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Should I Buy a Lytro Camera? My Opinions After 5 Months of Use

Should I buy a Lytro camera?

It’s a question that a lot of people have been asking me lately.

Even though it’s been publicly available for a while now (since March 2012), most people have never seen one, fewer have actually used one. I’ve been playing with a Lytro for the last 5 months now and am well aware of it’s strengths & weaknesses and I now understand where it fits into my camera bag along side my full frame DSLR, Micro Four Thirds camera, and iPhone.

The Lytro camera is unlike any other consumer camera that has come before, its ability to refocus images after the fact and it’s great design are novel and quite sexy. When you capture a Lytro image that is spot on, the image really shines. Also, people consistently stop me on the street to ask about the camera.

However, the Lytro camera has it’s downsides.

Resolution of the Lytro’s “living pictures” is comparable to that of an iPhone 3GS camera. If you are hoping to get DSLR quality photos out of this unique device, you should look elsewhere. Lytro doesn’t have the instant sharing / social media or editing capabilities (through apps like Instagram or Snapseed) of an iPhone or Android phone and it’s still almost as big as a micro four thirds camera with a Panasonic 20mm pancake lens (great lens for DSLR quality in a small package) pictured below.

There are no manual controls or flash to speak of on a Lytro, and the image quality is only really acceptable (to me at least) when there is a lot of available light. On top of that, the tiny LCD touch screen is lacking when compared to other modern cameras or smartphones in terms of resolution and viewing angle.

So compared to other cameras the Lytro has a lot of negatives but in certain situations the device shines due to it’s unique abilities. Therefore, I can only recommend a Lytro as a second or third specialty camera and only if you are willing spend the time to learn how to use it well.

The main reason I got the Lytro is for it’s cool factor and to start learning this type of “light field” photography now, because while a bit limited currently, the technology will very likely improve in the future. Also, I was interested in the other, not yet publicly available features of the camera. The company has prototypes of the camera with the ability to produce 3D images and allow the user to change viewing angle of the phjoto through a parallax shift by a few degrees (like peeking around a corner). These new features should be available soon through a software update.

When does the Lytro camera shine?

Simple – The Lytro trumps other cameras when there is a lot of visual interest throughout the frame of your “living photo” and you are able to tell stories at multiple depths in the frame. There’s something magical about the viewer’s ability to reveal and conceal new details with each new mouse click, so to overcome the limitations of the Lytro, your “living photos” must do this to stand out and really take full advantage of the refocus feature.

Here are some representative images I’ve taken over the last 4-5 months. To refocus the images, click on the area that you would like to bring in focus. To view the photos full size (for pixel peeping), click on the Lytro logo in the bottom right corner of the image, then select “Enlarge” / “Full View”.

Cherry Blossom Flowers in Jinehae, South Korea – April, 2012

This image and the next two were taken with the Lytro’s lens zoomed in about halfway to compress the distance from the foreground to background. This is a great way to highlight subjects in nature that have a lot of layers.

To shoot with the Lytro effectively you want to have at least 2 subjects you want to highlight in your living photo so you can get the most out of the refocus effect. Here, I’ve chosen to set my primary focus on my secondary subject (cherry blossom flowers in the background). I’ve found that this technique is often effective, because when the viewer clicks around on the photo, the viewer gets a feeling of discovering, or revealing the main subject… a “tada” kind of moment.
Rain falling on leaves – March 2012
Same concept in this photo, multiple subjects that the viewer can click on and reveal by refocusing.

The thing that Lytro doesn’t explain well is that even though you can refocus the image later, you still have to focus the camera. The refocus range isn’t as large as most people think either. There will be objects in your living photo that appear blurry even when you click on them because they were too far away from your iniital focus point for the camera to capture that object in focus. Click on the the very front tip of the leaf closest to you in this photo to see what I mean.

Mint in the Garden – Another example of parts of the photo appearing blurry when trying to refocus on them – click the brightest mint leaf on the right side of the image. You can never quite get it in focus.

Texas Wildflower Field – July 2012 – This photo illustrates an extreme example of not being able to get areas of the photo to become sharp even when refocusing. Try clicking on the closest “ball” and then the ones in the far background. You will get a lot of images like this until you learn the camera’s sweet spots.

To avoid situations like this, I try to only include objects in the frame at distances that will appear sharp in the final image, like in the images below.

Texas Bluebonnet Flowers in March 2012

Texas Sage Bush Flower – July 2012

Broccoli Flowers

Roberta’s Bee Sting Pizza @ SXSW Music – Brooklyn pie comes to Austin, Texas
In addition to taking telephoto images of plants, The Lytro is also useful for wide angle macro photos of food and everyday objects. For photos like these, Lytro recommends getting extremely close to the subject zoomed out to a wide angle. There’s something special about being able to focus on the front edge, middle, and back edge of this pizza.

3 Light Bulbs
Again, the best images have visual interest throughout the frame and when you click on each object, they should come into sharp focus. You can check the quality of your refocused image on the LCD of the Lytro camera a few seconds after capturing an image. I highly recommend double checking after the fact, or you will end up with images like the one below:

Green Tea Macaroons
Another example of food image that can be enhanced with the Lytro, however the fact that I can’t fully refocus on the closest macaroon bothers me.

Ball Lamp
This image works for me because there are 2 distinct subjects and they are both sharp when the viewer clicks on them.

To wrap things up, here are my opinions condensed into a few bullet points:

The Lytro is:

  • Very cool technology with wow factor but in it’s early stages, so image quality isn’t that great
  • A useful niche story telling device with a somewhat steep learning curve
  • Not a replacement for a DSLR in terms of quality and not as convenient as a smart phone
  • Recommend as a 2nd or 3rd camera to supplement, not replace other devices

Recommended for:

  • Camera geeks that want to explore a new dimension of photography
  • Bloggers that want wow factor in their posts and are willing to take time to learn the device
  • Early Adopter / Gadget lovers that have some extra cash

Not recommended for:

  • Casual camera users not willing to carry or learn another device.  A point and shoot or smartphone suit casual users just fine.


Does anyone else out there have similar opinions on Lytro?  Let me know in the comments!

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  • This is the first time I’ve come across the Lytro camera (your review) – very interesting!!
    From your reviews, I am intrigued to try it..

    Great work. Will stop by again :)

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