SF startup has a funny-looking camera for serious photography

Friday, December 22, 2017 08:31PM
As much of the Bay Area heads off on winter travels for the next week, there's a question that always comes up: do you pack that big, fancy camera -- or do you just take pictures with your smartphone?


SAN FRANCISCO - As much of the Bay Area heads off on winter travels for the next week, there's a question that always comes up: do you pack that big, fancy camera -- or do you just take pictures with your smartphone?

Now, a San Francisco-based startup has a new device it hopes could make that photographer's dilemma a thing of the past.

"Every time I take this out outside, especially on the street, somebody will come up and say, 'What IS that?'" said Dave Grannan, who co-founded the camera company called Light.

The device he's holding in his hands is a slab of shiny black glass with rubberized edges. Studying the front of it in a seemingly random array is a bevy of lenses and sensors of all different sizes. The Light L16 is likely the strangest-looking camera you've ever seen.

"This little camera replaces all the gear you see here on the table and the backpack it takes to carry it," Grannan explained confidently.

The camera derives its name from the 16 lenses that dot its face -- ranging in focal length from 28mm to 150mm. When you press the button, the device fires up to ten of its sensors at once, making a massive 52-megapixel image.

"You can obv see the writing, you can see the expressions on people's faces and things like that," explained senior vice president Bradley Lautenbach, pointing at an image of a busy New York street scene on his laptop. "If I zoom out, you can see what a tiny area that is."

The razor-sharp image he'd shown us turned out to be a tiny sliver of a wide-angle shot spanning the whole width of Times Square. Zooming into other parts of the photo, we found a man who appeared to be using a smartphone was actually shooting video of himself with a GoPro. We could see the selfie stick, the clear camera housing, and even make a pretty good guess at which model it was.

Images that sharp come from an array of lenses that seems haphazardly arranged, but is actually the result of more than three years of intense number-crunching.

"The math beh that is very complex," Grannan said. "(It's) designed to miniaturize the size of the device."

The Light L16 is about the size -- and price -- of two big smartphones stacked together, and indeed, when Grannan pulled it apart, we could see there was no wasted space inside -- not even a tiny bit. In the hand, it feels sturdy and easy to grip.

"And when you pick it up, it looks and feels like you're shooting with a smartphone," Lautenbach said.

But under the hood, there's a lot going on. With each button press, the device precisely aims up to ten tiny cameras by rotating a set of small mirrors a degree or two each. Dividing the frame up into "tiles," the lenses each shoot various portions of the frame, with enough overlap for an algorithm to seamlessly stitch them together -- and enough space between the lenses to create a 3D depth map that can bring some post-production magic to the flat image.

"So if you missed focus on the subject -- say you caught the ear instead of the eye -- you can make that edit after the fact," Lautenbach said.

He demonstrated how to make micro-adjustments to the focus point of an image in the company's Lumen desktop software. The image was re-rendered in seconds. The same software can also change the effective aperture after shooting, making adjustments to depth-of-field for control over background blur.

The L16 runs Android, and gets monthly updates. The team told us the next few updates will add direct sharing to Twitter and Facebook, and the ability to record video. They'd like to believe this is the start of a total rethinking of cameras for the smartphone age.

Pointing to his overstuffed DSLR case, with a couple of lenses sitting in front of it, Grannan added for emphasis: "So they don't have to bring a backpack like this to get great images."
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