Shoot Now, Focus Later: A Little Camera To Change The Game

Mar 1, 2012
Originally published on March 27, 2014 9:49 am

Just when you thought you had the latest in camera technology, along comes something new and shiny and ... rectangular.

It's called the Lytro, and it uses something called "light field technology." In short: You shoot now and focus later.

NPR's resident photo expert, Keith Jenkins, explains: In a nutshell, he says, this camera captures not only the color and the intensity of light — which is what normal cameras do — but also the direction of that light — from every possible angle.

Still confused? We are, too.

The best analogy came from Lytro CEO Ren Ng, who made a musical analogy. Let's say you like a band, and they're great live. But say you want to record them. You generally don't just stick a mic in the middle of the room and hope for the best. You record each band member — and sometimes even their instruments — separately in a studio. That way, when you're mixing it all together, you can control every element.

So think of the live band as a point-and-shoot camera on automatic and the studio recording as the Lytro.

Taking that analogy a step further, here's one of Keith's experimental photos — of the Cowboy Junkies playing a Tiny Desk Concert. Click around to see how it works.

We don't completely understand what goes on inside this little box — some of that is proprietary. We do know there's a lot of math. And a lot of sensors. In short: The idea is to gather as much information as possible to give you more control after the photo is taken.

So say you've got a pretty person in front of some majestic mountains. Instead of focusing on one before you click, you can take the photo — and choose your focal point later.

The New York Times compares the Lytro's size to a stick of butter, which is about right. For $399, the 8-gigabyte model can capture about 350 images; the "red hot" 16-gigabyte model can capture 750 and costs $499.

For some photographers, the technology could be a breakthrough. The pressure is off – you don't need to worry about focusing perfectly in the moment. It's also a chance to experiment with artistry in a different way.

"The interesting thing about this camera is what this new technology opens up," Jenkins says. "The possibilities when you're gathering so much visual information from a scene and in essence, gathering it in almost a three-dimensional way — the potential of what this does for photography is pretty huge."

What do you think? Does this take the art out of photography? Or open up new doors to artistic interpretation?

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Just when you thought you had all the latest photography gear, along comes something new. A California-based company released a different kind of camera yesterday called the Lytro. It's about the size and shape of a stick of butter, and the photos it takes capture light in a completely new way. Our colleague David Greene took the Lytro out for a test drive.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Yeah, I came over to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and I brought along Keith Jenkins, who's in charge of multimedia and photography at NPR.

Tell me exactly what I'm looking at here.

KEITH JENKINS, BYLINE: Well, what it looks like is a giant sized tube of lipstick. But it is made by Lytro, and it is a camera using cutting edge technology of light fields to create images that have the potential of being three-dimensional, because we are not only capturing color and brightness, but we're also capturing the direction of light.

GREENE: So light fields capturing direction of light, are these things that regular cameras haven't done in the past?

JENKINS: The traditional cameras don't do this. This is the first camera on the market that will allow you to create images like this.

GREENE: And when you say images like this, what exactly are we creating with this camera?

JENKINS: Well, the claim to fame of this camera is that you never to focus. What it really means in practice is that you take a picture, bring it into software in your computer, and voila, you are able to focus on any particular point in the picture - focused on the face, focused on the background. This camera allows you to selectively focus after you take the photograph.

GREENE: Well, can we try and snap a few photos here? We're in this gorgeous atrium with a lot of light. And I know we didn't bring a laptop or anything with us, but if we go back to the office we could load some of these up, right?

JENKINS: Definitely, and we can take a look at how this works.

GREENE: Well, Keith and I have now come back into our offices and brought the camera back.

And, Keith, can we load some of these photos up?

JENKINS: Yes, we can. Our flower is coming in. Almost immediately, you can kind of see that the flower is close-up in the foreground. The roof of the atrium is the background. Let's click on something in the background.

GREENE: Wow, so the background just came into crisp focus and the flower is now blurry.

JENKINS: We have a leaf that was behind it that now is in focus. But we just watched it shift again, so we've got a fair amount of focus on the wall. Both the flower and the leaf in the foreground are now out of focus.

GREENE: And this kind of stuff you could never do in the past, with cameras we've been used to. Is that right?

JENKINS: You could not do this with cameras and you could not do this in Photoshop. And what you do here is pretty instantaneous. So you just click on a section of the picture and it comes in to focus.

GREENE: You know, when I first heard that we were going to take a look at this camera, my first impression was to be sort of uncomfortable. Because it felt like it was taking even more of the magic out of photography. I mean you can sort of take this photo, come back to an office and make it into something new.

Is that what's going on or is there some new magic here?

JENKINS: Yeah, I think that the digital revolution has robbed a lot of people of the magic of photography. I like to refer to it as the magic of the, you know, the 19th century, where we were working with chemicals and processes that were just being invented by doctors and others. And for the most part, we really didn't understand it all that well, but everybody adopted it.

Digital technology has given everybody the capability, in the pocket, to have something which can produce great images, and you really don't need to think about it. And this camera, for me, feels almost like it's returning some of the magic. Because it's using 21st-century technology to create almost, you know, multidimensional images. And that's something which is brand-new and feels like it's part of the magic of our century.

I don't understand it completely. But I recognize that it's pretty cool and pretty neat, and cutting-edge, and maybe will create a whole new era of photography in the next few years.

GREENE: Alright. Well, Keith, thanks for coming on this field trip with me.

JENKINS: My pleasure.

GREENE: It's Keith Jenkins. He's in charge of Photography and Multimedia NPR. And he was introducing me to the new Lytro camera, which is available now. And if you want to play around with some of the photos that we took, you can go to our website,

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.