Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Let There Be Light

You can fairly accuse me of many things in this blog, but going on about the latest photographic gear is not one of them. Other blogs and webzines, of course, exist for no other reason, and some sites I could mention regularly resort to gear-talk as a lazy – perhaps desperate – form of clickbait. As many have pointed out, taking photographs and window-shopping for photographic kit are actually two quite different, perfectly legitimate activities that only partially overlap. I hear the same is true in other "creative" fields such as craftwork and painting, and this is understandable: the two aspects of such activities are linked but easily separated, and can be discussed in their own distinct idiolects. This is not universally the case, though: I'd be amazed if there was anything like the Web or social media presence devoted to, say, the actual experience of driving as there is to comparing and bloviating about the latest vehicles. A post on "The three-point turn: how I done it good" (as one of my sometime work colleagues would have parodied it) is unlikely to attract much attention.

So bear with me if, for once, I make a little excursion into gearhead territory.

When it was first announced as a project back in 2015, the "Light" camera seemed very much like the polite cough of The Future of Photography introducing itself. I was immediately intrigued. It was already clear that smartphones had supplanted "real" cameras in the life of ordinary citizens, and I had read a number of articles about the potential of computational photography to transform the photographic scene in the way digital cameras had already done. After all, most "serious" digital cameras were still really film cameras by other means. Most people would be hard put to tell the difference between a film SLR or rangefinder and its digital equivalent: same shape, same lenses, same bulky weight dangling around your neck. Unlike the telephone, the universal symbol for "camera" carried (and still carries) no real sense of obsolescence or quaintness.

This conservatism in design was not just a reluctance to embrace novelty or, more practically, a desire to preserve long-established families of lenses. The physics of optical design impose certain inevitable constraints of size and configuration on any device constructed around a bulky tube of glass lens elements intended to project an image onto a receptive surface. Also, the physics of that receptive surface itself mean that there is a direct correlation between its size and the quality of the resulting image. As with film, a bigger digital sensor means a better photograph, if detail, sensitivity, and an absence of "noise" are your priorities over simple convenience. Which, in turn, means bigger lenses. Or so ran the conventional wisdom. It seemed the engineers at Light were pioneering a radically different approach.

I'm not going to explain that approach here (not least because I barely understand it myself: try this), other than to say that the camera they designed, eventually known as the Light L16, is essentially an Android device – a non-phone phone, if you like – which captures the simultaneous exposures of ten out of an array of sixteen (sixteen!) small phone-type imaging devices, five of which are fixed at (the equivalent of) a focal length of 28mm, another five at 70mm, and a further six at 150mm. These overlapping small images are bundled into a "raw" file which must then be exported from the camera onto your computer and stitched together in Light's proprietary software Lumen to form a further single high-resolution image, which in optimal cases can be as high as 52 megapixels and which, despite being captured wide open at a fixed f/2.0, ends up by default at f/15, giving a handily deep depth-of-field. Don't ask me how. You can also change the DOF in the Lumen software; again, don't ask me how. This whole complex engineering miracle is crammed into a chunky but compact package (about 6" x 3" x 1") with no lensy projections or fiddly knobs at all other than the recessed power and shutter buttons – it's entirely operated by a touch-screen – and is covered on both sides by smooth, robust Gorilla Glass, like a fat, high-end phone. Nice!

As I say, I was intrigued, and signed up for Light's newsletter. Sadly, things did not go well. The launch of the Light L16 camera was delayed for several years, and the gap filled with the kind of repetitive puff and hyperbole ("The death of the DSLR is imminent!") that always conceals difficulties, whether technical, financial, strategic, manufacturing, or corporate. The newsletter went ominously quiet quite quickly. When the camera did eventually arrive in late 2017, it was far too expensive (around £2000) and received at best lukewarm and at worst hostile reviews. It didn't seem to deliver on the hype, sold poorly, and the company abandoned it at the end of 2019. End of story.

However... A certain number of them are still out there, and can now be bought second-hand at a much more reasonable price from the kind of early-adopter willing to drop £2K on a novelty and quickly move on the next Big Thing (reminder: "taking photographs and window-shopping for photographic kit are actually two quite different, perfectly legitimate activities that only partially overlap"). The L16 had been foolishly over-hyped and marketed variously as a journalist's tool, or a high-quality snapshot camera, or a "street" camera, or a substitute for a DSLR, none of which it proved to be, due to various quirks and shortcomings, hence the poor reviews and sales. But: what it is, in reality, is an innovative, proof-of-concept device that is as convenient and useable as a smartphone, but only if you are into the slower, more considered aspects of photography, not looking for instant results, prepared to work with and at times work around a quirky piece of apparatus, and don't mind going through a slightly cumbersome workflow to achieve the best outcomes. Bearing in mind that some people are prepared to use sheet film or even wet-plates in a view camera, develop and print the resulting negatives in a darkroom using noxious chemicals, all in pursuit of a certain perceived quality, then by comparison getting to grips with the Light L16 seems relatively straightforward and painless. Assuming, of course, that the Light's combination of convenience and quality hits the spot for you.

So, yes, I have bought one to play with, and, yes, I am aware that support for both hardware and software is now non-existent, but I am still intrigued and sufficiently impressed by the results so far, despite the current lack of opportunity to get out in the landscape where – I hope – the thing will come into its own. I'll keep you posted. If nothing else, this feels like the future, and it's clear that smartphones that already incorporate some less ambitious version of multi-lens computational photography are coming from the other direction to put the squeeze on conventional cameras. Although the day when I would ever pay over £1K for a phone like the iPhone 12 Pro Max because of its photographic potential is still very far away indeed, especially when – hilariously – the equivalent of a 65mm focal length lens in its three-lens camera array is branded by Apple as a "telephoto".

Tiny detail of the photo above viewed 1:1 at 52MP.
Printed at 300 ppi this would cover 9x6 cm of the whole at 70x50 cm.

Same day, a dull January morning threatening rain.
(Cropped square, converted to monochrome and toned).


amolitor said...

I am intrigued! I also found the concept fascinating, and still consider this to be The Future (which as you intimate seems to already be arriving, but mostly people are not noticing)

Please do keep us updated. I always felt that there was a lot of prejudice in the reviews based on little more than "it looks weird and everyone knows no phone can equal my DSLR!!!"

Now I can prove it! Or, well, technically you can. At least testify. I hope to find out if I was right, or wrong!

Mike C. said...


Yes, I'm currently quite turned on by this thing (sad, really...). I like the sophistication of its simplicity. I also like the quality of the resulting images so far, which is, after all, the point. Covid and weather permitting, I need to give it some proper comparative outings with, say, the Fuji X-T1. Hey, look at me doing camera blogging!

It has some obvious issues. Battery life is more phone-like than camera-like, although having realised there was not a lot of point in having Bluetooth or WiFi turned on (updates? What updates?) the battery life seems a lot better now than it did initially. It's noisy in very low light. I wish they'd put strap attachments on both sides so you could hang it round your neck. Etc.

My biggest discovery is that you can choose to export 13 Mpixel DNG files, as well as or instead of those massive 52 Mpixel files -- I'm much more comfortable with the smaller files, and so is my computer.

If you shop around (eBay, used camera sellers, etc.) you should be able to find one for between £400-500, which doesn't seem unreasonable. Mine has the rubber "bumper" accessory which makes handling much more secure.