Lytro wants to reinvent photography

October 19, 2011, 9:00 PM UTC

Lytro founder Ren Ng holds the new Lytro camera. Photo: JP Mangalindan

FORTUNE — It could be a godsend for awful photographers around the world. Mountain View-based startup Lytro, which launched earlier this year and demoed at Brainstorm Tech last July, just unveiled a line of “light field” cameras that capture more color, intensity and light per shot than traditional cameras. That makes for more vibrant photos, but most importantly, it allows users to change the focus within an image after it’s been taken.

The Lytro will ship early next year in three models starting at $399. The electric blue and graphite models will include 8 gigabytes of integrated storage and hold up to 350 images; the $499 “red hot” version will offer 16 gigabytes and hold up to 750 images. They’re available for preorder now on the company’s web site.

The device looks nothing like a traditional point-and-shoot. Instead, its elongated, rectangular shape is 4.4 inches long and 1.6 inches square. The lens sits at one end while, and at the other, there is an LCD touch-screen display. Power and shutter buttons, a USB port, and a touch-sensitive strip to move the F2 lens through its 8X zoom range are arranged along the sides. And at 7.5 ounces, it’s also pretty light, roughly the same weight as a Nook Touch.

Users can edit photos via proprietary software on a Mac (a PC version will come later next year) and can share them on Facebook, where friends can interact with them by zooming in and refocusing. If the Lytro takes off, it could change the way professional photographers and even casual photo users take pictures. “It lets people shoot first and think later,” says company founder Ren Ng. “Now you can take a picture and compose it in a new way.”

In other words, instead of worrying about getting the focus on a subject just right, users can snap away and focus on the image during the editing process. According to Ng, that makes the device extremely powerful: people can revisit and refocus an image, days, months, even years later. For mainstream users, that means not having to worry as much about taking “the perfect shot.” Professionals, meanwhile, can revisit photos and tweak the focus during the course of the work.

Lytro lets users refocus after the image is taken, whether it's an object in the foreground...

...or an object in the background.

So what’s it actually like to use? I came away mostly impressed from our hands-on with Lytro’s camera. That cylinder-like shape certainly makes a statement and differentiates it from many other point and shooters already out there. The combination of cool aluminum and silicone is pleasant to hold, and navigating around the combination of physical buttons and touchscreen is pretty easy. Ng was also quick to push the instant shutter ability, and indeed, there was little lag between shots. As for the photos of themselves, refocusing, at least through the Lytro’s touchscreen, was a breeze.

Lytro has been the subject of intense speculation over the past year. Today, with a seemingly revolutionary new device, it showed that attention was not unwarranted.

Update: To answer one reader’s question: yes, the Lytro camera takes 3-D images. According to Ng, that feature will come via software update soon after the camera ships early next year.

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