A Frustrating Week With The Lytro, The Camera That Might Still revolutionise Photography

Alyson Shontell/Business InsiderLast week I visited London and brought a Lytro camera to document the experience.

Lytro is a “light field” camera that promises to let users shoot now and focus later. The technology is so innovative, Steve Jobs met with Lytro’s founder before he died. He wanted to use it in iPhone cameras. Investors have given the two-year-old startup $50 million. 

For a photography novice like me, Lytro sounds great. You can have next-to-no skill and still manage to take good photos, because you can change the perspective afterward. When you take a good Lytro photo, the pictures seem to come alive. They shift focus from one object to another, pulling them forward or blurring them into the background. It can completely change the story a photo is telling. 

Skip To: Check out what Lytro’s living photos really look like >

The device is sleek and narrow. It looks like a kaleidoscope. The most expensive version is red, holds 16 GB of images, and retails for $499. It allows you to store 750 photos at once. The other models retail for $399 and let you store 350 photos. They come in electric blue, graphite, moxie pink and sea glass. 

Carrying a Lytro is like wearing Google Glass – you’re instantly the centre of attention. I was lent the red 16 GB camera and got looks whenever I pulled it out of my pocket. While going through security in Heathrow Airport, the man behind me asked, “How long have you had your Lytro?” He was a United employee from Houston who had read about it on a tech blog.

Others actually pointed and stared. Some asked to try the camera themselves. The cameras are sold on Lytro’s website, Amazon, Best Buy and Target, but it isn’t currently available in London. 

I trekked all over East London with the Lytro, then over to some major attractions: Buckingham Palace, The London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, The Shard and London Bridge. The Lytro was more convenient than my company’s DSLR, which is bulky, heavy, and retails for a similar price.

It’s easier to take photos with, too. There are only two buttons: an on/off switch on the bottom near a hidden USB port, and a shutter button on top. The top also has a thin ridged surface. Stroking left to right will let you zoom in, right to left lets you zoom out.

Lytro’s head of photography, who lent us the camera, admits the screen on the camera could be better. It’s hard to see a clear image of what you’ve just taken because the screen is small and pixelated. And it’s difficult to view in the sun. But it’s a touch screen, so you can tap to zoom or trash an image, swipe to review old photos, and star your favourites. You can also switch camera modes from the default setting, which is better for distance shots, to “creative”, which is better for close-ups.

lytro desktop

Once you upload all of the photos, you can add special effects like filters, then process them. Processing photos takes a very long time. The Lytro desktop application crashed multiple times before all 150+ photos could be uploaded to my online gallery.

Once the photos are in your online gallery, you can share them to social media sites, some of which keep Lytro’s instant perspective shift and refocusing features. Facebook, for example, does this. You can also embed Lytro photos in web pages because they’re iframes, so others can play with the photos too.

Most of my Lytro photos ended up being a disappointment. I was warned to practice taking photos before I took London, so the blame could be mine for not learning all of Lytro’s tricks. But out of the 150+ photos I took, less than five display Lytro’s technology well. I’m much happier with the DSLR photos. They’re at least clear, while Lytro’s are blurry and don’t show much depth. 

Lytro would be a better if you could apply filters to photos once they’re uploaded online, so you don’t have to take time editing on your desktop, then re-processing the image. It also would work best as a mobile app, like Instagram.

So while we like what Steve Jobs had in mind with Lytro and the technology has a lot of promise, the current camera isn’t worth the steep price tag until a few more of the kinks are worked out. 

At least for photography novices, like me.

Waiting for the Heathrow Express to take me into downtown London/Paddington. Click on the red light at the end of the tunnel to make it more clear, or the ad on the left to make it more readable.

I thought for sure this picture of my hotel's courtyard would make a great Lytro photo. It has tons of layers to click on and depth of field. But when you click around, there aren't many visible changes in focus.

This one of the lights in the hotel hallway works well. Click on the first light fixture, then on the back wall with words on it.

Here's another of a dinner menu at London's Duck & Waffle. Click on each section to read the different items.

But this one i took with the DSLR camera is more clear (and it allows you to take photos that aren't a square).

Here's a Lytro of the London Eye. Click on the red car, then on the branches for the most obvious change in focus.

Here's a shot with a regular DSLR camera.

Here's a Lytro of trees in St. James Park. You can get a little more branch detail by clicking around.

But you arguably get more detail with the DSLR photo, here.

With the Lytro, this shot of Buckingham Palace becomes more interesting. Click on the bars, and the palace gets pushed into the distance. Click on the palace and the bars become insignificant.

My final stop in London was Warner Brothers' Harry Potter Studios, where much of the seven movies were filmed. If you click on the left corner, Dobby is out of focus. If you click on Dobby, he becomes front and centre.

All in, the Lytro camera is fun to use and be seen with. But if you aren't a professional photographer (or even if you are), it's a hefty price to pay for a product that still has kinks to work out. For another product review, check out

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