There’s a pretty significant difference in quality between an iPhone photo and one taken with a $3,000 digital SLR.
But not so much if you add a wide-angle lens to that iPhone, attach it to a mount and use some extra lighting for the shot.
Brandon Hoe would know. He’s a photographer, videographer and marketer by trade. He’s also as frustrated as anyone by the weight of professional photography equipment on long trips to Europe or Asia, and yet the lack of quality of the alternative, which happens to fit in his pocket.
It was enough to inspire a two-and-a-half-year project to give the iPhone the functionality of his professional camera. The result is the Helium Core, the first of what he hopes is a series of accessories aimed at improving the quality of iPhone photography and videography and creating a “global consumer business that is based in Durham, NC,” he says.
Helium Core looks like a heavy-duty case for the iPhone, but it serves as a cage that allows for almost any professional camera attachment. There’s a spot to screw any number of lenses or filters, jacks for flashes, lights and microphones and multiple mounting points for a tripod. The cage doesn’t block any of the iPhone’s ports, jacks or its screen either.
It also has small touches, like a vertical mounting option for taking video using Snapchat or Facebook Live. It can even replace a laptop as apps now allow for editing on the phone itself.
“The smartphone has enabled this era of hyper mobile content creation where you can fit everything you need to create within a small bag,” Hoe says.
According to his Kickstarter campaign, which wraps up Friday but has already surpassed a $30,000 goal, the Helium Core is “the basic building block for iPhoneography.”
Bringing an idea to reality
The idea for Helium (a name chosen because it represents the idea of a lightweight, freeing option for photographers) came on a 2013 flight back to Durham from San Francisco as Hoe realized he took most of his photos on his iPhone despite hauling his heavy camera equipment on the trip.
It took two years for the timing to be right to pursue the idea—right before his daughter was born last fall, he became motivated to bring it to fruition.
“I thought I cannot honestly teach my daughter lessons about not being afraid of failure, about trial and error, and using the journey as the reward, if I don’t do something myself,” he says.
Not to say Hoe didn’t have any experience to lend to the project. He runs the marketing agency ClearSketch in Durham, a company he started in 2010. And his background is in electrical engineering. His first job after earning an MBA at Duke University was in product management at Lenovo.
During his tenure there, he developed and launched six different notebook computers, which gave him pretty good insight into the design process. Hoe knew he needed a list of requirements, specs and general design guidelines. He also knew he needed to be nimble and make decisions fast so time to market could be a fraction of what it takes a big company.
So when his first designer was inching along too slowly, he mined LinkedIn for a better option and landed on a man who’d designed jet engine parts and a rocket alongside NASA astronauts and also is a partner in a capable manufacturing facility in China.
Starting with a 3D printed prototype last September, the pair have been hard at work finalizing the design and working with that facility to make it.
They’ve also developed a road map of products that range from a battery enclosure so users can power their phones throughout the day to LED lights possibly in partnership with a major supplier like CREE. As for other colors (it’s only in aluminum and a limited edition bronze today), they’ll proceed with caution.
Another lesson from Lenovo came after Hoe worked on the first Thinkpad that wasn’t black.
“The black sold extremely well but there were a few percent sales in other colors,” he said. “Logistics in keeping stock is challenging.”
Educating the market, improving the product
Hoe says his two biggest challenges are educating people on the potential of Helium and getting to a price point that a wider consumer base will be willing to spend.
The Core comes in two sizes priced at $155 and $170 today. Hoe hopes to eventually make a plastic version and sell it at a lower price. The price doesn’t seem too off-putting though—major online camera supply store Adorama has already reached out about carrying Helium products.
The latter challenge may be lessened with time. Hoe expects to see increased demand for his product as more video and photos are shot on mobile phones. Already, two movies that aired at the Sundance Festival were shot fully or partially using iPhones.
At the second installment of MojoCon, a conference focused on mobile news gathering held in Dublin, Ireland last month, high-end lens manufacturer Zeiss displayed a line of iPhone specific lens hitting the market this summer.
“I feel like I’m in a very nascent part of the market’s life span,” Hoe says.
In the meantime, he’ll launch a series of video tutorials meant to educate journalists, photographers and videographers on how to use their iPhones for more effective photo and videography. And he’ll also work to ensure Kickstarter funders get the best possible product on time.