Wolverton: Startup hopes to reinvent picture taking

If you wander around downtown Palo Alto this holiday season, you might notice something that looks like a throwback to an earlier era — a camera shop.

But this showroom is brand new — it opens on Tuesday. It’s the product of a startup named Relonch that is hoping — appropriately enough —  to reinvent the way we buy and use cameras. Instead of thinking about photography in terms of which camera to buy or which app or filter to use on a smartphone, we would — in Relonch’s vision — only have to figure out how to frame a shot and press a button to get high-quality, lasting images.

“We want to provide not a camera, but a service,” said Sergey Korzhenevich, Relonch’s CEO and co-founder.

Relonch, which is based in New York, is hoping to simplify the entire process of photography starting with the camera. Its initial device, dubbed the Relonch 291, looks like a DSLR and has a comparable lens and image sensor, but it works like a point-and-shoot camera — or even like an old Instamatic. It has only one button you can push — the shutter release. It doesn’t offer a way to adjust the aperture or shutter speed or turn on a flash, because it doesn’t have one. It doesn’t have a power button; instead, you press the shutter button to wake it up.

It doesn’t even have a screen to allow you to review the shots you’ve taken. Its electronic viewfinder will display a picture right after you’ve taken it for an instant, but you can’t go back and review previous shots.

That’s all part of a conscious effort to have consumers focus on just shooting pictures.

“I think people want to have a simple solution,” Korzhenevich said.

The camera includes a cellular radio and SIM card that allows it to connect to the internet wirelessly. On a daily basis, it will automatically upload photos to Relonch’s computers in the cloud. Relonch’s servers will process the images, adjusting the exposure of different parts of the photo to bring details out of the shadows, say, or to darken bright spots. It will then select the best shots users have taken and transfer them to an app on users’ phones or to photo storage services like Apple’s iCloud or Google photos.

For all that, the company plans to charge $99 a month.

The company’s storefront in Palo Alto is the first of a handful the company plans to open around the world to introduce consumers to its concept before actually launching its service in 2018. The storefronts are a way to for Relonch to gauge consumer interest in advance of mass producing the cameras. Starting Tuesday, consumers can go into the Relonch store and borrow a camera for a three-day test drive.

Relonch is hoping to appeal to time-pressed families. The company is hoping to offer something that’s as easy to use as a smartphone camera but offers the kind of high-quality pictures consumers might expect from a professional camera.

I tested the service over the last several days and was impressed with many of the photos I got back. They looked much sharper and more “professional” than my typical smartphone pictures.

Still, I’m skeptical about how widely Relonch’s service will appeal. Its cost alone will likely prove a big obstacle. Fewer and fewer people are buying cameras these days, choosing instead to just use the ones that are built into their smartphones. By contrast, in a little more than a year of subscribing Relonch, customers would have spent enough to own a pricey DSLR.

Another stopping point could be how little control Relonch offers consumers. At least as it’s envisioned now, the service’s algorithms will determine not only how photos will look, but which ones subscribers will even see. Users won’t be able to pick a filter to apply to a shot or even see the funny outtakes.

Compared to what a consumer can do with a real DSLR or even a smartphone, Relonch’s cameras are extremely limited. They don’t offer a zoom lens. They don’t shoot movies. You can’t use them to take panoramic shots or slo-motion videos. They don’t take the kind of Harry Potter-like “live photos” that you can take on an iPhone.

And you can’t even see the pictures you’ve taken until the next day. So much for instant gratification!

Still, if you happen to be wandering around Palo Alto in the coming weeks and months, step into the Relonch store. It’s worth hearing the company’s pitch and you might have fun testing out its camera.

I’m not convinced the service will work as presently conceived, but it’s an interesting concept and the cameras do take some great photos.

Photo: Relonch’s storefront in Palo Alto, taken on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 with the Relonch 291 camera. (Troy Wolverton/Bay Area News Group)


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  • sd

    I wish them luck with their out-of-the-box idea. But I think that, for most people, photography has gone the way of hi-fi audio.

    The convenience of the MP3 format meant music everywhere. No record-cleaning, no storage issues, no racks of equipment for playback. MP3 is not a high-fidelity format, but it’s good enough for most people’s ears.

    Similarly, smartphone pictures are now good enough that people feel no need to cart around a (digital) point-and-shoot. They see the results immediately and can share them immediately. No waiting, no more effort to post or annotate their images (as there is with Relonch), and people don’t see a $99 monthly bill on top of their cellular service and phone payment plan.

    But give it a shot! Perhaps the real product will be the logistics which can be applied to any camera made by a manufacturer signing on with Relonch. Goodness knows that DSLR workflow in the digital world is full of speed bumps and hiccups.