It’s not often that you see something truly different when it comes to camera design these days. The meaningful differences tend to show up in the more obscure details — more megapixels here, a better viewfinder there. But on the outside, most are variations on the same idea: a rectangle, some buttons, a screen, and a lens. So how do make a camera that’s different from all the others, both inside and out? You start by cramming 16 cameras into one body.
At least, that’s what a company called Light wants to do with a brand-new camera called the L16. A quick glance registers the L16 as innocuous. It’s really just a black, rounded rectangle topped with a silver button. But when you notice the 16 different circles (17 if you count the IR sensor) on its face, the L16 becomes an almost threatening piece of technology to look at.
Light has taken advantage of what founder Rajiv Laroia calls “a silent revolution” in the photography world. Thanks to the need to put better-quality cameras in smartphones, the process of miniaturizing camera modules and molding high-quality plastic lenses has brought things to a place where — with a little computational photography — you can make something like the L16. Light sees it as a DSLR replacement, something that you can throw in your bag to save yourself from lugging around extra lenses and equipment. But really it’s more of an experiment, one that you can preorder now for $1,299, and one that won’t ship until late summer 2016.
Behind each of those plastic lenses is a 13-megapixel camera module, each grouped into three different focal lengths. There are five 35mm modules, five of the 70mm version, and six 150mm modules. To make it all fit, the bigger 70mm and 150mm modules utilize what’s known as “folded optics,” where a mirror faces out and the optics and sensors actually lie perpendicular to the direction that you’re shooting. On the back of the L16 is a 5-inch touchscreen, and that’s where you’ll handle all the controls from changing settings, to zooming, to focusing.
And that’s just the L16’s looks. Inside, the camera works pretty differently as well. All those different cameras give L16 users an effective zoom of 35mm to 150mm. The L16 can also take the information from all those images and computationally blend it into one high-resolution image up to 52 megapixels big. Light says that this computational photography approach should also create better images in low light while also reducing image noise, two problems that persist in digital photography. It also allows for more control when editing, like the ability to select your focus after you take a picture.
The Light team showed me some sample photos taken with a prototype unit, and while they weren’t as punchy as ones of the same scenes shot by a Canon 5D Mark III, there was just as much if not more detail in the L16’s images. Next to a picture taken by an iPhone 6, the quality of the L16’s images were (predictably) much better.
Light is opening up the preorders today, and after November 6th the price tag will jump to $1,699. Both the preorder cost and the retail price hover in that same dangerous place that Lytro’s Illum — another wild and experimental camera — found itself last year: pros who can afford it would probably rather commit that money to improving their existing setup, but it’s also too pricey for the simply curious. Light is only making a few thousand of the L16, though, so if it turns enough heads the company could build on this idea in some even crazier ways.