It’s well known that the camera industry has been struggling for some time and the reason for that is simple: smartphones. There used to be a wide gap in quality between smartphones and dedicated cameras however that gap has closed significantly over the past couple years. Now the market segment that used to be dominated by a myriad of pocket cameras has all but evaporated. This has left something of a gap that some smaller companies have tried to fill like Lytro did with their quirky lightfield cameras. Light is the next company to attempt to revitalize the pocket camera market, albeit in a way (and at a price point) that’s likely to fall as flat as Lytro’s Illum did.
The Light-L16 is going to be their debut device, a pocket camera that contains no less than 16 independent camera modules scattered about its face. For any one picture up to 10 of these cameras can fire at once and, using their “computational photography” algorithms the L-16 can produce images of up to 52MP. On the back there’s a large touchscreen that’s powered by a custom version of Android M, allowing you to view and manipulate your photos with the full power of a Snapdragon 820 chip. All of this can be had for $1299 if you preorder soon or $1699 when it finally goes into full production. It sounds impressive, and indeed some of the images look great, however it’s not going to be DSLR quality, no matter how many camera modules they cram into it.
You see those modules they’re using are pulled from smartphones which means they share the same limitations. The sensors themselves are going to be tiny, around 1/10th the size of most DSLR cameras and half again smaller than full frames. The pixels on these sensors then are much smaller, meaning they capture less detail and perform worse in low light than DSLRs do. You can overcome some of these limitations through multiple image captures, like the L-16 is capable of, however that’s not going to give you the full 52MP that they claim due to computational losses. There are some neat tricks they can pull like adjusting the focus point (ala Lytro) after the photo is taken but as we’ve seen that’s not a killer feature for cameras to have.
Those modules are also arranged in a rather peculiar way, and I’m not talking about the way they’re laid out on the device. There’s 5 x 35mm, 5 x 70mm and 6 x 150mm. This is fine in and of itself however they can’t claim true optical zoom over that range as there’s no graduations between all those modules. Sure you can interpolate using the different lenses but that’s just a fancy way of saying digital zoom without the negative connotations that come with it. The hard fact of the matter is that you can’t have prime lenses and act like you have zooms at the same time, they’re just physically not the same thing.
Worst of all is the price which is already way above entry level DSLRs even if you purchase them new with a couple lenses. Sure I can understand form factor is a deal breaker here however this camera is over double the thickness of current smartphones. Add that to the fact that it’s a separate device and I don’t think people who are currently satisfied with their smartphones are going to pick one up just because. Just like the Lytro before it the L-16 is going to struggle to find a market outside of a tiny niche of camera tech enthusiasts, especially at the full retail price.
This may just sound like the rantings of a DSLR purist who likes nothing else, and in part it is, however I’m fine with experimental technology like this as long as it doesn’t make claims that don’t line up with reality. DSLRs are a step above other cameras in numerous regards mostly for the control they give you over how the image is crafted. Smartphones do what they do well and are by far the best platform for those who use them exclusively. The L-16 however is a halfway point between them, it will provide much better pictures than any smartphone but it will fall short of DSLRs. Thinking any differently means ignoring the fundamental differences that separates DSLRs and smartphone cameras, something which I simply can’t do.