Arsenal 2 Pro Review

Price: 
219USD
Over the years I have backed the sum total of three Kickstarters - a 'smart' watch called Pebble back in 2012, an iPhone dock in 2013, and the Arsenal 2 Pro Intelligent Camera Assistant in 2020. And if I had to sum up my admittedly limited experience with Kickstarter projects based on the three products that ended up getting shipped to me - I'd say that it was underwhelming.

I missed the original Arsenal kickstarter, but it was by all accounts a big hit and so its success made a follow-up somewhat inevitable. When it was announced, the development team scored funding to the tune of $4.2m from over 22,000 eager backers with $230 in disposable funds lying around. With that level of interest it seems evident that there is a strong market for this sort of device.

Toys for the Boys

I know my way around a camera and you're probably wondering why anyone who is more than moderately proficient at operating a modern camera would buy a device like this. And my super-quick tl;dr answer to that question is that I was simply intrigued by this device and its possibilities. It also had a relatively modest $230 buy-in and I figured - fuck it - why not - if it's shit at least I'll still be able to review it.

The Arsenal 2 Pro on my Fujifilm X-T4

I pulled the pin on my purchase back in August 2020. Clearly a lot of crap happened between then and now and I don't think anybody really blames the Arsenal team for missing their projected release deadline(s). Ryan Stout, the designer and brains behind Arsenal provided regular updates on progress and the challenges he faced in getting Arsenal 2 out the door as the supplies chains of the world ground to a halt. Nonetheless I was happy (and surprised if I'm being completely honest) to finally receive my own Arsenal 2 Pro in the post 18 months after I bought it.

I've had it for a month now and have tested its various modes with several different cameras. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I kept putting off reviewing Arsenal 2 because I didn't think it could be as useless as it turned out to be. So I kept testing it and trying different stuff. I gave it the benefit of the doubt and kept thinking that I was doing something wrong, but it turned out that this wasn't an issue of operator ineptitude.

Now, given how advanced cameras are these days, you might wonder what the purpose of a device like this is. And the answer is that it aims to level the playing field with smartphones. Apple, Samsung, Google and the other phone manufacturers spend an ungodly amount of time and effort on the cameras in their devices, because cameras have become the single most important feature to consumers. And because smartphones cannot compete with the larger lenses and sensors on DSLR and mirrorless cameras, the phone manufacturers use machine learning and highly complicated software to improve the quality of the photographs.

So the intention behind this device is to bring the kind of sophistication that goes into making an iPhone or Samsung smartphone's camera technology to your Nikon, Sony, Fuji or Canon camera. When you think about the billions of dollars that a company like Apple undoubtedly spends on their smartphone cameras - in terms of both hardware and software - it's seems obvious that expecting a KickStarter project and a few passionate camera geeks to get close to that level of sophistication is expecting a bit much. That is the reality.

Heroic Failure

And now that I've spent some time with the Arsenal 2 Pro I can categorically state that, while it was a valiant effort, if getting close to a smartphone's camera system was the aim, then they failed. An heroic failure maybe, but a failure nonetheless.

The Arsenal package includes the device itself, two cables (one for data, one for power) and a smartphone holder, although the latter is an extra that you have to pay for on top of the actual device. The welcome card sends you to a Quick Start section on the Arsenal website that walks you through installation and setup.

I'm an iPhone user and I downloaded the Arsenal app directly from the App Store. My device came with an 80% charge, but I fully charged it before beginning the set up process.

Based on the feedback I've seen online I had it pretty easy getting my camera, Arsenal 2 and smartphone all talking to each other. For the most part the system connects to my iPhone 12 Pro Max without too many issues. It usually fails to connect the first time, sure, but after that it connects and shows a live preview streamed via wifi straight to the app. The first time you use the device you'll get notified that there's a firmware update and the app will then upload this to the Arsenal 2 and reboot it.

The app itself is well designed and relatively intuitive to use. You can quickly switch between the various modes, operate the Arsenal and camera in manual mode and also manage the photo storage options, including formatting the SD card in the Arsenal 2 itself. The app works in both portrait and landscape modes and can flick between the two without any issues. The control slider system works well and the design of the app is modern and functional.

The modes are the reason most people will buy this device because their aim is to either a) improve your photographs or b) automate an otherwise tedious photographic technique.

Deeply Shit

One of the tentpole features of the Arsenal 2 is Deep Colour mode. According to the marketing claims, the aim of this mode is to take the guesswork out of taking a photograph on a camera, such that someone with no knowledge of the effects of aperture, exposure and ISO, can score a great image. To achieve this the Arsenal 2 team apparently leveraged a machine learning system to train the device on hundreds of thousands of high quality photographs.

So when DeepColour mode is active, the Arsenal 2, in combination with the app on your smartphone, analyses the data it's receiving from the camera's sensors, uses A.I. to work out what sort of a scene you're photographing, and makes an informed decision about the best settings to use in that situation. All of which would be great if it worked with any degree of reliability.

Reliability is actually the real curse of this device.

Put simply Deep Colour is deeply disappointing. I have a couple of images that I shot in this mode that I would regard as ok, but most of the time the settings that Arsenal 2 chose for any given situation were odd at best and downright stupid at worst. On most occasions the camera would set the ISO to 6400 for reasons known only to itself. It would usually choose an aperture at the extremes, either ludicrously fast or ridiculously slow - f/2 one minute, f/22 the next. Oh, and it apparently uses a random number generator for the exposure time.

Now the simple fact of the matter is that I didn't buy into the Arsenal 2 Kickstarter because of this Deep Colour mode. I know my way around a camera and I had no intention of using it any more than I'd ever put my X-T4 in full auto. But it's one of the main selling points of the device and so I tested it. With my X-T4 and an iPhone 12 Pro, it absolutely sucked. It did slightly better with my Canon 7DII and 550D, but even then it was unreliable and erratic. I've had a good look at the other Arsenal 2 videos online and it seems like the results you get with this device are down to pure luck. Some people seem to be getting moderately decent photos with Arsenal choosing logical camera settings, some people have the same experience that I do.

Deep Colour is a standalone mode designed for taking single shots of a scene, but Arsenal also has a series of modes that use brackets and stacks to streamline the process of taking more advanced shots.

Of these modes, I was particularly interested in the focus stacking because, while my X-T4 has a built-in focus-bracket option, it is terribly designed and awful to use and so when I do stack an image, I usually do it manually.

The great news is that the focus stacking mode is one of the least-worst features on the Arsenal 2. It's a hit-and-miss mode that takes a lot of guesswork, but when (when!) it works it works well.

Lack of Focus

You configure the focus stack using the smartphone app. The mode has two sliders - numbers of shots and focus step size. No guidance is provided on what constitutes good options for these settings so you just have to piss around a lot and find out what works through trial and error. What does the Focus Step Size figure actually pertain to? Is it a percentage of the total focal range of the image? Should I set it to a small step or a large one? I eventually found that a figure of about 75 for the step size and between 5 and 7 shots was a good starting point, but of course it varies enormously depending upon the size of the camera sensor and the lens you've stuck in front of it.

Prior to taking a focus stack you select the closest point you want in focus by tapping the live preview on the smartphone app. It takes a second or two to find the focus and when it's successful the selection box turns from red to green. Then you simply press the shutter button on the app to begin the focus stack and occasionally it takes a successful series. However in my testing I found that the stacking mode basically gave up on life - usually after a couple of stacks - like some sulky teenager being forced to visit a museum.

It would either shoot everything at ISO6400 and f/2, or it would throw up an error message or it would crash half way through and I'd have to reboot the device, my camera and the smartphone app. When all the different settings come together, and the device doesn't suffer from an existential crisis in the middle of a sequence, it works well and spits out a blended image straight to your phone.

And while I'm happy to chalk the focus mode up as sort-of win, that's not the end of the story because the blended images produced internally by Arsenal 2 are not great. I found that if there was anything moving even moderately in the scene I photographed, such as tree branches - it did a third-rate job of blending it and I ended up with ghosts in those portions of the photo. Obviously I can take the original RAW images and use Photoshop's far superior stack blending feature, but again - one of the selling points of this device is that you're supposed to end up with a finished product on your iPhone that you can share to your social media feeds immediately. I wouldn't be happy about sharing images that look like I don't know my arse from my elbow.

The Perfect Blend

The same issues blighted the other stack modes I tested - exposure bracketing, long exposure stacking and crowd control. Of these three modes the only one that produced anything close to a decent image for me was crowd control. But even then, when I tested it in the centre of town during the middle of the day, the settings the camera chose were frankly bizarre - ISO6400 and f/4. I've tried but I can't think of a worse choice than that. After several reboots I managed to get Arsenal to shoot at ISO200, but it stuck by f/22 for the aperture like its life depended upon it. It's a testament to my X-T4 that it managed to produce images that weren't a solid block of blown-out white. My X-T4 is a supported camera model and I configured it according to the setup instructions on the Arsenal website - so why is it incapable of controlling the camera correctly?

The blended images produced in exposure blending and long exposure stacking were, for the most part, shit. The exposure blending mode in particular seems to produce weird washed out images that are a million miles away from the social media-ready eye candy that's promised in the marketing. The only good thing about these stack modes is that at least you have the original RAW files on your camera's SD card so you can edit them yourself in Lightroom or Photoshop.

The 'smart' timelapse function was another of the reasons that I backed Arsenal 2 - and in particular the holy grail timelapse mode. Unfortunately the weather here on the east coast of Australia has been unrelentingly awful for the last few months and I haven't had a chance to shoot a day to night timelapse yet. I'll probably do a separate video about the various timelapse modes, so watch this space.

The standard Smart Timelapse mode worked for me on most of the occasions I tested it. And when I say 'worked' I mean it took a series of still images one after another. What it didn't do was make very sensible choices about aperture or exposure - much like all the other A.I. based modes. The video it produced also suffered from the kind of flicker you get in most timelapses and so I had to render the whole thing in LR/Timelapse using the original RAW files anyway. I will say that the timelapse preview is awesome and enables you to quickly evaluate whether it's worth persisting with a particular sequence rather than after you've been sitting there puzzling over the day's Wordle for an hour.

Another of Arsenal 2's special functions is an astrophotography mode. The intention behind this was apparently to make it easier to focus on stars to ensure that you get beautiful crisp images every time. And while I'm sure the logic behind this process was sound - Arsenal crashed on me every single time I tried it.

In this mode the Arsenal takes three calibration images at very high ISO to enable you to pick a focus point. On my X-T4 using my 10-24mm wide angle lens, this part of the process worked fine. The problems started when I picked a focus point. I got an on-screen alert saying that it was taking focus calibration shots and then it shat itself and dropped me back to the connection screen. It did this every time and rebooting the Arsenal, the phone or the camera made no difference to the outcome. I decided to try this mode with my Canon 7DII and it didn't even make it as far as the initial calibration shots. In three nights of trying to get this mode working I managed to take one single crappy out-of-focus night shot. Not exactly the, "sharp, detailed night photos" they promote on their website.

Negative Energy

I was having such a lousy time trying to get the Arsenal 2 to behave itself that I decided to try it on a couple of my old cameras. So I dusted off my Canon 7DII and 550D, purchased a couple of special USB-C cables to connect to the Mini USB on the 550D and whatever the fuck that weird thin connection is on the 7DII and charged up their batteries. This meant I got a balanced view of how the device performs on my one year old Fujifilm X-T4, on my seven year old Canon 7D Mark II and on my 12 year old Canon 550D.

And the weird thing is that actually, Arsenal 2 did work far better on my old Canon DSLRs than it did on my X-T4. Yes, it still shat itself regularly, and dropped its connection all the time, but when it did work it seemed to make logical choices regarding aperture, exposure and ISO settings. I even managed to shoot an entire timelapse sequence with my prehistoric 550D, in which I left the Arsenal 2 shooting for over an hour without any dramas. I used LR/Timelapse to render the RAW images to video and the results are good. I would have compared it to the 1080p video render that Arsenal is supposed to produce, but it never managed to work up the enthusiasm.

One of the features I was most looking forward to using was the panoramic mode, but Arsenal 2 shipped without this feature. Apparently they've been having problems getting this working consistently (what are the chances?) and decided to ship it missing this primary functionality. Ryan Stout did admit that Arsenal 2 would ship without pano mode in one of his email updates, but that doesn't make the absence of the feature any less shitty.

Amongst the other long list of disappointments on this device is handheld mode. Arsenal 2 is designed to be used while on a secure tripod but they included a handheld mode so you can free your camera and use it in run-and-gun mode. Unfortunately handheld mode is not support on my Fujifilm X-T4 - a fact I only discovered while browsing the FAQ on the Arsenal website. And while handheld mode did work on the Canon cameras, I found the images to be no better than ones shot in auto mode. The resulting images were more saturated and had higher contrast levels than a native JPEG image, but it's hardly the groundbreaking A.I. based camerawork they allude to in the advertising.

Conclusion

So is this device any good or a load of old Arsenal? Is it a complete write-off? That all depends on what forthcoming firmware updates are like, but right now I'd say it was barely up to beta release quality. It's possible that the Arsenal team can slowly iterate a version of the firmware that works reliably on their list of supported cameras. It's possible that the pano mode will be released and it will work as advertised. It's possible that in a year's time all these issues will be fixed. I'm an optimist at heart and so I'll choose to believe that they will eventually manage to make the Arsenal 2 Pro more reliable. And if that ever becomes the case then I will happily release an updated review to reflect that.

It's also worth pointing out that there is a huge number of hardware combinations supported by the system. And, as I mentioned earlier, it may well be the case that a particular camera/smartphone/lens combination works flawlessly with the device. Who fucking knows? Perhaps some lucky person out there using a Sony A7III with a Samsung Note or a Nikon Z9 with a Pixel 5, is enjoying the full feature range without any issues. I can only tell you that when used with my X-T4, 7DII and 550D it was hopelessly unreliable, erratic, bug-ridden, slow and prone to crashing.

I take no joy in saying this - I wanted this device to work and be excellent.- I paid for it with my own money after all. But the truth is, as it stands right now, Arsenal 2 Pro only has two useable modes if I want to use it with my Fujifilm X-T4 - as a remote camera trigger and for manual mode timelapses. If I want to actually use my Arsenal 2 and its many automated modes, I find myself in the somewhat bizarre situation of being forced to pair it with an ancient DSLR I retired over a decade ago.

If I was weighing up a purchase of this device knowing what I do now - I would most definitely not buy it. I cannot put it much more plainly than that.

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
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