Is that a Lytro?

April 8, 2012

Loading 138 photos… I thought that would give me enough time write a blog post about the new Lytro camera. As each picture loads, though, I turn to look at it and try all the different focus areas, deciding whether to keep it or trash it. I usually trash a lot of pictures; it makes people think I take better pictures if they never see the rejects- the poorly framed shots (why is there is flower with the background of someone’s butt?), the over exposed pictures (that sky sure looks ominous though the white flower looks cheerful), the blurry shots (you know the blurry shots well enough, thank you).

There are a lot fewer blurry shots with the Lytro. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Lytro camera uses a special imaging sensor that lets it takes in focus at multiple depths, letting me select where the focus should go when I get back home. No more out of focus things… kind of.

Focus is a funny thing. I’m sure there are technical terms but I’m the sort of photographer who is happy with a point and shoot, I just like the pretty pictures, I save worrying about the tricky details for my work life. I thought the post processing would turn me off of the Lytro (I do not need more time in front of a computer). And I thought I was getting the camera for my husband (for the trip, don’t you know?).

Here are the images from the first day I played with it, taking it around the neighborhood, trying to figure out how to make pretty pictures. Click on a picture and you can see how the focus changes, I’d recommend the pagoda with the red shrub. You can make the shrub a bright blur, focusing on the pagoda. Or if you click on the shrub, you can make the pagoda a mysterious shadow. And the two sets of apple blossoms are there to show that the focus isn’t just a few levels but can go from pretty close to pretty far. Oh, and try the last one, the tulips and tree. It wasn’t the best picture but something happened in that picture… I’m not sure I can explain without visuals so leave the other window open. If you click on the tree, the tulips are a dark pink blur. But then click on the tulip and the image becomes three dimensional for a second. It feels like reality has shifted for a second there. I need a new word to describe a picture that shows the bigness of the world.

I’m not used to my gadgetry requiring new metaphysical vocabulary.

Anyway, the Lytro… I should say that my vision isn’t that great so slight focus errors usually go over my head. I sometimes have to ask my husband (C) if a picture is in focus. But now I can really see it. The Lytro is going to make me a better photographer for other cameras.

After my neighborhood shots, I wanted to try it out someplace where I could take awesome photos. That would be Filoli, a house and garden in Woodside, CA. C and I have been several times over the years. It is a great place to take pictures because it is so incredibly beautiful there that you can turn in any direction and get something wonderful. C had his digital SLR, the heavy lens he was trying out, with the monopod and backpack. I had the hand sized Lytro. It didn’t fit in my pocket but I happily wore it as a charm bracelet.

One problem with Filoli is the number of other people who find it breathtaking (and their kids). Just about everyone had a camera. I was stopped many times, “Is that a Lytro?” and everyone wanted to know what I thought. Did I like it?

Yes, I would tell them, but it changes photography for me. I don’t just compose a shot, I have to compose the shot and the background to the shot and the background to that. Not everything has multiple levels, each one with something interesting.

I’m looking at one of the shots I took this morning on the Lytro now, trying to decide if I want to delete it. It is a nice picture, good texture contrast between the smooth windswept clouds in the sky, the rough trees, the bright yellow field of narcissus (it spelled fantastic, the Lytro failed to capture that), the light and dark interplay is nice and there is a branch of a yellow shrub in the foreground. It is a shot I’d be happy with, the not entirely level with the horizon notwithstanding (it lends movement to the still that is ok with me). Normally, I’d rank this as a decent shot of a pretty place.

Now, I’m not so sure… it is all “at infinite depth” which means it is all far enough away to be in focus. There is no depth; clicking in different spots nets the same picture. So now maybe this image isn’t good enough to survive the culling. It doesn’t have any movement and it fails entirely to show the bigness of the world. (Seriously, I need a word for that.)

Taking pictures this way is much more challenging. I suppose I should be thinking of The Print. The final shot that gets printed and gets to live in a picture frame around the house until some other picture is deemed more interesting. But I’m totally not thinking of that. I don’t care about The Print anymore. Suddenly I care about the image you see on the Lytro page (or in the program before I upload them). I want you (you!) to interact with my pictures. To feel like you can be there, to get a nearly tactile rush from clicking the images to see what you can find. To move from the soft flower to the rough bark, the pitted rock to the blades of grass, the cracked mushroom to the woody forest floor. To see something I never put my focus on.

I was thinking I’d add some criticisms… while I like the Lytro, there are some things I’d change. The easiest is somewhere to put the nifty magnetic lens cover (I’ll be fixing that with a rare earth magnet on the wrist strap). But you know what? The pictures are loading and right now I’m thrilled with the Lytro. I need to go delete some photos; I’ll be gentle, this is its first real adventure after all. There will be more. Oh, and in case you want to see- here are the survivors, for now.