Can cellphones compete with professional DSLR cameras? Soon, perhaps

4 min read
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Cameras in Mobile phones have gone from being a nice little value-added device to a strong selling point for manufacturers. People don’t just want a cellphone that can run apps and take calls, they want one that can take photos – and great ones at that. Despite the development in camera technology however, mobile phone camera simply cannot compare to a typical DSLR camera. That’s expected if you consider the lens size and the amount of light and detail that can more easily be captured by a bigger lens. The average person might not always mind, but to a true photo enthusiast, the difference is still large enough for people to justify the need to spend a small fortune on a proper camera.

One start-up, however wants to change that and believes that they have the answer in making a cellphone that can match the image quality of one of these DSLR cameras. And what is there solution to the camera lens problem – well 16 camera lenses in fact. In one device. The company, Light, claims that their 16 lens device the L16 is able to compete with any professional, full frame camera and yet still be able to sell for less.

The company’s CEO, Dave Grannan explains that the high quality is possible because the camera is built around computational photography, a burgeoning computer-science field that algorithmically constructs photos from data, rather than capturing exactly how light falls on an image.

So, I know what you’re thinking – what is computational photography. Well need not fear, as Quartz Media has done the homework for us and provide the following information about the technology directly from Grannan himself:

Computational photography is any time you’re using multiple exposures and altering them with software. There are two inflection points that are allowing computational photography to go mainstream. Those are the ubiquity of very small, inexpensive cameras and processors that were really brought to us by the development of cell phones over the last six or seven years.

A big camera has a big sensor, where each pixel collects a lot of light. But it turns out that the laws of physics makes that additive: If you take 10 pictures and 10 sensors-worth of light, adding those 10 sensors up is exactly like having a great big sensor that would require a big lens. Sensors on small cameras don’t have a lot of light-gathering capability, and you need a lot of light for a great picture.

We get around that by using multiple small image-sensor cameras. We’re just reaching the point where mobile processors are able to run the computational image-processing algorithms, to take multiple exposures—in our case we take 10 pictures at once—and combine those computationally into one high-quality photo. So we’re right at this point where you have small, inexpensive sensors and computational power have come together to enable this for a consumer product.

So, essentially, Light is using each of the 16 built-in cameras to focus on different aspects of image capture and then through their software using it to form a cohesive and detailed image. At a high and consistent accuracy.

The interview with Grannan goes on further to talk about other future applications of the technology, which lies not just in sharper images, but also potentially looking into full 3D photography, as they could work with some of the lenses to provide depth. Light also plans to open up the raw image files produced by the device to developers who can use the accurate details captured for a host of solutions like seeing how a piece of furniture could look in a section of your house. The device will be able to take detailed enough images, that they believe the apps would be able to better match actual sizes and dimensions together.

It’s an ambitious goal for the start-up, but if they can prove that their technology works, they could be onto something here. Many people would want to spend money on a device if it could double up as a true high quality camera and there is definitely a market out there for this kind of device. Even if it looks a little silly.

I’m personally not convinced that 16 small lenses can successfully capture as much information as one bigger lens, but it would appear that with some software magic, they believe they can. I would love to see actual pictures from this devices when it comes out to get an opportunity to compare its quality with a decent camera lens. Not that it’ll improve my pictures or anything, as my photography skills are terrible, but hey I can still try.

Light is looking to sell their L16 for $1699 (R22300), which is perhaps still a little overpriced compared to the average middle-range DSLR camera, but certainly a lot cheaper than the top of the range stuff on the market.

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Craig Risi

A man of many talents, but no sense how to use them. I could be discovering the cure for aids or finding ways to achieve world peace, but I'd rather be watching movies and writing here instead.

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