'Light field' camera lets you shoot first, focus later

The Lytro camera, developed by image scientist Ren Ng, captures light fields that are assembled into images later and could change how we take pictures.

It takes a lot to really wow me in the technology field these days, but a camera that handles all the focusing after you take the picture would qualify.

The Lytro Light Field Camera apparently can do just that. The digital cameras, which are on sale now for $399 and $499, depending on how much memory the unit has, is the brain child of image scientist Ren Ng, who wrote a doctoral thesis about how light fields could be captured and assembled into images later, essentially giving you infinite focusing capabilities after the fact.

The camera just needs to record the direction of light rays bouncing off of objects in the frame. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and the first camera was actually four desktop computers and a big grid that took up an entire wall, but that’s the general idea.

The camera today is tiny and looks kind of like one of those emergency flashlights you probably keep in your car or basement. It comes with an f/2 lens and no focus controls, though there is an 8X zoom.

Literally, you just point the camera at whatever you want, and push the shoot button. No need to worry about f-stop or shutter speed. In fact, the Lytro camera is supposed to work great in low-light conditions.

I’ve looked at pictures taken with the camera, and they are impressive. Even when looking at shots with an object in the foreground against a broad landscape, almost everything is in perfect focus. And if you would rather the flower in the foreground be in sharper focus than the mountains in the background, you can simply adjust the focus of the image, again, well after the fact.

The camera comes with a free desktop app for importing, processing and interacting with the images. It works with Mac OS X 10.6 or higher; the company is developing a Windows application.

I wish something like this existed back when I was a newspaper photographer. I was never very good at calculating the perfect camera settings on the fly, and would often miss a critical shot or have it come out too blurry to use, or with something perfectly in focus that was not the subject of the article while all else was a bit fuzzy. Just pointing a camera in the general direction of a shot and knowing that I could make sure that any element was in perfect focus later on would have been pretty amazing.

The only disadvantage right now is that the images produced, although completely in focus, are not the huge megapixel type some of us are used to seeing. The Lytro camera is the equivalent of a 2-megapixel digital camera. Given that 90 percent of pictures these days are displayed on the Web in 72 dpi, that’s probably not much of a hindrance, though Ng has said that his next efforts will be aimed at improving the resolution.

Of course, we will try to get one of the Lytro cameras into the lab for review. I’d like to see how well they do with moving images.

If it works as advertised, it opens up a lot of possibilities. Even the pictures people post on Facebook could be in focus.

And I wonder how this technology will be used in government circles. Surveillance of course could probably greatly benefit from something like this, especially if it could be ported over to full-motion-video cameras. Not having to worry about focusing and still capturing everything in front of a camera regardless of depth of field could be a huge advantage.

So Big Brother could certainly be watching, he just won’t worry about bringing you into focus until much later.

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