As one might imagine, digital camera technology keeps getting better and better. Cameras are tinier than ever with even more features. Smartphones with editing apps are almost eliminating the need for point-and-shoot cameras. Even with all this, there are a couple of cameras to come on the market in the past couple of years that look like potential game changers – the Lytro camera and the GoPro Hero.
First, a note of disclaimer for my beloved wife – having just bought two fairly high-end cameras over the summer, I am NOT considering these for purchase. I just think they are worth mentioning here, and if someone I know does get one, all I ask is the opportunity to play with it for a few minutes.
Disclaimer out of the way, I’ll start with Lytro…
Camera #1 – Lytro
The Lytro Camera is a “light field” camera. This means that it captures all possible focal lengths and light angles at once. The idea is to “shoot first, focus later.”
The resulting image depends more on the software available for editing than the actual optics. Images can be adjusted bringing either the foreground or background into sharper focus. These variable images can be placed online and adjusted by the viewer.
For example, the next two shots were are from a single photograph taken with the Lytro. In the first the background with the dog is in sharp focus…
In the second, the foreground with the hedgehog is in sharp focus, but the dog is now in the blurred background…
Images can be hosted at the Lytro site, then embedded into web pages so that users can play with the focus. The image above is hosted at Lytro, and here’s that image embedded. Click on an area to bring that area into focus…
While this looks really cool, it’s still new, emerging technology, and there are some serious flaws for serious photographers. First, there’s the issue of optics. While optical zoom is available, it’s somewhat limited. However, the biggest limitations are in the software itself. Here are the three deal breakers for me…
- Images must be viewed online for optimal effect. This means that they MUST be hosted at Lytro, and you cannot embed the images in Facebook, Flickr, or other image sharing sites.
- You CAN export static images as JPG files (which can be shared on the above sites) BUT the images are limited to less than a single megapixel. That’s too small even for online work, even worse if you’re going to print it.
- There is no way to increase the depth of field of the image. You can’t take a shot where everything is in focus.
In addition, no amount of variable focus jiggery-pokery can compensate for motion blur in low-light situations. There is no indication that the Lytro performs well in low-light.
Lytro insists that these are just software limitations, and they are developing new features all the time. That may well be, but I just don’t think the technology is there yet. It’s a cool idea, but there is still more development needed. I have to bear in mind that the very first Kodak digital camera I got in 1996 only shot 320X140 images, and that technology has improved drastically. I think they will get there eventually.
Conclusion – Not ready for prime time.
Camera #2 – GoPro Hero
While the Lytro breaks new ground with imaging technology, the GoPro Hero series takes existing technology and repackages it in innovative ways.
I first saw the GoPro Hero several years ago in a kayak/dive shop in Florida. My first reaction to it was the same as my reaction to the Lytro – it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. While it looked cool, the image resolution was low and the price was quite high.
In the intervening years GoPro has vastly improved its camera’s performance. The latest version, the Hero 3, has 12 megapixel resolution and 1080p video at 60 frames per second – pretty amazing for a camera that fits in the palm of your hand.
I saw lots of these when I did the Tame the Tyger Race last spring. The cameras were mounted both on helmets and on the fronts of kayaks.
In addition to video, the little camera can do time-lapse and video stills. Some of the most impressive images I’ve seen are in 270° wide angle. The camera comes with a waterproof housing and there are a variety of mounts for boats, helmets, handlebars, etc. Therefore, the little Hero cam has become a staple of adventure videography.
The GoPro has moved beyond the realm of amateur photography and has made its way into broadcast production. The Ghost Hunters on SyFy have modified the cameras as IR cameras for low-light applications. The wide-angle images now show up on the series…
MythBusters have also been using the cameras. Here they are from an episode a couple of weeks ago…
Even at $400 a pop for the high end, the cameras are relatively cheap and the image quality is excellent. If one or two are blown up in an experiment, it’s not as bad as possibly destroying a very expensive high-end camera.
So, it’s now possibly to document every adventure from nearly every angle. Of course, one could get carried away…
Conclusion – the GoPro is already in prime time. It doesn’t break new ground, but it does take traditional photography to new levels.