If you've ever snapped a shot--that perfect, one-in-a-million shot that could never be replicated so long as you live--only to find later that you had focused your lens on the tree just in front of your intended subject, you're not alone. Plenty of photographers, amateur and otherwise, struggle with focus or wish they could alter the focus of a shot after it has been taken. But new technology has made such a thing finally possible.
A new company called Lytro has developed a camera that takes photos whose focuses are adjustable in the editing stage. Once you import photographs from a Lytro camera, you can click and drag the focus to anywhere within the shot. Presumably the camera comes included with special editing software to accomplish this new feat. Prototypes of the system have been very well received by scientists, photographers, and investors alike.
The silicon valley startup was pioneered by Ren Ng, whose Ph.D. thesis in computer science won the worldwide competition for best dissertation from the Association for Computing Machinery in 2006. He founded the company in order to build a team that could take his ideas and research and mold them into a consumer product.
The focus-shift works because the Lytro camera captures an abundance of light data in any given shot--far more than a traditional camera. A microlens array in the camera acts as many small lenses in the space of a single lens. With every photo on the Lytro, you're essentially taking many, many photos, each with the same composition but a different point of focus. The specially developed software then allows you to slide between these similar images to find the perfect focal point.
Ng predicts that the Lytro technology will be as useful for the casual user as the professional photographer. It will transform photographs into dynamic objects. Users need not settle on a given focus, necessarily--they might keep the photograph in its Lytro format to shift around the focus whenever they'd like, exploring photographs in depth upon review.
Photographers who also consider themselves serious artists might not take so well to the Lytro. Adding convenience to a medium can take a lot of the work out of the process of producing work, but that doesn't always make for better art. Micromanaging every aspect of a photograph in processing might take a lot of the spontaneity or serendipity out of the art. Photographers might take it as an excuse to get lazy during actual shoots when working under the impression that they can just fix their shots later. But I can certainly see the Lytro taking off with the amateur or casual photographer crowd. Technological innovation rarely makes "art" much easier, but it can certainly make for a fun new experience for those who dabble. And I could see how the extra measure of control over a photograph might help out those who photograph commercially for a living. When every shot has to be perfectly refined to certain specifications, the more one can adjust, the better.
The Lytro technology also supports 3-D photographs for those who are into viewing family snapshots with bulky glasses on. The company hopes to release the camera sometime within the next few years. It's expected to be priced for the consumer market, which should put it in the range of a higher-end point-and-shoot. The prototype cameras are apparently the same physical size as a casual point-and-shoot product, suggesting that the Lytro will be marketed more heavily to the amateur user than the professional. Lytro will be designing and marketing the camera themselves, meaning that they'll need to build a brand for themselves in the world of big players like Canon and Nikon. But with such unique technology, they may just find their niche.