My First Experience With The L16 Camera From Light (Review)
Ever since the L16 camera from Light was announced, i've been dying to get my hands on one. I have done photography for a long time and it's been my career for the last five years. One common complaint you hear from people in the industry is how expensive, numerous, and fleeting camera gear can be. The Light camera seemed to be the potential answer to all of those problems. The L16 is a pocket sized camera with all the functionality of a standard DSLR with the addition of sleek, modern features like the ability to adjust your focus after you've taken the photo. As with any tech start up though, the first generation of a product usually comes with a number of problems. First there were numerous production delays that kept the camera out of the hands of the early adopters for far too long. While this is bad for PR, it's usually better to delay manufacturing so the finished product is as polished as possible. I made the decision to opt out of the early adoption club because A) I didn't really have $1,800 just laying around and B) I wanted to see some hands on reviews from people who are better versed in new tech jargon than I am. however, to my surprise, my boss actually decided to take the plunge and placed his order for the L16.
Today I was finally able to have some time with the camera and see just how ground breaking the tech actually is. If you are looking for a review that analyzes the hardware and all the specs... you're in the wrong place. I was mostly interested in the workflow, the interface, the functionality, and the image quality as well as the focus-after-the-fact feature. The question I was looking to answer was "could this pocket sized camera replace my day to day work bag?"
The camera itself is definitely weird looking, but beautiful, which is more than I can say for the man holding it (me). Each individual lens is labeled with it's specs. The shape isn't very ergonomic but it feels fine in hand. The only problem I found with the overall physical design is the placement of the lens on the bottom right of the camera's face. I kept covering it with my finger when I would go to frame up a shot, but a warning pops up on the screen letting you know when a lens is obstructed so it wasn't too much of an issue. I also noticed that my battery drained really fast. It dropped about ten percent in a five minute period which seemed pretty quick to me.
This is where the proof of concept, first generation issues really surfaced. First off, there is no user manual in the box to walk you through the functions of the camera so it took some time to get familiar with the layout. I did contact Light about a manual and they directed me towards this PDF although it could be outdated soon with the release of future software updates. The camera has several modes: Auto, Manual, ISO Priority and Shutter Priority. The auto mode seemed to work fine. There is an exposure compensation slider, which is handy in bright light. The focusing is done by tapping on the screen and it was fairly responsive. You can adjust the zoom optical (28mm - 150mm) by pinching on the screen or by pressing and holding on the screen and then scrolling up or down. This is actually how most of the adjustments are made in the other modes. My biggest complaint with the camera lies in the manual mode functions. While it claims to have all of the options that you'd find on a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, I could not find a way to adjust the aperture manually. I wanted to take a long exposure of snow falling and all I could control was the ISO (100-3200) and shutter speed (1/8000 - 15 sec) which, without control of the aperture, pretty much guaranteed an over-exposed mess of an image. If there is a way to adjust the aperture in manual mode, i'd love to know about it because that would completely change my opinion of this camera. You can adjust the depth of field in the Lumen software later, but it's not very great. I'll cover that in a different section. The vertical slider adjustments aren't placed very well and some of them cause your finger to run off the glass since they're located so close to the edge of the screen. Making adjustments and switching modes felt very laggy and the software had trouble keeping up with quick changes which would be a huge concern when photographing events like sports or weddings. One of the trickiest things to figure out with the L16 was adjusting the actual device settings. To access the device menus, you have to hold the power button which pulls up three icons, which will be familiar to any android user. One option allows to close "apps" that the camera runs internally like the gallery. The L16 saves images as an .lris file type which allows the software to access all of the depth of field data to make those aperture adjustments in post. It would be nice if they did an update that allowed you to capture a jpeg, tiff, or dng file in addition to the raw data, for added versatility. There is also no wireless sharing or social network connectivity built in which seems weird for such a new device.
Using The Lumen Software
The Lumen software (still in Beta at time of writing) is the native software for the Light camera. It's a pretty basic image processor with pretty limited functionality. I'd still recommend doing most of your post processing in Lightroom, Photoshop or some other, professional editing platform. The biggest problem with the Lumen software is it's stability. It crashed five times on me during a thirty minute period when all I was trying to do was export a few jpegs for this article. The main reason you would want to use this software is the depth of field adjustment which felt a little half-baked and the results are not as clean as I would like. The way Lytro handled their focus-after-the-fact procedure was a simple tap on the screen. The Lumen software uses a clunky masking algorithm that doesn't produce the best effect. If Light could add the tap-to-adjust depth of field functionality to the camera itself, that would be ideal. Again, apeture control on the camera would be nice here as well.
Overall i'd say the image quality from the L16 is fine. The photos look nice and there is very minimal artifacting or color bleed. One of the weirdest things I noticed when I was shooting was the auto white balance adjustments the software would make. The yellow flower pictured below was shot in the same exact lighting conditions. All I changed was the zoom and the camera decided to make the 116 mm image very cold and washed out. As I mentioned above, the lack of full manual control kept me from testing any long exposure capabilities which was kind of a bummer. The camera can get pretty close to your subject which allows for some level of macro photography though, so that's nice. I included a screen shot of my photoshop window below because I wanted to point out the strange image size I got with my Jpeg exports. For some reason the camera or the Lumen software is producing giant images with garbage resolution which is a huge negative for the whole experience. I'd rather have a much smaller image with a resolution of 300 to get cleaner looking photos. Again, if this is a setting i'm missing and the resolution is adjustable I'd love to know about it.
Here are a few more test images. Take the quality of these shots with a grain of salt because (even though they're eight inches wide) the native resolution was only seventy two so the grain is real.
All in all the Light L16 camera is definitely proof of concept. I do not see this current version replacing my day to day work gear anytime soon but I feel like the technology has a lot of potential to grow and be perfected. If Google or Samsung were to purchase this company and sink some serious cash into future R and D we could see some really cool products, somewhere down the road. Ideally, someone should figure out how to shrink this technology down and merge it with smartphones. That would be an amazing piece of tech that would be worthy of the price tag. The lack of aperture control and the poor resolution are some real big negatives that should be addressed soon if this company wants to be taken seriously in the photography industry. A wider variety of in camera file types and some more wireless functionality would sweeten the experience but they aren't really necessary. So if you were on the fence like me, i'd say stay there for a few more Light generations but if you can get your hands on one they are certainly interesting to play with. If you have had the chance to play with one i'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or you can send us a message on facebook or twitter.