Back in October 2011, Lytro announced its intention to transform photography with its first Light Field camera. By measuring the angle at which light rays hit the sensor, as well as their intensity, the company promised the ability to refocus images after shooting. The company coined the term ‘Living Images’ to describe this ability to explore depth and focus.

Unfortunately, the first Lytro camera looked more like a toy than a tool, and at £400 was pretty expensive for a product that promised to solve the ‘problem’ of focusing for consumers – especially as even the cheapest digital compact cameras have pretty sophisticated and accurate autofocus systems anyway. Its image quality wasn’t up to much either, so the camera garnered little interest among buyers, despite its undoubted technical cleverness.

What the first model did provide, though, was proof of concept: it genuinely produced images that could be refocused after shooting. Now Lytro is back with a completely different product, aimed at a very different target market and with a price to match. At a penny under £1,300, the unusually designed Illum is being put forward as a serious creative tool for professional and enthusiast photographers.

It’s pretty important to understand, however, that Lytro doesn’t want you to replace your existing camera with an Illum. Instead it’s positioned as a rather different kind of tool – one that can complement a conventional camera, rather than replace it. It’s still offering images that can be refocused after the event, but now this isn’t necessarily being proposed purely as a ‘fix’ for autofocus. In fact, as the image can only be refocused within certain bounds, the lens does still have to be focused almost as usual.

Lytro Illum Rear view

Lytro Illum Rear view

What the Illum offers is the ability to manipulate focus, depth of field, and even perspective (to a degree), after the image has been taken. This is all done using the supplied software, which is available for both Mac and Windows computers. It doesn’t just generate stills as output either; it can also be used to create animations that explore the depth properties of the subject, with smooth transitions between focus planes and different depths of field. Indeed, some of the effects it is capable of producing from a single exposure seem, at first sight, to be impossible.

It’s pretty clear that with these abilities, Lytro sees the Illum as a unique creative tool in its own right – a way of making and manipulating images that’s completely new and different to anything else on the market. After some time using the camera, I’m beginning to think that the company may have a point.

Lytro Illum review – Design and operation


Lytro Illum top view

From the moment you first lay eyes on the Illum, it’s clear that this is something really quite different. Industrial design is often as much about conveying a message as anything else, and in this case the point is clear. With its prominent lens section and handgrip, and matt black finish, Lytro is saying that this is a serious camera. But the futuristic shape, and especially the angled body and handgrip, is very carefully making another statement. Yes, this is a camera, but it’s quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. It looks like it’s been borrowed from a science-fiction film, and that’s probably no coincidence.

The lens and sensor are housed within a large cylindrical structure that dominates the design, fully 8.5cm in diameter and 11.5cm in length. Zoom and focus are controlled by large rubberised grips around this barrel, and both operate internally, meaning the lens never extends during operation. The zoom covers a useful 30-250mm equivalent range, and has a fixed f/2 aperture. Not just a fixed maximum aperture – every single image is taken at f/2.

Lytro Illum f/2 lens

The f/2 lens can give shallow depth of field effects, and this shot can be refocused from foreground to the background

The lens projects images onto a 1/1.2in CMOS sensor that captures 40 ‘megarays’ of information. As well as the usual colour and spatial information about where the light is hitting the sensor, it records angular information describing from where exactly it has exited the rear of the lens. From this extra information the camera can reconstruct the path the light took through the lens, allowing it to produce a ‘depth map’ of the image, essentially a three-dimensional model of the subject (or at least those parts of it the lens can see).

The camera outputs image files purely in Lytro’s proprietary raw (LFR) format. It doesn’t record JPEGs – that would somewhat miss the point – and the camera isn’t capable of movie recording. A sensitivity range of ISO 80-3200 is offered.

The wedge-shaped body is perhaps something of a styling affectation, but I found it surprisingly comfortable to hold thanks to the large rubberised handgrip. The angled back encourages you to shoot at waist level using the tilting screen, giving a more stable hold. The design is a bit less successful when shooting in portrait format, but you can at least tilt the screen back so it’s square with the lens.

The external controls are pretty minimal, and generally quite conventional. The camera has twin control dials, front and rear, to change the exposure settings; as the aperture is fixed these are limited to shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation. The available exposure modes reflect this – the camera offers program, ISO priority, shutter priority and manual. This seems odd at first, but I found it easy enough to get to grips with.

Lytro Illum back view

Lytro Illum back view

The back of the camera has a cluster of four buttons. The one top-left activates autofocus, and beside it is a fairly conventional auto-exposure lock button. Beneath it is one marked with an infinity symbol that sets the lens to its hyperfocal distance. The fourth button is customisable to the user’s preference, and can be used to change exposure mode or access playback mode, for example.

On the top-plate there’s a power button, a conventional shutter button, and beside it the unique Lytro button. This changes the display mode to assist with focusing, using the depth information supplied by the sensor to give a multi-coloured focus peaking display. This outlines edges and colours them according to where they will fall within the potential depth of field – ranging from blue towards the front, and to red towards the rear. Beside the preview image the camera displays a clever distance histogram; this show how objects within the frame are distributed in terms of focus distance, and how much (if any) will fall outside of the refocusable range.

Lytro Illum focusing screenshot

The distance histogram shows which areas fall within the refocusable range

I found these displays to be a huge help when composing images, allowing me to gauge the range of refocusing available for any given image. This is really important, as there’s no point in shooting refocusable images if there’s only one real plane of interest in the frame. With the Illum, you therefore have to consciously set up your shots to take advantage of its abilities.

The rest of the camera’s operation is controlled using the large 4in tilting touchscreen. This provides a second access point to exposure settings, and also allows you to change a range of other options via a scrollable strip of short-cut buttons on the right side of the display. Some of these are toggles that change settings simply by being touched, which means it’s all too easy to find you’ve inadvertently switched to the wrong mode – to self-timer or manual focus, for example.

Once you’ve taken a picture, swiping right on the screen enters playback mode. Here you can tap different areas of the image and watch them come into focus, as if by magic.

Lytro Illum review – Lytro Desktop software

Desktop software screenshot

The Lytro Desktop software allows refocusing by clicking on the image, and has an aperture slider to manipulate depth of field

Of course, there’s not a lot of point in having these Living Images if you can’t do anything with them, and this is where the Lytro Desktop software comes in. It imports the camera’s huge LFR raw files – 55MB a shot – and converts them to something that can be viewed and shared.

The software has conventional processing controls such as exposure, white balance, and shadow and highlight adjustments. But crucially, it also offers refocusing and depth-of-field controls. You can focus on any subject in the frame simply by clicking on it, and move an aperture slider from f/1 to f/16, watching more and more of the scene come into focus as you do so. It’s even possible to emulate the effects of a tilt lens, making a focus plane that’s not parallel with the sensor. Needless to say, this is all very impressive, especially the first couple of times you use it.

Eventually, of course, you become used to all this technical wizardry and have to start trying to do something practical with your images. Here you get several choices. Still images can be output at 4-million-pixel resolution, and you can also create stereoscopic pairs in the JPS format, if that’s your thing. The LFR files can then be uploaded to Lytro’s website with your exposure and colour adjustments intact, where users can explore their depth by clicking on the various planes of focus.

Perhaps most interestingly, though, it is possible to create animated videos that explore the depth of your pictures in detail. You can create keyframes with different focus points, and apply a variety of preset transitions between them. At the moment you don’t get as much control over this process as I’d personally like, but with the right images, these animations can be very effective indeed.

Example animations

This animation pulls focus from the background building to the foreground rose, while zooming out of the scene.

In this animation, the depth of field increases to bring the background into focus (equivalent to stopping down the aperture), while zooming back as well.

In this animation, focus is pulled smoothly form the foreground to the background, while zooming in. This gives the impression of flying across the Thames towards St Paul’s Cathedral.

This animation of our specially-prepared still life set-up uses the ‘Wave’ preset in the Lytro Desktop Software, pulling focus from background to foreground and varying the perspective in the process.

Here focus is pulled from the middle distance to the foreground, with perspective changes along the way. At the end, the depth of field is increased, simulating stopping down the lens.

In this final example, focus is pulled from the foreground to the background, and the depth of field increased at the end.

Remember, all of these animations have been made by software manipulation of a single Raw image file from the Lytro Illum. The technology is very impressive indeed, and while some image artefacts become visible if you look closely, the overall effect is pretty convincing.

Software performance

One drawback right now is the sheer amount of time needed by the Lytro Desktop software merely to import your files, or output them to easily viewable formats. On a high-end MacBook Pro dedicated to running the software, I found it took 8mins to import just 24 image files using the internal SD card reader. Extrapolate this to a not especially intensive shooting session of 100 images and you’re looking at half an hour just for import. This is on a fast computer; using a mid-range ultrabook running Windows 8.1, it took me more than 38mins simply to copy and process the same 24 raw files off an SD card, and over 1min to output a 4-million-pixel JPEG still. It’s difficult to see many photographers finding this entirely acceptable.

Lytro Illum review – Image quality

All this is great, but what about image quality? Well, to be honest, as a £1,300 stills camera, the Illum isn’t great. It may collect 40 megarays of information, but only a small subset of this data is used for any given image. The upshot is that the software only creates 4-million-pixel images, and these aren’t even technically all that good, with little in the way of fine detail and a tendency to show some rather strange processing artefacts. The files are fine for small prints, up to 7x5in perhaps, but beyond that the lack of quality starts to tell.

However, at this point we’d re-iterate that making still images from the Illum really isn’t the point – the camera is all about making ‘Living Images’ or animations.

ISO settings, detail and noise

The Illum is ultimately a camera, which means we have to assess its image quality. Below we’re showing examples printed at 300ppi, equivalent to an 8.2 x 5.5in print.

Even at low ISOs there’s not a lot of fine detail, and the image can show strange jaggies along straight edges. Noise is becoming quite visible at ISO 800, and shadow detail starts to disappear at ISO 1600. The ISO 3200 setting really isn’t very good at all.

Lytro Illum ISO 80

ISO 80: 100% crop

See the full size image at ISO 80

Lytro Illum ISO 100

ISO 100: 100% crop

See the full size image at ISO 100

Lytro Illum ISO 200-01

ISO 200: 100% crop

See the full size image at ISO 200

Lytro Illum ISO 400

ISO 400: 100% crop

See the full size image at ISO 400

Lytro Illum ISO 800

ISO 800: 100% crop

See the full size image at ISO 800

Lytro Illum - ISO 1600

ISO 1600: 100% crop

See the full size image at ISO1600

Lytro Illum - ISO 3200

ISO 3200: 100% crop

See the full size image at ISO 3200

Lytro Illum review – Focus

The Lytro Desktop software allows you to refocus the image, simply by clicking on any area of the scene you want to appear sharp. In the example below, I’ve developed three still images from a single raw file, each of which is focused at different depths within the scene.

The image can’t be freely refocused from close-up to infinity, but instead only within a particular depth of field equivalent, stopping the lens down to f/16. It’s therefore imperative to focus carefully using the depth histogram.

While here I’ve demonstrated refocusing to different depths in a still life,  this approach can be used with erratically moving subjects. So long as they fall within the refocusable depth, they can be brought into selective focus.

Lytro Illum f1 background

F1, focused on background

Lytro Illum F1 mid

F1, focused in middle

Lytro Illum F1 front

F1, focused on foreground

Lytro Illum review – Depth of field

The software’s second big trick is to be able to adjust the image’s depth of field using an aperture slider. This offers settings from f/1 to f/16 – despite the camera only having an f/2 lens. As you increase the f-number the depth of field increases, just as you’re used to seeing from a conventional camera.

As you can see from the sequence below, this genuinely works. I’ve developed the same file at f/1, f/2 and f/16, with the depth of field increasing visibly through them even at this rather small print size.

The ‘Virtual camera’ controls go a step further, allowing you to replicate the effects of a tilt lens, for example, to generate ‘fake miniature’ effects.

Lytro Illum diorama-f1

Lytro Illum diorama f1, focused in centre

Lytro Illum diorama f2

Lytro Illum diorama f2, focused in centre

Lytro Illum diorama f16

Lytro Illum diorama f16, focused in centre

Lytro Illum review – Summary

Lytro Illum upper view

Lytro Illum upper view

In its most optimistic moments, Lytro would have us believe that its Light Field technology represents a new age for the medium of photography. When you first set eyes on the Illum and see all of the extraordinary tricks its Light Field technology offers, it’s easy to get swept along by this excitement. The ability to play with focus and depth of field after shooting your images opens up a whole new set of creative options, of which fixing out-of-focus images is just about the least interesting. But you also have to shoot in a consciously different way, as there’s little point in being able to do all this if your image doesn’t have real points of interest at different depths.

So is Lytro ‘the future of photography’? Of course not – image makers will continue to embrace all kinds of tools, and the Illum’s still image quality really isn’t going to make it a realistic alternative to conventional cameras right now, although future iterations will certainly improve. And like any specialist tool, many photographers will struggle to find a place for it once the initial novelty wears off.

But I’m confident that for others, the Illum will provide an exciting new means of creative imaging. Photographers with the imagination to exploit its capabilities will surely be able to make new kinds of images with it, perhaps for such things as macro work, or clever advertising images. It may not represent the future of photography, but it certainly has the potential to become an exciting strand of it.

Lytro Illum – key features

The Illum has a wantonly unconventional design, but still fits in a number of familiar features

Built-in Wi-Fi allows connection to an iOS device for upload of images to Lytro’s site.

Filter thread
A 72mm thread at the front of the lens accepts screw-in filters, including the supplied 4-stop neutral density filter.

Lens hood
The huge included lens hood attaches via an unconventional, and rather fiddly, locking-pin mechanism.

The chunky 3.7V, 3,760mAh Lytro B2 battery slots into the handgrip, and can be topped up using either the supplied charger or in-camera via USB.

A hinged flap on the left side conceals a USB 3.0 port and a 2.5mm electronic-release jack that accepts Canon and Pentax-compatible remotes.

The Illum has no built-in flash. The hotshoe on the top-plate is designed to take upcoming dedicated flash units.

Strap attachment
In one area where form has rather triumphed over function, the strap attaches to lugs at opposite corners of the body.