Light L16 Camera Hands-on Review – a different kind of camera!

 

 

Light’s L16 Digital Computational Camera

 

SYNOPSIS
INTRODUCTION
UNPACKING
L16 PHOTOGRAPHS
L16 PHOTOGRAPHIC DETAIL
L16 DIGITAL IMAGE FILES
CONCLUSIONS

 

So, I haven’t written anything new here for about a year, mostly because I’ve been enjoying life in a variety of ways.

 

But, I have a new camera and I’d like to share it with you. Not only is a new camera for me, this whole camera concept is quite new.

 

SYNOPSIS

The L16 is a small, easy-to-handle camera with lots of potential. It produces very large images that are of good to great quality. However, in situations where there is a great deal of detail, it appears that the L16’s algorithm for creating a single image is not able to manage all of that detail and those detailed elements are soft and fuzzy. It’s a great camera for spontaneous shots. Due to the technology of the camera, the shutter speeds are relatively high which reduces the likelihood of needing a tripod in many normal situations. However, the raw image files that the L16 are extremely large and must be converted to DNG and/or JPEGs by Light’s proprietary software, Lumen (beta). Only one file can be converted at a time with Lumen; there is no batch editing. The converted DNG files also are extremely large and the JPEG files appear to be manageable. The L16 is a work in progress and likely has a great future.

 

INTRODUCTION

First, the camera and some of it’s details. This camera is the Light L16 and I’ve included a hyperlink to its website. This camera is quite different from any camera that I’ve ever used before and I want to try to explain why (I’ll leave the how it’s different to Light).  My first camera, more than fifty years ago, was an Eastman Kodak Baby Brownie Special and a simple affair: a light-proof box; a simple, “single-speed” shutter (~1/40″); and a fixed f/11 diaphragm (the hole that lets in the light). Back in the day, it cost about $1.25. My second camera, in the mid 1970s, was a Kodak Instamatic Pocket 30. In the mid-1980s, my parents gave me the camera that “called” me to be a photographer – a Canon Sureshot 35mm. I pushed that camera to its limits! My next camera, in the mid-1980s, was my first single-lens reflex (SLR), a Nikon FE-2 (for now, I’ll stop with the hyperlinks because you get the idea of how things have progressed). In the early 2000s, I bought my first Pentax medium format cameras and a Fuji 617 panoramic camera, followed by my Pentax digital “35mm” and medium format cameras. For this presentation, I’ll assume that you understand the basics of these various cameras. All of my current work is shot on my Pentax digital cameras, and frequently involves using a tripod for stability because these are big cameras and they easily shake, especially when I’m shooting at slow shutter speeds for detailed landscape photographs.

 

There also is another camera in my quiver – my cellphone camera. You have one, too. These cameras are pretty basic, popular, ubiquitous and effective. I don’t miss using film, waiting days for the prints to come back. I enjoy the spontaneity that my cellphone camera allows for taking fun, family photographs and videos. But, my cellphone camera’s quality isn’t nearly as good as my big digital SLR cameras. I capture memories with my phone camera, but not images that are suitable (e.g., high enough quality) for work.

 

The Light L16 is sort of like an SLR camera and a cellphone camera combined. Actually, it’s more appropriate to think of it as sixteen cellphone cameras that have been combined into a housing that’s larger than a cellphone, but smaller (and more manageable) than a standard SLR camera. The beauty of this camera is that it uses combinations of these sixteen different cameras to take digital images that are then combined by the camera’s “brain.” As Light calls it, this is the first “computational” camera.  It’s a pretty amazing concept and very difficult to pull off. I won’t go into all of the technical details; I’ll gladly allow the folks at Light to give you those details, because they’ll do it so much better and I’d just be repeating their words.

 

I first heard about the L16 two years ago and immediately jumped at the opportunity to be an “early adopter” of their new camera concept.  I didn’t understand it very well, but the concept certainly intrigued me. At that time (October, 2015), I believe that Light was projecting that the camera would be available Fall, 2016. And, as is the case with new technologies and startups, that goal kept creeping. I was hoping to have this camera this past spring so that I could take it on a trip this summer (and, save myself several pounds of camera gear weight), but that wasn’t to be.

 

UNPACKING

My camera arrived a few days ago and I’ve been putting it through some simple, basic tests for my needs. My camera came in a very sturdy box and contained the camera, soft case, wrist strap, charging block and USB-C cord. The operating instructions are found on the Light website. Additionally, you have to download Light’s Lumen (beta) software to “develop” your digital photographs. The L16 was already 50% charged so I could start taking photographs immediately. The L16 seems to be a significant, final hardware configuration, but frequently receives software updates, and updating the software is something that you should do when you first start the camera.

Unpacking 1

 

Unpacking 2

 

Unpacking 3

 

Unpacking 4

 

Unpacking 5

 

Unpacking 6

 

Unlike most guys, I had already read the detailed operating directions on the Light website. Light helped to manage my anticipation by sending me frequent emails once my package was sent out, including links to the operating instructions. They know that I’ve been chomping at the bit for over a year!!  So, I pressed the power button and – voila!

 

Hello, nice to finally meet you!

 

Next, the “fine print,” since this is piece of digital technology.

 

 

 

The L16 next finds your wifi network and walks you through connecting, setting up date and time, security (if you wish), followed by checking for any software update. Pretty standard stuff.

 

Software update

 

After the software update, you’re pretty much ready to start shooting. And, like any piece of digital equipment, you’re not really going to make a critical mistake, so you can shoot and erase. But, photos will wait, as I’ll just show you a few details.  When you view the front of the camera (check the Unpacking 4 photo above), it’s pretty wild to see these sixteen different digital cameras/lenses on the front, along with a few other round features about which you can read on the Light website. The rear of the camera is pretty basic and non-descript (when it’s off), except for the nice detail of adding a couple of thumb indentations (underside left and upper backside right to help you better grip the camera. The Light website displays images of the camera in operation, with the various screens on the back. The screen is nice and bright, and haptic (“feeling”) and auditory feedback is provided for various functions so that you know when something is happening with the camera.

thumb indent

 

When you charge your L16, there’s a blue, pulsing light around the shutter button that lets you know that you truly are charging your camera.

 

 

charging light around shutter button

 

That’s all that I’m going to write about my initial experiences with the camera in terms of unpacking and starting it. Again, lots of details can be found on the Light website.

 

I’m more interested in how well the camera functions, so let’s dig in!

 

L16 PHOTOGRAPHS

In Spring, 2017, Light made available some example images taken by the L16. They are pretty basic images and they looked fine. When I reviewed the technical details of the images (the exif data), I was not impressed, as the images were smaller than I was expecting (on the order of 16 megapixels).  My Pentax K-1 has a 36 megapixel sensor, and my Pentax 645Z is 52 megapixels. I had not seen sufficient technical details on the L16 and had been assuming that the image files would represent larger image sizes – larger than 16 megapixels. So, I was entering this evaluation with that weighing on me.

 

Going back to the computational photography technical details (which I hope that you’ve read on the Light site by now), the L16 creates its digital photographs by combining several smaller, overlapping 13 megapixel images into a single large, final image. The L16 also uses three major lens focal lengths (35 mm equivalent) to create its images – 28 mm, 70mm and 150mm – on the front of the unit.  When you zoom in on an image from your cellphone camera, you are actually just enlarging a basic image and cropping out the edges to create the impression that you are optically zooming in on a subject.  But, a major difference between your cellphone camera with its single fixed lens and sensor is that Light is combining multiple images from the sensors behind the 28mm, 70mm and 150mm lenses, and these individual lenses/sensors do employ optical zoom. In Light’s computational, digital photography, this is referred to as “variable resolution.”  Don’t ask me – I don’t fully understand how they do it. Light claims that the L16 has a 5x optical zoom, but I’m not clear how it works since this is such a new and different camera technology.

 

Light does an excellent job of illustrating the effective megapixels of zooming in this graphic:

L16 Variable Resolution (copied from the Light website)

 

When I first saw this graph a few days before my L16 arrived I began to think that I had mislead myself when I viewed the example images last spring. And, that’s a very good thing that I’ll later explain!

 

I took my L16 out for its first shots later on the day of its arrival. I took a few “grab” shots, just for grins, to get used to it, as well as some comparative images between the L16 and my Pentax K-1 and 645Z cameras. Shooting with the L16 is fairly intuitive, as you can likely gather from the Light website instructions on their Support pages. Again, I won’t go into all of those details.

 

One point to note is that while my Pentax cameras practically instantly turn on (a second or less), the L16 requires thirty seconds or so to “boot up.” If you’re using the L16 consistently, it would be best to turn it on and then put it to sleep when you’re not using it. I’d only turn it off toward the end of the day or a photoshoot so that it’s more readily available.

 

So, here’s one of my first photographs taken with the L16, followed by a detailed piece of the photograph:

 

An office interior.

 

The full-size digital photograph is an ASTOUNDING 10432×7824 pixels – 81 megapixels! – which is more than 50% larger than the images that my medium format digital camera creates. The other thing that I want to point out about this photograph that there is NO WAY I could take an image like this with either of my Pentax digital cameras (or any other quality digital camera). Decent digital cameras would not allow me to take a nice, crisp hand-held interior photograph at ISO100, f/15 and 1/60″ – NO WAY! To take a photograph like this with my Pentax cameras, I’d need a tripod to stabilize that camera and the shutter speed would be quite a bit lower.  Following is the same image, but with basic post-processing:

 

An office interior, with basic post-processing.

 

Here’s a second shot, zoomed in a bit, and still handheld:

 

87mm lens

 

And, here’s the same image, but zoomed in (100%) to give you a sense of the quality of the detail:

 

Office image at 100% englargement

 

The same comments hold true about this second office photograph: if this was any other decent digital camera, I’d have to use a tripod and a significantly slower shutter speed.

 

Next, here’s another image without editing. It’s not a great photograph, but I’ll use it to demonstrate something about the L16.

Airplane – no editing

 

I cannot remember the last time I shot a photograph at f/15, ISO100 with a shutter speed of 1/1600 second.

 

The same photograph, with basic editing:

Airplane – with basic post-processing.

 

And, here’s an image where I zoom in to show the image detail:

 

Airplane detail, 300%.

 

I’ll now use this photograph to demonstrate some of what the L16 does to create its photographs. The following two photographs, while “small,” have been taken from 300% enlargements of the above airplane photograph.

 

Airfield detail, 300%

Airplane shadow, 300%

You may not be able to see it in the airfield photograph, but there’s a bit a soft halo around the marker lights, which wouldn’t be there if I’d taken this photograph with my Pentax cameras. Similarly, you should be able to see what’s happening with the wing shadow on the concrete – the shadow is relatively crisp, but then becomes soft as you move away from the shadow. The L16 camera is combining several different images to create a single larger image from various lenses and sensors. I don’t know exactly which sensor/lens combination is being used in these sections of the photograph, but I’m guessing that the main subject of the airplane image – the airplane – is being captured by a single 70mm lens, and then being combined with images taken from around the airplane by 28mm lenses. Again, it’s just a guess based on what Light describes on its website, but I’ll show you why in the next section.

 

One thing that I have noticed while using the L16 is that it exhibits what we would have called “shutter lag” a decade or so ago. The L16 seems to “hunt” for its focus point and holds off on actuating the shutter until the focus locks. So, it does take a moment of hesitation before it finds the focus. It does seem that when I used the shutter button on the top of the camera that this was an issue, but if I used the shutter button on the back screen that the shutter fired immediately – I’m assuming that the camera was focused and haven’t found any photographs yet where the L16 did not focus before the shutter actuated when I used the back screen shutter button.

 

Another major issue from my perspective, being primarily a landscape photographer, is whether I could use a polarizing filter on the L16. My beliefs over the past several months were that the answer was no, since there’s no “filter ring” and any filter would somehow have to cover several different lenses and hopefully produce the same effect on each lens and sensor. I inquired with Light support and they confirmed my beliefs. But, me being me, I still had to try and I’m glad that I did.

 

I mounted my L16 onto my tripod for this little test. With the camera on the tripod, I could use one hand to manipulate a polarizing filter and the other hand to press the shutter button. When I placed the filter over the front of the L16, I received a “lens blocked” warning, which is a pretty slick inclusion with the camera! It’s typically meant for extraneous fingers, though. But, I was able to move the polarizing filter (this one was an 82mm polarizer, which not every photographer will have handy) and when I moved the filter slightly away from the front of the L16, I was able to get a photograph using the polarizer.

Lens Blocked Warning

 

L16 photograph using an 82mm polarizing filter.

 

If you’ll compare this image above with the images below from my backyard, you’ll be able to notice the polarizing effect on the vegetation. I didn’t try the polarizer any more, but I want to try it on a blue sky situation to see if there are effects that might show up between the different lenses/sensors on the relatively uniform sky. (I’d do it now, but it’s an overcast day.)

 

 

L16 PHOTOGRAPHIC DETAIL

 

Here’s that airplane image, but I’ve inverted the tones, converted to black and white, and then applied a filter that highlights little differences between pixels. In this image, you can see the different lens/sensors that have been used to create the final image. And, to help you see it better, I’ve tried to highlight those boundaries in a second version of the image.

 

Inverted negative.

Inverted negative, highlighting some of the individual images.

 

The strength of the L16 is that it can take some really large, impressive images in conditions that might normally require a tripod. The weakness is that detail is reduced the further that you “move” from the center of the image. This may or may not be important to you, but it’s important to me. I’ve been shooting with my film and digital cameras for a long time and I’m nearly always shooting for edge-to-edge sharpness. I want it and my clients want it. In the case of the L16, something has to give so that these other benefits (small size of camera, large image sizes) can be obtained. If I’m photographing something where the edge-to-edge detail is important – which I usually am – then I don’t know that the L16 would be my first camera choice.  Finally, if I don’t really care about quality at all and am taking “grab” shots to capture memories, then using my cellphone camera is what I’ll do.

 

When I’m evaluating any tool, one of the aspects of that tool that I consider is what I call “utility” – how can I use that tool in as many ways as possible, and in what situations? I know the “utility” of my Pentax cameras. They produce awesome images. But, the smaller Pentax is lighter and produces good images, so I’ll use that camera when the image size is less important to me and when carrying a big camera is not appealing. Alternatively, I’ll use my medium format Pentax camera when I want my best image quality and I’m able to manage the weight of that camera. In both cases, I’m also usually considering which tripod to carry with me to stabilize my camera. As I wrote earlier, I had hoped to receive the L16 this past spring. If that had been the case, I would have carried it with me on my backpacking trip this past summer, and saved myself three or four pounds of weight in my pack. I would have had a good/great image quality on my backpacking trip, with a low camera weight (utility).

 

Next, here are some images that I took in my backyard with my two Pentax cameras and the L16. In this “test,” I mounted all three cameras onto a tripod so that I kept the cameras stable, which was necessary with the two Pentax cameras. With these test photographs, I’m trying to come close to using the same lens focal length so that I’m comparing apples to apples.

L16

Pentax K1

Pentax 645Z

Pentax K1, 300% enlargement

Pentax 645Z, 300% enlargement

L16, 300% enlargement

 

I encourage you to develop your own opinions of the image quality of these three different cameras. But, here’s are my opinions. First, the image sizes are not exactly the same – testing cameras is not my forte. But, as expected, I feel that the Pentax 645Z is better than the Pentax K1.  The image quality of the L16 seems to be pretty close to that of the Pentax 645Z. I think that the L16 is a bit softer and maybe has some other minor lens quality issues (maybe some fringing?), but it’s pretty close, especially when you consider the difference in the cost and size of the two different cameras.

 

On a second foray with which I evaluated the L16 (to a couple of local state park areas), I took nearly a hundred photographs with the L16. Those photographs can be viewed in the gallery link that I’ve provided below for your consideration. I wish to highlight one of those photographs, though, which appears below. This photograph looks pretty good on first blush, but when you enlarge the photo to get a sense of the detail, there are some significant issues. First, there’s a halo of softness around the person walking down the path.

 

 

Full image, reduced to 20%

Detail on the walking man, 100% enlargement:

100% enlargement

 

Grass detail, 100% enlargement:

100% enlargement

It appears that in a situation where there’s a great deal of little detail, such as with these thousands of grass stalks, the L16 does not do a good job of figuring how to maintain that detail, and you also can better see halo around the man in these two enlargements. It’s obvious in this image above, as well as the image of the airport concrete. I frequently combine images for panoramas and am on the look out for softness in the details where individual images overlap, so this is an issue for my work. When I find images that don’t overlap well then those panoramas don’t get submitted to stock agencies. I also photographed this setting with my Pentax 645Z and the stalks of grass were much more clear in detail. I’m presuming that with the L16 camera system there are multiple perspectives on the grass and that when those perspectives are combined details are blurred, especially where there’s a quite a bit of detail.

 

So far, I’ve tried to present my take and opinions on various, mostly subjective issues between my Pentax cameras and the L16. The central image quality of the L16 seems to be very high, but the image quality as you move away from the center declines. I won’t include more photos, but when I compared the edges of the backyard scene between the L16 and Pentax 645Z, I was pleasantly surprised with the comparable quality between the two when enlarged to 200%. In terms of the ratio of image quality-to-camera size/weight, the L16 is a winner! My main question at this time is whether an image that I capture with my L16 would be satisfactory for the stock agencies with whom I work, which is TBD.  **UPDATE: I have checked in with one of the stock agencies with whom I work and they are not accepting images taken with a Light L16 at this time.**

 

L16 DIGITAL IMAGE FILES

 

Now, here come the significant objective issues. Again, I’ve been shooting film and digital for years, and over the past five years and more have developed a pretty consistent digital workflow with my Pentax cameras. This workflow basically consists of: 1) shooting the photograph; 2) importing to my computer; 3) importing to Adobe Lightroom for various minor edits; 4) if necessary, editing in Adobe Photoshop; and, 5) exporting the file for final purposes (in my case, mostly for submitting to stock agencies). For most photographers, this is a pretty standard workflow. Here’s the rub regarding the L16 for any photographer, amateur or professional and I’ll put into these a chart so that it’s a bit more clear.  The rub is the image file size. (I’ve also included an 8×10 photograph as an example of pixel dimensions and megapixels for comparison.)

 

 

Camera

File Type Pixel Dimensions Megapixels File size (megabytes) Megapixels/Megabyte

8×10 photograph

 

2400×3000 (at 300 pixels/inch)

7.2

 

iPhone

Jpeg

4032×3024

12.2

1.5

8

Pentax K-1

PEF (proprietary)

7360×4912

36

60

0.62

Pentax 645Z

PEF or DNG (digital negative)

8256×6192

51

95

0.54

Light L16

LRI + LRIS (proprietary)

Variable;

~8700×6500;

up to 10432×7824?

~56.5;

up to 81.6

223

0.25 – 0.36

 

So, the raw files coming out of the L16 are about 223 MB – that’s quite a large file, especially for a camera that is not aimed at a professional photographer. Again, that’s the raw file. Light uses its proprietary “Lumen” (beta) software to convert the LRI+LRIS files into either a single JPEG and/or DNG file. I’ve exported several of my evaluation images, but for this example I’ve chosen a single image that I hope is representative. In this example, the combined file size for the LRI+LRIS files is 240 megabytes. When the file is converted, the DNG file is 163 MB and the JPEG is 12 MB. I also looked for other Light images that I had converted and there were many that were on the order of 500 MBs while there were other DNG files as small as 18 MBs – I don’t get the variability and I haven’t checked to determine if there’s consistent quality. In one folder of 94 photo files that came from the L16, the DNG files averaged 370 MB, while in a different folder of the L16 raw files, the LRI+LRIS files averaged 233 MB. My computer requires 20 to 30 seconds to convert each LRI+LRIS raw file to a DNG file – my preferred file type for editing a photograph, so there’s an additional time and work element in my work flow. The Lumen (beta) software does not (yet) permit for batch file handling, so I’ve had to individually convert the hundred or so evaluation images that I’ve taken. It’s not pleasant for me to imagine using the L16 and Lumen software in their current iteration where the L16 was my primary camera and taking hundreds of images for a project (like a backpacking trip).

 

I typically work with DNG or Photoshop files (PSD) that are in the range of 50 MB up to a gigabyte, especially when I’m working on multiple layers in a image file or am combining image files to create panoramic photos, which is common. In some cases, my panoramic image files can be as large as four gigabytes and require special handling methods. But, consistently attempting to work on a 500 MB DNG file would be very taxing on my computer resources, even though I feel like I have a relatively powerful computer intended for photo editing (2013 Mac Pro, 3.5 GHz 6-core Intel Xeon E5, 32 GB ram).

 

The bottom line here is that I sincerely feel that Light has to (and, the folks at Light are probably very aware of this issue and is working on it) markedly reduce the file sizes, improve the file efficiency (megapixels/megabyte) and improve the ability of the Lumen software to allow batch file handling, among other things.

 

One last little issue regarding the L16 image files. I don’t know why this occurs, but when I was preparing some of the above images, I first converted them using Lumen and then opened the files in Lightroom and then edited the files in Photoshop. One of the items that I was reviewing in the L16 images was the shutter speed, since it’s so much higher than a traditional camera. When I checked the file information in Lumen, I would see one shutter speed, but when I looked at the shutter speed in Lightroom, it frequently had a different value.

 

So that you might consider the image quality of the L16, I’ve created a gallery where you may download images and look at them for yourself. You may find that gallery at:

EXAMPLE L16 PHOTOGRAPHS

 

Feel free to download the image files and look them over for your own purposes. I’d suggest that you review the images at 100% enlargement and you should be able to note that the central 90% or so of the image is sharp, while the edges are less sharp.

 

CONCLUSIONS

The L16 is a remarkable camera technology. It’s a small, easy to handle camera that produces some amazingly high quality images. The L16 is definitely a work in progress and it’s very interesting. I feel that the folks at Light have developed a really well-thought piece of photography hardware. There are several features that are potentially available in the L16 that aren’t currently being utilized – video (4K!) and accessories. The image quality of the L16 is somewhere between good and great – I can’t quite put my finger on it because the L16 creates photographs differently from any camera with which I’ve worked before. The L16 captures some great detail in images, but is soft around the edges. In situations where there is a great deal of detail, the images are soft in those detail areas.

 

The weakness of the L16 is the extremely large file sizes and the ability of Light’s Lumen (beta) software to convert these files to usable DNG and JPEG files. The software is limited, slow and doesn’t (yet?) allow for batch file handling. I don’t know that most consumers are going to enjoy working with these extremely large files. If I continue to use the L16, I’d likely have to change my workflow from using DNG or PSD files to using JPEG files (which is not really a quality change, in my view). And, those large files are going to chew up a great deal of media storage, much more than most consumers are used to using for their photographs.

 

I really like the possibilities of the L16. I like working with a smaller camera that produces large, detailed images. I like being spontaneous with the L16 camera, which I don’t do with my larger cameras that I frequently have to mount on a tripod to get the landscape shots that I typically pursue for my work. I like that the technology allows me to take photographs with a much faster shutter speed than I’m used to using; the “sunny 16” rule definitely does not apply to the L16.

 

Lastly, I’m a photographer who has a lot of different technical skills. Marketing is definitely not my strength. But, I have to ask myself, at this point, what is the market towards which the L16 is focused? (pun intended)  The image quality is much higher than most consumers want. The image quality, at least for me, is something that I, as a professional photographer, am still trying to determine if it’s sufficient. I only know as I continue to work with my stock agencies and see how they evaluate photographs from the L16. And, the computer resources necessary to work with the L16 images seem to be more than what I “think” (I have no data, just a gut feeling) most consumers have in their home computers.

 

That’s my review. I recognize that it’s sort of a mixed review and that’s OK. The L16 is a work in progress. Frankly, I want to see it get better because I like the idea. I own one! So, I definitely want it to improve and I know that it will. Where it will be in a year or two remains to be seen, but I’m really looking forward to the L16 in my future.

 

This entry was posted in Light L16 Camera.

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  1. […] The weakness of the L16 is the extremely large file sizes and the ability of Light’s Lumen (beta) software to convert these files to usable DNG and JPEG files. The software is limited, slow and doesn’t (yet?) allow for batch file handling. I don’t know that most consumers are going to enjoy working with these extremely large files. (TimmulHolland) […]

  2. […] reviewer, Tim Mulholland, was impressed with the concept and technology of the camera, saying: “The L16 is a remarkable […]

  3. […] reviewer, Tim Mulholland, was impressed with the concept and technology of the camera, saying: “The L16 is a remarkable […]

  4. […] reviewer, Tim Mulholland, was impressed with the concept and technology of the camera, saying: “The L16 is a remarkable […]

  5. […] reviewer, Tim Mulholland, was impressed with the concept and technology of the camera, saying: “The L16 is a remarkable […]

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