For those of us who grew up with film cameras, even the most basic digital cameras can still seem a little bit magical. The ability to instantly see how your shots turned out, then delete the ones you don't want and manipulate the ones you like, is something we would have killed for. Well, light field cameras could be to today's digital cameras, what digital was to film. Among other things, they allow users to selectively shift focus between various objects in a picture, after it's been taken. While the technology has so far been inaccessible to most of us, that is set to change, with the upcoming release of Lytro's consumer light field camera.
A "light field," first of all, is the amount of light traveling in every direction, through every point in space. Regular digital cameras simply combine all the light rays, and represent them as one amount of light. Using a microlens array and a light field sensor, however, light field cameras record the color, intensity and vector direction of all the rays separately. Algorithms programmed into onboard software are then able to sort through all that data, and make it into one image.
As mentioned, one of the things that this technology makes possible is the ability to shift focus between foreground, middle, and background objects within the frame, in a photo that has already been taken. If users prefer, they can also choose to have everything in focus.
Pictures can also be taken in lower light, shutter lag is greatly reduced, and both 2D and 3D images can be obtained from the same shot. Even when viewed in 2D, users can still subtly adjust the viewing perspective after the fact - if they think that a certain photo would have looked better had the camera been located just an inch to the right, for instance, they can adjust the shot accordingly.
Lytro is based in Mountain View, California, and was officially launched just yesterday. Founder Dr. Ren Ng has already announced that a commercial light field camera should be available later this year, and that it will be "competitively priced." Adobe also has a prototype product, that may eventually see production.
In the meantime, you can check out the Lytro-taken photo below. Just click on different areas of it to shift the focus.