Let’s cut to the chase. There is no better way to spend $250 on ebay on a camera, unless old engravings of Seraphim, pictures of honeycombs, or lotus seed heads frighten you. This is a camera that took a thrashing in early reviews, maybe because reviewers didn’t get past the short learning curve (or never made it to firmware 1306, where the image processing hit its peak.
The Light L16 computational camera was another one of those late 2010s products that ended up being a flash in the pan, in no small part because the insect-like attention span of internet reviewers was insufficient to understand what a genius piece of engineering this is.
Imagine 16 x 15mm diagonal sensors in two focal lengths, a laser, and a high-intensity LED illuminator. Now imagine that this camera does a steroidal version of the iPhone’s Portrait mode, selecting focal lengths to use, building depth maps, and cranking out photos that are 80 megapixels (at 28mm and 69mm fl equivalents), 52mp at peak performance, and minimum 14mp. The camera can crank out a 14mp JPEG from this (using 5 cameras’ data), or you can run it through the Lumen software to get staggeringly large DNG files (n.b., not Bayer DNG files, but it’s not like you would ever need to up-res files this large using Adobe).
The basic hardware is an ARM64 Android 6 device with a bunch of highly specialized imaging equipment added. The dozen-plus cameras are randomly distributed over the face of the unit and tied together with unit-specific calibration information. To dispel one persistent myth, these cameras cannot addressed by generic Android imaging apps like OpenCamera. At least they cannot if you want to focus at distances other than 20cm.
The Light includes a hefty Li-Ion internal battery and 256Gb of internal storage (recall that this listed at $2k in 2017). The camera’s hardware includes GPS, so it is capable of geotagging your photos (yeah!). The GPS function, though, is very hard on the battery, especially with the final release of the firmware. I managed to side-load a couple of navigation apps (Sygic and Here WeGo), and they function as expected (thought GPS ping interval might be too slow for driving).
Ergonomically, the Light is far better than a cell phone – because it has a dedicated shutter button and a place to grip the camera on the right side (left side, you need to be careful with your fingers – but the camera will vibrate if you block one of the lenses). As to the controls, if you can operate a camera on a mobile phone, you can handle it. Focusing can either be by face recognition or arbitrarily touching a subject on the screen.
From a semiotics standpoint, the camera just looks like a big cell phone. It does not actually attract very much attention. In what you trade off in image quality from a full-frame A7rii, you make up for it in not standing out too much.
The flat form factor makes this pocketable (in the back pocket of Levis or a coat pocket). You will want to keep the camera in its soft case (or use at least a rear screen protector) because it’s all glass son both sides.
Battery life is good; it is supposed to go all day; the four units I tested NIB after 5 years of storage all charge and discharge as expected. It really behooves you to actually power down the camera when not in use – otherwise, depending on what features you have enabled (GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth), it may wear itself down gradually.
Note that unlike the Lytro Illum (review almost done on that too!), you might want to actually focus this camera because everything is shot at f/2). Pictures come out with a simulated aperture of f/15.2 – meaning almost everything is as sharp as a tack, but when you dial back the effective aperture, you will see exactly where the camera focused. An Illum, by comparison, lets you refocus arbitrarily with arbitrary aperture settings, but in doing so, it throws away almost 90% of the data it captures.
Image quality is why you came here, right? Rather than retreading subjects seen in other treatments, here are the points I think that others have missed on this camera:
First, this is generating between 52 and 80mp at maximum resolution (28-35mm, 69-75mm), the rest being digital zoom, with attendant resolution loss (150mm is 12mp). This is real mp, not your cellphone binning 3/4 of the data from a 48mp sensor. The purpose of having 52mp is to brutalize images with perspective correction without leaving many clues. Interestingly, there is little variation in quality between center and edge, but then again, since these images are composites of 10 or more smaller images, it makes sense. And it is good pixels. Click on the picture below (no, no distortion correction…) and blow it up to 100% (it is full-resolution). Every brick is sharp, even in the extreme corners.
Second, the color is phenomenal, like the old Kodak 14ns and Leica digital M cameras. Slightly disappointing is that no version of the firmware has the “Baz Luhrmann Elvis Movie” color rendering.
Third, as you can see in the 28mm shot below, apart from the slight camera tilt on my part, there is little if any distortion. This should be expected, since there is a lot of stitching and blending and correcting going on. That compositing is 99.9% invisible – and the 0.1% is when the camera is operating at 80mp – and manifests as things like a mismatched one-pixel-wide line in a limestone block wall (Light probably decided that 35 and 70 are where you are 100% free of any artifacts). That said, anyone’s chances of seeing a 1-pixel-wide artifact on an 80mp image, especially at web size are…. zero.
Fourth, the L16 runs at much, much higher ISOs than a cell phone, more like a camera with a 1″ or APS-C sensor. Above is ISO 2400. If you have ever seen EXIF data from an iPhone, you see low ISOs and very long shutter speeds (tied to the miniscule focal length of lenses). This is due to the physics of sensors – your cell phone has tiny pixels that can’t capture many photons – hence the shutter needs to be open a lot longer.
Fifth, forget everything you think you know about apertures. The L16 returns a simulated aperture of f/15.2, which is really different groups of cameras focused at different distances, computed and focus-stacked into massive depth of field. The reality is that all the cameras are shooting at f/2 (they are all 28mm or 70mm FOV). You don’t get diffraction from this “very small” aperture because it is not really very small, but you do get tons of depth of field even in low light. The tradeoff is that depending on the subject-background separation, you may not be able to reduce depth of field completely in post (it depends on a lot of things: subject/object distance, difference to the next furthest thing in the frame, complexity of the focused subject). I would guess that in most situations where you would use an L16, you would take the deep depth of field and run with it.
Finally, in its highest-performance use case, it’s still partially beholden to sensor size. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it just means that Light pictures just come off a little grittier than a Leica full-frame at higher ISOs. This is not so much the case at other focal lengths (like, say, 150mm), where there is more averaging.
It is crucial that you have a platform to run the Lumen image conversion software. This does not run on either of the most recent MacOSes (11 or 12); however, it runs fine on Windows 10 and 11. I use it in Windows 11 on a Parallels VM on a Mac Studio Ultra and export the DNGs to a folder that gets picked up by Lightroom.
One thing to bear in mind is that the Lumen software is not great at simultaneous exports of files from several L16s. It can import them fine, but the way exports work, if files from two cameras have the same native filename (L100006, for example), the second one to export overwrites the first one. So think in batches. Or export from one camera at a time,.
The software is not particularly fast when run on a VM (it takes a couple of seconds to export each file); if you are a particularly heavy user, consider a dedicated machine. You know, like the one you already have to run your Flextight, Pakon scanner, etc.
Firmware (guide for the soft-minded)
The firmware on Light cameras is difficult to upgrade these days because the update server is offline. So you are likely going to be stuck with the camera features you have on day one.
Unless you are prone to serious self-doubt and OCD freakouts, 184.108.40.206 is the latest firmware that actually impacts the on-image performance of the camera. Since I have used cameras from 220.127.116.11 to 18.104.22.168, here is the marginal value of each additional feature:
- Priority modes: We added Shutter priority and ISO priority modes to give you easier access and more control when shooting on the go. –> You won’t use this.
- AWB presets: Choose from five different white-balance presets when composing your scene. All options—from Incandescent to Fluorescent to Daylight to Cloudy (and Auto)—are viewable in real time on the L16’s touchscreen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- On-camera editing: Now you can adjust color, contrast, tint and more as soon as you snap your photo. Bonus: These basic edits will even carry over to Lumen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- Histogram: Curious whether you’ve captured the right exposure? With the L16’s new histogram feature, you’ll know as soon as you open the photo in gallery. –> You won’t use this.
- Metadata: Find your photo’s EXIF data much easier in gallery mode. –> You won’t use this.
- On-camera rating: Pick your favorites on the go. The camera’s 5-star rating system will now carry over to Lumen. –> I would highly recommend editing only on a computer.
- Pocket assist: The L16 can now detect once you’ve stored it away in your jacket. It will automatically turn on standby mode to save your battery. –> Causes camera to freak out.
- Image-quality indicators: We added a couple new icons in gallery mode to show you when you’re viewing a preview versus a higher quality, processed image. –> Not actually useful.
- Low-light assist: When you’re shooting at a higher ISO in auto mode, your L16 will now utilize image stacking to capture significantly more detail and much less noise. –> Doesn’t seem to do anything.
- Tripod assist: The L16 now has a sixth sense. When the camera detects stability and stillness in auto mode, it will lengthen the exposure time and lower ISO to improve image quality. –> Not helpful; can lead to slow shutter speeds on handheld shots.
- Basic editing tools: We added the ability to crop and rotate your images on camera. All of your edits will save automatically and transfer to Lumen when you import. –> Helpful if you get bored; otherwise a gimmick.
- Tutorials: We updated the L16’s onboarding tutorial to help you get up to speed faster. –> This camera isn’t that hard to use; these popups are annoying.
- Key focal length: We made it easier to zoom to 75mm, which provides the best edge-to-edge resolution. –> It might be a touch easier, but this was actually enabled in 22.214.171.124.
- Usability: A few of our basic camera modes got a facelift. It should be easier to see which mode you’re shooting in. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- Home screen: We made a few tweaks to the L16’s home screen experience, making it easier to access settings, software updates, and the feedback app. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- On-device depth editing: We added the ability to adjust depth effect on your L16. You can now change the effective aperture from f/15 to f/2 and add that beautiful background blur. You can also change the focal point using your L16’s touch screen. –> A little gimmicky.
- Video recording (beta): Your L16 can now record single-camera video at 1080p and 30fps. The video is based on using either the 28mm camera or the 70mm camera, allowing you to zoom all of the way from 28mm to 150mm. –> Your iPhone is better for video.
- Editing presets: Customize and create presets to easily edit your images in your style – all on your L16. Presets include color and geometric edits. Any changes will carry over to Lumen and be applied to the full (up to 52MP) resolution. –> Much less punishing to edit on Lumen
- Power save mode: Maximize your L16 battery life with new Power save mode in the Android menu. The advanced settings even let you customize which functionality is turned off –> Almost makes up for the fact that this firmware is more punishing on battery life.
- Capture experience: We updated the capture screen to include resolution (approximate megapixels) and handshake warning for low-light. –> Somewhat helpful for people who can’t remember that 35 and 75 are the best, 28 is good too, and 150 is the worst. Also, what can you do with a handshake warning?
- Lumen deletion: Now you can delete images in the L16 gallery directly from Lumen while your camera is plugged in. –> Helpful if you shoot 1,200 images between trips to the host software.
- Android third-party apps: We added options to allow you to install your favorite Android third-party apps. Please note that the L16 does not have access to the Google Play store. In order to download these apps, you must do so by downloading them from a third-party Android app store. –> Ok. There is probably a use case for this (see my note on nav software), but it’s not obvious. You can download installers from apkmirror.com and install them. You need software that runs on Android 5.0 plus; not everything will install on this machine, and no camera apps work.
The L16 is misunderstood, under-appreciated, but also a little bit tricky. It is a good substitute for a mobile phone camera, and if you can trade some grain for a lot of flawless, a good substitute for a Sony A7rii if you use fairly normal-length lenses. The software is not the easiest, but the reality is that once files are in DNG, you’ll be doing everything in Lightroom anyway.