Eight years ago, Dr Rajiv Laroia, an Indian-born electronics engineer, was at home in New Jersey wondering what to do with himself. He had recently sold his firm to telecoms giant Qualcomm for $600m. He thought he might try photography as a hobby, so went to Manhattan and bought $15,000-worth of DSLR equipment. The problem was the mountain of gear proved too unwieldy to use.
So Laroia did what anyone would and reinvented photography. The result is the Light L16, a revolutionary camera as thick as three iPhone 8s and weighing just under half a kilo, whose 16 integral lenses replicate three of the massive prime lenses made for professional DSLRs – a 28mm, a 70mm and a 150mm – and have the ability to zoom to all focal lengths inbetween.
Two years ago in my FT column I wrote about the L16 when it had yet to be built, and spoke about it at September’s FT Weekend Festival; Light also sent a team along to demo a late prototype. The one thing I hadn’t yet done was try a production L16 for myself.
Well, now I have and can attest that it really does produce astonishingly fine photos. I have shown the results to two professional photographers, who have confirmed it is the real deal – a bona fide advance of great significance.
One of the most remarkable things about it is that while it is as effective as thousands of pounds’ worth of traditional DSLR equipment, those 16 barrels are, in fact, house lenses made of moulded plastic like those in mobile phones and worth about $4 in total. The L16, you see, is more computer than camera. After sucking in 10 times more light than a smartphone camera, and bouncing it off a series of tiny motorised mirrors, up to 10 of its lenses combine to produce each 52-megapixel-plus photo. It gathers so much data that you can alter factors such as depth of field long after taking the picture.
What are the drawbacks of being an L16 early adopter? It’s quite tricky to use at first. It has bugs, which are being ironed out daily, so lots of software updates. It can be a little ponderous and not quite take the photo at the moment you choose. And it has no viewfinder – just an LCD screen, so it’s better for landscapes, interiors, portraits and still-life photos than for action. The waiting list is also long and growing.
Another thing: if you are one of the surprising number of people who suffers from trypophobia – a fear of irregular clusters of small holes – the L16’s 16-eyed, rescued-from-a-crashed-UFO look will freak you out. But if Santa brings me an L16 pre-order (for delivery early in 2018), I will not freak out one little bit.