Each year for my birthday, I usually end up asking my parents for some photo-related paraphernalia. The gifts span the gamut depending on what I'm in need of most, but this year my father delivered a rather interesting find. I have to admit, at first I was quite skeptical, but ultimately, the technology behind this device is so unique that it forces you to think about photography in a completely different light. The gift in question was the Lytro Illum, a remarkable light-field camera with an extremely unique imaging sensor.
What's a light-field camera you ask? Up until recently, light field cameras were relegated primarily to the realm of scientific research, and in short, they are cameras that not only capture the color and intensity of the light entering the lens (as all cameras do), but also the direction in which that light is traveling. How this is accomplished and the mathematics behind it is quite complex, but it allows for some pretty unbelievable effects in post-production. Namely the ability to shift the focus point and depth of field after the shot was taken. Perhaps an example will help drive this concept home.
As you can see, clicking on various points throughout the field of view refocuses the image to a different plane, and moving the cursor around the image shifts the point of view. Without a light-field camera, the only way to achieve such an effect would entail compositing dozens of images of differing perspectives and focal points. With the Lytro, all this can be achieved in a single snap.
Being the tech nerd that I am, I had read about light-field cameras long ago when Lytro released their first foray into the consumer market. While that original version proved the concept, the image resolution and quality paled in comparison to most digital cameras of the time. With the Lytro Illum, the resolution and the overall fit and finish of the device are improved considerably, but don't expect the pixel count or image sharpness to approach that of a modern smartphone or DSLR. In my mind, that isn't really the point of Illum, though. I see it as tool for creativity and rethinking the way I approach photography. It certainly isn't a camera that will replace my workhorse DSLR, but there's something refreshing about wandering around trying to create a different type of image than I'm used to. It very much reminds me of how I felt when I first began to enjoy photography back in high school.
Another factor that makes the Illum so different for me is that it in no way conforms to my workflow. The files are proprietary and must be processed with somewhat sluggish desktop application from Lytro (sorry Lightroom), and once your adjustments are made, what do you really do with the images. You can export still frames of the photo (at various focal points and depths of field) and display them as you would any normal shot, but the interactivity of the image is completely lost in a static medium. Some life can be injected back to the shot by generating animations that can be encoded in a standard movie format, but even that lacks the ability for the viewer to really explore the image themselves. In my opinion, the best way to share the images is via the Lytro mobile app or web viewer, which offers the full experience the file format has to offer.