Phone cameras are improving every year, but they still haven’t matched the level of a good DSLR camera. Light, a new startup straight out of Palo Alto, California, wants to change that by taking DSLR technology that can cost thousands of dollars, and shrinking it to fit inside your pocket, and maybe even your phone.
They use a clever array-based camera architecture. By using computational imaging and a combination of optical, sensor and mechanical design, a 52MP camera will be able to fit inside of a phone-sized camera by next year, with features like low noise, high quality images and optical zoom capabilities.
The camera module is really an array of small cameras working in tandem to act as one bigger camera. Optical zooming in a camera this small would be achievable by having some of the cameras be wide-angle, and others would be telephoto lenses. The telephoto lenses are placed on their side, with actuator-driven mirrors that can be directed to different sections of the wide-angle lenses.
Achieving low noise with small sensors may seem counterintuitive, because larger-sensor cameras mean larger pixels. Each pixel, or photosite is a depression or well that captures a certain amount of photons when a picture is taken. Bigger wells mean more photons end up in the correct well. Light’s CTO, Rajiv Laroia, tells ExtremeTech that “by treating the ten or more small sensors as pieces of a single, large sensor, Light’s camera module can add together all the photons that reach a particular location in each of the sensors to mimic larger photosites. By adding the signals, the ratio of signal to noise is greatly increased.”
What makes Light’s array camera different from other array cameras is that each individual camera module can take a usable image, which means that the LCD preview is shown in real-time without additional processing, and Web-quality images and videos are instantly available.
The camera uses fields of view that overlap to emulate a single-lens optical zoom. Some lenses are 35mm and others are 70mm. Mirrors move the 70mm lenses to create an overlapping field of view, and the 35mm lenses provide a wide-angle of view to help align the telephoto lenses.
Light has many ideas about the creative possibilities for using different types of sensors to address particular imaging problems. Combining some “white” sensors for low-light sensitivity with color sensors is one use, and having different cameras use different exposures for improved high-dynamic-range imaging.
Small plastic lenses that are commonly used in smartphones can be molded into many different shapes more easily than the glass lenses of a DSLR. And even if your drop your camera or phone, the camera modules are pre-calibrated and can detect when they are out of alignment and need re-calibration, so users can be guided through the process themselves.
Light’s camera modules should start shipping out in 2016, and although the final price hasn’t yet been determined, it’s estimated they will cost around $400.