Photography has evolved a great deal since the 1800s: from metal plates to paper, from black-and-white to color, from film to digital. But the process has never changed: aim, focus, shoot.
Two years ago, a startup company called Lytro came up with a way to change that sequence. Its $400 camera let you aim, shoot — and then focus, after you’d taken the shot. Once the picture was on your computer, you could adjust which parts were sharp and which were blurry.
People viewing the photos could change the focus, too. So you could post a picture online — on Facebook, let’s say — and then followers could play around with your “living picture,” focusing on different elements by clicking.
Here, try it yourself. Click the background. Then click the foreground.
Refocusing after the fact was a revolutionary idea; the Lytro camera was showered with awards, headlines, and hype. (Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of how it works.)
After many delays, the Lytro camera finally came to market in 2012. We’ve established that it was a technical breakthrough, right? Well, in the market, it sank like a stone.
Time to refocus this product.
In two years, I’ve never seen a single person using a Lytro camera. And I’ve never seen a single refocusable picture on Facebook or Twitter.
There were so many problems with the first Lytro. You couldn’t swap the batteries. You couldn’t swap the memory card. You couldn’t record video. The print resolution was only 1.2 megapixels. The camera’s viewscreen was tiny and coarse.
Above all, the public had trouble seeing the Lytro trick as more than a parlor stunt. It’s cool that you can sharpen the background of a photo as you blur the subject — but why would you? Most of the time, isn’t a photo supposed to be a picture of something? When would you want anything but the subject to be in focus?
Lytro licked its wounds and returned to the lab. Now, two years later, it’s back with another model, called the Lytro Illum (“il-LOOM”). The minute you see this thing, you know that Lytro has been doing a lot more refocusing — and, this time, it has refocused the whole purpose of its existence.
Meet the Illum
This camera is big (3.4 × 5.7 × 6.5 inches), heavy (2 pounds), and expensive ($1,600). But, otherwise, every aspect of it is an improvement over the original.