Posted by: structureofnews | September 13, 2011

Let There Be Light

There’s an amazing new camera technology – from a company called Lytro – that produces immersive, interactive images that audiences can explore in detail, shifting the focus from one point to another.   It’s stunning.

Take a moment to check them out.  Click around in each photo.  I’ll wait.

There’s a whole PhD thesis behind how this works, but the gist is that the Lytro Light Field Camera captures tons more data than a normal digital camera does – and that means that you can explore the image it produces in much more detail, in effect recreating what the photographer sees.  In a normal camera the photographer makes a decision about what he or she is going to focus on, and the camera captures that; in this camera, the camera captures information about all the light striking its sensor, so viewers can make different decisions about what they’d like to focus on.

It’s as if you brought a tape recorder to a press conference that instantly transcribed – and posted – everything that was said.  Sure, your story might focus on a couple of key quotes – but perhaps readers are more interested in some other comments that were made.  Wait, that’s sort of what already happens with transcripts and documents posted online.

Well, now it may happen with photographs as well.  Is that a good thing?

There’s certainly a loss of control over how the image is viewed – just as there can be loss of control over how a story narrative is presented when transcripts are available.  As Paul Melcher, who writes a photo industry blog, notes:

The photographer no longer controls where he wants the viewers eyes to concentrate on. Since photography or at least great photography is all about point of view, this could not be such a welcomed tool.

That’s probably true – just as not all reporters welcome the chance to post their notes online.  Still, there’s much more than a good photographer brings to the table than a choice of focus;  there’s great skill in composition, in timing, in positioning – and in realizing there’s an image to be made in the first place.

But regardless of what photographers want, this is another example of how fast technology is advancing in terms of being able to process large amounts of data, and by extension what we can do with all that information.  It used to be a staple of spy movies that secret agencies could take any surveillance footage and enhance it to show incredible amounts of detail; perhaps that’s not so far-fetched now.

Equally important, it may mean that less-skilled photographers – reporters, for example – could take so-so images and have some of the mistakes they make (lousy focus, in particular) fixed by photo editors at headquarters.  Just as an editor with a transcript of the press conference can steer a poorly focused draft and turn it into a better story.

The camera’s not out yet – but it’ll be interesting to see how it gets used by media organizations once it is released.


  1. […] used to working.  But other methods are more purely technological.   The revolutionary Lytro camera, which captures so much more data in any single image that viewers can focus on any point in it, is […]

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