Light L16 Review
|Full model name:||Light L16|
|Sensor size:||1/3.2 inch
(4.5mm x 3.4mm)
|Viewfinder:||No / LCD|
|Native ISO:||100 - 3200|
|Extended ISO:||100 - 3200|
|Shutter:||1/8000 - 15 seconds|
6.5 x 3.3 x 0.9 in.
(165 x 85 x 24 mm)
|Full specs:||Light L16 specifications|
Light L16 Review
The Light L16 - The most-hyped camera ever?
Perspective by David Etchells
When Light first came on the scene, way back in April of 2015, we were pretty excited by what they were promising with their "DSLR-killer" technology. We were among the first to announce them to the photography world, and I interviewed Dr. Rajiv Laroia, their CTO in some depth a bit over a week later. I was pretty impressed and excited; Rajiv is clearly an extremely bright guy, and as one of the developers of LTE cell phone technology, he had a lot of street cred as an entrepreneur able to bring advanced technologies to market. He was very assured of the soundness of their approach, going so far as to say that their technology would make DSLRs obsolete in 10 years -- obsolete, as in they would no longer exist.
After that auspicious introduction, there followed a good two years of PR teasers and hype for the coming product. When it was finally developed and on sale (currently for an eye-watering $1,950), they politely but firmly declined to send us a review sample. In fact, it seemed no one was getting review samples, save a couple of individuals with relentlessly positive views of the camera. At the same time, even Light's own sample images from the camera seemed of curiously low quality, with odd artifacts in them. Hmm...
With that as the background, I jumped at a chance to get my hands on a friend's sample (thanks again, Lee!), and put it through its paces. What we found was ... uh ... "disappointing". Not to put too fine a point on it, in all my years in the camera business (this site will celebrate its 20th anniversary in April), I don't think I've ever seen a product where the hype was so far removed from the reality of its capabilities.
Is this just teething pains for a new technology, that eventually will kill DSLRs? I have no way of knowing, but based on what we're seeing at this point, three years into Rajiv's 10-year prediction, I don't think mainstream camera makers have anything to be worried about.
In reading the below, keep in mind that we started out (albeit almost 3 years ago) excited by the technology and wanting to like the camera. Unfortunately, reality intervened...
Light L16 Overview
A rather unique device, the Light L16 is a smartphone-esque camera that utilizes sixteen 13-megapixel camera + lens modules with three different focal lengths, and a lot of sophisticated software to computationally combine 10 or more simultaneously captured images with the goal of creating a single high-resolution photo that rivals DSLR quality. Using a combination of five 28mm eq. f/2, five 70mm eq. f/2 and six 150mm eq. f/2.4 lenses, the L16 also offers quasi-optical zooming capability from 28-150mm -- something your smartphone doesn't offer.
The computational aspect of the imaging system is very complex, and the L16 doesn't just create an image at a single resolution, but rather the final image pixel dimensions vary depending on the focal length you choose, and resolution can even vary within an image as well. Light often touts "52+ megapixel" resolution, but image size varies from around 13MP (at 69mm and 150mm) to a whopping 81MP (28mm). But that 82-megapixel number is a little deceiving, because the edges of the image are considerably lower-resolution than the center. As with some smartphones, the "optical" zooming isn't quite that; rather the camera combines and interpolates images from its three different focal lengths to give the illusion of it. At times the illusion is a poor one.
Imaging specifications include a shutter speed range of 15 seconds to 1/8000s and an ISO range of 100 to 3200. The camera includes tap to focus, manual and auto exposure modes with up to ±2.0EV exposure compensation, and offers center-weighted and touch-weighted metering modes. There is no aperture adjustment on the L16, but you can use the included Lumen desktop image processing software to adjust focus and simulated depth-of-field post-capture, as well as perform other image editing tasks. The L16 also has three- and six-shot burst modes with an undisclosed frame rate. The reason the buffer depth is so shallow is because the camera is capturing 10 or more images for each frame.
As for build quality and design, the L16 features a minimalist design and sleek appearance. The device is constructed from die-cast aluminum alloy and has a rubberized non-slip grip with a lanyard connection. The rear of the Light L16 is dominated by a 5-inch Full HD touchscreen display and the camera comes with 256GB of built-in storage with no card slot for expansion. Ports include a USB 3.0 Type-C port for data transfer and charging, a Light accessory port, and an external microphone jack.
The L16 runs on the Android operating system and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 with a custom ASIC by Light themselves. The camera has an internal 4120 mAh lithium-ion battery and includes GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It currently can't capture any video, but Light says it will support up to 4K video taken at any of its three discrete focal lengths via a future firmware upgrade.
In development since at least early 2015, with pre-orders shipping since 2016, the Light L16 is now officially on sale with a retail price of US$1,950. In addition to the camera itself, the L16 ships with a wrist strap, cushioned camera case, a USB-C (to USB 3.0 Type A) cable and a USB 3.0 power adapter.
Light L16 Field Test
A clever idea on paper, but the current product falls short
by William Brawley | Posted 02/28/2018
71mm eq. (resolution: 6576 x 8768), 1/163s, ISO 100
To be honest, I'm not really sure what to think of the Light L16 camera. It's a bit of a head-scratcher. On paper it's a very clever idea: a multi-camera device that computationally creates high-quality, high-resolution photos from up to 16 small, low-resolution sensors, and yet is more pocketable than a big DSLR. The L16's execution of this, however, at least at this point in time, leaves a lot to be desired. The design of the L16 is awkward, the shooting experience and performance are underwhelming, and the image quality is very inconsistent and often quite disappointing. What's even more mind-boggling is that this camera retails for $1,950! For that price point, you can buy yourself one heck of a kit from a conventional camera manufacturer, including a body and in many cases multiple lenses.
While Light hasn't made samples available to review websites like ourselves, we were able to borrow a Light L16 from a friend for a short time, and I had the opportunity to take the camera out for a spin...
71mm eq. (resolution: 6576 x 8768), 1/219s, ISO 100
Design and Shooting Experience
The Light L16 is one big slab of a device; a big bar-shaped camera with very little in the way of contours or handgrip. There are hardly any physical buttons, too, save for the power button and shutter release. In the hand, the L16 feels quite solid, and more sturdy and heavy than I was expecting. The build quality is quite nice, actually. There is a stippled, grippy material covering the camera along the right side that wraps around the handgrip area, as well as along the left side and top corner. A subtle indentation on the back serves as your thumb rest/grip. The camera is rather large and thick, so despite the lack of a full handgrip, I felt like I was able to have a secure grip on the device. There is a pass-through notch for a strap, and I would definitely recommend using one despite the L16's heft; I want that extra security.
One thing of note is that nearly two-thirds of the front of the L16 is covered in small cameras, and I often found myself inadvertently blocking one or more lenses with my left hand as I gripped the device. The camera will warn you if you block one of the lenses, which is nice, but it meant I had to be extra careful how I held the device while shooting.
As for controls, you interact with the camera almost entirely via its massive touchscreen. Indoors, the screen looks gorgeous, with a vivid display and sharp text rendering. Outdoors, however, is a different story. I found the glass-covered screen to be extremely reflective, and very prone to glare. It was initially very overcast when I was first out shooting with, and I didn't have any issues. However, as the sun came out later in the day, there were a few times when I could barely see what was on the screen due to all the glare.
When it comes to on-board software, the L16 is actually based on the Android OS, though it has its own custom UI/camera app interface, which you interact with most of the time. With the lack of physical controls, there's a lot of tapping and swiping required to interact with the device and change settings. That being said, I found the touchscreen very responsive and the UI pretty straightforward and easy to use. To change settings for various options, such as exposure compensation in Auto mode or shutter speed and ISO in Manual mode, for example, you simply tap and hold on their respective icon, then slide your finger up and down to the desired setting.
As for the shooting experience, the L16 only offers a full automatic shooting mode with a simple exposure compensation adjustment, or a "Manual" mode that lets you adjust the ISO setting and shutter speed. There is no aperture adjustment at all, since all the little cameras that make up the L16 are fixed-aperture; you can "adjust" the aperture after capture using the Lumen desktop software. For autofocus, you simply tap the screen where you'd like to focus; you can also half-press the shutter button to autofocus, which will focus on the last-tapped AF spot.
28mm eq. (resolution: 7824 x 10432), 1/2080s, ISO 102
Performance-wise, the Light L16 leaves a lot to be desired. The power-on time is excruciatingly slow, taking at least a solid minute or more of holding the power button down until it boots up. Once on, the L16 uses a sleep/wake behavior like a smartphone, and with it, battery life seemed okay, lasting me a whole day, but battery life will depend on how much use you make of its display. Autofocus is very sluggish, though. The camera noticeably racks focus in and out each time you half-press the shutter; my iPhone autofocuses more quickly.
28mm eq. (resolution: 10432 x 7824), 1/832s, ISO 100
The big story here, though, is image quality, which is simply disappointing and very inconsistent, particularly considering the L16's hefty pricetag. Light touts a "52+ megapixel resolution," but in reality the image size and the detail it renders vary wildly depending on the focal length used and the overlap of the different lenses, due to its multi-camera design. The 52MP number doesn't even make sense to me; at 28mm eq. (the widest focal length) image size is 10432 x 7824, or ~81 megapixels, although resolution varies quite a bit across the frame. At around 35mm eq. or so, I got around 51MP (8256 x 6192). 50mm eq. drops to around 25MP or so, dropping further to only about 13MP (4224 × 3168) at 69mm eq. (as shown in our lab shots). At 70mm eq., we see an increase in resolution back to 8832 x 6624 (~58MP), before dropping again to the mid-20-megapixel range beyond that, and then finally bottoming-out at just 13MP again at the maximum telephoto focal length of 150mm eq.
There's a lot of complex computation behind the L16's image processing; the camera takes at least 10 different images simultaneously at any selected zoom setting, in order to composite and create the final photo. And even Light states that the image resolution is dependent on the focal length you choose, with the ideal focal lengths being around 35mm and 75mm since the "base" 28mm and 70mm lenses overlap the most with the 70mm and 150mm lenses, respectively, at those focal lengths.
As mentioned previously, shooting at 28mm generates ~81-megapixel files. This is why Light describes images wider than 35mm as "52+ megapixels," but because the combined field of view of the 70mm modules only partially overlaps the 28mm ones, resolution around the edges of the larger 28mm photos is much lower than in the center area. That explains this sharp drop in resolution I noticed in some of my 28mm images. See the example below:
28mm eq. (resolution: 10432 x 7824), 1/1997s, ISO 101
Here's a 100% crop of the above image that shows the sudden drop in resolution as the image extends past the coverage of the 70mm modules at 28mm eq.
To be honest, the L16's multi-lens system is quite a clever and very complex system, but at the end of the day, all that I'm really interested in is whether or not the camera produces pleasing photographs. And sadly, the resulting image quality just didn't measure up, in my eyes. Light claims the L16 can "generate images both high in detail and low in noise" yet the images I've observed display quite a bit of softness or poor detail rendering, noticeable noise even at low ISOs, and lots of strange processing and compositing artifacts -- similar to those that we discovered in Light's own sample images and discussed in an earlier article.
28mm eq. (resolution: 7824 x 10432), 1/1349s, ISO 101
Notice the noise here in the shadow areas. This image's exposure was not altered. This is a JPEG image exported from the Lumen desktop software at default settings.
As we mentioned in our earlier Light image analysis article, I also often noticed very strange compositing artifacts and unnatural edge blurring in my own shots, as if the camera had difficulty determining where or how much blurring to apply when synthesizing apparent depth-of-field from its multiple small-sensor, wide-aperture images. They are very odd artifacts, and I'm not sure if they're caused by problems with the software trying to apply artificial blur for a shallow depth-of-field effect (computational bokeh), compositing issues from the multi-lens system, or a combination of both.
The Lumen desktop software does offer fine-grained control over the final look of the image, with standard exposure, saturation, white balance and other typical image post-processing adjustments. It also gives you control over the focus and depth-of-field of your shot, thanks to the multiple focal lengths and perspectives captured by the L16, and thus feels similar to the (equally-unsuccessful) Lytro camera in a way. The software also provides adjustments to help fix compositing errors, such as incorrect areas of blurring, refining the edges between sharp, focused subjects and out-of-focus area and more.
As you can see in the example crop below, the edge along the tree trunk displays obvious blurring artifacts, but try as I might, I couldn't get the Lumen software to fix this blurred edge. No matter what I tried, nothing seemed to work for fixing this spot. In one instance, the Lumen software immediately crashed while using its brush tool to refine the edge. Granted, the software is still in beta (I used the latest version available, v188.8.131.52), so bugs and issues are to be expected and it should improve over time. Still, though, this long after the camera's original release, it seems that the software for a nearly $2,000 camera should work better than this.
To be fair, under just the right conditions, the L16 can capture photos with nice, crisp detail, decent dynamic range and vibrant colors, especially when you consider how tiny each of the sensors are (we estimate them to be 1/3.2" types). However, the camera isn't very consistent at capturing sharp, detail-rich photos -- sometimes detail across the frame is sharp, but other times, it's sharp in some regions but processing mistakes and edge-blurring artifacts ruin an otherwise decent photo.
Note: Apologies for not including some higher ISO photos taken in low-light conditions and with the flash in my Gallery shots. After seeing the serious image quality issues at base ISO in good lighting, we decided not to field test the L16 any further. Our lab shots, however, step through the entire ISO range. We've taken them at 75mm equivalent focal length at 51 megapixels for the best overall image quality (look for "_75MM" in the filenames), as well as some at 69mm equivalent (_69MM) to demonstrate the worst-case resolution of only 13 megapixels along with numerous compositing artifacts, particularly easy to spot in our flat "Multi" target taken at a slight angle.
70mm eq. (resolution: 6624 x 8832), 1/2936s, ISO 103
As Dave noted above, the company's CTO and co-founder claimed DSLRs will be a thing of the past in ten years, but I don't think the L16 is driving any nails into the DSLR coffin. Would it be nice to have something pocketable that could take just as nice, high-quality photos as a "big" mirrorless or DSLR camera kit? Of course. But at this point in time, it's apparently still difficult to impossible to get around the challenges of seamlessly combining multiple images captured using small sensors and optics.
105mm eq. (resolution: 4416 x 5888), 1/4160s, ISO 102
The entire success of the smartphone-as-a-camera isn't so much about the photo quality (which continues to get better, mind you) but more so about the device's convenience. It's a single device that fits in your pocket that has a multitude of functions, including taking photos. For most people, a smartphone takes photos that are good enough, much to the disappointment of the camera makers and their compact camera products. The fact that you can take nice photos without having to grab another device is amazing and quite liberating. Even for myself, if I'm not explicitly going out to take photos or traveling somewhere new, I'm not likely to carry a dedicated camera. My smartphone will suffice, and I'm not required to haul a second device or carry a bag to get usable pictures.
L16? No thanks.
(Image courtesy of Light.)
By that measure, the Light L16 doesn't really make sense, though. It's quite large and likely won't fit comfortably in your pocket, and it is still a dedicated camera device, which means you're back to carrying a smartphone and a camera. If the Light L16 could take amazing photos, I'd have less of a problem with it, but it doesn't. Plus, when you consider its outrageous $1,950 pricetag, the L16 is a very strange beast indeed. Granted, the L16 is the first of its kind, so there may well be improvements in successive models. Plus, we have already seen other manufacturers, such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei, incorportate multi-camera systems into smartphones, so perhaps Light's technology will make its way into a smartphone one of these days. (If it did, though, it would be a very, very large cell phone by current standards.) As for now, though, if I'm going to carry a dedicated camera around, I don't see any reason not to go with a conventional camera and get far better image quality and versatility. Otherwise, I'll just stick with my iPhone.
At the end of the day, the Light L16 seems like a clever idea that just didn't work out well in reality. Given its $1,950 selling price, it's hard to see who it could be suited for.