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Will Lytro's 'focus later' Camera Revolutionise Photography?


Canon EOS 1D X digital SLR Lytro focus-later digital camera
Left: Canon's new flagship DSLR, the EOS 1D X, and Right: Lytro's revolutionary "focus later" digital point and shoot camera
Earlier this week (October 18 2011) Canon announced its new flagship digital SLR, the Canon EOS 1D X, a full-frame 18-megapixel camera. A couple of days later Lytro unveiled its new "focus later" Light Field Camera.

The Canon 1D X consolidates the 1D and 1Ds ranges, so is efffectively an upgrade to the existing EOS 1D Mk IV (APS-H sensor with 1.3x crop) and EOS 1Ds Mk III (full-frame).

The launch of a new top-of-range camera from Canon or Nikon is always bound to cause excitement, debate, and speculation about image quality and performance in the field; the 1D X has been no exception. The camera is slotted to go on sale in March next year, with a recommended retail price of US$6800.00 (See further below for Canon 1D X official specs).

The Lytro will also be available early next year, in two versions, costing $399 (8Gb storage) or $499 (16gb). It's an unusual, boxy looking camera, with only two buttons -- on/off and shutter release.

Lytro is a small start-up company and these are its first commercial products. What is radically different about the Light Field Cameras is that they capture images that can be refocused later, using your computer. The cameras come with an 8x zoom lens (35-280mm equivalent) and constant f/2 aperture.

I'm not going to go into the technology (which I don't understand anyway), but I can't help wondering if this announcement will one day be seen as groundbreaking -- certainly much more so than the unveiling of a new Canon DSLR -- and the forerunner of a fundamental change in the way we capture digital images?

Disruptive Technology
While the Light Field Camera could be a total flop, it does represent disruptive technology of the sort that can radically change long-held norms and accepted ways of doing things. From DP Review's interview with Lytro founder and CEO Ren Ng, it's clear that most people commenting on the article are not only dubious about the new camera's potential, but downright scornful. Radical change is not usually welcomed.

But it's early days and with the incredible advances in computing power, one can envisage all sorts of possibilities that will switch the photographer's creative process from the field to the computer.

Say for example you're overlooking a colorful fishing village on the Mediterranean coast, with quaint cottages, cobble-stone streets, and boats anchored in the blue waters of the Med. You could simply take a range of shots, from a variety of positions and at different zoom levels, honing on areas of interest, taking into account colors, patterns, and shapes.

No need to focus (or change lenses), calculate depth of field, select optimum aperture, shutter speed and ISO combinations, check histograms and worry about setting an exposure that best captures both hightlights and shadows.

Once you've downloaded the images to your computer, the real fun starts. Now you can select areas of interest, crop if necessary, choose your focus point, then select appropriate aperture for the depth of field you desire.

You want the couple sitting on the edge of the wooden pier with their feet dangling over the edge as your focal point, but prefer the little boats in the background as out-of-focus, impressionist splashes of color? No sweat, dial in a wide aperture.

Save as 3-D
When you're satisfied with the result, save the image as a 3-D for screen viewing. You also want a poster-sized print to hang in your living room, so push up the resolution, making it equivalent to that taken with a 24-megapixel camera and save it in the new lossless compression format that reduces the file size to less than a meg.

In case there was some blurring due to camera shake (tripods have become obselete), you can easily eliminate this with Adobe's de-blurring feature found in the latest version of PhotoShop (CS 8 maybe?)

Okay, so I'm letting my imagination run away and the Lytro cameras certainly don't offer these features yet, but bear in mind that "unlike a conventional camera that captures a single plane of light, the Lytro camera captures the entire light field, which is all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space".

As a simple layman, I like to believe that once you're able to capture all that data, it's only a matter of time before you'll be able to repackage the data as your imagination dictates.

Update: Soon after writing the above, while reading one of my favorite photography blogs, The Online Photographer, I was struck by this conclusion in publisher Michael C. Johnston's write-up on the Lytro:

"The activity we now think of as 'photographing' might take place increasingly at a desk, at leisure, after the fact, rather than in the field. The Lytro buzz does seem to indicate, though, that the next ten years could be just as interesting as the last ten years have been."

Michael's blog is read by many experienced and technically savvy photographers, which makes reading the follow-up comments on his posts extremeley educational and interesting. You can read his views about the Lytro, and reader comments, from his post: Lytro Launches.

Here are the Canon EOS 1D X specifications mentioned earlier:

Canon EOS 1D X specs:
*18.1MP Full Frame CMOS Sensor
* ISO 100-51200 – expandable to ISO 50 (L), 102400 (H1), 204800 (H2)
* 14-bit RAW Capture w/ M-RAW at 10MP & S-RAW at 4.5MP
* Video Capture: 1920 x 1080 at 30p/25p/24p; 1280 x 720 at 60p/50p
* SMPTE-compliant timecode embedding
* Max continuous record time of 29 minutes and 59 seconds
* 12 fps w/ AE and AF
* 14 fps JPEG only w/ mirror up
* Dual DIGIC 5+ Image Processors
* 3.2? LCD at 1.04 million dot resolution
* 252-zone metering
* 100,000-pixel RGB metering sensor
* 61-Point High Density Reticular AF including 41 cross-type AF Points
* 400,000 shutter cycles rated
* Gigabit-Ethernet connection
* Weather-Resistance
* Ultrasonic Wave Motion Cleaning
* Dual CF Card Slots
* Compatible with UDMA 7 CF cards

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