Are 16 tiny cameras better than one?

Light L16 Camera

Can 16 little cameras working together create a photo as good as one professional camera?

New startup Light has created an odd hybrid of camera and smartphone called the L16. The device is actually 16 individual cameras crammed into a flat rectangular shell. When you take a photo, 10 of the cameras fire simultaneously. Then software merges the individual shots into one high-resolution, 52-megapixel image.

The company thinks the L16 can replace large cameras with interchangeable lenses, like DSLRs.

Light, which has been working on the camera for two years, unveiled the device on Wednesday. This is not another Kickstarter gadget. Light has already raised $35 million in two rounds of funding. It is working with major manufacturing partners, including Sunny Optical and Foxconn.

Smartphones have already killed the point-and-shoot camera. People always have their phones on them, it's easy to share the photos right away, and the quality of smartphone cameras has largely caught up to pocket cameras.

But phones still cannot compete with larger cameras packing high-end optics, like DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras.

Light's founders hope to replace those devices.

The L16's selling point is that it is smaller than a DSLR, not cheaper. (At $1,600, it will cost just as much as a mid-range DSLR.)

"We started out trying to solve a problem we know is very real," said CEO and cofounder Dave Grannan. "There's this real anxiety people feel about wanting great photography."

The flat black rectangle is significantly thicker and larger than a phone, but still pocketable. Sixteen multi-sized circles are scattered across the front of the device, potentially triggering some people's trypophobia. There's a 5-inch LCD touchscreen on the back and a shutter button on top.

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The camera's success will largely ride on Light's final software.

Megapixel size isn't the measure of a good photo. There are a number of details the final image will have to nail flawlessly in order to compete with full frame cameras. (The real test will come when photographers get their hands on an L16 and pick apart a final image.)

The L16 uses five 35mm, five 70mm, and six 150mm cameras. Each individual camera is 13 megapixels. Some capture the same area, others quadrants of the scene. Then the Light assembles the shot together using computational imaging algorithms. Photographers can adjust the depth of field after the fact, similar to the last big startup that tried (and failed) to disrupt photography: Lytro.

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The final camera will run a version of Android and have WiFi so users can upload photos directly or tether to a smartphone. As soon as it connects to a home WiFi, the L16 will automatically start uploading photos to a cloud account. It will even shoot 4K video.

Light is taking discounted pre-orders for the next month, but the camera won't be available until late next summer. At the moment, the L16 is still very much a work in progress. The company has only had a working prototype for three weeks, but its founders are confident they've created the next evolution in photography. "The secret plan for world domination here is, we just don't see cameras being built like [DSLRs] in 6 to 8 years," said cofounder Rajiv Laroia.

Light L16 sample
A sample photo taken with Light's new L16 camera. The new device uses 16 small cameras to create high-resolution images similar to what a DSLR can capture.

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