Local company promises to change photography

Lytro's camera captures images that can be retroactively focused

Taking pictures will never be the same. At least according to Ren Ng, founder of the Mountain View-based Lytro -- a photo-tech company that has produced a camera that will allow users to capture clear images in low-light environments without the aid of flash, retroactively focus pictures, and display their snapshots in three dimensions.

According to Kira Wampler, vice president of marketing for Lytro, her company's camera represents a paradigm shift in photographic technology -- the most significant development since the transition from film to digital, she says.

"This is unlocking a huge amount of creative and artistic potential," Wampler says. "You can do things (with Lytro) that are impossible with conventional cameras."

Any shutterbug that has every used a point-and-shoot digital camera will likely appreciate the capabilities Wampler says the Lytro camera will have. Because the images captured by the camera may be focused after they have been shot, the Lytro has no need for the auto-focus feature, which can often focus on the wrong object within a given frame.

The Lytro, Wampler says, is ready to shoot the instant it is turned on.

And because the Lytro uses all the available light in what is known as the "light field," users can take photos in dim rooms without turning on the flash -- thus avoiding harsh, washed-out tones and the demonic red eyes that sometimes occur.

The science

"A conventional camera today only captures a plane of the light, which means that your pictures are static and they're sort of frozen at that moment," Wampler explains. "When you take a light field picture, you capture the entire light field -- you get all of the light traveling in every direction in every dimension in every point in space."

Ng, creator of the technology behind Lytro, holds a doctorate in computer science from Stanford, and has been studying what is known as the "light field" for more than six years.

The light field is not a new concept. Scientists have been studying the light field -- defined as "all of the light traveling in every direction through a scene, from the foreground to the background and everything in between" -- for more than a century.

Ng's big accomplishment, according to Wampler, is his development of a miniature "light field sensor," small enough to fit inside a point-and-shoot camera. Previously, light field cameras have consisted of hundreds of cameras all tethered together and coordinated by computers.

The images taken with the Lytro will be stored in a proprietary file format that will allow users to refocus the images on most computers without having to download any supplemental software.

Ethical questions

Yet, for everything the science behind the Lytro camera promises, it may also portend ethical questions for photojournalists.

"This could put journalism into an interesting position," said Kim Komenich, assistant professor for new media at San Jose State University.

Komenich, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has photographed for the Contra Costa Times, San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, says that while he is unfamiliar with the technology, he feels that "it's definitely going to challenge the ethics" of journalists who use it.

Wampler believes that the technology shouldn't pose an ethical dilemma, however.

"We're not manipulating anything that's not real and that's not already there," she says. "When you refocus a picture you're refocusing the data that the camera already captured. You're just changing the focal point. You're not changing the story in the picture."

Komenich says he will have to see the camera in action before he makes up his mind. "In a way, this could be quite welcome," he says of the technology.

Wampler says the first Lytro cameras will be available to consumers later this year.


Like this comment
Posted by Mimi
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 6, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Congratulations, Lytro, and welcome to Mountain View! I read about you last week in the NY Times. You're sure to be a success. Best of luck in your exciting venture.

Like this comment
Posted by tooMuch
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 6, 2011 at 10:36 pm

I'm rooting for this, but fear the resolution loss will outweigh the benefit of refocus. For a few images, it is fairly easy to apply blur in photoshop anyway... best application would be for HDSLR where the sheer number of frames precludes PS blur in post.

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