Light field cameras may revolutionise photography

A new company called Lytro has announced that it will soon introduce consumer cameras that will forever change the way we create and view digital photography.

The company's forthcoming cameras utilise Light Field Photography (LFP) which is based on existing technology but unil now this been confined to laboratories, as it uses large arrays of expensive DSLR cameras attached to some pretty hefty computing power.

Lytro's founder and CEO Ren Ng unveiled plans today to bring a distillation of that technology into the consumer camera space.

For those of you willing to dig deeper into the technology, Ng's 200 page dissertation on LFP offers an insight into the complexity of the idea, but for those of you with a shorter attention span we'll try to simplify.

Depth of field 101
A camera's ability to keep some subjects in focus while throwing others into the realms of blurriness may seem like a hindrance on the surface, but manipulating depth of field is also a massive part of the creative process of photography.

Modern point-and-shoot cameras will make a decent fist of getting everything in a scene pin sharp, but there's always a trade-off between the amount of an image which remains in focus against shutter speed and aperture size.

In order to get distant objects in focus the hole in the lens (aperture) needs to be closed down which lets in less light. Less light means you need to keep the shutter open for longer which in turn means anything moving will be blurry.

Here are three snaps of the same subjects demonstrating different focus fields.

In the first pic the robot is in sharp focus but the dinosaur and the dog are blurred

Setting the camera's focus on the dinosaur throws the dog and the mechanoid into blursville.

And when it's our canine friend's time to shine, both of his inanimate companions pay the price.

It's an example of the common problems with depth of field which the new technology purports to eradicate.

Lytro says it has completed the job of a century's worth of theory and exploration of light fields, and that its engineers and scientists have taken a roomful of cameras and computers and miniaturised them so that they will fit in your pocket.

Traditional photography doesn't need bigger sensors
With advances in sensor technology, we're getting to the point where even basic phones and consumer cameras are being built with sensors which go way beyond what is needed for most casual camera users.

In real terms, anything beyond ten megapixels is wasted on the majority of snappers as they are highly unlikely to print anything bigger than A3 size, and most images never make it beyond the confines of the computer or TV screen.

Sensor technology is getting to the point where sensors capable of capturing upwards of 100 megapixels will soon be commonplace, and Lytro's LFP technology is set to make use of more of those pixels in a revolutionary way.

Traditional digital cameras use a single sensor to capture a single image, which represents just a small slice of the entire light field available.

Lytro has developed a way to place an array of tiny micro-lenses in front of these sensors which captures multiple version of the same image with varying focal points on different areas of the digital film plane.

It's not clear exactly how many separate images, which are manipulated by PC software using ray tracing technology to create Adobe Flash files, are created but we have discovered some of the samples provided by Lytros contain up to five distinct focal fields.

According to the company, "The light field is a core concept in imaging science, representing fundamentally more powerful data than in regular photographs. The light field fully defines how a scene appears. It is the amount of light travelling in every direction through every point in space – it’s all the light rays in a scene. Conventional cameras cannot record the light field."

The company's innovative Light Field Sensor captures the colour, intensity and vector direction of every ray of light going way beyond the capabilities of traditional photography enabling the technology's party piece of being able to reset the focal point of a composite image after it has been taken.

Sharing even the largest sensors available today will mean that the resultant images will be limited in size, but as sensors get larger and larger this will become less on an issue.

We also suspect that there will be other caveats when it comes to low light levels and fast-moving subjects. Of the dozens of sample images available in Lytro's time-sucking picture gallery (not suitable for work if you want to get anything done for the next hour or so) not one is taken in a poorly-lit situation and very few show anything other than entirely static subjects.

Having said that, there's no doubt that Ng and his colleagues have a refreshing new take on photography on their hands with their Living Pictures and we can't wait to see how the technology evolves over the coming months.

There are currently no images of the actual hardware available, and no indication of how much such a beast will cost, but the Lytro web site is peppered with references to how the cameras, which are due to arrive 'this year' will be 'pocketable' and 'for everyone'.

We'll certainly be first in the queue and you can join up by reserving a camera on the site.

But we'll leave the last word to Ng: "Our mission is to change photography forever, making conventional cameras a thing of the past. Humans have always had a fundamental need to share our stories visually, and from cave paintings to digital cameras we have been on a long search for ways to make a better picture.

"Light field cameras are the next big step in that picture revolution."