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
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.
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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