In case you missed it last week, Lytro, a Silicon Valley startup, gave the first public demonstrations of its ultracompact camera that uses a technology called light-field photography. Without getting bogged down in the science of it, the technology allows the camera to shoot instantly without the need to focus first.
Shooting performance is definitely a stumbling block for point-and-shoot cameras, so eliminating that from the equation is certainly a selling point, even at the camera's high starting price of $399. What you get after you shoot, though, is not a standard photo. Instead, you get what Lytro calls living pictures that allow you to refocus the image over and over again using Lytro's software.
So, while this technology is undoubtedly cool, the Lytro camera might just be too limiting for its own good. Before you get out your credit card for the preorder, here are some things to consider.
All you can do is point and shoot
Before you start tearing into me, I get that quick-and-easy shooting is what this camera is all about. All the reports are true: this camera has no settings for anything. You can adjust exposure by tapping on the touch screen, but that's it. So, yes, if you don't like that, don't buy it.
Now, while I have no problem with the lack of control over photos while shooting, I do have issues with what comes after you shoot.
You can't do much editing to the living pictures
It's great that the Lytro shoots so fast and you don't have to worry about focus. However, to do anything other than poke around changing focus (which could get old, fast), you have to convert it to a lifeless, tiny 1,080x1,080-pixel-resolution JPEG (that's roughly 1.2 megapixels, folks). The desktop software is only for transferring and processing photos, adding captions, rotating pictures, sharing directly to Facebook, and sharing or storing on Lytro.com. You cannot adjust color or exposure, or use your favorite lo-fi filters, or even turn a shot to black and white.
And you can forget about cropping out unwanted people or things. I got word from Lytro that you will be able to crop when the camera comes out in early 2012. Other editing tools are planned, but this post is about what it'll do when the Lytro is first available, not down the road. Which brings me to something else you should consider.
It relies heavily on software
One of Lytro's big selling points for its first cameras is that they substitute "powerful software for many of the internal parts of regular cameras." It's this, according to Lytro, that gives it faster performance and potentially good low-light photo quality. That's the good part of the software. The bad part is, again, what comes after. You need to offload your photos to a computer--which is Mac-only at launch--and process your photos with the included software. Want to share your living photos on Facebook or anywhere else? You need to upload them to Lytro's Web site first and then do your sharing from there.
The lack of Windows support at launch is funny after years and years of it being the other way around. If you're a Windows user and don't have regular access to a Mac system, I'd hold off till the Windows desktop software is actually available. Lytro's site says it'll be a decent wait till it's available "sometime in 2012." (After writing this post, Lytro updated its site to read "Lytro Desktop for Windows will be available in early 2012.") If you choose to ignore this, just be aware that your photos will be trapped on the camera until the Windows version arrives or you buy/borrow a Mac.
Oh, and to answer a question I saw asked several times in comments, you currently cannot have everything in focus. Lytro's FAQ answers this with, "It's definitely possible with the technology; stay tuned!" And that's really the take-away with the Lytro: it might maybe do what you want someday, but the software is still being worked on.
The Lytro suffers from the same thing that's killing off portions of the point-and-shoot market: there's no fast and easy way to wirelessly get your photos off the camera and onto a sharing site. At least with a regular camera--assuming you have one that doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi--you have the option to use an Eye-Fi wireless SD card for transfers to your computer, smartphone, or tablet.
But since the Lytro's storage isn't removable, you can't use one of those, and you can't just pop out a card and stick it in a reader. You have to grab a USB cable, connect to a computer, process your shots with the desktop software, and upload them to Lytro's site before you can share them.
There's really not much to say about this beyond the fact that people like to capture movie clips and a $399 camera that doesn't do that seems silly. You could argue that people considering this camera likely already have a smartphone that can do video. But that kind of just proves why those people don't really need this. A smartphone's camera has more functionality than the Lytro camera, with the exception of its zoom lens. No, you won't be able to create living pictures, but is that enough?
There are a few other things I could nitpick on, such as the design being ergonomically weird for photography, as well as fairly inconvenient for sticking in a pants pocket. But, as I said up top, the technology is definitely cool and I can see the potential. And a small camera that turns on and shoots instantly and doesn't need to focus is great. You'll catch your dog leaping in midair to catch a Frisbee, your baby's smile, or some other fleeting moment that a traditional point-and-shoot can't.
Plus, when you're tired of looking at your kid, you'll be able to refocus on other things in the photo like a really pretty tree or something.
Editors' note: This post was updated October 28, 2011, with new information about the availability of Windows software for the Lytro camera as well as the photo-editing capabilities of the software when the camera is available in "early 2012." For more information on the Lytro camera capabilities, check out its support pages.