Making Light of Silicon Valley photography aspirations

Light L16 (Courtesy, Light Co.)

Every few years, some technology-driven company makes a splash, proclaiming their revolutionary new product will change photography. Silicon Valley media falls over themselves covering the technology, usually without much critical thought. Think Foveon, which was supposed to replace image sensors, or Lytro, whose “light-field” cameras were going to revolutionize picture-taking. Today, the Foveon X3 sensor is found in niche Sigma cameras and Lytro cameras can be had for half price at bargain internet sites.

How can you spot one of these companies? Easy. Usually the product announcement is made at a tech conference where Silicon Valley bloggers can fawn over the founders, who have impressive start-up backgrounds (usually not in imaging) and plenty of VC funding. Product details themselves are usually meager.

Case in point: Light Co., a startup that recently announced the L16, a $1,699 inch-thick brick-shaped computational photography camera with 16 lenses. The company was launched at the Code/Mobile conference (despite the fact PhotoPlus Expo was a week away), complete with glowing founder bios and a listing of their impressive VC backing ($9.7 million and $25 million in two rounds). Breathless launch videos from Robert “Scobleizer” Scoble completed the scenario. (If you’re not familiar with Scoble, he’s the tech cheerleader who famously declared we would all by now be wearing Google Glass.) Listen as CEO Dave Grannan says the new product is “like having a [Canon EOS] 5D Mark III, with a telephoto lens and three different prime lenses at 35mm, 70mm and 150mm. It also shoots 4K video with true optical zoom, from 35mm to 150mm.”

As is customary, there’s the usual “get in early” marketing pressure: If you so motivated, you could “pre-buy” one of these wonders at a discount, despite the fact product details themselves are not finalized and the shipping date is sometime next summer. (Note, in the video, Grannan says the L16 will sell for $1,299, but the Light Co. site lists it at $1,699).

Dimage X folded optics

The CTO, Dr. Rajiv Laroia, claims to have studied optics for nine months and, through sheer brainpower and sweat, “solved” the problems that scores of Japanese and German engineers have analyzed for decades. No shortage of confidence there! (Actually, the “folded lens” design advocated by Light is reminiscent of the classic Minolta Dimage X, a 2002-era digicam with a 3X vertically mounted zoom lens mounted to keep the body thin and the lens from protruding.)

Not only will the L16 produce great photos, but the company founders pointedly say the objective of the L16 is to replace the DSLR:

“This is how cameras will be made in the future,” [Grannan] said, pointing to a Light prototype model. He then pointed to an SLR and a pile of lenses costing thousands of dollars. “This is just not going to exist tomorrow.”

— source: Recode

Think about that: A slab of plastic the size of a paperback book replaces a hardware and software system, comprised of dozens of specialized lenses, lighting and flash units, and accessories. What makes a DSLR attractive isn’t the zoom lenses; it’s the system approach. The photographer can take a body, and through the prudent selection of accessories, use that same body to capture a football game on the sidelines, a hawk capturing its prey or the stars moving under a night sky. These are the types of shots uniquely suited for a system camera.

This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement in the photographic technology. Of course there is. Or to say there can’t be contributions to photography outside of traditional vendors. Of course there can. GoPro is a good example of this: Although the portable digital video camera maker is a hot commodity now, there was a time when founder Nick Woodman hawked the original Hero in the back of the PMA show. (This was when the Hero was a reloadable 35mm plastic camera you strapped to your wrist.)

The difference is, a feature isn’t a product. I’m not questioning the quality of the Light L16 camera or the product specifications. I am sure it will  work as advertised. The question will be, is that product going to be worth $1,699? Think of all the DSLR/mirrorless kit you could buy with that dough.

In the video above, Gannan makes some great points: The smartphone has displaced the point-and-shoot digital camera – and even the DSLR – for some people. They are smaller and good-enough quality. He also mentions “bucket list” trips, where you want to travel light (although I’m skeptical someone trekking the Himalayas will rely solely on a camera without a removable battery).

By the time the Light L16 production ramps up in 2016, whose to say what competing platforms will offer; just last week, Panasonic is offering light-field “post-focusing” as a firmware upgrade on its newest cameras. There are even rumors of multi-lens smartphones from Apple on the horizon, which will have some of the advantages of the Light L16, albeit with fewer lenses and, presumably, a lighter price tag. And it will make phone calls.