New Focus-Later Camera: Good for Photographs, Bad for Photography

Slate's Culture Blog
June 22 2011 4:34 PM

New Focus-Later Camera: Good for Photographs, Bad for Photography

Imagine being able to point your camera and, with a single click of the shutter, take thousands of pictures simultaneously with thousands of separate cameras. That's the basic idea behind Lytro's new "light field camera." Whereas a regular digital camera has a single sensor that captures the light that reaches its lens, Lytro's camera is built with an array of small sensors which capture the entire light field of the photo--the upshot being that you can refocus on anyobject in the photo after the fact, using special software on your computer.

Youcan even go into 3-D space and change the orientation and perspective of theimage, as Lytro founder Ren Ng demonstrates in this All Things D piece by Ina Fried.

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There's nothing new about light field technology: It wasused over 10 years ago in this bullet time scene from the first installment of the Matrix series. What is incredible, however, is that Ren Ng and his team plan to sell a competitively priced point-and-shoot camera with this technology later this year. They've already garnered $50 million in funding, as the New York Times reports today.

Most people I know use point-and-shoots to simply document birthdays, graduations, and other social events to share with friends and family. Their photos are often out of focus or taken at an odd angle, and Lytro's camera will offer all these amateurs an easy-to-use solution for their bad photos.

However, as a photographer and videographer, I get excited when people want to actually learn how to take photos or shoot video. The idea that this camera allows you to shoot now and think later goes against the very core of why I take photos.

Over the years, I've developed a close relationship with my viewfinder and I've learned to not only focus on subjects, but also to deal with different lighting conditions and compose my shots precisely. Focusing is only one aspect of photography, and it alone won't make you a good photographer. Failure has made me a better photographer, and I worry that by making the process too easy, Lytro's camera will only further discourage people from really educating themselves about their equipment.

In Lytro's photo gallery, you can click through myriad well-cropped, well-composed "living pictures." If you want your photos to look as good as these, the focus-later option won't be enough--you still need to learn how to find the right angle and wait for the right moment to click the shutter. In other words, you need to learn how to take photos. Though I think Lytro's light field camera is a breakthrough in the point-and-shoot market, ultimately there's more to photography than focus.

Krishnan Vasudevan is a regular video contributor to Slate. Follow him on Twitter.

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