Light Field Photography

4 minute read

by Jon

August 28, 2017

*Note* – Lytro was purchased by Google and subsequently disabled their web viewer and gallery. Unfortunately, it’s no longer easy to post and share light field images, and the images included in this post have been removed.

Looking to photography for the future of video

As a cinematographer, it’s my job to stay on the leading edge of camera technology. Light field photography and video have the potential to change the way we tell stories. Consumer light field video is a long way off, but light field still photography gets more accessible every day. I’ve been experimenting with the Lytro Illum camera, and finally have enough experience to share some of what I’ve learned.

Click or touch around and get a sense for what is possible with light field photography. 

First things first, don’t expect to get amazing results out of any new camera on your first try.  This is the kind of camera you’ll want to spend a week with, before you take it out for anything serious. After a few days of some very questionable photos, I felt comfortable enough to put the camera through its paces and figure out its limits.

As a traditional camera, it feels like a dinosaur. If all you’re doing is making prints, it’s in line with digital cameras a dozen years older. But prints are not what light field photography is about. Much like a RAW image file lets us recover data that isn’t part of a JPG file, light field photography captures far more than a single 2D image. This lets us create subtle perspective shifts, make significant focus adjustments, and still have all the white balance and exposure controls available in RAW files.

Taking light field photographs is a very different experience than traditional photography. With a classic camera, we can take a portrait in front of a flaming trash pile and make it a beautiful blurry blob. Light field cameras capture every piece of fiery garbage. Trying to hide an exit sign behind your subject’s head? That’s not easy anymore, since the viewer can shift perspective. Instead of using techniques to add dimension to a flat photograph, we’re capturing part of the 3D world.

Effective light field photography uses multiple planes of depth.

Light field takes a significant amount of processing power. The Illum camera’s has relatively limited post-processing onboard. In-camera previews show quite a bit of artifacting. The camera takes quite a few shortcuts to make the images interactive on the touchscreen. Sharing files requires processing them on a computer first.

The Illum is really only effective at ISOs around 80-200. Anything higher and noise takes over. Lytro measures resolution in “megarays.” Since the camera captures 3D information, megapixels isn’t really an accurate way to think about resolution. The fairest way I can figure to measure the Illum’s resolution is 2460 x 1634 x 10. The ten “stacked” pixels capture depth data.

In terms of resolution, sensitivity, and cost, we’ll probably see light-field technology staying 10-15 years behind mainstream photos and video, at least for the foreseeable future. Star Wars Episode II, the first Hollywood blockbuster shot on digital, was released in 2002. It seems very likely we’ll see a Hollywood feature film shot primarily with light field in the next few years.

Lytro has been working on a cinema camera that is changing the way we create visual effects, as well as stereoscopic 3D capture. Right now, it takes a stack of servers on set to process the video quickly. Hopefully, with time, we’ll see processing get a lot easier. Moore’s law might not be enough to bring live light-field video to a handheld camera any time soon, though.

How do you see light-field photography changing the way we shoot video? What are you experiences with Lytro cameras? Let me know in the comments!