Smartphones are killing the Point & Shoot camera, the D-SLR is next

The best camera is the one you have with you. Cameras on phones were initially quite poor, however the rapid development of smartphone cameras and the simultaneous rise of images and video being used as primary content on social networking and video sharing platforms means all this has changed. Smartphones now boast imaging and video performance that would have seemed unbelievable just a few years ago.

As a result of smartphone development, the point and shoot camera market has been decimated and is set to continue declining fast; the average decline in volume sales in the last 4 years is greater than 30% according to the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA). The D-SLR market is, however, alive and well and is worth around US$5 billion per year (2014 according to CIPA) and is still growing, albeit slowly; in the first eight months of 2015 the value of the market for interchangeable lense cameras grew by 2% year on year. People still love great pictures and D-SLRs continue to deliver fantastic photography and great video performance. However with a new generation of imaging products coming to market, this maybe about to change. A company called Light this week launched a ground-breaking product that could imperil the D-SLR market in the way the smartphone has for point and shoot cameras.

The company is called Light and its product, for which pre-orders have just started, is called the Light L16. The clue to the product’s revolutionary approach is in the name. The 16 refers to the number of image sensors and lenses the camera has. When the shutter release button is pressed 10 of the cameras fire simultaneously. The resulting images are stitched together using computational algorithms to produce a single 52 mega pixel image. The use of multiple lenses means the device has the equivalent of three standard D-SLR lenses in use at all times covering focal lengths of 35-150mm and with apertures as wide as f1.2. Zoom is effectively optical between these focal lengths. The camera can also shoot 4K video.

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The lens array on the Light L16. Courtesy: Light (http://light.co/)

By using folded optics, Light has been able to package the technology into a form factor little bigger than the average smartphone. And a fraction of the size and weight of a D-SLR camera and lenses. Interestingly the technology is being talked about as potentially usable in a smartphone — though it may take eighteen months or more to realize. The L16’s image sensors and much of the associated technology is based on the camera development undertaken for smartphones — Light has just gone several steps further. The L16 is Android-based and will be able to run apps much like any other Android smartphone. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a cellular modem being dropped into the device.

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Little bigger than a smartphone. Courtesy: Light (http://light.co/)

The team behind Light includes a roll-call of some the tech sector’s leading names including: CEO Dave Grannan (formerly of Vlingo), CTO Dr Rajiv Laroia (formerly of Flarion); and investors Paul Jacobs (Qualcomm), and Sanjay Jha (Global Foundries).

Pre-orders are starting now with an initial discounted price of US$ 1299 (full price $1699) for early orders. Shipping won’t take place until September 2016.

At US$ 1699 the Light L16 is priced to compete with some of the most popular D-SLRs such as the Nikon D7200. Whether the image quality of the Light is a match for D-SLRs will be much debated over the coming months. However even if it only matches that of the D-SLRs it gains simply because of its compact dimensions. Many people who own D-SLRs never use them because of their sheer bulk – especially when combined with carrying multiple lenses. For this reason alone D-SLR camera makers should be concerned.

And while professional-grade D-SLR and video camera makers can reasonably expect their market to remain strong for now, this is Light’s first product. We expect the technology to develop both down the price curve — perhaps being integrated into future smartphones — as well as up the price curve, to take on professional grade products.

It’s a long time since Kodak’s film business was systematically crushed by the advent of digital imaging. Camera makers embraced digital technology only to find the smartphone eating away the low end of the market. It now looks like the middle and top end will become progressively threatened by the march of technology.

A gallery of shots taken with the Light L16 can be seen at its website: www.light.co/gallery