I’ve been following Lytro for several years now, since they announced their concept for the Light Field camera, which would allow refocusing and adjusting of depth of field after the image was taken. As a photographer who considers depth of field to be one of my most critical tools, I was immediately fascinated. I passed on Lytro’s first Light Field camera because it seemed a little too much like a toy. But then they announced their second attempt, the Illum, in April. The promise of a more professional Light Field camera with more control over exposure was impossible to resist. I pre-ordered it immediately.

Well, my Lytro Illum arrived today. Let me tell you, from a traditional photographer’s point of view, it’s a strange beast. It’s much bigger than I’d imagined it would be, yet it’s surprisingly light. Lytro says its lens is simpler than a traditional lens, so that would explain the lower weight — there’s less heavy glass in there. But that lens is remarkable. It claims a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 30mm to 250mm, all at a constant aperture of f/2.0. If I saw this on a normal camera, it would make my head explode.

But the Illum is not a normal camera. Just playing around with it reminds you of that constantly. For one thing, it feels like it’s really working at making pictures. When I’m shooting, I get the feeling that there’s a lot of number crunching happening beneath the hood. Not that it’s bad, but you’ll occasionally wait for it to finish what it’s doing before you can proceed.

Also, it makes you think–a lot–about depth of field. You have to consider your focal length and distance to your subject in order to control where your focus lies in the image. Sometimes you’ll need to make trade-offs in composition in order to get the depth of field effect you want. Fortunately, there are on-board tools to help you with this calculation, but it’ll bend your mind a bit at first.

What are the images like? Well, that depends. The Illum reminds me of the earliest digital cameras. They could provide mediocre imagery as long as you provided them with ideal shooting conditions (lots of light, bright colors, etc.). The Illlum is kind of like that. Image quality is decent but not spectacular. Bokeh, or the area that’s out of focus, feels grainy and scratchy. This isn’t ideal, especially when you’re dealing with a camera whose stock and trade is bokeh. I have the feeling a lot of this has to do with the software that’s rendering the current image, because the scratchy/grainy effect varies quite a lot depending on where you’re viewing the image (on the back of the camera, on the computer, or on the web). The web version, like the one below, is easily the scratchiest and grainiest. Shame, since that’s where most people will be seeing these images. I believe and trust that Lytro will be working on this issue to try to improve it. I think that within a few years, Light Field cameras will be producing images as good as or better than any other digital camera.

Anyway, this is going to be a fun new tool to play with. I’ve only had it for a few hours, most of which were taken up by charging the battery. I can see there’s a lot of potential, but it’s going to require a lot of learning.

Here are a few of my first attempts with Light Field photography. Click on the play button at the bottom of the viewer to get a quick “tour” of the image. Click or drag within the image to experiment with focus and angle.

Have you got a Lytro Illum? What’s your experience with it?