from Eric’s computer on my 65-inch Vizio 3D TV and they rocked.

Some other reactions.

1. Shooting is actually pretty comfortable and fun. In the video you’ll see Eric shooting with it.
2. The shutter reacts pretty quickly. I was able to capture some shots of golfers in mid swing. That said, top shutter speed is 250th of a second, so this won’t freeze most sports action. Water that I shot out of a fountain was slightly blurred because of the slow shutter.
3. Exposure was usually pretty good, although on some subjects, highlights were overblown. Eric says that they are still tweaking the settings in the camera, so these will probably improve.
4. The viewfinder was frustrating to use in bright sunlight. In fact, most of the time I just shot without seeing the image. That isn’t as big a deal as it might seem, though, because you don’t need to focus, just need to properly compose the image. Eric says that they are working on making the viewfinder brighter.
5. In low light images got a big grainy for my tastes, but still worked.
6. To get the “refocusable effect” you need to pick images where the camera is extremely close to one subject while another subject is in the distant background. This takes a little bit of playing around to optimize for, but I got some good examples, including one where I stuck the camera four inches away from a window frame and shot outside.
7. The camera gets a lot of reactions. At one point the bartender at the Ritz grabbed ours and said “I read about this in Wired” and started shooting with it. The fact that he could pick it up and figure out the controls quickly tells me it is well designed.
8. There are improvements coming that I can’t talk about.
9. Some images have light-field artifacts. This happens when it can’t build the 3D model properly that it relies on, like when there’s motion blur. These aren’t going to be noticed by most people who view your images on Facebook but we were blowing the images up on my 65-inch TV.

Is this camera worth buying?

For me and other early adopters who want to own a piece of the future, absolutely 100% yes.
For my wife? She’ll probably keep using her iPhone’s cameras.

I can’t wait to get mine for real. The technology behind this is mind blowing.