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.
I first wrote about Lytro a while back when they introduced the first consumer grade lightfield camera to the market. It was an exciting development as this kind of technology was out of the reach of pretty much anyone prior to the original Lytro. Still whilst it was interesting from a technological perspective I just couldn’t bring myself to buy one, especially not after I picked up my DSLR again. Ever since then though I hadn’t heard anything further from Lytro, neither new developments nor tales of their demise, so I was left wondering if the Lytro that I envisioned was ever going to eventuate. As it turns out whilst we might not be seeing Lytro sensors in all DSLRs we will be seeing a serious piece of camera kit and it’s quite incredible.
Lytro announced the Illum which is their first entry into the upper end of the photography market. It looks very similar to a lot of the mirrorless 4/3rds that are available now although it doesn’t have an interchangeable lens system and lacks a viewfinder of any description. Normally these would be things that would count heavily against it but the specifications of the Illum are, honestly, so incredible that if anyone else had announced them I’d say they were fake. That lens is a 30-250mm F/2.0 thats capable of doing 1:3 macro that’s made up of only 11 elements in 3 groups which sounds downright impossible when you compare it to similar DSLR lenses like the Canon 70-250mm F/2.8 (19 groups with 23 elements). The sensor has also been buffed up considerably tipping the scales at 40 Megarays which gives you a print resolution of approximately 5 megapixels. That’s well below most DSLRs available today but it’s above the crucial 4MP threshold required for a standard sized photograph. The back also sports a 4 inch touchscreen that includes a depth histogram to aide with taking highly refocusable pictures.
Now anyone who’s made the mistake of becoming interested in high end photography gear will look at those specs, mostly the lens, and wonder how a startup like Lytro was able to do something that the big lens makers haven’t been able to accomplish with their decades of experience. Lytro says that their seemingly impossible lens specifications comes from the fact that they’re doing most of what the lens does mechanically in software instead. This drastically cuts down on the element count and enables the lens to do things that you’d usually require multiple, distinct lenses to do. I’m willing to give Lytro the benefit of the doubt here but I’ll have to see one in action before I make a final judgement on just how good it is.
One thing that I find a little strange about the design is the way Lytro believes it will be used. The Illum angled body isn’t done just for aesthetics, instead it’s been designed to be used as if you’re shooting at hip level rather than at eye level. Whilst any photographer will tell you that one of the fastest ways to grow is to stop shooting everything at eye level shooting at hip level has its own set of limitations and I’m not sure that designing a camera around that idea is completely sound. Again this is something I’d want to see in action first before laying down judgement but it’s something that feels it’s different just for the sake of it.
The low final resolution is also likely to be something that will hinder adoption among more serious photography enthusiasts. Whilst you’ll be able to print the traditional photo size anything larger than that starts to become problematic. This probably isn’t a problem for those who are just viewing them digitally, which more and more people are doing these days, but it does mean that the Illum is probably one step short for the professional and likely a little too expensive for the intrigued amateur looking to move up from their phone camera. The original Lytro was in a similar market position though and was obviously successful enough for Lytro to continue development so there’s probably a market for it that I’m just not seeing.
All this being said I’d really love to get my hands on one of the Illums to see just what its capable of and whether the output from it is enough for me to ditch my DSLR for certain things. The lens on the Illum is what intrigues me the most as its capabilities are just incredible and I really want to see how it compares to similar offerings from the long standing DSLR companies. We don’t have to wait long though as the Illum is scheduled to hit the streets on July 15th for a cool $1499 and whilst I probably won’t shell out for one immediately I’d certainly be interested in borrowing one to give it the once over.
My stance on phone based photography is pretty well known (some would go as far as to say infamous) and is probably one of the only issues that causes me significant cognitive dissonance on a regular basis. You see I’m not in the hard against camp where anything below a pro-level DSLR doesn’t count but nor am I fully vested in the idea that the simple act of taking pictures makes you a photographer. It’s a matter of personal opinion, of course, and I’m not going to make myself out to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t photography, especially when I firmly believe in the “Photography is 50% photographer, 40% light and 10% equipment” rule of thumb.
Indeed I thought I had gotten over all my angst about phone based photography after my last post about it all. Heck I even spent an inordinate amount of time trying to learn my current phone’s camera, using it almost exclusively whilst I was in New Orleans in order to source some eye candy for my daily travel posts. I’ll be honest when I say the experience was a little frustrating but there was more than a few pics I was actually proud of, the above being one of them. My chosen toolset was not that of Instagram or any of its more well known competitors however as I prefer to use SnapSeed due to the flexibility it grants me (and the fact that they make some amazing Lightroom plugins as well) and I haven’t uploaded them to any of my regular sharing sites. Still for someone who had essentially written this whole area off I felt I was making progress until I read this article:
Since the launch of the original iPhone and the arrival of the App Store, the differences between those photographs taken on a smartphone and those taken on regular digital cameras have become far less apparent. Not because the phone cameras are getting better (despite the ever-improving optics, sensors, and software on smartphones, there’s still a huge difference in quality between an iPhone camera and a Canon 5D Mark III), but because of where photographs are being viewed. The vast majority of imagery is now seen in the exact same places: on smartphones and tablets, via apps such as Pinterest, Facebook, Google+, Flipboard and most importantly, Instagram. At 1024 x 1024 pixels, who can really tell whether a photo was taken on an iPhone or a Canon 5D? More to the point, who cares?
There’s a lot in Bareham’s post that I agree with, especially when it comes to the way most photographs are consumed these days. It’s rare now to see pictures materialize themselves in a physical medium or even at a scale where the differences between photographic platforms starts to become apparent. Indeed even I, the unabashed Canon DSLR fanboy, still has none of his work on display in his own house, preferring to show people my pictures on their laptop or other Internet connected device. Indeed many pictures I love on my phone often fail to impress me later when I view them on a larger screen although that’s probably more due to my perfectionist ways more than anything else.
Still I’m not convinced that the introduction of the iPhone, or any camera phone really for that matter really (I had a camera phone for a good 4 years by that point), changed everything about photography. Sure it made it more accessible thanks to its integration into a platform that nearly everyone has but it hadn’t really been out of reach for quite some time. Indeed many people had said similar things about the consumer level 35mm cameras back when they were first introduced and whilst the camera phones provided an added level of immediacy it’s not like that wasn’t available with the cheap digital point and shoots before it. Indeed the act simply became more public once the apps on our phones allowed us to share those photos much quicker than we could before.
Thinking it over a bit more it’s actually quite shocking to see how my journey into photography is the inverse of Bareham’s. I had had these easy to use and share cameras for ages thanks to my love of all things technological but that creative spark simply never took hold. That all changed when I got my first DSLR and I began to learn about the technical aspects of photography; suddenly a whole new world had opened up to me that I hadn’t known about. I felt compelled to share my images with everyone and I started seeking out photographic subjects that weren’t my friends at parties or the sunset from my front porch. It has then graduated into what I do today, something that’s weaved its way into all aspects of my life regardless of what I’m doing.
Perhaps then the technology is simply a catalyst for the realisation of a subconscious desire, something that we want to achieve but have no idea how to accomplish in our current mindset. We all have our favourite platforms on which we create, ones that we’ll always gravitate back to over time, and for many people that has become their phones. I no longer begrudge them, indeed I’ve come to realise that nearly every criticism I’ve levelled at them can be just as easily aimed at any other creative endeavour, but nor do I believe they’re the revolution that some claim them to be. We’re simply in the latest cycle of technologically fueled progress that’s been a key part of photography for the past century, one that I’m very glad to be a part of.
Ho boy, rarely have I copped more flak for a post both online and offline than my piece early last year on how the general population of Instagram made me feel. In all honesty whilst I knew there were a few people it would piss off, which was one of the reasons it sat in my drafts folder for ages, I still felt like I had some valid points to make based on my observations based around the Instagram user base at large. Many people took offence to this, arguing points ranging from “Why should that matter to you anyway?” to “You’re using it wrong, there’s great communities on there”. I was hoping that the comments section would have been the end of all of it but late last week the topic came up again and I lost an hour in the ensuing debate so I figured it was time I made my position on this whole matter more clear.
I recognise that for every example I can dredge up of someone posting a horribly framed and filtered picture of their breakfast someone else can just as easily show me something like this. My criticism wasn’t levelled at people who use the service in this fashion but reading back over the post and the ensuing comments I never really made that entirely clear, so mea culpa on that one. However I don’t feel that the general thrust of my argument has been invalidated by that as many users agree that the vast majority of stuff on Instagram isn’t particularly great. This isn’t unique to Instagram however as any user generated content site suffers from Sturgeon’s Law and honestly the mentality of users on said sites really doesn’t vary that much but Instagram hit closer to home thanks to my interest in this particular area.
I’ve also had people try to bring me back into the Instagram fold in order to convince me that there’s something in the platform for me. Now whilst I wasn’t an active user for quite some time I did have the application installed on my Galaxy S2 for the better part of the year, mostly so I could view pictures linked to me on Twitter without having to use Instagram’s then rather shitty web interface. From time to time I’d look at pictures on there and see some genuinely good ones but not often enough to convince me that it was worth investing my time to better my feed by subscribing to said users. The fact of the matter is I already have many other avenues for discovering photographers that I like, ones that share a critical characteristic with.
Our preferred platform of choice.
For me the undisputed platform of choice is my DSLR. I’ve tried many other camera systems from high end point and shoots, film SLRs and yes multitudes of cameras in phones but in the end I always end up coming back to my DSLR. The reasoning behind this is because of the amount of control and influence I have over the final image, something which I struggle with on any other platform. It may sound weird if you prefer the simplicity that’s granted to you by camera phones (something which I do understand) but I find it a lot easier to take pictures on my DSLR, to the point where using anything else just frustrates me. I think that’s because I know that whilst I can do a lot of things in post should I so desire there are some things I simply can’t unless I’m using my preferred platform of choice.
This is somewhat at odds with the Instagram community which, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t take particularly kindly to those who take photos outside of their phone and then upload them via the service. If I was going to use Instagram again that’s the way I would use it but I’d rather not antagonize the community further by breaking the current social norm on there. For now I really only use Facebook to distribute pictures (mostly because my recent photographic endeavours have involved friend’s weddings) but I’ve been a fan of Flickr and 500px for a long time now as they seem to be more my kind of people.
I’ve come to realise that even my beloved DSLR community isn’t immune to this kind of malarkey either as there are far, far too many people who I walking around with a $1000+ camera with the shocking kit lens on it shooting in auto thinking that they’re the next Don McCullin. The criticisms I’ve levelled at Instagram apply to them as well although they’ve yet to congregate onto a platform that’s as ubiquitous as Instagram has become.
After the backlash I received I set myself a challenge to try and use my camera phone to produce pictures that I’d be proud to share and the above is probably one of the dozens I’ve taken that’s anywhere near what I wanted it to be. 6 months of trying have shown me there’s definitely a lot of effort required into creating good pictures, arguably the same amount as required by using a DSLR, but I still feel like I’m constrained by my phone. Maybe that’s a personal thing, something that I could overcome with more time and dedication, but in saying that I’d propose the same thing to all the Instagrammers out there. Borrow a friends DSLR and see the world from our side. Maybe you’ll come away with an appreciation for the technology that helped give birth to the platform you so love today.
There’s only one thing that I don’t like about my little 60D and that’s the fact that it’s not a full frame camera. For the uninitiated this means that the sensor contained within the camera, the thing that actually records the image, is smaller than the standard 35mm size which was prevalent during the film days. This means that in comparison to its bigger brothers in more serious cameras there are some trade offs made, most done in the name of reducing cost. Indeed for comparison a full framed camera would be over double the price I paid for my 60D and would actually lack some of the features that I considered useful (like the screen that swings out). The rumour mill has been churning for quite a while that Canon would eventually release an affordable full frame DSLR at this year’s Photokina and the prospect really excited me, even if my 60D is still only months old at this point.
News broke late yesterday that yes the rumours were true and Canon was releasing a new camera called the EOS 6D which was in essence a full frame camera for the masses. The nomenclature would have you believe that it was in fact a full frame upgrade for the 60D, something that was widely rumoured to be the case, but diving into the specifications reveals that it shares a lot more with the 5D lineage than it does with its prosumer cousin. This doesn’t mean the camera is more focused on the professional field, indeed the inclusion of things like wifi and GPS are usually considered to be conusmer features (I’ve had them in my Sony pocket cam for years, for example), but if I’m honest the picture I built up of the new camera in my head doesn’t exactly align with what Canon has revealed and that’s left me somewhat disappointed.
Before I get into that though let me list off the things that are really quite awesome about the 6D. The full frame sensor in a camera that will cost $2099 is pretty damn phenomenal even if that’s still well out of the range of the people buying in the 60D range. It’s actually the cheapest full frame DSLR available (even the Sony fixed lens full frame is $700 more) and that in itself is an achievement worth celebrating. All the benefits of the bigger sensor are a given (better low light performance, crazy ISOs and better resolution) and the addition of WiFi and GPS means that the 6D is definitely one of the most feature packed cameras Canon has ever released. Still it’s the omission of certain features and reduction in others that’s left me wondering if it’s worth me upgrading to it.
For starters there’s the lack of an articulated screen. It sounds like a small thing as there are external monitor solutions that would get me similar functionality but I’ve found that little flip out screen on my 60D so damn useful that it pains me to give it up. The reasons behind its absence are sound though as they want to make the 6D one of their more sturdier cameras (it’s fully weather sealed as well) and an articulated screen is arguably working against them in that regard.
There’s also the auto-focus system which only comes with 11 focus points of which only 1 is cross type. This is a pretty significant step down from the 60D and coming from someone who struggled with their 400D’s lackluster autofocus system I can’t really see myself wanting to go back to that. It could very well be fine but on paper it doesn’t make me want to throw my money recklessly in Canon’s direction like I did with all the rumours leading up to this point.
One thing could sway me and that would be if MagicLatern made its way onto the 6D platform. The amount of features you unlock by running this software is simply incredible and whilst it won’t fix the 2 things that have failed to impress me it would make the 6D much more palatable for me. Considering that the team behind it just managed to get their software working on the ever elusive 7D there’s a good chance of it happening and I’ll have to see how I feel about the 6D after that happens.
Realistically the disappointment I’m feeling is my fault. I broke my rule about avoiding the hype and built up an image of the product that had no basis in reality. When it didn’t match those expectations exactly I was, of course, let down and there’s really nothing Canon could have done to prevent that. Maybe as time goes on the idea of the 6D will grow on me a bit more and then after another red wine filled night you might see another vague tweet that indicates I’ve changed my mind.
Time to restock the wine rack, methinks.