Strange Cameras for Strange Times

Too soon we have become blasé to the distortions of the current flock of optics. We pretend these are just sidesteps to the usual reality. Their peculiar qualities should be celebrated and their perversions articulated, and I am here to do just that.

The Lytro lllum. https://www.lytro.com/

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Normally you point a camera, and light arrives at the lens in a wild range of angles. That forms a bright but blurry image. As you close the aperture the light is constrained to a smaller range of angles, and the image becomes coherent, while the exposure drops. The smaller the aperture the sharper the focus, and the more the camera has to work to expose the film. Hence the deep focus of Citizen Kane was a technical marvel. Now everyone is obsessed with shallow focus, because big lenses are expensive, and what better way to show you have money.

The Illum is a light field camera. Light arrives from all angles and hits one or more of hundreds of little ‘buckets’ inside. The computer notes the direction at which the buckets are filled and calculates the angle at which the light arrived. The camera sees both the light and its direction and from this records a perfectly focused image with depth information.

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You can use that depth to set focus after taking the shot, to calculate a 3D image or slice the image over the Z plane. Probably more – there’s a SDK available for trying out ideas. But most of us will just animate the focus after the fact and think that very clever. For a while…

Sensible review.

Lytro has set small, reasonable aims for the camera and provided them. The Illum is a well built, well thought out device with a defined purpose. But that purpose is not in itself very inspiring for very long.

Pulling the focus back and forward is exciting for about an hour after which you’re putting the camera in the cupboard next to the C64. Mine came out of a discount bin, still wildly expensive compared to an equivalent DSLR (because of Australian distribution). The Illum is not a game changer, because the technology is more interesting than what you’re encouraged to do with it. So you should think about misuse.

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Lytro is now onto surround video capture with an impossibly large and sexy UFO thing that photographs with 6 degrees of freedom inside a virtual space (but can it photograph itself?) I’m disappointed that they have leaped so far, when just a single lens 3D video capture would be really tops. The Illum is not able to shoot video, it maxes out at about 3fps. It might be insanely great as a stop motion camera, but no moving pictures.

The software can output its unique RAW format as set of TIFFs with the depth as an 8 bit gray scale image. The TIFFs show the scene from a range of angles, so you’re already alert that the depth must be some compromise of all these. It has a ‘cauliflower’ texture, by which I mean it shows a lack of detail evidencing some kind of fractal or wavelet tactic.

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Being lossy and 8 bit you are not going to get a clean slice where an object is magically cut out from the background. Fair enough. Probably the SDK can get a cleaner image from the RAW – but I tend to think that the Illum operates at the extreme edge of the hardware. It has the brain of an advanced mobile phone – impressive – but having to compromise greatly to get acceptable results.

My intention is to grab a whole variety of still images which I’m going to then mash together on the Z plane with some dirty and distorted depth data. It won’t be clean or realistic. It will hopefully be disturbing. You might have a pig and car sharing the same 3D space. You might like it.

The Ricoh Theta S – https://theta360.com/en/about/theta/s.html

2016 is the year where 360 cameras infest every gadget retailer the way that sports cameras did a few years ago, and 3D TVs before that. They will eventually die in large numbers. Right now they’re just touching on reasonable performance at a reasonable price, so the average enthusiast may as well have a look. That’s me.

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If you’re the sort of person that takes selfies, you’ll love the Theta. Here’s the pyramids… and me! The beach front… and me! My friends and me me me me again. There being no back and front to a spherical photo, you’re always there unless you hide in a garbage bin or wear it as a hat.

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Suspicious white object at 6 o’clock

Because it has no viewfinder (what use is a viewfinder in 360º?) you are encouraged to setup a wifi link between it and a mobile phone where you can preview the effect. It works, but mobiles aren’t really set up to be field monitors, as the glare is such that you can’t see what you’re doing. So you set up the camera on a tripod, run away some distance to hide, find some shade, look at the phone and only then find that the tripod has been knocked over by some passing brat.

When I got back to the camera, the lens cover was scratched, but there seems to be no effect on the photos, I guess the cover is out of the focus area. It is not a sports camera, but akin to a toddler – it can take a fall.

Sensible.

The quality of the earlier Thetas was horrible, and at 1080p the video on the improved S is still only a quarter of the needed resolution because it captures two circular areas inside that area. But the photo images are big enough for my purposes, which is to decorate some VR spaces I’m building in Unity with natural light and textures.

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Software wise Ricoh give you a desktop viewer (made in Adobe Air so banned from my work computer) which connects to their gallery (which only allows very short segments of video). The video can also go up on YouTube but ignore the instructions given on Ricoh’s site – it needs to be first run through a “Video Metadata Tool” before YouTube will see it. YouTube has a fixed viewpoint which only covers a small part of the video – so very nasty quality. I’m going to to try pre-processing the video in After Effects to make it big before encoding it.

What use is surround? Only as a means to capture an environment for more detailed images – that is, the same way you would use a stereo microphone pair to capture the sonic environment, followed by a shotgun mic for the detail. We have not previously had a crossed pair for video. The problem then is one of ‘handling noise’ – big distorted hands at the bottom of every shot. It’s as annoying as microphone handling noise.

The Theta is basically a Zoom recorder for light. For most people the Zoom recording is not the end of the creative act – only the beginning, and using the Theta as some kind of documentary device is not anywhere near to the real reason to own one.

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