Two Cameras, Two Visions: Digital Omniscience vs. Faux Analog Flaws

by David Solomonoff

Recently two new digital cameras were announced, the Lytro, a new “light field” camera that creates refocusable digital photos, and the Holga D which is “inspired from the extremely popular cult of Holga and other toy cameras”.  More than two new gizmos boasting a few more megapixels, these two devices illustrate two radically different visions of how humans use technology – and how technology uses humans.

The initial appeal of the Lytro is the elimination of shutter delays and the need to focus. But the true impact of light field photography will be when computational photography goes mainstream and the key technology inside – an array of micro-lenses that slice up a 3D scene into multiple images – turns up in more devices.

So the long-term benefit of light field photography is not in the creation of images that humans will actually view, but rather in the potential to convert patterns of light into raw data that can be analyzed by computers. The uses could range from facial recognition for law enforcement to astronomers looking for evidence of life on distant planets.

The Holga D was first announced as an open hardware project on the blog of industrial designer Saikat Biswat. Currently only a highly-detailed concept rather than a shipping product, he has had a huge amount of interest in funding and building it.

The appeal of the Holga D is exactly the opposite of the Lytro. It emulates an inexpensive, analog, film toy camera, known for the unpredictable images caused by flaws in its lens. It lacks a display so as to recreate the delayed gratification – and risk – of analog photography. “Your photographs remain mysterious until you download the images,” boasts Biswat.

The resulting images from the Holga D or the analog film cameras that inspired it, will sometimes be beautiful and sometimes awful – to the humans who view them. A musical analogy would be to when musicians first began to experiment with distortion and feedback effects. These effects are now standard – built into amplifiers and effects pedals with great reliability and precision. But the excitement when neither the performer or audience quite knew what would happen next is harder to duplicate.

The goal of the Lytro is that of a greater-than-human technological omniscience coming from a certainty of purpose. It’s the certainty that a programmer gets from a list of requirements before embarking on a software project. The Holga D exploits risk and unpredictability for a type of artistic exploration that doesn’t require advance knowledge of the end result. It’s more like life in that way.

In the end one wonders if the experience of the Holga D might benefit the user in a way that the Lytro never will be able to.



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