If you don’t enjoy the semi-concerned glances of total strangers, clearly worried that the thing you just yanked from your bag is not a camera but a futuristic Men in Black sort of weapon, do not use the Light L16. At least not yet. With 16 lenses peeking out from the camera’s front like an unblinking insect, the L16 looks ready to lunge forward and deliver a needling death blow at any moment.
After using the L16 for several weeks, I can state confidently that it will not come to life and kill anyone. I can also say confidently that this is unlike any camera I’ve ever tested before. The L16 is full of contradictions: It’s about the size of a super-thick Amazon Kindle, yet captures more image data than almost any high-end DSLR. All of its lenses are fixed, but you get a huge range of zoom options. You shoot with it like a smartphone, but need a powerful PC to edit your photos. It’s capable of delivering astounding images, like I never thought possible, but it can also suck pretty spectacularly.
Light (the company behind the L16) is developing an extremely powerful, feature-rich take on photography, one that bets more on computer science than hyper-precision optics. At $1,950, the L16 itself is mostly a curiosity, a plaything for people with closets full of DSLRs and a permanent hankering for the next new thing. Light built it as a concept car, proof that its tech really does work. The L16 offers an early, decidedly imperfect look at how algorithms will dictate the future of photography. Something like the tech in the L16 will power your next smartphone, or maybe the one after that.
One Camera, 16 Cameras
There’s an immense amount of complicated software and engineering behind the L16, which we’ve explained thoroughly before. Here’s the absolute basics: whenever you take a photo with the L16, 10 of its 16 individual sensors fire. They capture different perspectives and focal lengths (from 28 to 150mm), which the L16’s software processes into a single, super-high-resolution image. Since the camera captures all this data, you can do things like adjust your focus after you’ve taken the shot, or crop a photo without losing any discernible fidelity. All from a camera about the size of a paperback book.
The “how it works” may be complicated, but actually using the L16 feels pretty familiar. The device runs Android, and doesn’t try to disguise it. When you turn the camera on by pressing the power button, it boots up and automatically opens a camera app. In that app, you swipe up and down to control zoom levels, then either tap on the screen or half-press the shutter button to focus, and then fully press the shutter to fire.
I almost wish the L16 was more complicated. Years of shooting with high-end cameras has made me comfortable twisting and prodding their many buttons and knobs, and I missed some of that manual control with the L16. (There is a small touch panel on the right side, above the grip, that will someday be enabled as a zoom control, but nothing yet.) Light’s thinking is that most people are comfortable with the way their phone cameras work, and that there’s no reason to introduce more complexity. Whatever, I still want a couple of buttons.
Right now, the only thing you can do on the L16 itself is “Develop” your photo, which quickly sharpens and cleans up your photo, as you captured it, so you can look at it on the viewfinder. The only way to really dig into your photos is to connect them to a computer, wait an interminably long time as the enormous files (they’re 100-plus MB apiece) import from the L16, and futz with them in Light’s Lumen app. The Lumen software is at least reasonably fast and simple to use, and you can quickly export RAW files to Photoshop and do more powerful work there.
Eventually, Light has plans to make better use of its Android software. Think of the possibilities: you could run your favorite editing software right there on the 5-inch, 1080p touchscreen, then share your pro-looking shots to Instagram without ever needing another device. This camera is basically a phone minus a carrier contract. But that’s all still a work in progress. As are the photos themselves.
Slow and Steady
When I picked up my L16 review unit, I asked Bradley Lautenbach, Light’s senior VP of marketing and product design, what I should keep in mind. He told me to always make sure to focus the shot before firing the shutter, and to get as much light as possible. These are, he cautioned, short-term hangups. Light’s continually tweaking its software and algorithms, and actually ought to be better in bad lighting than most cameras simply by collecting and stitching all that data from all those sensors. And because Light is very good at processing image data, the software updates could even improve your old photos. Since I’ve had the camera, the company’s already released a couple of huge updates, both of which made the whole system faster and more reliable.
I’m not overwhelmingly impressed with what I’ve captured so far, though. Lots of my photos are blurry even in the exact spot where I tapped to focus, or lack the exact detail this camera’s supposed to offer. To be fair, I’ve taken a few shots I really love, like one from high up in the hills of Saratoga, California, overlooking all of Silicon Valley. With all those lenses and all that resolution, that photo’s like my own personal, zoomable map of Apple’s new campus and a bunch of super-rich people’s homes.
I’ve found that if I use a tripod or set the camera on a table to capture a non-moving subject in great light, the photos can come out gorgeous. But the kinds of photos I tend to take on my phone—friends, food, concerts, all my general Instagrammable nonsense—don’t really work on the L16. It’s too slow to zoom, focus, and fire, and just doesn’t seem to produce great shots. And it really does suck in low light.
Most of those problems are precisely the things Light says it can solve with software. Light’s already working on updates to solve everything from low-light capability to enabling video, which you currently can’t shoot at all on the L16. And all the things it can’t fix with an update, it got pretty right already: the battery lasts about 400 shots, there’s room for more than 1,000 frames on the device, and the one-pound body feels good. It charges over USB-C, has a standard tripod screw-mount, and seems like the kind of camera that’ll still work great in a couple of years, once Light really nails the image processing.
Mo’ Lenses, Mo’ Options
Should you, a normal person, of normal budget and sanity, buy the L16 right now? Probably not. But you should definitely root for the team behind it to get this stuff right. Because Light’s ultimate plan is to be in every device that takes pictures, taking off-the-shelf parts and making them incredible. “It’s a very flexible platform, beyond just this product,” Lautenback says. “It could go do other consumer photography applications.” He rattles off a few, clearly not at random: dashcams in cars, home security cameras, drones. “Anybody who has flown a drone with a DSLR on it knows that if you wanted to move the lens, it’d throw the drone off balance,” he explains. “And so this doesn’t have the moving parts that change the weight or mass distribution.”
Then, of course, there’s the smartphone. That’s where Light’s going next. Not with 16 sensors and lenses, but maybe with five or so. Light’s working with Qualcomm and others to integrate its tech into cutting-edge processors, and hopes to be able to provide the whole mobile ecosystem with futuristic camera features. Think about what Apple’s been able to do with two lenses on the iPhone X, or Google with one on the Pixel 2. With Light’s software and camera array, it could provide a completely new level of detail and control. Lautenback says one manufacturer is already at work on a Light-enabled phone, and more are in the works. I say something about how I bet Snap’s going to call, wanting to use Light to improve the augmented-reality capabilities of whatever new cameras Snap’s cooking up, and Lautenback just smiles and glances down at my voice recorder.
Light could go the other way, too. “We could make, in the size of an iPad, a 600mm zoom lens,” Lautenback says. Right now, that lens would cost you 12 grand and require a backpack to lug around. This is apparently the device Rajiv Laroia, Light’s co-founder and CTO, lusts after most. He wants it for bird watching.
Lots of other companies are working on similar tech, re-orienting the photography experience around the software and machine learning. Rylo’s video camera comes from a similar way of thinking, as does all the tech in the Pixel and iPhone. So while you might not quite be ready to ditch your DSLR for an L16, the rapid advance of software means a camera this small could be at least that good sooner than you think. Though it’ll definitely still look a little creepy.