In the 150 or so years of its history, the camera has evolved rapidly as a result of the advent of new technologies, each promising to dramatically simplify the photographic process and improve the resulting images. Just within my lifetime, there have been major upheavals via the introductions of the Kodak Instamatic, the Polaroid SX-70, and of course digital photography. So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would develop an AI (artificial intelligence) to make photography as simple as pushing a single button.
A company called Relonch (https://relonch.com/) is developing such a system now. Sometime in 2018, they expect to roll out a Camera as a Service for $99 per month. You get a loaner of a brightly colored Relonch 291 camera (manufactured by Samsung), with a fixed focal length lens and only a single button, which is used to take the picture. It doesn’t even have an LCD screen to review your images. The purported value of the subscription price, of course, is not derived from the camera hardware, but rather from the service. For this lofty price, your camera transmits your image files to Relonch, who then use algorithms to analyze and process the files. The next day, they send the processed images that they consider to be your best photos back to your mobile device of choice.
The concept here is that most people are confused by all the settings on their camera, even if it’s a fairly simple point-and-shoot device, so their photos rarely come out the way they envisioned them. Instead, let them use a simple camera with just a single button, but employ AI techniques to post-process the best images to make them look closer to the way the user intended.
I haven’t tried the camera and its wraparound service yet (the company’s headquarters and showroom are in Palo Alto, near to where I live, so perhaps I can do so soon), but based only on their description of the concept I share my thoughts here.
- Will users pay $1200 per year for this service? I’m skeptical as to whether there is a broad market for the service at this price point. “Serious” photographers, that is professional and enthusiast amateurs, already know how to use the manual controls on our cameras and enjoy the process of capturing images and enhancing them during post-processing to achieve the final results we want. Are there enough users who don’t know how to use their cameras but are still willing to pay so much for better images? Time will tell.
- Are people willing to leave the choice of which images they receive up to a software algorithm? I wouldn’t want someone else, even a top professional photographer, deciding which of my images I get to see and permanently deleting the rest. And I certainly wouldn’t want an AI to make this decision for me.
- Are users okay with waiting a day to see and share their images? We’ve gotten pretty spoiled as a consumer class. We expect instant gratification, and ever since the first Polaroid cameras came out in the 1940s, photographers have been able to see their images right away. Waiting a day may not fly.
- Do people really want their photography to be mechanized? For its whole history, photography has seen its reputation tarnished when compared to other visual art media because a part of this art form includes the use of a mechanical device, the camera. Just as a great painter creates her art through her vision and her technique, so does a great photographer. The gear we use is only incidental to the quality of the images we create. I fear that by taking the craft out of the process and substituting an AI for the artist’s vision, the Relonch service will further degrade photography as an art form. And let’s be honest here. An AI can adjust color balance, sharpness, clarity, vibrance, and exposure to improve a raw image, but it can’t determine how to crop or selectively adjust parts of the image to make it artistically pleasing or to give it a story to tell. And most important of all, no amount of post-processing can turn a poorly composed or an uninteresting image into one worth looking at. An AI may soon be able to drive our cars from Point A to Point B, be we’re a long way from having an algorithm that can create true visual fine art. I’ll leave you with the words of master landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
What do you think of the Camera as a Service concept? Valuable evolution of photography that will bring its benefits to a wider range of humanity, or expensive gimmick that will degrade the artistic worth of the medium of photography? Please share your thoughts here.