I recently traded my Nikon DSLR for an unbranded mystery camera for a few days to test out an entirely new concept: camera as a service.
If you live anywhere outside of a tech capital, you may not have heard of “software as a service,” or SaaS, but you almost undoubtedly use multiple companies that offer SaaS. Dropbox, Box, Salesforce, MailChimp – these companies all have one thing in common: the “product” they sell is in fact a service that comes to its end user at a buy-as-you-go rate.
Discounts are often involved when discussing longer service terms or licenses for multiple users, but the allure to SaaS businesses for the customer is their extremely low barrier to entry. Instead of paying for software up front and in full (remember Adobe’s $2,600 Master Collection?), users buy in at a lower, perhaps monthly price that gives them access to the service or software as long as they continue paying.
What if you could bring the benefit of low, monthly fees to camera ownership?
Relonch goes beyond leasing or purchasing on payment plans. The company doesn’t offer camera ownership, per se. But when it finally gets running, it could feel that way for a relatively affordable price. In fact, the supplied camera isn’t even the focus for Relonch’s service. The service comes with a “you push the button, we do the rest” attitude that Kodak pioneered in the film days (and that Kodak is now trying to bring back with its new Super 8 camera). Relonch promises to use its machine learning algorithms to identify the important parts of your photos and automagically edit them as a professional might. Do those backlit sunset shots of your girlfriend on the beach make her face look dark and muddy? Leave it to Relonch to upload the image from their camera to their servers, process the image to make her face adequately bright, and have the finished file ready for you to download online the next morning. This happens on the go via an in-camera cellular data connection, but will also use your home Wi-Fi network to play catch-up should it fall behind on the go. You pay for the images you want to keep at one dollar a piece, and that's it.
From the single office on Palo Alto’s University Avenue to the relatively little information you can find about the company online, Relonch has all the birthmarks of a tech startup. They even have an admittedly odd sign-up procedure. You’ll have suspend your eye-rolls and forgive as you learn of the fair amount of oddities that come with access to any early Silicon Valley startup’s product offering if you want to understand what it’s all about. And that’s what I did. So for one week over Christmas, I dropped off my Nikon D750 for a Relonch camera.
The cameras themselves are intriguing. Wrapped entirely in leather, they feel nice. Void of any logos or exterior markings, they look rather odd. But the soft leather feel is refreshingly sleek. It feels utterly rich. That is, until you press the shutter.
As with any early product, the Relonch camera has its kinks. It has just two buttons: the shutter release and a hard reset button. The camera automatically wakes itself up when you press the shutter button and will go to sleep when not in use for a number of seconds. The crazy-good dynamic range of modern CMOS sensors of any size let us get away with literally no camera controls to worry about since even rather large exposure variations can be corrected in post (and in this case, by Relonch’s computer system in the cloud).
However, the shutter button takes on an extremely plastic feel. It isn’t as responsive as it could (and should) be. The camera is some type of mirrorless camera that suffers from poor autofocus that racks back and forth in anything but direct, frontal sunlight. The eye sensor that turns on the EVF when holding the camera up to your eye is finicky, especially when the sun is lighting your face, making it difficult for the sensor to tell when it is covered by your eye. These are the hallmark issues of the first mirrorless cameras back when even Fujifilm didn’t quite know what it was doing in the space.
I also had a number of software issues. The camera needed a number of hard resets as it froze up on the go. On one hike I took with it, the camera wouldn’t respond even to a reset 10 minutes in. At least it is extremely light to carry around.
A Concept to Prove
But Relonch isn’t about the hardware. It’s about proving a concept. That concept won’t be able to be proven if the hardware doesn’t get better before a further launch. But the concept is all there — it’s rather intriguing at worst and the way of the future at best. This is about the camera as a service. You don’t need to think. You don’t need to waste time editing after your trip. Bring your camera. Click the button. Go through all the auto-edited images the next day and just keep and pay for the ones you like.
Along with almost every major software company, Adobe recently went this route with its Creative Cloud plans, as did Microsoft with Office 365.
Cadillac recently launched a beta test of its new Book service in New York, which allows subscribers to drive any single car the brand makes at a $1,500-per-month rate that fully prices in the convenience factor of not having to worry about having the sports car for the weekend or the SUV for the ski vacation, let alone car maintenance.
Once competitors become equally reliable in providing a particular service, the only differentiating factor is content. For traditional service-based businesses such as Hulu, differentiating via content means having exclusive shows or movies that you can only find with its service. For SaaS businesses such as Box, unique content may look more like a unique feature such as extra free storage or integration with more third-party services and mobile devices.
Relonch is in a tough place. It barely has an office here. Imagine if Nikon could offer you your choice of any two full-frame cameras and five lenses at a particular cost per photograph? Imagine if your photography career could start with a variable monthly payment based on how many images you shoot (and are hypothetically paid to shoot) instead of a $5,000 100-percent down payment on a full photography kit? It’s an interesting concept that could seemingly take merely days for a larger camera company to initiate. And so Relonch will have its fair share of competition. And the competition has some amazing hardware.
But this is still a concept that has to be proven, first. Part of the reason for Relonch’s odd and small locally based launch in Palo Alto is that it needs photographers to submit images to its system so its algorithms can learn to better edit photos. While the editing looks remarkably good in some images, others have tell-tale signs of an editor that just bought Lightroom for the first time. These images can sometimes look as though the Clarity slider was cranked up too far or as though someone haphazardly added a two-stop exposure increase brush to someone’s face, but bled over the edges into the background, causing a halo effect. With enough decent photographs, Relonch is confident it can teach its system what it needs to know to improve its editing.
As this editing system gets better, and as Relonch considers other hardware options, it could work out for the company. Or perhaps it will do a good job of showing companies like Nikon a better way to get itself out of the business issues it’s been facing for some time.
What do you think? Would you use something like Relonch as-is? If a larger brand such as Fujifilm or Canon jumped in? Let us know!