A Footnote In The History of Photography

Posted on 6th April 2016 by Admin under Comment, Equipment, Uncategorized
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The development of photographic technology has largely been evolutionary, with the underlying principles established very early on. A modern camera, for all its sophistication, essentially works in much the same way as its Victorian forebears. Light enters via a lens which directs it to a recording medium and is controlled by aperture and exposure time. Fox Talbot introduced the negative before George Eastman gave us film later on; and that was that for more than a hundred years. Admittedly cameras have changed radically in the intervening period, with ever increasing automation becoming smaller and easier to use. By far the biggest and most disruptive change was the introduction of digital, but even that happened gradually rather than overnight. Marrying miniature digital cameras with mobile phones, combined with the development of the Internet, has meant that photography has become more popular than ever before. And ubiquitous.

By and large, as photography progressed, there have been very few diversions and most manufacturers have offered their own iterations of competitors’ products. Which meant that the introduction by Lytro of the light field camera was genuinely something new and innovative. For the first time it allowed the point of focus to be changed after the picture was taken. Unfortunately for Lytro, it faced two major hurdles. Light field technology requires a high resolution sensor to produce an image which has a much lower resolution and processing all that data requires a lot of computing power. More than can be incorporated into a contemporary camera, which means that a desktop or laptop computer is needed to view the result and produce the final picture.

The other problem Lytro has to overcome is time. From when Stephen Sasson demonstrated the first digital camera to Kodak’s board in 1975, it took around 30 years for the technology to become mainstream. That might have been a shorter interval if Kodak had recognised its significance and been better able to manage the transition from analogue to digital. It is ironic that the company has been greatly reduced by being too heavily invested in film based products, which allowed others to prosper from its employee’s invention.

Lytro was founded in 2006 and its first camera was introduced in 2012. With its cuboid design and limited controls, it was more of a beta than finished product. The Illum came a couple of years later and looked more like a conventional camera, albeit still not commercially viable. It was expensive at launch, but soon became heavily discounted. I saw it at a photography trade show at the beginning of 2015 and Lytro’s representative enthusiastically tried to sell me one for something in excess of £1,000. An “ex-demo” example can be bought today for £299 by anyone interested in trying it. Novel, yes, but it remains a pricey toy rather than serious photographic tool.

It comes as no surprise that after burning up a lot of its investors’ capital trying to introduce a consumer camera, Lytro has decided instead to develop a product for the fledgling virtual reality industry where it might have more success. Maybe there will be another light field camera one day, or maybe technology will move on elsewhere. It means that we are left either with film or sensors based on the Bayer colour filter, another of Kodak’s contributions to digital photography. Fuji has a variation of the Bayer colour filter array in its X-Trans design, but it is left to Sigma to be truly different with its layered Foveon sensor. That, in many ways, is a digital implementation of film both in terms of restricted ISO performance and the way it renders the end result.

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