Light L16 camera review: futuristic frustration

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The Light L16 camera is a marvel of engineering. It takes 16 different smartphone-sized image modules, each carefully aligned behind a piece of glass, and uses them in concert to create larger, better-looking images than the results that individual cameras are capable of. It does all this in a form factor that is two or three times thicker than, but not as wide as, an iPad mini, something that really fits in some pockets and is fairly easy to store in a bag. That's the point of sale of Light for this $ 2,000 camera: the L16 is apparently a bag full of camera equipment in a single body.
At a very high level, this is the experience of using the L16. With a simple thumb movement on the 5-inch touch screen, you can quickly zoom from a 28mm wide-angle perspective to a 150mm telephoto view or any intermediate point.
Otherwise, the L16 is mainly a nuisance. The photos he takes are in a limbo of strange quality between the images of smart phones and something that was shot with a DSLR camera or without a mirror. The camera handles slower and more contemplative photography well, but had trouble keeping up when I shot more demanding scenes. The desktop editing software, which is necessary to process the full resolution images and is essential if you want to get any of the photos of the L16 on an iPhone, is quite robust, but it is slow. For such a remarkable camera, I constantly felt uninspired to use it. And, most of the time, it remained in the pocket of the bag or coat that fits so easily.

If you have trouble grasping how the L16's dizzying array of cameras works, think this way: do you know how two-lens telephones like the iPhone or the Note allow you to zoom from wide-angle to telephoto in the camera application? This is that, stretched to the extreme. The modules of 16 cameras each have their own image and lens sensor, and cover different focal lengths. There are five modules of 28 mm wide angle, five medium 70 mm and six telephoto 150 mm.
The big difference between this camera and these phones is that the L16 simulates all the focal distances between 28 mm, 70 mm and 150 mm by combining data from multiple camera modules. Therefore, instead of digitally zooming the 28 mm image so that it looks like it was shot at 40 mm, it is replicating that focal distance by joining images on the fly. This is also the reason why the quality of the L16 images can be better than that of a single smartphone camera. The results of the L16 are slightly greater than the sum of its physical parts, all thanks to a really intelligent software.
It's a small miracle that the L16 works as advertised in the first place
Considering all the software and hardware work that makes this possible, all this happens remarkably fast, in a second after taking a picture. The camera also throws the results quickly, although that is because at the beginning it shows a lower resolution preview of the image it takes. In playback, you can touch a button to assemble a higher-quality 13-megapixel composition with a better dynamic range and more details. But to get the full-resolution image of 52 megapixels that the L16 can capture, images must be processed through the company's desktop publishing software.

However, I found that the 13-megapixel photo was usually good enough. With good light and wide focal lengths, the L16 captures photos that can deceive you into thinking that they were taken with a larger sensor. But so can smartphones, and higher-level smartphones are more consistent than the L16, which tends to oversaturate their images or cast a color tone on the image in scenes with multiple sources of illumination.
The performance of the L16 falls in low light. In theory, combining data from multiple images should help you combat image noise and produce photos that are rich and bright. Most of the time, however, I ended up with blurry and dirty looking images.
The quality is especially difficult when the L16 is fully extended. These 150 mm modules have openings f / 2.4, so they let in less light than the larger cameras (which are f / 2.0). Worse still, it is difficult to keep the image stable in such a long zoom range, and there is no image stabilization. The L16 could save all the space occupied by a zoom lens, but smaller is not always better at long focal lengths.

Speed ​​is another problem. To be fair, I did not notice many delays when I shot slowly, which surprised me considering all the computational work the camera is doing with each click of the shutter. With this in mind, I found it especially useful for street photography. How often can you approach 150 mm without pointing a long lens at someone?
But when I tried to blow up a burst of gunfire, things stopped. The refresh rate of the screen, which is forgivable when taking one or two photos, makes capturing multiple images a headache. There is also no burst mode, which means that you must touch the shutter button again and again to capture a sequence of images. The more you try this, the more the shutter clicks will not register, because, finally, you press the button while the camera is still processing the images you just captured.
The L16 is good for street photography, but there is a speed limit
I also found that the camera's autofocus is slow and, at times, unreliable, especially in low light. And since all this is handled through the touch screen, it was difficult to make sure that it was focused exactly in the right place. Here there is much more room for error than you would find in a traditional digital camera.
These delays and objections joined quickly when I tried to push the camera. While it served me well on slow walks around my neighborhood, I was too slow to handle a chaotic scene like a dog park.
If the L16 is really supposed to complement or replace my DSLR or camera without a mirror and a lens bag, it can not just save me space. It has to offer, or at least approach, a versatility similar to that of those cameras. That means there are times when I'm going to need it to be quick. Otherwise, that compensation would not always be worth it.
Part of my frustration with the responsiveness of L16 came from the interface with touch screen only. The user interface is fluid and quite easy to understand, but although I like to have some touch screen options on the cameras, I hate having to do everything through them, especially at times when I try to quickly change the settings to be able to capture a fleeting moment. The lack of knobs or a viewfinder or any physical control (except for the shutter button) is intended to keep the L16 slim. The light fulfilled that mission, but it has a price.

Things are not easier when it comes time to edit the images of the L16. I struggled with the company's desktop publishing application, which, I must say, is still in beta, even on a powerful MacBook Pro.
Light created a kind of pseudo-Lightroom experience, with a film strip design of all your photos and some basic editing tools like exposure, contrast and sharpness. There are also creative tools, such as simulated bokeh / depth settings, that are reminiscent of the original tone for Lytro cameras. These depth effects work well as long as the camera really focuses on the desired focal point, but I found that it is not always the case. If the camera really focuses on a person's ear, rather than on their eyes, they probably will not be able to fix that in the editing software, and the bokeh effects will only make it more obvious that they lost their focus.
In general, the editing software, especially the most creative tools, is slow. It's not as bad as Lytro's desktop publishing software when it ruined my experience with the Illum a few years ago. Light has put a lot of effort in the first months of existence of this camera to make all the software (on the computer and in the camera) faster, lighter and easier to understand. It is a welcome gesture for a camera that will not sell more than a few thousand units.

The images taken with the L16 at 28 mm, 104 mm and 150 mm, all from the same place on the sidewalk.

But it's not enough. Approaching a photo, for example, causes the software to have to reassemble the image on the fly, which generates loading times between each click of the magnifying glass. Simple edits, such as adjusting exposure, can sometimes take half a second or more to render. Small delays were added, such as these stretch editing sessions that should take 30 minutes in hours.
You can border the desktop editor if you have an Android phone because the L16 is capable of transferring Bluetooth files. (The camera actually runs Android, the "camera" interface is just an application that Light built). But even so, you can only transfer the 13 megapixel JPGs, not the unformatted DNG files. And since there is no accompanying mobile application, and iPhones do not allow regular transfers of Bluetooth files, there is no quick or easy way to get the images from the L16 on your Apple device.
There is no quick or easy way to get the images of the L16 on your Apple device
Instead, iPhone users must connect the camera to a computer, download the images through the desktop software (a process that can take about half an hour for approximately 300 images by themselves), export them (which is also a fight), and transfer them to the phone from there. It's a frustratingly old problem for such a futuristic camera. And when you consider how good the cameras have come in smartphones like the iPhone X, Google Pixel 2 or even now the Huawei P20, as well as the fact that you can capture and edit RAW images on these phones, they ask you why anyone I would leave $ 2,000 in the L16.

I'm not as happy with the L16 as a camera. But for Light, the real value of the L16 is not an independent product. Rather, it is a demonstration of certain technologies and ideas, all of which could make much more sense in smartphones.
Space is paramount in smartphones, but the demands for quality and versatility when it comes to smart phone photography have skyrocketed in recent years. Even reduced to only a few cameras, Light's technology could bring a large optical zoom, higher resolution and, perhaps, better quality on the back (or fronts) of our smartphones.
The problem is that in the time it took for Light to reach the market (I saw the first prototype in October 2015), the largest smartphone manufacturers in the world began to implement similar ideas. Apple, Samsung and now Huawei use multiple camera modules on the back of their phones, giving customers greater versatility by offering a zoom lens. You can also combine the results of these multiple cameras into a final image that is better than one could have captured on its own.
The cameras of smartphones do much more than the L16 promises when the first prototype arrived
Light told me recently, late last year, that he was working with a smartphone maker to incorporate their technology. It seems the right option for Light's technology, but it is not clear from what part of the market the company spoke. Perhaps Light will give midtier smartphones the opportunity to compete with the iPhones and Samsung of the world. He may also have lost the pot.
Despite its shortcomings, I still can not stop thinking about the simple and surprising fact that the camera, with all its moving parts and its jujitsu software, worked every time I clicked on the shutter.
Never get over the feeling that the L16 is a better demonstration of an idea of ​​what a product is. Even then, the median results of L16 are not exactly promising. After all, some people bought this. Light solved a lot of problems for this camera to work, and maybe now I can apply some of that knowledge to a smaller form factor, like a smartphone. Until then, as the replacements go through larger and more bulky cameras, my current smartphone will work perfectly.


Verge Score

Good material
Fascinating technology
Good for street photography
Slim design

Bad things
Inconsistent image quality
Performance is too slow for everything except slow motion
Desktop software is an arduous task

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