The Light L16

Disclosure time, I’m part of the Light Creative Advisory Board. In fact, they first pitched the Light L16 camera to me over a year ago. When Dave (the CEO) and Brad (the VP of Marketing) told me about it, their pitch was simple: DSLR quality with a zoom in an iPhone-sized form factor. My brain immediately went in two directions, a million skeptical questions about how it worked/clarifying every word of that pitch and “want.”

The Light L16

The Light L16

As some of you know, I was a product manager on the LYTRO ILLUM. I’m quite proud of the camera, and I’ve had people tell me it has the best shooting interface they’ve ever used. But the thing that always bugged me was the image quality. It was OK (and way better than the first Lytro camera!), but a 3-4MP image in a time when you could get 36MP with a Nikon D800 just wasn’t satisfying, even if you could refocus and animate it.

The Light guys intrigued me by leading with “quality” but suffice it to say, as one of the few people on the planet to have built a next-generation, computational camera, I knew what questions to press the Light team on, and I did. They even let me sit down with their CTO, Rajiv, who’s a genius (his work on cellular tech is a big part of why your smartphone’s data is so fast). I basically grilled him for an hour about every aspect I could think of, as a photographer and as a product manager. And he had good answers for everything. Even better, they didn’t think I was a total ass and still wanted me as part of the advisory board :)

Fast forward to today, and now the theory’s real. The L16 is available for pre-order. I’ve seen the initial images at 100%, they exceeded my expectations, and they’ll only get better. (The L16 is a new type of camera, a multi-aperture computational camera, that takes multiple images simultaneously and combines them in software. But it’s more than just a panorama: the sensors can be tuned differently, for example how sensitive they are to light to increase your dynamic range, giving you a high-quality and high-resolution final image. Unlike a traditional camera, the final image is heavily dependent on software, not just a single lens and sensor. This means the image quality will improve daily until the camera ships and then still get better later with software updates.) Here’s my take on this camera and who should buy it.

First, I love premium compact cameras. I love my DSLRs, but they’re too big to carry everywhere. I like great quality in a small form factor, and I’ve used/owned the Sony RX1, Fuji X100, Sony RX100, Lumix LX100, and more. The RX100 and LX100 are nice because of the zoom but the X100/RX1/Leica Q’s image quality blow them away with their bigger sensors. The bigger sensors and fast apertures give better background blur/shallow depth of field, too. The resolution on the RX1/Q/RX100 is nice because it looks fantastic on all retina/4k/8k displays and lets you crop the perfect shot in post. The Q and RX1 with their protruding lenses are awkward to carry all the time in a bag. The new DxO ONE looks fantastic: it’s easy to carry and has great image quality, but there’s no zoom. Can you tell that each of these cameras has a big tradeoff?

If you use/love/want one of those cameras, check out the L16. The L16 has the resolution, it lets you take shallow depth of field shots via a synthetic aperture that you can adjust in post, the low-light performance should be somewhere between good and excellent (Light’s team is improving the image quality daily), and it will fit nicely into a bag since there’s no protruding lens. It feels smaller than the Q and a little thinner but wider/taller than an X100 (I haven’t done a side-by-side). I’m sure the L16 will have quirks when it ships (it is a brand new type of camera!), but it’s on-track to be one of the best premium compact cameras.

If you only shoot at 28/35/50, go for the Leica Q (if money’s no object) or the Fuji X100T. If you’re very price-constrained, go for the RX100 Mk I/II. If you need a camera now, buy the X100T. Otherwise, go with the L16.

But there’s a second potential market. There are a lot of people who buy a DSLR with a kit lens (and maybe a nifty 50) wanting great image quality but never shoot it because it’s awkward to carry and they end up shooting with their phone. I understand that but hate it—do you want to capture your most important memories with something you use while sitting on the toilet?

Many camera makers have thought about this market and tried to address it by focusing on the wrong thing. They try to make shooting easier by adding all sorts of “smart” assistants. Having taught many beginners, I can tell you that people shoot their cameras in full auto green mode and do just fine. The smart assistants are often so hard to use they make the photographer feel dumb and make them miss the shot! Ease of use in full auto and ignoring the myriad of buttons isn’t an issue. The real thing that limits them is the DSLR’s size.

I often recommend that those people buy an RX100 instead, as the quality’s good, it’s the same price as a similar DSLR + kit lens, and it’s small. If you’re price conscious, shooting fast-moving subjects, or you want interchangeable lenses so that you can get shallow depth of field/macro/extreme zoom, I recommend people get the tiny Canon EOS SL1 + kit lens and maybe a $125 50mm f/1.8 lens. But if you’re thinking about a bigger, higher-end DSLR like the Canon 70D and you’re not used to carrying a DSLR with you, take a real look at the L16. I can pretty much guarantee that if you don’t carry a big DSLR now and buy a big camera, you won’t still be using it 90 days from now. But the L16 is easy to carry, has a great zoom range, and will give you high-quality shots, on-par with a DSLR and way better than that thing you use to check Facebook while sitting on the toilet.

So what about quirks? Well, truthfully it’s a bit too early to tell what they will be. Let me just say that I’m aware of all the quirks that can come up with a computational camera, have thought about how to address them, and have been/will continue to share my thoughts with the Light team.

If you’ve read this far, trust me, you’ll want to try this camera. Go reserve one today. It’s $400 off to pre-order, you only pay $199 up front, and it’s fully refundable if you change your mind.

It’s definitely an exciting time to be a photographer!