Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant Review

posted in: Cameras, Photography | 0

The Arsenal Intelligent Camera Assistant is a small device that provides Computational Photography capabilities powered by Machine Learning.

The Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant was designed to help photographers in 6 main areas:

  • Automated Photo Stacking for HDR
  • Automated Focus Stacking
  • Time Lapse Photography
  • Professional camera adjustments with Smart Assistant AI
  • Wireless Control
  • Photo Sharing

Arsenal was funded on Kickstarter in 2017. The goal was to raise $50,000 but 15,766 backers pledged $2,650,310 to help fund the Arsenal Kickstarter project making it one of the more successful Kickstarter projects.

I received an Arsenal from a friend who is allowing me to test it on a long term basis. I want to say right up front that I think it is pretty amazing what this team has already accomplished. However, they still have a lot of work to do to make the solution something usable, at least with the cameras I tested it with.

I installed the latest version of the Arsenal application(version 0.9.33) and updated the firmware on the device to the most recent version. While I find the Arsenal interesting to play with, the current software and firmware version is still very buggy and the results I get from using it in SMART mode are not something I find beneficial for most situations, although I can see it being beneficial in some niche scenarios.

Composited or Stacked images show promise, but are only stored as jpg files, and are not stored on the camera’s storage cards. They appear to be stored on the Arsenal hardware, and I have experienced several cases where those images mysteriously disappear. I contacted Arsenal Customer Support on this issue, and they told me they are working on storing composited images in RAW format on the camera’s memory card. For now, they advised sharing or saving the photo before shutting down the device.

Using the Arsenal device and application to remotely control the manual settings on my camera(similar to how a Camranger works) is more useful, but I find it to be a bit more cumbersome in practice than just using the camera and a remote shutter release. It would be more beneficial to me if Arsenal supported tablets like an Apple iPad so that I can use live view and image review more effectively.

Every time I test the Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant I find myself getting frustrated to the point that I quit using it. Frequently my unit became unresponsive. Examples would be Live View mode not turning on, and the camera failing to take photos in Manual Mode, or taking the photos after a 10 to 20 second delay. However, I still find the device interesting and I want to continue to evaluate the device as new updates are released.

* I will continue to evaluate the Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant and update this article as new updates are released and tested.

Why Use The Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant?

I can think of three scenarios where the Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant may be beneficial. The first is for photographers who do not want to spend time working on their images in post production. That means it is suited for photographers who do not want to shoot images in RAW mode, and who do not want to manually composite images for focus stacking or High Dynamic Range(HDR) images. These photographers want to just frame the shot, push a button, and have the camera deliver the best image possible.

The second scenario is for photographers who want to quickly and directly share photos from their camera to social media platforms without having to first download the photos to a computer. They are after better images than what their smartphones can capture, but want the convenience of quickly sharing the resulting images. Most older cameras do not have photo sharing solutions built into the camera, and so Arsenal provides a compelling solution.

The third scenario is for photographers that want tethering and camera control with touch screen interaction that smart phones allow. This is especially needed for older cameras that do not have built in wireless support like the Nikon D700. That is most likely how I will eventually end up using the Arsenal… as a remote control for my Nikon D700 where I manually control my settings but still shoot RAW images that I process manually in post production.

I don’t think the Arsenal Smart Mode will capture meaningful market share as a solution for photographers that just want to point their camera at a subject and have it automatically capture the best image possible. I believe that market will be dominated by smart phones that are rapidly evolving their computational photography capabilities and can be designed from the ground up with that it mind vs. the Arsenal approach which involves attaching a device to a camera and controlling the device from a smartphone. Arsenal’s approach is more complicated and time consuming to get up and working and will never be as quick, easy, and convenient as using a smartphone with built in “smart” photography features.

Arsenal Competition

Computational Photography is something major industry players are investing heavily in. Apple and Google are adding powerful machine learning powered computation photography features to their mobile phones. In addition, Nikon, Canon, and Sony are increasingly adding computational photography features to their cameras, like the ability to do in camera compositing of images for HDR.

For remote control of a camera, the competition can be as simple as a wireless remote trigger. For wireless tethering and camera control many cameras now offer built in wireless support, and 3rd party options like a Camranger are a popular although expensive option.

Arsenal faces stiff competition in both computational photography and in wireless tethering and camera control.

Arsenal Hardware

The Arsenal hardware consists of an Arsenal unit, and micro USB cables. The device is small and lightweight weighing 2 ounces (57 grams). One cable is to charge the Arsenal unit, and the other is to attach the unit to a supported camera. The Arsenal device can be charged while in use. I have a portable USB battery pack that I use to charge the Arsenal hardware while I am in the field.

The Arsenal camera device uses an ARM processor and I believe it runs the Linux operating system, at least I read that on a forum post. Compositing of images occurs on the Arsenal hardware. Depending on the number of photos being composited, the hardware can take a lengthy amount of time to perform the process, but I never found it to be unreasonable. The Arsenal uses Bluetooth 4.0 and is WiFi-enabled and supports up to 100-foot wireless range.

Arsenal Supported Cameras

The Arsenal camera assistant currently supports several popular DSLR and mirrorless camera models from Nikon, Canon and Sony as well as Fuji Fujifilm X-E2, and Fuji Fujifilm X-T1. They are apparently working to support additional cameras. The list of supported cameras can be found here: Arsenal Support Camera List. I have read that Sony cameras are supported, but Arsenal does not work well with them. I do not have a Sony camera to test with. I tested the Arsenal on both a Nikon D700 and a Nikon D7000.

Arsenal Software Application

Arsenal uses the Arsenal mobile app to control the Arsenal unit. Arsenal currently works with any IOS 9.0+ or Android 4.4+ smartphone. The application does not currently work on tablets like an Apple iPad, although the team at Arsenal has stated tablets are something they would like to support in the future. Support for the larger screens that tablets have would greatly benefit Live View, and image review functionality. The application only works in portrait orientation, which is a disappointment for me since I primarily shoot in landscape mode. If I could preview the images in landscape mode, or have Live View in landscape mode it would be beneficial as this would allow me to have a larger image on the screen to work with.

Arsenal Smart Mode

Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant Smartl ModeI imagine the goal of the Arsenal Smart mode is to use machine learning(a form of artificial intelligence) to analyze a scene and automatically adjust the cameras settings to capture the best image possible, including automatically compositing several images together to create an image. This is known as Computational Photography. Many cameras are making progress toward using intelligent systems to “automate” the photographic process and create superior results for photographers that just want to point their camera at a subject and push a button. Google Pixel 3 Leverages multiple-shot exposures, machine learning, and dedicated hardware in the form of the Pixel Visual Core to create HDR images. I tested the Arsenal Smart mode in numerous different settings. In most settings the “Auto” or “Program” modes on my camera takes as good or better photos than the Arsenal Smart Mode did. I can imagine there are some scenarios where the Arsenal Smart Mode will take better photos, but those would be niche cases that involve automatic image stacking. The Arsenal can measure things like camera shake, and adjust shutter speed to compensate for that. I will continue to play around with Smart Mode in different settings to see what scenarios it really helps out with, but for now I don’t find it particularily useful.

Arsenal Manual Mode

Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant Manual ModeI have had more success with the Arsenal Manual Mode using the device and application as a wireless tethering and camera control solution. The Arsenal Manual Mode allows me to remotely control ISO, Aperture, and Shutter speed on my cameras, and allows me to manually control focus mode, exposure bracketing, and focus stacking. I can use the application’s Live View mode to control where the focus point is and I can manually control focus stacking for landscape images and exposure bracketing for HDR images. *It is important to point out that when Arsenal composites images for focus stacking or HDR, those images are not stored on the camera’s memory cards. They are stored on the Arsenal hardware, and I frequently have lost those images when switching between cameras and have also experienced losing those images after restarting the device. As a precaution I share those images to get them off of the device prior to shutting the device down. Additionally, those images are stored as jpg files, and so you lose the opportunity to do all the additional post processing that using RAW files allows. As I stated earlier, Arsenal told me they are working on storing composited images as RAW files on the camera’s memory card. In practice, I found that the Arsenal did an okay job with focus stacking and compositing HDR images. However, I am able to do a much better job in post production by manually compositing RAW images, and so I do not think I would ever use the results that Arsenal produces, at least with the current version. However, for those of you that do not want to spend any time in post production, and do not want to shoot RAW, the results may be acceptable to you. For photographers that need to quickly share images from the camera to social media, the results from Arsenal may be sufficient. *note: I have had mixed results with Focus Stacking. On the Nikon D7000 it has worked well. On the Nikon D700 it has not worked well. The application seems to get stuck in a loop trying to calculate focus, and eventually generates an “unknown camera error” message. I will continue to test this to determine the scope of the problem.

If you click on the Advanced Settings icon you have access to some very useful tools including Rule of Thirds Grids and Golden Ratio Grids to assist composition. Also in Advanced Settings are options for Focus Peaking(highlights areas of the scene that will be in-focus) and Zebra stripes(highlights areas of the scene that are overexposed). I found Focus Peaking very useful since I frequently use manual focus lenses. Also in advanced settings is a Mirror Lockup setting, which can be used to reduce vibrations associated with the mirror moving up and down.

Arsenal Timelapse Mode

Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant Timelapse ModeUsing the built in intervalometer on my Nikon D700 and Nikon D7000 is a pain, and the Arsenal does make timelapse much easier. I don’t do a lot of timelapse photography, but if you do this feature alone might make the Arsenal worthwhile to you.

The Arsenal Timelapse Mode has just two settings currently. You set the Number Of Shots, and the Interval between shots. Arsenal allows you to preview the results.

A future software update will enable Arsenal’s Holy Grail feature, the ability to automatically adjust exposure settings in changing light and create a smooth day-to-night transition. Arsenal’s “Holy Grail” feature in Timelapse Mode is something I am eager to try out, but no ETA has been given for when this feature will be launched. Stay tuned!

Arsenal Video Mode

If your camera supports video recording, you can control that functionality from the Arsenal application. If your camera does not have a video record feature, then the Arsenal is not able to record video. It is important to note that the Arsenal does not currently allow you to review recorded video in the application. I believe that is something Arsenal is working on for future versions.

Arsenal Photo Sharing

Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant Photo SharingFor wireless tethering, image review, and photo sharing using the Arsenal works well. Simply tap on the thumbnail of the last image in the lower right corner of the application and you can click on the share button. This allows you to save the image to your mobile phone, email, text, or post the image Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant Review Summary

The Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant is an interesting idea that shows promise. I believe over time they will improve the software and add some missing features.

I think it is an acceptable solution right now For Wireless Tethering, Manual Camera Control, and Photo Sharing if you are willing to tolerate some bugs.

My biggest complaints right now with the Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant (other than it being too buggy) are that you are not able to change White Balance in the Arsenal application. Also, while the Arsenal device is attached to a camera and turned on you can not change White Balance settings on the camera (tested on Nikon D700 and Nikon D7000). If you want to change White Balance on the camera you have to unplug the device from the camera, change the setting on the camera, and then plug the Arsenal back in.

The Arsenal application does not currently support Tablets, but they have indicated they will be supported in the future. I find that the screen on my mobile phone (iPhone X) is smaller than I would prefer for the live view feature, especially since the application only works in portrait mode.

Images taken from the Arsenal are stored on the camera’s storage card(s). However, any composited images from HDR or Focus Stacking are not currently stored on the camera’s storage card. They are stored on the Arsenal, and only stored as jpg files. As a photographer who has discovered the benefits of shooting in RAW format and using post production software like Darktable (an open source version of Lightroom) to adjust white balance, pull up shadows, and pull down highlights I am going to have a really difficult time going back to being satisfied with jpg images.

I will continue to test the Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant as new updates are released.

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