What do you do when one camera isn’t enough? Add another, and then one more. That seems to be the mantra in the smartphone industry at the moment but no manufacturer has gone to the lengths that Light has (yet). Its crazy Light L16 camera has not one, not two, but 16 cameras arranged on the back.
First launched in the US to mixed reviews at the back end of 2017, the L16 is about to unleash its beady gaze upon unsuspecting Brits for the princely sum of £1,850 and it’s truly a one of kind product.
It looks like something out of The Quatermass Experiment, with its 16 eye-like apertures staring blankly out from its gleaming rear panel. Yet its makers want you to seriously consider replacing your DSLR with it.
Light L16: Design, features and first impressions
The L16 is about the size of a small transistor radio. It weighs 435 and its brick-like form factor is considerably less awkward than the DSLRs it wants to replace. It has a rubber grip on the side, a 5in touchscreen on the rear and you shoot with it just like you would a smartphone.
To complete the smartphone feel the L16 runs Android behind the scenes, it has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor running the show with 256GB of onboard storage. There’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, GPS and a 4,120mAh battery that’s good for eight hours of use, plus support for Quick Charge 3.
Despite the specifications, the L16 is no smartphone. It’s a very serious piece of optical, photographic and software engineering and a camera that’s capable of capturing images packed with a huge amount of data.
Its 16, 13-megapixel camera modules work together to spit out 52-megapixel images. They offer an optical “zoom” equivalent of 5X spread across three focal lengths – 28mm, 70mm and 150mm (35mm equivalent) – and you can adjust the depth of field in your images after you’ve shot them. It’s a bit bonkers but, as the impressive looking samples on Light’s website attest, it isn’t completely off the charts.
Light L16: How does it work?
The question is, how do all those camera modules work together to produce usable photographs? The theory is relatively simple. When you press the shutter, the camera captures at least ten 13-megapixel images simultaneously, then stitches and overlays them to produce the final image. The stitching gets you up to 52-megapixels; the overlaying reduces noise and increases dynamic range.
Other than that, you use the L16 as you would a smartphone camera. You can shoot in automatic mode or fully manual, focus is achieved by tapping the subject on screen or pressing the shutter button on top and ISO sensitivity runs from 100 to 3200. There’s no aperture priority. Light says you don’t need it as you can adjust depth of field after the fact.
There’s no image stabilisation, either, but even the most demanding of photographers will realise that controlling and synchronising the stabilisation on ten or more cameras simultaneously would probably be a bit too tricky.
Once you’ve captured your images, you then move onto a PC or laptop. The stitching or “fusing” of the various images doesn’t take place in the camera, there’s simply too much data to handle. Instead, all the image data is sucked off the camera in specialised LRI format for processing within Light’s own software application, Lumen.
This is also where you can adjust the depth of field of your photo, with the software employing a depth map produced by the camera’s various lenses to apply blur to various regions of the photograph. At the end, you can output in DNG format for post-processing in Photoshop or Lightroom or whichever other RAW processing software you prefer.
It’s an impressive-sounding setup and clearly works in the right conditions. I wasn’t able to use the camera for very long at the briefing but take a look at that gallery on the Light website and you’ll see lots of enormously detailed, hugely impressive-looking shots.
But this is a camera that’s also very clearly still in development. You can’t yet shoot any video. 4K capture is “coming soon” but won’t be computational; it’ll be drawn simply from one of the camera’s sensors. Early reviews have complained about a multitude of other flaws, including poor depth-mapping, sluggish autofocus, lacklustre low-light performance and poor ergonomics.
Light L16: Early verdict
Despite that, and it’s weird bug-eyed appearance, the Light L16 is an exciting development in an area of technology that isn’t usually the most dynamic or fast moving. I’m not convinced yet it’s quite good enough to replace your smartphone but that might not be the endgame Light is aiming at. If the tech winds up in a smartphone, as Light strongly hinted at during the briefing when it showed me what one might look like, it could very well be a game changer for phone photography.
Until then, we’ll have to wait and see whether Light’s L16 is a practical camera or whether it’s too complicated for its own good. I’ll report back once I get my hands on one for a full review.