the Lytro camera...defocusing photographers

I first heard about the Lytro ‘focus-free’ camera about a year or so ago.

Firstly, let’s clarify one thing.  It isn’t a ‘focus-free’ camera.  That’s a really silly term.  Really silly.  Alright.  Not silly.  Just plain stupid. We shouldn't be determing the function of a thing, i.e. the Lytro camera, on the basis of what we are, i.e. not needing to focus.

That is just ego-centrism....though it does complement the self-absorbed/centred/juvenile 'i' perspective of these 'modern' times, i.e. ipad, iphone, ietc.  It takes a significant degree of self-absorption amongst the masses to not take issue with this 'Lytro' camera being termed a 'focus-free' camera.  You could say that it shifts the blame for mass sloth and idiocy onto the camera itself.

No.  It is not a 'focus-free camera'.  Rather, it frees the photographer from focusing, in both senses of the word.  That is, (1) you don’t need to appreciate, search for, and creatively focus on different aspects of the scene whilst looking through the lens or at the scene, and (2) you don’t need to go through the mechanical process of focusing whether it is with a range-finder style lens (i.e. like i have to on my ‘Mamiya medium format 7II’ camera, and which oftentimes requires you to have the aural bionics of Jamie Summers to hear the shutter ‘click’) or an auto-focus lens.  Hmmm...what's with these 'progressive' and 'modern' times?  People would rather be instantly gratified than delay gratification so that they might be gratified more.

When i used to go with my mates, V and Sim, on photographic outings, during the course of which, when we are on our tea breaks, and I would be having my usual cheap ‘teh siew tai’ (tea with less sugar), i would give brief sermons on the art of photography from a philosophical perspective, I would tell them, amongst many other things, that...

“When you look through the lens, you are studying and appreciating that which the naked eye (naked eye = unattached to the viewfinder of a camera) takes for granted and hence misses.  You are looking at the artwork of nature, God, providence, humanity, amongst others.  It is not your own composition.  It is up to you to discover what is already there, but which skips the attention of the little-seeing naked eye.

The first thing you see when you look through the lens is that which the naked eye of the passers-by see.  Don’t snap that and walk away.  That is like an idiot saying the first thing that comes to her/his mind.  No big deal.  It is more about focusing your mind beyond the obvious.  Second guess yourself.  Appreciate that you are an idiot trained to be so by going around depreciating reality with your naked eye for years before you picked up the camera.  Look again, and again.  Look at the various aspects of the scene.  The foreground, the background, its various features, and how putting some of these features in the ‘foreground’ by making it sharp relative the rest of the scene, even if it is in the background, brings out the ‘x-factor’ of the scene. 

When you do this long enough through the viewfinder, you will gradually be able to see these things immediately without the viewfinder.  And then when you do look through the viewfinder, you are going to see even more.  And when you cross-apply this ability in other arenas from the mundane to the creative or to the intellectual, you’ll do better than most.”

The first thing you see when you look through the lens is that which the naked eye of the passers-by sees. Don’t snap that and walk away. That is like an idiot saying the first thing that comes to her/his mind. That is why, I suppose, i kind of baulk at the thought of a ‘focus-free camera'.  It frees you from focusing on more than the obvious.  It further reduces your ability to appreciate anything more than the obvious.  You might discover other aspects of the scene when you look at what this ‘focus-free camera’ might have produced.

It is the very act of forcing yourself to look through the lens for a period of time, and which is generally what people who have to focus the lens themselves tend to do, that enables you to discover more than you otherwise would.  The 'Lytro' camera relieves one of the 'burden' of doing this.  However good the shots, it could be far better without it.

You could say that this is no different from people who turn away, or start playing 'angry birds' whenever you bring up a topic that is not to their interests.  The 'Lytro' camera further reinforces the tendency to focus on what is obviously popular or popularly obvious as opposed to that which might be more significant albeit subtle.

The very act of letting the camera do all the work de-practices you from the generic practice of focusing, focusing, and focusing again.  That takes you out of focus from the less than obvious.  And that is when you’re going to miss out on that little piece of torn newspaper on the sidewalk with a newprint on it that says much about the people walking by it.  What am i talking about?  Get the Lytro camera, and you’ll never know what I mean.

ed’s comment on

mmmm…no, thank you. The joy of photography, in significant part, lies in what we discover through the lens. Not what we might find after the camera had done the discovering for us. It is that which distinguishes between photography as an ‘art-form’, or photography as ‘entertainment’. --- end comment---


postscript: despite that discussed above, it is not without reservations.  I do think that the Lytro can be of use to photo journalists whom have to capture fast-moving scenes or situations where it might be dangerous for them to engage in the luxury of focusing.


  1. Hey Ed,

    I think the purpose of SLR camera being focused is akin to the how you have been learning how to use the saxophone without using the instruction manual. Both require delayed gratification. In the former case, this is done so as to capture photographic scene in greater details that can't be seen using our naked eyes, so that we could appreciate the reality in greater details in all aspects of our life. In the latter case, knowing roughly how to use the saxophone, when we finally turn to instruction manual, we could get to know what stuff we have done wrong and through this it would not be so easy to attempt the same mistakes again, and also we might learn more stuff from the experience with the saxophone that the instruction manual might have missed out, and eventually we could learn to play the saxophone which is better than the guide given from the instruction manual.

    Anyway I think the quality of the shots using the Lytro camera will most probably be compromised as compared to using SLR camera to focus the scene. I wonder how the Lytro camera could zoom after the picture is taken. Given that the retail price will be less than the SLR camera, the photos from Lytro camera won't look as good as those from the SLR camera. So I think this is just an attempt by the corporations to rip off more profit by the means of "fanciful" marketing strategies.

  2. Hey bro, long time no see. The 'teh siew tai' i bought you cold already;)

    Wow! I see you really understand the point about going it alone at the beginning when it comes to learning almost anything. Couldn't have put it better myself.

    Just one additional point though. When we finally pick up the manual for anything, and learn that we've been doing certain things wrong, we get the opportunity to find out those parts of our formula that was wrong, correct it, and then not make the same mistake in ANY arena. I love learning from my mistakes in any particular field after making them because that indicates to me an error in my general problem-solving skills. That way, i can get rid of the general problem and do better in any field. Perhaps that is what you meant in the final sentence of your first paragraph.

    I suppose this is a way to get the best of education in anything where we learn from a master, whilst learning through our own experiences. That way, we don't just repeat the achievements of the greats, but might be able to see further than them.

    As for the Lytro camera being able to 'zoom' after the picture is taken.....

    I suppose the 'zoom' or 'telephoto' feature would be redundant if the image is off a very high resolution. That way, we can just cut out one part of the image and blow/zoom it up and it will still be sharp - provided the Lytro focused on that part of the scene as well. Telephoto lenses - such as my AF-S VR 70-200mm - might become redundant if image quality was high enough. With my D700 i am able to cut out portions of a picture and blow it up. But it still isn't good enough of course. But with the medium format i might be able to cut out smaller portions and blow it up without much quality-compromise.

    Perhaps the Lytro could replace consumer level 'pocket cameras'. But for people who want to learn to really appreciate the sinews comprising the tapestry of this wondrous thing called Life, i'd recommend the SLR or Dslr....or even watercolours;)


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