Lytro 3D camera allows users to focus after photos are captured

The Lytro camera not only takes photos in 3D, it also allows users to select the focus of the image after it has been taken by capturing all light data so that every pixel can be in focus.

If you're a amateur photographer, you probably don't want to think of the number of times that you've missed that perfect moment, whether the over- or under-exposed or simply out of focus.

It's best not to dwell on it. In the past, you simply compensated by shooting lots of pictures, especially as digital storage meant that you simply hit delete on the mistakes and misfires. It's a testament to the marvel of human sight the subtle differences in light we can see that go far beyond the capability of digital sensors.

Now, a new camera packed full of cutting edge optical and computer science promises to make blurry photos a thing of the past while also adding 3-D effects and interactive phots where clicking on the image changes the field of focus.

It's not common that a new camera includes a link to the CEO's dissertation (PDF), but it's an indication of the cutting edge science packed into the Lytro light field camera. On its site, Lytro says that the first light field images took a roomful of cameras attached to a supercomputer to make. Now, Lytro has shrunk that technology into an almost pocketable point-and-shoot.

Lytro 3D camera allows users to focus after photos are captured

Screen grab from Lytro.com

What does a light field camera do? As Lytro says on its web site:

"The light field fully defines how a scene appears. It is the amount of light travelling in every direction through every point in space. ... The light field sensor captures the colour, intensity and vector direction of the rays of light."

Ok, but what does that mean? By capturing all of the light travelling in a given scene and then processing all of that information, the Lytro can produce 3D effects, allow you to choose the plane of focus interactively in a photo. That means that instead of focusing on the foreground, middle distance or background, you can create a photo that allows you to choose after the photo was taken.

Newer digital cameras including those in the iPhone 4 allow you to click on the area of the photo that you'd like in focus via the touch screen. The Lytro allows you to simply snap the picture and choose later or allow even viewers to switch between a field of focus.

It's all achieved with a combination of clever optics and very clever software. As for the optics, the Lytro looks more like an antique box camera than a modern digital camera, but then, it is cramming in all the lenses needed for an 8x optical zoom plus a series of other lenses to allow it to capture all the data necessary to create the light field image.

However, while the camera is a long rectangle rather than the traditional point-and-shoot design, it's not bulky, measuring 41 mm x 41 mm x 112 mm.

The design is very minimalist. It has one button to turn it on, and the camera promises to go from start to shoot in less than a second with no shutter lag. All of the high-tech features are available via a rather petite 33mm square backlit touch-screen. The camera doesn't have a flash, claiming that it doesn't need one. That's the claim that is being met with the most scepticism.

Tech sites have been buzzing about the Lytro since the technology was unveiled. PCWorld previewed the sci-fi features of the Lytro. As for the no-flash-needed claim, Ian Paul of PCWorld said:

"That's an interesting claim, but I wouldn't take that one to the bank until a third-party reviews the camera. Looking at the photo gallery, the outdoor shots look pretty good, but the many of the indoor shots appear less sharp.

However, these are online photos and they likely have a reduced resolution to improve page load times. So it's hard to know how the online images would compare to full resolution Lytro shots sitting on your hard drive."

Now, we finally have the first hands-on test by anyone outside of Lytro. The Wall Street Journal's tech site, All Things D, got their hands on a Lytro. They show off the 3D, selectable focus feature of the Lytro with a brightly stage and a dimly lit foreground and middle ground. It's not bad, but as Ian Paul says, it will be interesting to see what those images look like uncompressed on your computer instead of stripped down for the internet.

Usually such cutting edge technology comes with a cutting edge price tag, but the US-based site lists two 8GB models, capable of taking 350 pictures for a very reasonable price of $399, and a 16GB model is only $100 more. Considering an entry level digital SLR camera will set you back at least $600 in the US, that's not an outrageous price.

If you're an amateur photographer, does the Lytro tempt you, or do you see this as an untested gimmick?

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