Researchers, Columbia Missourian Debut New Form of Online Photography

Junior Tim Tai Used Lytro Illum Technology Prior to SEC Championship Game

Columbia, Mo. (Dec. 11, 2014) — The Columbia Missourian took a step into the future of photography this week by putting the readers in charge of a “light field” photo gallery.

Light field photography uses the unique Lytro Illum camera to capture everything in the scene in sharp focus – from the foreground to the distant background. When embedded in a website like, readers can click on sections of the photo to adjust the focus.

The Lytro Illum Could Be a Game Changer, Photojournalist Tim Tai Says

When my Emerging Technologies in Journalism professor, Dr. Clyde Bentley, mentioned to me that he had gotten his hands on the new Lytro Illum camera, I knew I wanted to test it out. After familiarizing myself with the camera, I knew the SEC Championship would be a good opportunity to get a real sense of what it was capable of. Though it hasn’t yet achieved the level of versatility and quality of cameras used by professional photojournalists today, the Lytro camera demonstrates to me the potential that light field cameras have to change the photography landscape.

Timothy Tai
Tim Tai

What I find most intriguing about light field photography is that it can impact both photographers and their audience. On one hand, the technology means a photographer no longer needs to worry about getting his or her subject in perfect focus while taking the picture. It also allows multiple versions of a still image to be created from one shot and allows one to retroactively adjust the depth of field in a photo. This can offer photographers more leeway when dealing with very bright or very dark situations and gives photo editors more options when working with an image.

On the other hand, users can embed the interactive image files from the Lytro camera on any Web page, allowing readers to pan and zoom in and out of a picture as well as to change the focal point. For example, with a picture of a deep crowd, a viewer would be able to focus and zoom in on different faces in the image. Giving viewers this kind of control can help generate a greater sense of connection with the images and leads to a more engaging experience overall.

Light field photography challenges some of the fundamental rules of traditional photography, and whether this is ultimately for better or for worse is yet to be seen. Either way, I’m excited to see what the technology will be capable of in another few years.

“The result is an almost unbelievable sense of depth and dimension,” said journalism professor Clyde Bentley. Bentley and Bimal Balakrishnan from the University of Missouri Architectural Studies Department are the lead researchers for MU3D, a two-year exploration of 3-D imaging in journalism.

Missouri School of Journalism junior Tim Tai used the technology to cover behind-the-scenes action, the road trip and the SEC FanFare event prior to the Missouri-Alabama SEC Championship game on Dec. 6 in Atlanta.

Brian Kratzer, the Missourian’s director of photography and assistant professor, said sending the Lytro Illum camera with Tai seemed like a natural thing to do.

“When any new gadget comes along, my first instinct is to wonder how I can use this with the staff to change our visual storytelling,” Kratzer said. “The challenge is to bring the final product from tech and gadgetry to real use in photojournalism. It’s always tough to distinguish the attraction of the latest ‘gimmick’ and to translate it into meaningful journalism.”

Beyond its role as a daily newspaper for mid-Missouri, the Columbia Missourian plays an important part in the future of news media as a test bed for new technologies and procedures that may have value to all of journalism. It also gives students of the Missouri School of Journalism a platform to expand their skill in the real world of minute-to-minute news.

Nobel laureate Gabriel Lippman first conceived light field photography in 1908, but the early “plenoptics” cameras focused poorly and sometimes used huge arrays of linked cameras. As part of his Stanford doctoral dissertation in 2006, Ray Ng developed technology for a lighter, less expensive camera. He launched Lytro to market the concept and introduced his first rudimentary camera in 2011.

Lytro Illum
Lytro Illum

“It was all theory and toys for us until the Illum,” Bentley said. The Illum, introduced just months ago, comes closer to the single lens reflex cameras that professionals use. It has a zoom telephoto lens and a digital focusing system. Instead of the massive arrays of up to 100 lenses used in early past light field cameras, the Illum uses a “megaray” sensor to create 40 versions of the photo. Its onboard processor converts that into a single “living” image.

Bentley and Balakrishnan think light field photography has great potential for online journalism. The process allows the viewer to select any part of the photo to examine sharp details – for example, a crowd shot at a football game or a complex landscape.

“It also turns the control over to the reader,” Bentley said. “That type of engagement is the Holy Grail of participatory journalism.”

The MU3D team and the Columbia Missourian will continue to experiment with uses of the Lytro camera. The project is also developing 3-D video news formats.

In addition to the Missouri School of Journalism and the MU Architectural Studies Department, other partners in the multidisciplinary project are the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources, the Computer Science Department and Newsy, the multisource video news outlet based in Columbia. It is funded by a grant from the Mizzou Advantage program.

Updated: July 31, 2020

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