This is what I really like about the new Ricoh Theta S (and its Theta predecessors): The camera represents a new way of thinking about photographs.
At the launch party in New York City, Ricoh Imaging Americas president Jim Malcolm opened the festivities by stating that the Theta is on the forefront of a “visual revolution.” It might sound like some kind of marketing catch phrase, but I really believe that the Ricoh Theta team is determined to change the way we think about photography and how photography is executed. The Ricoh Theta S is a lot more than “The Ultimate Selfie Machine.”
Since the dawn of the art, photography has mostly been about capturing three-dimensional scenes and reproducing them in two dimensions on a print and, more recently, a computer screen. Photography will always contain that in its DNA. But, what if we can capture the world around us in a way that allows us to better explore the environment, as well as the moment in which we captured the image? What if you could explore your image in a virtual 360-degree spherical world?
Well, you can. That is what the Theta family of cameras brings to the table, and the Ricoh Theta S does it even better than its predecessors.
Watch Hill Lighthouse #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Let’s hurry past the numbers, because when you are talking about truly unique photographs and videos, I would rather talk about the experience instead of the stats.
The Ricoh Theta S packs 14MP of effective resolution onto two 1/2.3" sensors. Each sensor is 12MP, but when the image is created, it is the equivalent of a 14MP image. There are two lenses, one on each side, and they feature 7 elements in 6 groups with a maximum aperture of f/2. The electronic shutter can open and close in 1/6400 of a second. For night or low-light photography, a 30-second exposure is possible. Close focus distance is 3.9". ISO sensitivity ranges from 100-1600, and the camera captures JPEG images and MP4, MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 video. Video is 1080p at 30fps for up to 25 minutes.
Other features include HD live streaming, live view on your smartphone with exposure control, and shutter speeds up to 60 seconds. The memory is built in and tops off at 8GB. This allows you to capture approximately 1600 full-res photos or a total of 65 minutes of 1080p video. If you crave more, a full suite of specs is available on the B&H Photo eCommerce site for the Theta S.
Westerly Yacht Club, Westerly, Rhode Island - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
The Theta S comes from the same general mold as Ricoh’s previous Theta cameras. The device is elegant and simple. The Theta S is clothed in a grippy, black rubber coating that feels good to my fingers. The two lenses are identical. One is on the front. One is on the back. Which side is which? I don’t know. One side has a shutter release below the lens.
It looks, to those unfamiliar, like the memory-erasing device from the Men in Black movies. “Just look right here at this light… and you will forget everything you ever knew about photography…”
Above and below the shutter release are soothing colored LED indicator lights that give you the Theta S’s status. A cool design feature: You cannot see where the LEDs are embedded in the camera’s facade until they illuminate. This keeps the overall design especially clean.
On one side is a trio of buttons. The top button powers the Theta S on. The next button is to activate the Theta S’s Wi-Fi. The third button toggles between still image and video modes. All three buttons have corresponding LED lights illuminating on the face of the device to confirm your selections.
When the Theta S is being charged, the power button illuminates red. Charging is done through a USB cable inserted into the bottom of the device. Also on the bottom are an HDMI port and standard ¼"-20 tripod socket. At the top, six circular holes allow sound in to dual microphones.
I won’t dare hypothesize about the complex innards of the Theta S. If you had doubts about the direction of Ricoh’s purchase of long-time photography stalwart Pentax, rest easy because, interestingly, the Theta family of cameras has technology grafted from the parent company’s line of high-performance facsimile machines. Who knew?
Brooklyn Bridge - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Size and Weight
If you have seen or touched a Ricoh Theta in the past, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the Theta S. The dimensions on the spec sheet show the Theta S to be a hair larger, but when I held both, I couldn’t tell the difference. The Theta S does have a bit more heft, but it doesn’t feel like it is a bar of lead.
To compare to another device, the Theta S is about as tall as an iPhone 5s, about two-thirds the width, and about twice the thickness. The Theta S can slip into a pants or shirt pocket easily, but if your smartphone or wallet is already in there, it might be a tight squeeze.
The Theta S switches on quickly and you can take a photo almost as fast as you move your finger from the On/Off button to the shutter release.
There is something to be said about taking a photo and not having to wonder if you got everything in the frame, because, with the Theta S, trust me—you got everything in the frame. Everything in a 360-degree sphere ends up in the frame, unless something was blocking it. The Theta S does not yet have the ability to see through or around objects. Maybe the next version will?
The problem with this extraordinary vision capability is that I kept getting my thumb and forefinger in the photographs. Ugh! Your natural grip position on the Theta S means that the world will get to see your digits in every photo.
There are solutions. If there was one legitimate reason to own a selfie stick, the Theta S could be it. The tripod socket allows you to attach accessory grips, like the Ricoh WG Grip Adapter, or mount the Theta S on a tripod head, walk away, and snap the photo using the Theta smartphone app. A couple of Theta converts at B&H told me that the best way to avoid the finger problem is to hold the Theta S at the bottom of the camera and use your phone to trigger the shutter. Lastly, if you are working accessory-free, you can slide your grip down as low as possible on the Theta S and eliminate the objectionable presence of your fingers.
Pier 59, Hudson River, New York #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
With some cameras, the capture is as fun and involved as viewing the images afterwards. The photographic process, for some of us, is as engaging and interesting as the results. With the Theta S, the process is simple: you just take the photo; therefore, the image is where the pleasure lies.
Uploading the images onto your computer or phone inside the Theta app allows you to “play” with your spherical world by panning and zooming. It is immersive and fun and an experience totally unique when compared to my previous photographic world.
Unlike a regular panoramic image, the Theta image is spherical. This means you cannot only scroll 360O right or left, you can scroll your image vertically to the “poles.” This is where the Theta gets magical. Its internal algorithms keep the Theta S from showing itself inside of images. It is like the image was taken at a point in space, but the camera did not physically occupy that point. If your fingers did not show up on the image, or if the phone was resting on a surface, you can scroll your 360O spherical image straight down and, instead of looking through the guts of the camera, you see whatever was beneath the Theta. It is freaky.
Suspend the Theta S from a quadcopter and look “up” at the vehicle. You will see the quadcopter from below as if you were flying in close formation, a foot or two below it. Freaky.
By design, the Theta S is probably the easiest way to get into the 360O spherical world of virtual reality (VR). There are several VR viewing devices on the market that will work effortlessly with the Ricoh Theta S images.
Hudson River Community Sailing, Hudson River, New York #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Selfies and Proof Photos
Today, many photographers, especially the younger crowd, are posting selfies and/or embracing the “photo or you were never there” mentality.
Love them or hate them, selfies are here to stay and the Theta gives your selfie a step up from the crowd because it shows much more than just you in the frame. It shows everything around you. Are you with a group of friends? Gather around the Theta and, as long as your friends can see the lenses, no one is left out of the image. It is, perhaps, the best single way to take a selfie or group photo.
For the “pic or it didn’t happen” crowd, not only are you proving you were there, hold the Theta above your head and you can see what was behind you. Now that I think of it, the Washington D.C. National Mall would be an awesome place to announce your existence with a Theta S—take a photo of the Washington Monument in front of you and US Capitol behind you in one click.
At a dinner for four, I placed the Theta S in the middle of the square table, connected my phone to the camera wirelessly, and took a photo of everyone seated around the table without obnoxiously holding a camera at arm’s length and looking at a screen showing my smiling face. “Everyone, get bunched up beside me to get in the frame.” At the next Oscars, Ellen DeGeneres can use a Theta S, stand in the middle of the room, and take a “selfie” of every single person in the theater with one click. No need for Bradley Cooper’s long arms. Sorry Brad, you’ve been replaced by technology.
Hey, wedding photographers or brides and grooms! Grab a handful of Thetas, program them to do interval shooting, and leave them on the tables around the wedding. Or just have one passed around from table to table at dinner. Continuous 360O action! How awesome will that be for your clients?
Oh, also, NASA, please send a Theta S up to the International Space Station (ISS) with the next cargo shipment. I want to see what spacewalking astronauts can do with the Theta! Also, take a 360O spherical photo inside the ISS Cupola, please. Thank you.
Ricoh has a handful of accessories for the Theta S, including the Theta Hardcase TH-1 that gives the Theta S a bit of weatherproof capabilities. The box says not to submerge the case, but the IPX7 rating, if accurate, will allow submersion to 3.3' for 30 minutes.
The Theta comes standard with a neoprene sleeve for transport. I was very paranoid about scratching the exposed lenses, as they protrude from the body, so I was diligent in my use of the sleeve. I also inserted the camera top-first so that my fingers wouldn’t touch the lenses when I extracted the camera.
Stewart Manor Long Island Railroad Station, New York #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Don’t try this at home, and please don’t pass this on to Ricoh, but, while photographing an arriving train on a platform, the wind from the passing Long Island Rail Road train knocked the Theta S horizontally. Breaking the fall, the lens struck the painted concrete first. Luckily there was no damage. The lens must have a very robust coating on it, or I was just lucky that I didn’t break my loaner Theta S.
Ahead of its Time?
The Theta S is ahead of its time, but its time is now. What the heck does that mean? Let me explain.
I think that the Theta cameras are on the forefront of a new way to do photography. 360-degree spherical will not replace “regular” images, but I feel that it will add to the overall photography experience for a lot of people.
The caveat is that it will only become a mainstream part of photography once the 360-degree spherical image reaches a critical mass. In order to immerse yourself in Theta’s spherical images, you need the Theta app or you need to link the images posted on social media via the Theta website. If you send a Theta image directly to a friend, they need the app to really explore the image. Eventually, this technology will likely be built into your smart devices or computers and, then, seamless sharing will happen.
To facilitate this journey, Ricoh has built the Theta on open-source architecture and is hosting app development contests to increase the 360O spherical infrastructure. Also, Ricoh partnered with Google Street View to facilitate easy uploading of 360-degree spherical images into the geographic service. There is “regular boring street view” and there is “look up, look down, look over there 360-degree spherical street view,” courtesy of the Theta.
Ricoh has to crack the action-cam code for the Theta by figuring out a way to make it bulletproof. Once this thing gets truly waterproof and shockproof, there will be some amazing videos flooding the Inter-web near you.
The Theta is only ahead of its time because it is one of the first 360-degree spherical cameras on the scene. If Ricoh plays its cards right, it will maintain its technological lead in this field while the infrastructure catches up. And the company will maintain it while the competition tries to catch up.
It is up to you to decide when you want to join the visual revolution.
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Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA