There was quite a bit of buzz about the Arsenal Smart Camera Assistant some months ago. It's a hardware device that can plug into many DSLR or mirrorless cameras (though there are some important exceptions which I'll detail later.) It's designed to automate a lot of shooting situations, and make AI based decisions about camera settings to get you the best possible images. Arsenal says it best on their website: "Arsenal’s smart assistant AI suggests settings based on your subject and environment. It uses an advanced neural network to pick the optimal settings for any scene (using similar algorithms to those in self driving cars). Like any good assistant, it then lets you control the final shot."
The device is small, and can mount on your camera hot shoe and connects via a USB cable. You tell Arsenal what camera you have, and the proper cable is shipped. The Arsenal runs on internal rechargeable batteries and a charging cable and power connector/AC adapter are included. The Arsenal is a Kickstarter project and came with the usual delays and missed deadlines.
The cost is now $175.00 plus $10.00 shipping. Later the price is set to go up to $250.00.
Advertised features include "smarter" focusing, photo stacking for HDR or focus stacking. The Arsenal will merge the photos, then send them back to your camera SD card.
Arsenal claims its device can automatically detect when detail is being lost and take multiple photos at different shutter speeds to capture all of the missed detail, then merges the photos for you.
It also has a time-lapse function and long exposure settings. In all cases, Arsenal claims its Smart Camera Assistant will calculate the best settings so you can get an excellent image.
Control is through an iOS or Android app. So all settings are done from the app, freeing you from being at your camera menus.
So how does it all work? It's a mixed bag. Connecting to my Sony A7 III was a bit flaky. Sometimes the connection between my iPhone X and my camera was lost. Sometimes the camera locked up. During my testing, a firmware update was offered, and that seemed to settle things down a bit.
I tried several HDR photos and let Arsenal automate them. They worked, but I did not find it an improvement over doing brackets myself with my own settings.
As far as the AI functions went... well, I did not find the Arsenal Smart Assistant did any better than I could have at choosing camera settings. It should help a novice photographer, but I don't think any more than using the automated settings on their camera.
I found the time-lapse functions worked well, as did the long exposure automation, but there are others ways to accomplish this. For example, the Pluto Trigger device I reviewed last month was easier to operate and gave no worse than equal or better results with HDR and time-lapse photos. It doesn't claim any AI smarts, but it does automate a lot of functions of your camera and lets you concentrate on getting the best shot. And it's more than $100.00 cheaper than the Arsenal.
Even with the latest firmware, the Arsenal would sometimes seem to get lost — pausing for long periods with nothing happening, especially during HDR brackets. And, although advertised to do raw brackets, images are saved as JPEGS, rather than raw, which is going to be a non-starter for many people, including me. The Arsenal folks say the "save to raw" feature is coming in a future update.
Things I Like:
- There are good ideas here. I think devices like this could be the future, and increasingly will be built into camera bodies
- Screens on the smartphone app are well laid out and fairly easy to understand
- Functions like time lapse and long exposures worked very well
Things I Didn't Like:
- Did not find HDR brackets any better than my own methods, and images stay on your phone and aren't sent back to the SD card
- Software is still buggy and has some rough edges
- Power and USB ports are not marked and confusing as to what cable goes where
- Zero compatibility with some camera brands including Olympus and Fuji (yikes!). Working cameras are listed here
I'm having some difficulty figuring out the use case for the Arsenal. Beginners attracted to the automation will likely find the Arsenal too difficult or buggy to set up and will become frustrated. Professionals or serious amateurs aren't likely to be impressed with the AI features, and again, won't tolerate any unreliability.
One good example of a showstopper is that the device simply won't function if it requires a firmware update. The last update was almost 500 MB and if I was in the field I could not have updated the Arsenal making it unusable. Not the best way to handle an update.
There is much promise here. Making more complicated things like focus stacking and HDR easier are a plus, but the Arsenal just isn't there yet. There have been frequent updates which is a good sign, but major promised features like sending RAW files back to the camera are very late. It's a required function.
I should point out what I only tested the Arsenal with my Sony A7III. Other cameras might work better, or worse. Reports from other photographers aren't encouraging when taken together.
Interested photographers should keep their eye on what is happening with Arsenal, and I'm hoping at some point it will be a worthy investment. Right now, it's a long work in progress that I hope will pay off. The ideas behind this product are sound, even if the execution is spotty at this point.