The launch of the Lytro means you can refocus any picture you take after you've taken it.
“From today painting is dead” is an aphorism often attributed to Paul Delaroche, a 19th-century French painter, upon seeing the first daguerreotypes (though Wikipedia maintains there is no compelling evidence that he actually said it). In a way, it was a misjudgment on the same epic scale as Thomas Watson’s celebrated observation that the total world market for computers was five machines. What Delaroche was presumably getting at was that painting as a naturalistic representation of reality was terminally threatened by the arrival of the new technology of “painting with light”. If that is indeed what he meant, then he was only partly right.
What brought Delaroche to mind was the announcement of the Lytro light field camera, which goes on sale next year. Based on some discoveries made by a Stanford student, Ren Ng, the camera turns the normal process of compose-focus-shoot on its head. Instead you just point the Lytro at whatever you want to photograph, and then you can retrospectively focus in on any part of the image. As the New York Times explained: “With Lytro’s camera, you can focus on any point in an image taken with a Lytro after you’ve shot the picture. When viewing a Lytro photograph on your computer, you can simply click your mouse on any point in the image and that area will come into focus. Change the focal point from the flower to the child holding the flower. Make the background blurry and the foreground clear. Do the opposite – you can change the focal point as many times as you like.”
The science behind the camera is both arcane and fascinating. The idea of a “light field” – the amount of light travelling in every direction through every point in space – is a central concept in imaging science. It fully defines how a scene appears. The first light fields were captured at Stanford University over 15 years ago and required a roomful of cameras tethered to a supercomputer. But Moore’s Law (which says that computing power doubles every 18 months) has now worked its magic and the supercomputer has been shrunk to something that can fit in a consumer device.
The company behind the technology calls it “focusing after the fact”. It explains that since the camera captures the colour, intensity and direction of all the light, “you can experience the first major light field capability… Focus and refocus, anywhere in the picture. You can refocus your pictures at any time, after the fact”.
If it sounds counter-intuitive, then that’s because it is. A picture produced by the Lytro looks uniformly blurry and unsatisfactory. But click on any part of the image and that part springs into pretty sharp focus. (There are some intriguing samples on the company website.) To anyone with a conventional photographic training, the idea of “focusing after the fact” will sound like heresy on steroids. After all, most of us were taught that the correct sequence is compose-focus-shoot. And for many purists an out-of-focus image provides a priori evidence of incompetence.
On the other hand, if you’re a technophile then light-field photography is just the latest example of how digital technology overturns conventional wisdom. Just as the rise of user-generated content replaced a key tenet of traditional publishing – the idea that one edits first and then publishes – with the notion that one publishes first and lets the “editing” happen at the edges, as readers choose or ignore your content (what Clay Shirky called “the mass amateurisation of publishing“), so now we have a technology that basically says “catch all the light and then decide how you want to frame it later”.
So would it be appropriate to say, pace Delaroche, that from today focusing is dead? I don’t think so. Just after I’d first seen the announcement that the Lytro was going to be on sale after Christmas, my gaze lighted on one of my favourite photobooks – An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson – whose work was created in the traditional way in a darkroom with chemicals. It has some truly wonderful, insightful portraits by a great master of analogue photography, but by my reckoning in at least 10% the subjects are slightly out of focus. And here’s the strange thing: in most of those cases the fuzziness doesn’t really matter. So perhaps an obsessiveness with sharpness is a symptom not of aesthetic sensibility but of nerdish perfectionism. And to say that Cartier-Bresson was a lesser artist because he couldn’t focus is a bit like saying that the impressionists couldn’t paint. In other words, dead wrong.