Lytro’s Second Act: 3-D Photography For Creative Pros

Nearly three years after issuing its breakthrough camera, the company releases the Lytro Illum.

When Lytro launched almost three years ago, the little box-shaped camera introduced consumers to light-field photography, which, in a nutshell, makes 2-D photography 3-D. Today, Lytro is releasing its sophomore product: the Lytro Illum, a bigger, more technologically advanced model designed with creative professionals in mind.


With a Lytro, you can take what company founder Ren Ng calls, “living pictures.” “2-D photographs kind of throw away the missing information. But the Lytro collects it,” Ng says. With that data, you can alter the focus of the image after the fact–essentially making it possible to tell different stories with each image. “It’s really resonated with the pros we work with, who are looking to stand out,” Ng tells Co.Design. “The reason is, it’s very difficult today to get something that doesn’t look like the old photography, because everyone has a good camera in their pocket.”

To cater to those pros, Ng and his team have built the Illum, quadrupling the amount of light its sensors can catch–upping the versatility available for each image. With the help of product design group Artefact, they’ve also done an in-house redesign on the camera body. Instead of the palm-size, rectangular telescope shape, the Illum mimics the classic camera shape, but with sharper angles and a sleeker, pared down surface.

That’s a little ironic, because when Lytro launched, Ng told Co.Design that it was counter to “anachronistic forms that carry over from when a camera body needed to house a roll of film.” Now that boxy shape is relevant and familiar again. Users need a portal for programming the camera, and boxy tablets and smartphones are the most widely understood devices for that. The Qualcomm screen on the back, in fact, feels just like a smartphone screen–you swipe through the controls, and touch to adjust the image–and it’s the only viewfinder the Illum possesses. The screen’s position can also be quickly adjusted, so that the photographer can get to harder-to-reach angles without compromising their view of the shot.

The impact of Lytro is analogous, Ng says, to the switch from film to digital photography. Which begs the question: If the Internet helped leverage the success of digital photography, what platform will make light-field technology indispensable?

“I can only speculate, but one thing is the emergence of holographic displays,” Ng says, referring to technology that accounts for everything from cheesy greeting card graphics to Tupac’s cameo at the Coachella Music Festival. “Light fields, in a very deep scientific sense, are the same as holograms. You can take a single shot from a light-field camera and print a hologram from it. What this means, in the future, is that these will be light-field video cameras,” Ng says.


Perhaps that’s down the line. For now, Lytro is bent on giving professionals more flexibility and clearer images. The tradeoff, as he puts it, is between ease-of-use and uniqueness. “The promise of Lytro,” Ng says, “is that at some point we will have no tradeoffs.”

The Lytro Illum will cost $1,600, and is available for pre-order here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.