Let There Be Light

It’s the missing link between “traditional” photography gear and the disruptive technology brought along by smartphones: no doubt that a DSLR or top mirrorless camera excels a portable device’s camera in every way possible. That’s not because of the former’s larger sensor or better processing speeds, it primarily comes down to optics. There is no workaround yet around a good old, well designed lens. Smartphones are able to deliver razor-sharp images and a variety of focal lengths, especially at the wide end. Yet simple laws of physics make it impossible to this day to use a smartphone as a high-quality zoom camera. The technology that will achieve to close that missing link, well, that technology might make the last prevailing advantages of a DSLR redundant. A photography startup called Light believes it has found a way fit the quality and zoom of a bulky, expensive DSLR camera into much smaller, cheaper packages — even phones.

Smartphone camreas are limited by a key aspect of their design: they have one lens and one image sensor. Light hits the lens and is directed at the sensor to produce a picture. Rather than hewing to this one-to-one ratio, Light aims to put a bunch of small lenses, each paired with its own image sensor, into smartphones and other gadgets. They’ll fire simultaneously when you take a photo, and software will automatically combine the images.

A cluster of different focal length "prime" lenses should be able to put the image quality and zoom power of a DSLR into a portable device camera. | light.co
A cluster of different focal length “prime” lenses should be able to put the image quality and zoom power of a DSLR into a portable device camera. | light.co

The idea is that when you take a picture with a Light camera it’s taking several pictures at the same time from slightly different perspectives (though it won’t show them to the user). The level of zoom that the user selects determines which modules will fire when he takes a picture, and where the mirror contained in each module moves to capture light. It could aim for light straight ahead, or off at an angle, for instance. The resulting shots are then digitally combined in a way that emulates a much bigger camera lens.

The software should also make it possible to adjust the focus on photos after they’ve been taken — a trick that also is possible with a camera from Lytro that does this by placing an array of lenses atop one image sensor.

The timing of Light’s coming-of-age is telling. With its recent acquisition of array-camera startup LinX Apple is aiming to achieve the exactly same thing: putting the power of a DSLR into a smartphone. Yet, Light’s approach is much more ambitious. Imagine having several small cameras on the back of your phone, each with different focal lengths or focus settings, and then having the GPU on the phone assemble the best possible image of whatever you were looking at in whatever way you wanted.

An array of Light’s small camera modules could make it cheaper to fit high-resolution images into relatively small electronics, like smartphone and surveillance cameras. | MIT Technology Review
An array of Light’s small camera modules could make it cheaper to fit high-resolution images into relatively small electronics, like smartphone and surveillance cameras. | MIT Technology Review
Light thinks its technology will be able to end the garbage-in-garbage-out flood of photos shared on social media. Light cameras, this at least is the company’s vision, will put an end the “good enough” photos being produced by most smartphones today.

So, truly pocketable image quality and zoom capabilities might not be such big stumbling blocks in the near future, thanks to an array of different focal length “prime” lenses. A cluster of small camera modules to create top-notch photos.

Light is still in the early stages, as it doesn’t yet have a prototype of a full product completed. For now it just has camera modules whose pictures can be combined with its software. But the startup says it expects the first Light cameras, with 52MP resolution, to appear in smartphones in 2016. And Light won’t produce own smartphones or cameras.

The startup obviously needs a strong-arm partner to help it roll out its innovation to the masses. Light is about to announce a deal with such a partner: Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer and the world’s largest manufacturer of Apple products. Foxconn is licensing Light’s technology for use in mobile devices and is investing an undisclosed amount in the company.

(via MIT Technology Review)
  • Sometimes I really wish there could be a One and Only Camera, capable of capturing a perfect image, with no efforts at all from the users.
    Then we would see how many crappy pictures will keep flooding social media.
    I can witness that after years of smartphone use, too many people still don’t know how to take a well composed photo.

    As a guy told in Madagascar: “You White Men became too lazy, you don’t know anymore how to use your hands and mind. Give a knife to your 3 years old baby and he will hurt himself. Give it to one of our babies and he will open a coco nut and drink the milk.”

    • True that, Marco. We sell out ourselves in exchange for a bit more comfort and much less self-determination.

      Yet, every man forges his own destiny. One would think that with the onslaught of the digital revolution not only the flood of mediocre images increases, there is also much new talent to be discovered. Photography has become a huge playing field with many new techniques, approaches, and so forth, not least because of the overwhelming availability of digital imaging technology.

      To each his own. That lazy white kid will either starve to death beside the unopened coconut or drink plane water. The rich, sweet taste of coconut milk isn’t reserved for everyone.

      • Perhaps I should have explained a little better the topic of that conversation in Madagascar: basically we were talking about the knowledge we get from elders.

        I’m not making a question about the coconut milk in a “third world” or the clean fresh water of a “West country”, but I took it as an example of what I think we are slowly losing: the will to learn from the past, from the experiences of those who done that before us.
        I’m not a closed mind man, I’m curious like a freak geek, but I want and try to keep my feet on the ground. That’s why I consider gear for what it is, and I keep repeating Daydo Moriyama words: “Gear is my slave”.

        As you write, progress leaves us with many many choices, and opportunities of releasing the photographer inside of us.
        Many of those who became great photographers of the past were taking photos because they simply could afford it. Or were working in a studio and could use/borrow camera gear.
        Now photography is a medium available to everyone, that’s great, but I find quite sad that we have to feel somehow happy that our smartphone will eventually take great photos as a DSLR, as if the tool alone would be enough: a screwdriver or a scalpel need always a good hand.

        Each time a new iDevice with a camera is released, each time a new smartphone shows up, I have friends who ask me:” have you seen the new X?! Have you seen what great pictures it takes?!” No, YOU are taking pics with it..

    • another thought

      I think sometimes we who are into photography are too harsh on the masses of people who take all of these smartphone photos. What we need to realize is that people who take all of these smartphone photos are not always taking them for the same reasons as we might take a photo with our dslr or mirrorless.

      Most people have always been about taking what I might call snapshots. They are not doing so to create a work of art, but to freeze a moment in time, a memory to go back to later. Also, especailly with social media, people take many photos as a means of instant communication. These photos posted on FB and Instagram are no more meant to be a work of art than your average text message is meant to be a great poem or the next great American novel.

      The fact that these photos do not meet our technical or artistic standards does not lessen their value.

      Trust me when I tell you this: I have met people who cherish photos that we might deem mediocre in composition, color, etc. But they represent important people, important moments to the individual. Art is that which has emotional impact: who are we to judge?

      • I don’t judge other people works, until they don’t ask me, at least. Perhaps my writing looks like a harsh ranting against them, but it’s not.
        What I wanted to say is that someone can take a great photo with a smartphone as well as with a mirrorless or dslr camera: the gear is just a tool.
        And a better tool can be a good thing in good hands, while it’s somehow wasted in the hands of someone who does not know anything about photography: I know there will always be “idiots savant” doing great things anyway, but that’s another point.
        I don’t even touch the “art” topic.
        Is iPhone6 camera better than that in iPhone5? Or 4s? Or 4? Yes, but it’s useless if the owner can’t make good use of it.
        And that’s why I prefer to spend money in books, rather in gear I don’t really need: to look at other people works, enjoy them and learn something, even if completely different from what I usually do.

        As you wrote, great times ahead of us who love the medium.

        • Omer

          I’ll give you the benefit of doubt in your use of “idiot savant.” However, it is an old, derogatory term that stems from narrow knowledge of brain disorders or injuries. The truth is, all (to my knowledge) great photographic artists have also been exceedingly competent at the craft, having learned it in commercial work.

          I have a family member with autism so I guess I’m a bit sensitive about this.

          • Omer, I assure you I always respect people, I don’t offend people in real life nor on websites, it’s part of the education I have been given and I’m grateful to my parents for that.
            As you see I have put those words between brackets: I was more thinking about someone finally taking a good picture without knowing how. As they say, give a monkey a typewriter and there’s the chance that in some million years it will type the Divine Comedy.
            It was not adrressed to people with brain disorders: that topic is out of my reach (though I had my experiences as volunteer with children suffering from that).

            I agree that photography requires the gear to take the photo, but what’s most important is the eye, the soul of the person that’s taking the photo.

            I’m not such a big fan of H.C.Bresson, but I really appreciate one thing he said: in photography, as in every part of life, luck is important”.
            (There’s a nice video in French, with English subtitles, on youtube)
            All my comments were to say that today photography medium is available to everybody, and that’s good.
            That I wished that a “perfect system” would exist, so finally we would have the same image quality available to everyone.
            And finally, people realizing that their pictures did not improve with the great perfect system perhaps will realize that photography is not only a matter of gear, but requires a keen eye, soul and dedication. And a bit of luck.

            Sorry again if my words seemed inappropriate.

  • another thought

    Interesting idea. One possible drawback I see is that there would be so many camera lenses on the outside of the smartphone. I don’t know how people would react to that aesthetically. Obviously, the cases for the smartphones would have to accomodate all of those holes, and again, I don’t know how people would like that from a design perspective.

    Then there’s the issue of battery space. Every camera module takes up space. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a smartphone, you know it is a competition for space. It is crucially important to make as much space as possible for the precious battery. Having all of these camera modules would eat into the space available for the battery. That doesn’t mean this can’t be resolved with technology improvements with battery life, but it is something any engineer would take into account.

    Either way, interesting times.