Lytro Light Field Camera

We show you how to take photos and then focus the image later. Here's how to turn any DSLR camera into a light field camera, for free.

The Lytro Light Field Camera is, according to its manufacturer, the world's first light field camera. That means it lets you take a photo and then focus the image later. This in turn lets you create interactive, living pictures.

Lytro's light field photography camera created a lot of excitement when it debuted a year ago, and now we're expecting other camera makers to join in. We know Toshiba is interesting camera makers with a new type of sensor that it's developed, for instance.

Such products won't be cheap, however. The Lytro itself has a US retail price of $399, and we can't find it in the UK for anything less than £350. But that's okay. If you want to take light field images without shelling out for expensive hardware you can enjoy some of the benefits now. This is thanks to a hack from the Chaos Collective that lets people use an ordinary DSLR camera that can shoot video to achieve a similar type of effect.

Turning our DSLR into a light field camera

To test the hack, we took a Nikon D5000 and the Lytro out for an afternoon by the water, setting each camera up on a tripod and framing the same shot so that the two could be compared.

The images below of the same scene are taken with a Lytro first and the DSLR hack below. You can click within each image to see the refocusing capabilities in each picture. (NOTE THAT THE HACKED IMAGES WORK ONLY WHEN VIEWED IN GOOGLE CHROME BROWSER).

To create an adjustable-focus photo with the DSLR, the camera must be set to video mode, then slowly refocused manually. This creates, in effect, a series of images of the same scene with different focal lengths, which can simulate the effect of the Lytro.

A two- to three-second clip can then be uploaded to an online [tool] developed by the Chaos Collective, which spits out the adjustable depth of field (DOF) image. And voila, you get an adjustable-focus image with equipment you already have.  (Note: the Chaos Collective tool works only when viewed in Google Chrome.)

The Lytro does best when part of the image is within six inches of the lens, as in the shot above.

Lytro said it was happy to see enthusiasm around adjustable depth of field images, but it says that the hack doesn't work as well as its own camera.

"We're always excited to see people use any kind of imaging device in this space that revolves around depth. Having said that I don't think it's the same (as a Lytro)," said Eric Cheng , Lytro's director of photography.

Lytro does more than just refocus images. The company says it creates 3D depth maps behind each Lytro image, using beams of light from the camera's sensors. Those sensors allow for perspective shift, a new feature in the software update that the company released a few months ago. You can see the effect by clicking and dragging inside Lytro images.

Adam Kumpf, co-founder of The Chaos Collective, says the DOF hack was created and posted within two days and is not meant to replace all the other things a light field camera can do.

Lytro is less successful as a regular camera. In the shots below, you can see how something about a foot from the Lytro can come out only moderately in focus.

Lytro version

DOF hack version

Even Cheng says he doesn't use Lytro for his primary photography tool, because it's best for a certain type of photo.

Tthe Chaos Collective hack is a good start for photographers who want to play with the technology. A drawback is that video makes moving figures look blurry when they're combined into a photo. And devices should be mounted on a tripod for best effect, making the DSLR hack most useful only for static images.

The cat picture below that kicked off our lust for a comparison is a good start. When not shot using a tripod, the resulting image can be blurry.

A Lytro is capable of capturing dynamic scenes in a changing environment, as in these pictures from the Lytro website. But it takes practice to get the same sort of photos set up. And in the two days IDG played with the camera, despite some limited Lytro coaching, we hadn't taken the perfect Lytro photo.

Beyond the learning curve, some consumers are less than happy with their Lytro experience. The quality of the photos when saved as a .jpeg is a low 1.2 megapixels, and the licensing terms in Lytro's user agreement read more like those of a social sharing site than those for a piece of equipment.

Lytro licenses all photos shared to its site publically, and prohibits some Lytro photo use, as per one section of its terms of use: Modifications, derivative works and printing for non-personal use (for example, commercial or political) require our explicit prior consent.

The language of the terms of service was enough to make one Lytro user return her camera. Lifelong photographer Nida Zada, who lives in San Jose, Calif., signed up in advance for a first generation Lytro. After receiving it, the terms of service spooked her. For the first time, she was using a camera that she could not use however she liked and to her, it amounts to a shift away from using photography to serve society.

"That's not what photography's about," Zada  said. "It captures alarming images and changes society and I didn't want to back a camera system that wanted to change that."

Cheng said the company plans to change those terms of use when it adds commercial-grade cameras to Lytro's line-up of devices, though another consumer-grade camera is planned first.

Another common complaint is that Lytro images can only be hosted on Lytro's servers, at least for now. That's  partially why the Chaos Collective hack allows users to take the photo and embed it however they wish.

"We temporarily host user content out of generosity ... but we've made sure to include simple instructions for putting DOF-Changeable photos entirely on your own server as well," Adam Kumpf, co-founder of The Chaos Collective, said via email. "It gives creators total freedom over their content, and as creators ourselves, we know how important that is."

Lytro says it wants competitors like Toshiba's sensor in the marketplace, to try and push adjustable focus images into the mainstream, so they are as easy to work with as a jpg. And Cheng says its next generation camera will have higher picture quality jpeg output. He did not give a release date.

"As sensors scale up in demand, you'll see that translate to picture quality," Cheng said.

Follow Kerry Davis on Twitter.