Some gadgets aren't made to replace what's come before, but point the way to something new. To refocus you on new ideas and perspectives.
The Lytro - a unique, attractive, totally mad and fairly expensive new camera - takes that task extremely literally. And extremely seriously.
The pitch is simple. Unlike normal cameras, where point of focus and perspective are determined before you press the shutter, the Lytro instead captures all of the available light, plus data on its direction, intensity and colour, and then allows you - and anyone you share the image with - to change how it looks things later.
By use of a simple and robust mobile, desktop and web interface you can upload and share these 'Living' pictures online, and export them as standard images, GIFs and other formats. Pictures automatically allow users to point and click to refocus the picture, and by processing them through the app you can add a strange 'Perspective Shift' effects that means you can drag around the image as if it's fully 3D.
The effect, when its done right, is astonishing:
But that's also the problem. Because unlike modern traditional cameras, which make bad photographers look good, the Lytro is an uncompromising tool. It is difficult to master and comes with its own set of rules. For the first hundred or so images - literally - you'll be retraining your brain to shoot in 3D, to look for interesting depth of field compositions and varied shapes.
Then, once you've worked out what to shoot, you need to actually use the camera. The interface is incredibly simple, but fiddly. There is a single button to shoot, a small touchscreen interface that lets you preview images, a regular and 'creative' mode and an 8x zoom controlled by a touch-sensitive strip on the top of the square, odd-looking case. It's unfamiliar, and occasionally counter-intuitive. It's also hard to tell the good images from the bad until you upload them, which can take a while.
You're also limited by the hardware, which shoots in 11MP but can produce only 1.2MP Jpegs. Images are usually quite soft, can be difficult to control highlights and shadows, and don't always come out as you'd expect. There's also no flash, so an understanding of lighting is a must.
Finally, there's the cost. If this was a £100 impulse buy, we'd recommend it heartily. At £399 for 8GB and £469 for 16GB it's a different story. This really is one for experimenters, 'creatives' (sigh) and gadget freaks right now.
But all that said, we're really tempted to get one - because it takes photography to genuinely new places, and breaks new ground. In a world where Instagram, Facebook and Flickr have reduced photography to endless reams of standard, filtered, perfect images, the Lytro enables you to do something inexact, imperfect but inspirational.
As long as that's how you look at it, this is a great early stab at an idea that's just going to get better.
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