When the world’s first light-field camera, Lytro, launched in Australia last year it was immediately greeted with a slew of scathing reviews.
Review, after review warned consumers about replacing their regular camera with this device; some went as far as to embed this point in the very first sentence of their critique. For many, the product’s price tag didn’t justify its features. Being able to refocus a shot after the fact is a cool little trick but it wasn’t worth the $499 price tag.
It’s been over a year since Lytro's trial-by-fire and despite the criticism it's still alive and kicking, thanks to a pocket of enthusiasts within the global photography community. As seen on Lytro’s own online gallery, in the hands of a pro, you can do some incredible work with this nifty tool.
But Lytro isn’t satisfied with its niche appeal. The mass market beckons, and the company is pulling out all the tricks in the technology playbook to stand out from the rest of the pack.
While the core product - that funny-looking, eye-catching rectangular camera - hasn’t changed, the software surrounding the device has undergone numerous upgrades in the past year. The latest rendition of the Lytro operating system allows you to display images in 3D. It’s an obvious attempt to broaden the devices appeal beyond its fan-base. But will it work?
In short, no. It won’t. The 3D perk is another cool add-on, but it's not a reason to buy the camera. The devil you see is in the detail.
For this little trick to work you need three things: a pricey 3D-enabled TV, a PC and a means to display that PC on your TV. For our trial, we used an old MacBook Pro, a Samsung 3D TV and a Apple TV. Since we used an older MacBook, we also loaded an app called Air Parrot to enable screen mirroring between the TV and the PC.
Assuming you have all of this, and the time to fiddle around with it, the 3D effect is kind of cool. But it sadly pales in comparison to what you would see on a 3D enabled Blu-ray. Stereoscopic 3D simply looks better with moving images. It’s such a difference that it’s almost unfair to compare the two.
When you look at the rest of Lytro’s offering, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the camera as a mainstream device. The good news is, the device still has that (possibly intended) side-effect of making its wielder the center of attention at any given function or party. If you whip it out to take some photos, be prepared to explain why you're carrying around a camera shaped like an oversize lipstick case; particularly if you're sporting the red model.
When you're running around taking photos with the Lytro, it feels as if you're using a spy camera from the Bond series. In this sense, it's a joy to use. Its touch-screen options menu is easy to navigate and it takes good selfies too.
There’s nothing wrong with the use ability of the actual device.
Picture manager pain
But the real pain comes when you plug the camera into a PC and boot-up Lytro’s desktop picture manager. And it’s a shame, given that this camera sells itself on its post-shot prowess.
This software should be fluid, easy to use and quick. But it’s not. Uploading around 20 photos from the camera was painless, but converting them so you could slightly shift the perspective of the shot - another key feature of the Lytro camera - takes a good five minutes per shot. Try to do too many things at once on the Mac version of the Lytro Desktop manager, and it will simply crash, taking your photo editing progress with it.
And while your shots look impressive on that small 1.5 inch Lytro camera screen, unless you know what you're doing, they become pretty ugly on a 13-inch Mac - let alone a 50-inch Samsung TV. This further reinforces that this is not a point-and-click camera. Unless you’re willing to invest time into studying Lytro’s extensive set of video tutorials on how to use the device, then you may be better off snapping away with a regular camera.
This is Lytro’s major hurdle as a consumer-focused device, given that SLRs these days start at the same price as Lytro’s most basic camera.
It does however; give some smartphones a run for their money. To illustrate this point, I took two photos of the same bridge in Southbank, one with the Lytro and another with my 8-megapixel Samsung S4 Active. You can compare the pair below.
Perhaps the most painful point for Lytro is that as a device, with all the bells and whistles attached, it does have mainstream appeal. Consumers would more likely be willing to accept the camera’s quirks and its learning curve if it was cheaper.
Interestingly, Apple recently filed a patent for the similar line of technology to what’s seen in Lytro’s cameras. It even referenced Lytro’s solution in its patent application.
If Lytro can’t perfect its product for the mass market, I think we can all guess who will.