#1002. Thwarted progress: the rise and fall of L16

By Jean-Claude Louis | Review

May 13

In October 2015, Light, an aptly named California-based company, announced the development of a new camera concept, which claimed to change the way we practice photography.

The Light L16 was designed to have 16 lens/sensor modules of various focal lengths and to use computational image technology to stitch and fuse the individual photographs together. Intrigued and curious, I pre-ordered the L16 and received it in October 2017, shortly after its launch. Although it was a production unit, I quickly realized that I had acquired a beta device and, therefore, signed up for a long journey of firmware and software updates and improvements. This adventure came to an end in December 2019, when Light announced the end of the L16 production. The camera is no longer available for purchase from Light, which have moved to other applications of their technology platform.

So, why a post about the L16 now that it is all but a thing of the past? There are several reasons for that. One is to document the story of a failed attempt at introducing an innovative technology to the photography community. Another is to remind that the existing L16s have not turned into paperweights, but are still fully functional cameras. While there will be no further updates, the latest updated version of Lumen, their processing software, works flawlessly on macOS Catalina and Windows10 (as well as on earlier versions). Most importantly, the L16 can still be obtained, new or used, from outfits like eBay or a number of user groups on social media, often at bargain prices. Finally, just because it’s hard not to appreciate the brilliance of the L16 concept and its game-changing capabilities when used under the right circumstances.

The L16 features a minimalistic design in a brick-shaped form with no protrusions, built from die-cast aluminum alloy. It fits easily in a small bag or a large pocket. There are only two physical buttons on its top plate: the power button and the shutter release. The front of the camera is covered with 16 small lenses. Its back is dominated by a 5″ touchscreen, which controls all the functions of the camera.

Basic features of the L16

  • Dimensions: 6.5W x 3.3H x 0.94D inches / 165W x 84.5H x 24D mm
  • Weight: 435g – 0.95lb
  • Android OS
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with a custom ASIC by Light
  • Battery: 4120 mAh Li-ion polymer, lasting up to 8 hours
  • Storage space: 256 GB onboard SSD, approx. 1300 RAW photos
  • Image format: proprietary RAW format, LRI
  • Output: LRI conversion to DNG and JPEG in Lumen desktop software
  • Aspect ratio: 4:3
  • Shutter speed range: 1/8000 to 15 sec
  • ISO sensitivity range: 100 to 3200
  • Focal range: 28mm to 150mm (in 35mm SLR equivalency for field of view)
  • Autofocus: by tapping on touchscreen
  • Minimum focus distance: 10 cm at 28mm focal, 40cm at 70mm, 1m at 150mm
  • Metering: center-weighted by default, touch-weighted for selective area exposure
  • Tripod mount: standard ¼”-20 mount
  • Video (beta): 1080p, 30fps

Taking photographs

Taking photos is simple point-and-shoot, with all the functions accessible through the touchscreen. The user interface is fluid and straightforward. There are two exposure modes: Auto, which works like a P mode, and Manual, in which shutter speed and ISO can be adjusted separately. Aperture cannot be adjusted, since all 16 lenses are f/2 or 2.8 fixed aperture. The aperture can be “adjusted” after capture in the Lumen processing software. Otherwise, will come out at f/15, with everything in focus.

Autofocus has improved with successive firmware updates. To focus, you tap on the screen at the desired location, until it locks.

The L16 utilizes sixteen 13-megapixel lens/sensor modules with three different focal lengths: five 28mm-eq. f/2, five 70mm-eq f/2 and six 150mm-eq f/2.4. This combination provides optical zoom capabilities from 28mm to 150mm-eq, accessible through the touchscreen. When the shutter is pressed, the camera captures at least 10 different photos simultaneously. Depending on the zoom level selected, different modules will be utilized. The individual photos are then fused together in Lumen, producing a high resolution image. The resolution is variable, from 13 Mp at 69mm-eq and 150mm-eq, 25 Mp at 50mm-eq, and up to a maximal resolution of 52 Mp at 28, 35 and 75mm-eq.

My experience with the L16

The L16 has had a major impact on the way I photograph. Either at home or while traveling, I often take long walks, on forest trails, mountain paths, steep shorelines, many times in the rain or snow. The L16 is convenient to carry around at all times, in a pocket or small bag (the Peak Design Field Pouch is an ideal companion) and allows me to enjoy photography without hauling a ton of gear. Getting older and being less stable on my feet, I also feel more secure venturing out on uneven, slippery terrain.

I always use the L16 in manual mode, with ISO set at 100. My right forefinger sets the focus and works the shutter button on the touchscreen, while my thumb sets the shutter speed. The screen is large and bright and adequately responsive to touch. I generally use center-weighted metering, unless a scene is unevenly lit, in which case I switch to the touch-weighted mode.

One weak spot that the L16 shares with many other cameras is a tendency to blow out the highlights. I simply underexpose at capture time, visually assessing the image on the screen, in order to retain all the highlight values in the histogram.

The L16 likes light, lots of it. It struggles in low-light conditions and the image quality significantly deteriorates at ISO 400 and above, requiring more aggressive noise reduction in post-processing.

I shoot at all focal lengths, but a large proportion of my images is taken at around 35 and 75mm-eq, which are the sweet spots for highest resolution and image stitching quality (it so happens that their are also my favorite focal lengths).

Lumen, Light’s proprietary processing software, has always been a work in progress. I use it to transfer the L16 files to my computer. Lumen offers exposure, contrast, white balance, clarity, vibrance and sharpening adjustments. The only operation I perform in Lumen, though, is to adjust exposure with the help of the histogram, so that the file will contain all the values information. I then convert the LRI file into a DNG, which I process in Capture One (Lightroom is also capable of handling L16 DNGs). Lumen requires a fairly powerful computer to perform well, short of it it can be sluggish and agonizingly slow.

Lumen gives also control over the focus and depth of field of the shots. I don’t use this depth of field adjustment feature, primarily because I like the deep focus of the diffraction-free f/15 aperture of the original image. Based on users’ accounts, the depth mapping in Lumen is tricky, prone to errors and requires quite a bit of manual corrections.

Enough talk, where are the images?

Early on, I took the L16 as a companion to my Leica M or Fuji X-Pro2. As I got more acquainted with its quirks and possibilities, I took it as my only camera on many trips, including ones that were photo-centric. I took about 10,000 shots with it, hundreds of keepers.

Rather than a “best-of L16” selection, I’m showing images taken in 2020 BC (Before Confinement) during two walkabouts along the Pacific Coast in Oregon and La Jolla, California. Winter is my favorite season for photography on the coast – soft light, storms, clouds, coastal fog, rain, wide beaches, rocky shores, wildlife, no crowds. The images shown were selected from a total of 45 (Oregon) and 40 (California) shots.

The focal lengths are indicated as 35mm SLR equivalency for field of view. Aperture is f/15. Shutter speed and ISO are as indicated.

Ecola Park, Oregon – 75mm-eq, ISO100, 1/8000sec
Cannon Beach, Oregon – 75mm-eq, ISO160, 1/4000sec
Bandon, Oregon – 75mm-eq, ISO 100, 1/2500sec
Kelp, Bandon, Oregon – 33mm-eq, ISO 100, 1/500sec
Rocks, Bandon, Oregon – 33mm-eq, ISO 100, 1/320sec
Bandon , Oregon – 75mm-eq, ISO160, 1/1000sec
Torrey Pines Beach, La Jolla, California – 37mm-eq, ISO100, 1/2500sec
Torrey Pines Beach, La Jolla, California – 75mm-eq, ISO100, 1/2500sec
Torrey Pines Reserve, La Jolla, California – 35mm-eq, ISO100, 1/1250sec
Sand and Rock, Torrey Pines Beach, La Jolla, California – 75mm-eq, ISO100, 1/1600sec
Torrey Pines Reserve, La Jolla, California – 37mm-eq, ISO100, 1/1250sec
The Lone Pebble, Torrey Pines Beach, La Jolla, California – 75mm-eq, ISO100, 1/16000sec
Ferns, Scripps Biodiversity Coastal Reserve, California – 75mm-eq, ISO100, 1/200sec
Fern, Scripps Biodiversity Coastal Reserve, California – 48mm-eq, ISO100, 1/1800sec
Stump, Scripps Biodiversity Coastal Reserve, California – 35mm-eq, ISO100, 1/1400sec
Surf, La Jolla Underwater Park – 52mm-eq, ISO100, 1/8000sec
Surf, La Jolla Underwater Park, California – 105mm-eq, ISO100, 1/8000sec
La Jolla Cove, California – 38mm-eq, ISO100, 1/1000sec
Sea Lions, La Jolla Cove, California – 135mm-eq, ISO100, 1/8000sec
Sea Lion, La Jolla Cove, California – 150mm-eq, ISO100, 1/2500sec
Pelicans, La Jolla Underwater Park, California – 145mm-eq, ISO100, 1/2500sec

Where does that leave us?

The L16 is a marvel of engineering, albeit a wildly imperfect one. It was released at the near-prototype stage and had many shortcomings. Since its launch, there have been major updates in firmware, software and computational algorithms, making it a much improved camera.

It still lacks features such as aperture priority mode, fast multi-point autofocus, fast burst rates, high ISO capabilities and image stabilization. This makes the L16 ill-suited for sport and action photography, fast-moving subjects, and low-light and night shooting. On the other hand, it excels at slower, contemplative photography – still subjects, landscapes, nature, architecture – and street photography.

Early reviewers scathed and promptly dismissed the L16. Trapped in the mindset that the above-mentioned features are imperative to successful modern photography, they couldn’t see the forest for the tree and missed what the L16 is actually excellent at delivering under the right conditions: high resolution and high image quality in a pocket camera (I dare not say medium format-quality, as I have no experience with digital MF devices). Many buyers of the L16 followed suit and were quick to be first dismayed, then indignant when they realized that the camera was not an übersmartphone with lightning-speed-to-Instagram ability, but, instead, required a good knowledge of photography and the skills and patience for processing the images on their computer, all of which in short supply. In the end, oddly enough, a futuristic camera using innovative technology, turned out to appeal mostly to a small group of old school photographers. It was not enough.

Whether Light was serious at entering the camera market but botched its target, or if they used the L16 merely as a proof of concept of their platform is not known. It is, however, safe to assume that, had Light been able (or willing) to pursue the development of the L16 concept, there would have been much improved later generations that could have changed the way we approach photography. To be successful, innovation needs the consumer market to embrace unproven, imperfect technologies and products. It’s a shame that, at the moment, there is no traction for such initiatives. The advent of digital technology could have opened endless opportunities for new designs, new paradigms, but it didn’t happen. “La montagne a accouché d’une souris” (the mountain has given birth to a mouse), as they say in France. Are we doomed, more than thirty years later, to marvel at even more pixels, curved sensors, faster frame rates, ISO by the boatload, 8k video, parading as the latest and greatest breakthroughs, although grafted onto SLR designs from the dinosaur era? Ironically, the platform the most likely to bring to market novel computational imaging advances is the smartphone field. Any takers?

As for me, I’ve decided to bury my bouts of frustration and to extract the most out of my L16, as it is.

 

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  • Patrick says:

    Very interesting introduction to and experience with the L16, one amazing device totally new to me.
    I see that the L16 really produce fascinating photos too. It is a pity that such good old gears are so short-lived. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Patrick ! I’m confident we’ll see more of this technology in the future, in a form or another. Probably first in smartphones.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you for the link. I will not comment on the article (an opinion piece based on a snippet gleaned from a rumor site…), but will stress the point that computational imaging is a thriving industry, with applications in multiple fields, including medical and scientific imaging, seismic imaging, radars, surveillance technology, autonomous driving and many others, even photography 🙂
      There is no doubt that Sony is in the game, too, either through internal research or licensing and partnerships. Whether they, or others, will bring this technology to market remains to be seen. I would hope that if done, it will not be by just sticking a multi-lens lens onto an existing SLR body (although, as John W indicated in his comment below, it may be the surest way for consumers to adopt a new product). My guess is that we’ll see some aspects of computational imaging first in smartphones. Nokia has already launched their (very flawed) 5-camera Pure View 9 phone. I can only assume that Samsung and Huawei are not far behind.

  • Pascal O. says:

    Thank you,Jean-Claude!

    A most interesting article.

    I have always wanted to have a (more) pocketable camera in parallel with my larger equipment.

    Over ten years ago, I used a small Panasonic LX5. Nothing to write home about.

    Since, I looked at the Sony RX1R and more recently at the fifth iteration of the Fuji X100 called V but have not have found them to meet my criteria. And the Leica Q2 is over the top for me.

    Needless to say, your pictures, as always, are very impressive.

    Again, thank you very much for this enlightening article.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Pascal for your feedback 🙂
      The small cameras did not meet my needs either; the ones I owned (Sony RX100, Lumix TZ100, Sony Nex-7) were not particularly pocketable and did not provide major advantages over my Fuji X-pro and Leica M. The L16, though larger than the small point-and-shoot cameras, comes in a smartphone-like form factor that makes it easy to carry.
      Take care, stay safe.

  • John W says:

    Fascinating look into a technology I’ve never explored. I remember the camera arriving to a host of criticism about what it was not. What may have put a lot of people off was the price and the fact that it was such a radical departure from “traditional” photographic methodology with serious limitations. Electric cars are probably a good analogy – the initial offerings simply turned potential buyers off with being too radical a departure from what we were used to in a “car” with limited usability. Tesla got it right by wrapping the technology in something that “looked” like what we were used to, and thus approachable, but in reality is a radically different beast under the skin.

    Regardless, you have clearly mastered the quirks of the beast and produced some lovely images in the process.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you John for your kind comments 🙂
      Your Tesla analogy is spot on, innovation in an acceptable form. The next step in their evolution is to change the form to match it with what’s under the hood. Their model X has already novel features and the Cyber Truck is a bold departure from the norm. Elon Musk and his companies have all the computational, machine learning and engineering technology to make advances in many fields. If only they were interested in photography…
      All the best.

  • Some lovely photos esp Ecola Park, Bandon and the ferns (and others!). In some cases you’ve channeled Edward Weston and I can see how he was inspired. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful coastline.
    I’d wondered about what became of that camera so thanks for the update. My quick search on ebay and craigslist doesn’t show much and the very few listed are at high prices. It was a good investment.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Alan !
      I feel so fortunate to live on the North West(on) coast; it’s still a place of pristine beauty.
      The L16 could be had cheap six months ago, after Light dumped the project. Now the camera has almost reached cult status 🙂 and is harder to find, and at higher prices. Ironic.
      Best wishes.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Lovely painterly photos, Jean-Claude! I especially enjoyed the ones from Cannon Beach & Bandon, since I frequent both areas. It’s inspiring to see someone else’s take on the bounty of possibilities along the Oregon Coast. I’m sure your camera is a technological marvel but, in your capable hands and with your artistic eye, it’s performing at its highest level. Hope to see more from you in the future.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Nancee for your kind words 🙂
      I live on Bainbridge Island and drive to the Oregon and Washington coasts as often as possible, it’s a wonderland. By the way, could we be neighbors?
      After computing and fusing the various images, the L16 generates an unprocessed RAW file, no sharpening, no corrections. It is neutral, rather flat, but rich in information (the reviewers called it bland, lifeless, unappealing and labeled it as low image quality). The converted DNGs can be processed to taste; I usually stay away from the sharp, clinical look that is too often associated with digital photographs. I find that the L16 files render beautifully, creating a “look” that is somehow reminiscent a good CCD sensor image or a large format film photograph.
      Stay safe !

      • Nancee Rostad says:

        I much prefer the painterly result that you get. There’s just too much unnecessary emphasis in the photo world on sharpness, in my humble opinion! We are “near” neIghbors, I live in Kirkland on the east side of Lk Washington. We should meet for coffee sometime and discuss our favorite shooting locations.

        • PaulB says:

          Nance

          May I join the two of you? We are all neighbors. I live near Bremerton.

          Coffee in Edmonds near the Ferry Terminal might be a fun location for coffee and photography.

          Though anywhere will work for me, as long as its after June 3rd.

          PaulB

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    “Pearls before swine”, Jean-Claude?
    Not everyone wants to take sports photography, and even those ho do generally have more than one camera. So I guess the real killer was “difference” – too many people simply feel uncomfortable with anything that’s “different”. Never mind the fact that it’s “better” – who cares about things like that? I spent several years living in Australia’s “Northern Territory”, and the tourist promotion motto there was “you’ll never never know, if you never never go” – in their case, because one of the most fascinating places to see was an area known as the “Never Never Land”. It adapts, as a motto, to all sorts of other situations in life. Your L16 is a classic example – photographers will never never know, if they never never try it out, for themselves!
    Thanks for sharing these magnificent photos. The muted colours are fascinating. Another “completely different” camera is SIGMA’s Quattro, with its Foveon sensor, which also produces astounding photos.
    I live near the Indian Ocean and love photographing along the coast. Bird life is generally limited to seagulls – pelicans seem to prefer to fly further inland, along the freeway – I’d love to capture a shot of one of them, just about to alight on top of one of the street lamps along the side of the freeway, but I’ve yet to figure how to obtain access to the side of the damn thing, to do it. (The emergency stopping lane is scarcely an option! 🙂 )

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Pete for a great comment !
      “Pearls before swine”, that would have made a perfect title for this post. I need to consult with you next time 🙂
      You’re absolutely right, it’s the “difference” that killed the L16, combined with the scorching reviews from the specialized press. The S(t)igma 🙂 Quattro suffers from the same discredit, for proposing an innovative technology in an unusual form factor. The obvious answer would be to advance innovative solutions packaged in a familiar, non-threatening form (see John W above).
      I love the Pacific coast. I live on an island off Seattle; a bit further north from here, along the coast of British Columbia, you can find some of the most pristine ecosystems still existing on earth. Exuberant rain forests brimming with wildlife, no roads, only accessible by boat. One day, if I “ever ever” find the time, I may write a post about it to share its beauty.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Jean – Claude,
    Great photos, not one that I just pass by.
    And I love that un-intentional looking blend of natural and abstract in so many of them.
    – * –

    I almost ordered the L16 when it was announced.
    It seemed the perfect solution for a pocketable camera to have always with you. But I’m of the kind that wants to have my hands on something before I buy it. And then when it was ready, it became (to me) rather expensive as it couldn’t be my only camera (yet)…, so, no.

    Then phone cameras began experimenting in the same direction. I think you are right, the next camera similar to the L16 will be in that form factor. The electronics grow ever smaller giving room for more camera hardware, and the possible sensor sizes aren’t that much smaller – if the phones dare to become a couple of mm thicker.
    – – * – –

    O.T.:
    I never really understood fisheye lenses, except for being *really* wide and for effects.

    But Dustin Abbots gallery
    https://dustinabbott.net/2020/05/ttartisan-11mm-f2-8-fisheye-review-and-gallery/

    shows lots of photos using the effect very artistically and decoratively!

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Kristian !

      When in front of a landscape, a natural setting, a close-up, I’m invariably more attracted by the shapes, patterns, textures, colors, light than by the scene as a whole. That’s just the way I see things and it probably shows in my photographs 🙂

      There are some interesting images in the page you linked to. It shows that in the right hands ultra wide lenses can actually be powerful creative tools. As for me, I don’t care much about focal lengths shorter than 35mm. If I want a wide angle of view I resort to stitching panos with 50-90mm lenses – no distortion and control over depth of field.

  • Philberphoto says:

    Most interesting, Jean-Claude! And, as ever, überpics! Therein lies my quandary. Yes, your pics are just fine. Much better than fine, actually. But, is there even one that couldn’t have been shot with an equally fine result with a more traditional camera? In particular at the hands of the übertalented JCL?
    Because, in my experience, really good ‘togs get brilliant shots out of any gear, so it is only fair game to turn your own ability against you in claiming that, yes, you made them with an L16, but you would have done just as well with any other camera you’d set your mind on.
    The second point is this. Yes, computational imaging is interesting, promising, different. But that, in itself, is not enough. How are 16 small sensors “better” than one? Cheaper? Not sure. More versatile? Possibly, but then there are zoom lenses. And so on. The same could be said of the Lytro, another “different” design.
    So yes, I understand the potential of the technology, and why it is unfortunate that it did not get developped further. Although multi-camera smartphones are now pretty much the norm for high-end, which may hail from the same school of thought.
    But new technology in and of itself is not enough. It must be (a) relevant to the user/consumer, and (b) developped to the point when the new technology is neither the only selling point nor an excuse for unnecessary shortcomings. The story of the Foveon sensor from Sigma comes to mind.
    So I am very glad that the L16 works for you, and I delight in the pics you send. But I credit you a lot more than Light

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Philippe for these very interesting comments !

      To your first point: The answer is obviously no – with respect to the final output, there is no particular advantage of the L16 over other cameras.
      I’ve used most of the digital systems under the sky, either owned or rented, and, invariably (and unsurprisingly), I ended up with the same kind of images. Shows that our creative endeavors are governed by the way our brain is wired and not by the hardware we use …
      I currently use a Leica M, merely a home for my film-era Summiluxes, and a Fuji X-Pro2, for the times when I need zoom lenses. The L16 is just another addition to the toolbox. One that is a lot of fun to use (not always the case with other gear), but also requires a good dose of patience to put up with its shortcomings. Also, the L16 files have a rarely seen quality that suits my photography well: subtle colors, smooth transitions, good light rendering and malleable in post-processing.

      The images I’ve posted here were all taken during family vacations, while walking on beaches with a herd of restless grandkids. And therein lies the major attraction of the L16 : its smartphone-style convenience, portability, continuous 28-150 mm zoom range, along with a high rez, high quality output for processing quietly back at home. I would not think of taking my regular camera gear for such outings.

      I concur on your second point; innovation for the sake of innovation is a vain pursuit. Technological progress must be a value proposition for the betterment of individuals and society. In my view, the right approach for developers/manufacturers (in photography and any other field) is to bring forward products that are genuinely innovative and serve a purpose, that are mature enough to be released, familiar enough to be adopted by a usually cagey public, and that provide a clear path for improvements and upgrades in the long run. Obviously, the L16, while innovative, did not check these boxes, hence its demise.

      O.T.: Your RAW challenge is a really tough one. I’m still scratching my head, not knowing where to start 🙂

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