Later this year Lytro, a start up company based in Silicon Valley, will be introducing a pocket sized, consumer priced light field camera to the market. Before getting into the science of all this, here’s why you might care. This camera will allow you to focus and slightly shift the orientation of your image in post production. You will also be able to make 3D images if you have the screen and specs for it. The flexibility of these images after the fact is unmatched in any current RAW processing, creating what Ren Ng, the founder and CEO of Lytro, is calling a “Living Image”.
For those of us (me included until recently) who are unfamiliar with light field technology, here is a brief explanation. Light fields are functions that describe every point of light and its direction in a given space. In other words,while a traditional image records a space by flattening it to two dimensions, a light field is a record of the third dimension, the direction the light bouncing from an object travels to get to the viewer. Light field cameras then, have the difficult task of recording information that it would take a hundred normal cameras placed all over the room to record and a team of people to make sense of the overwhelming amount of data. Actually that is how they used to record light fields- a hundred or so cameras placed all over a room, taking in all the light from all different angles. Lytro’s camera substitutes all those lenses with a microlens array that sits in front of a light field sensor (a sensor made to read the direction of light as well as its color and intensity). And that team of people? Lytro’s camera doesn’t need a team of people or the fine tuned hardware traditional cameras rely on to suss out fantastic images. Nearly all the combining and refining of this raw data into a “living image” is done with very sophisticated software inside of the camera.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered before we hail the dawn of a new era in photography, like cost, resolution, and compatibility with already established photo editing software. Hopefully it can live up to the hype.