Video / Buying Guide

360 Video Buyer's Guide

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Spherical Video. 360 Video. VR Video. If you’re looking at this article, there’s a very good chance you’ve heard of at least one of these terms, and you may also know that they refer effectively to the same thing: video intended to be viewed using a headset, one that puts you literally in the center of a scene. Rather than staring at a rectangle in the distance, the image is all around you, and you must look up and down and all around to see it in its entirety.

VR and 360 video are kind of like catch-all terms, though the first one is a bit disingenuous. There is currently no technology that allows you to create live-action experiences with which you can truly interact, the way a virtual reality headset like the HTC Vive or PlayStation VR could. These are meant to be viewed with a Gear VR or Google Cardboard headset, which use your smartphone rather than high-end computers to power your experience. As a result, they’re a bit more limited. They don’t allow you to really move in a space, only to look around it from a fixed point.

DODOcase P2 Cardboard Pop-Up VR Smartphone Headset

And so, too, with 360 video. Spherical video is specifically video that captures the entire world around you in a single image. With a spherical video, there is nowhere you cannot look. There are other forms of 360 video with some gaps, though, and we’ll be sure to talk about those, as well.

This technology gets complicated very quickly, and a cursory glance at B&H’s 360 video section can be a bit overwhelming, so we’re here to help you figure out what you want to do and what you need to get it done. (We’re awesome.)

For the Person Who Doesn’t Need (or Want) a Stand-Alone Device

Insta360 Air (for Android) or Nano (for iOS)

The rise of consolidation has been a particularly fascinating part of the smartphone era. It started with music, as the first iPhone was a better iPod than an iPod would ever be, and has continued as other gadgets have gone the way of the dodo. Among the things now relegated to niche is the whole concept of the dedicated point-and-shoot camera. Carrying a bulky extra device when you’ve got a phone that can do most of the same things (and probably do them better) just doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore. Of course, a smartphone sensor isn’t as good as the one in a decent point-and-shoot, so there are accessories to improve them. This is where the latest trend of 360 cameras has turned, and Insta360’s got particularly compelling offerings.

Insta360 Air Camera for Android Devices

Despite their different designs (the Nano is rectangular and the Air round), the two devices are functionally similar. They each slot into your phone’s power jack (whether Lightning, Micro-USB, or USB Type-C) and can be controlled right from the phone’s screen. They offer live-streaming capabilities and can record 3K video on higher-end devices (2K on weaker ones). Since the heavy lifting is offloaded to the device you’ve got in your pocket anyway, the cameras can be smaller and cheaper without sacrificing image quality.

Insta360 Nano Spherical Video Camera for iPhone

Note that, if something is close to the camera’s side, part of it will distort (or disappear), and there’s not much you can do to fix that once it’s happened. But once you understand how it works, you’ll be able to compose your images to minimize the issue.

If you’re interested in the tech and want to try it out without making much of an investment, this is the place to start.

For the Person who Resents Device Consolidation but still Likes Simplicity

Ricoh Theta V

Ricoh’s latest entry into its ever-popular Theta line is its first to record and stream 4K footage, which is more important than you might think. You see, when viewing a spherical video, you’re only seeing a fraction of the image at any one time. That 1080p resolution is the whole image, not just what’s in your view. So even with a 1080p headset, you’d see a marked improvement with a 4K video.

Ricoh THETA V 360 4K Spherical VR Camera

As for the overall experience, it doesn’t get much easier than the Ricoh Theta line. In some ways, it’s even simpler than the Insta360 options. It’s a stand-alone device with no screen and just a few buttons. You can also use an app for stills live view (it does not have a functional live view during video recording, unfortunately) as well as file transfers, but the act of taking pictures and videos is as simple as it could possibly be.

If you don’t care about the higher resolution, then the Theta S is still a very good option for you. If live streaming holds no allure either, then I’d recommend a Theta SC. Point is, if you’re looking for a device that does simple spherical capture, you can’t do much better than a Ricoh Theta.

Ricoh Theta SC Spherical Digital Camera

For the More Serious Creator (Who also Likes Simplicity)

Insta360 Pro

Last year, we listed the GoPro Omni here, and that’s still a good choice for people who are invested in GoPros and like having the flexibility of multiple cameras, but the market has changed. This is, ultimately, a good thing, as multi-camera setups are complicated. The need to keep up with multiple batteries, media cards, etc. is a headache that you can avoid with something like the Insta360 Pro. The unit has six lenses built right in, all of which record ultra-wide individual files that can then be stitched using Insta360’s software or other, if you’re so inclined.

Insta360 Pro Spherical VR 360 8K Camera

And with that comes the clearest benefit of these higher-end setups, which is the ability to correct errors. Using more cameras creates more stitch lines, which means that there is more possibility for visible errors, but also gives more overlapping footage, allowing you to more effectively correct for the errors that do occur. Depending on what you’re filming, this may not be a serious concern, and the software might do everything for you perfectly right from the start, but having the ability to massage the footage a bit is helpful if something goes a little awry.

When using their software, the camera can output videos at up to 8K, as well as stereoscopic 3D videos at 4K. As mentioned regarding 4K, 8K video can matter here, as you only ever see a small section of the video, generally on a screen that’s high-resolution itself. But 3D is also cool, because there is no 3D better than VR. With each eye being supplied with an entirely different image, there’s no chance of cross-talk or anything else to get in the way of brain-bending depth. Usually, systems need to have many more cameras for that type of functionality, so it may not be as successful at it as our last entry, but it’s a nice thing to have, nonetheless.

For the Person Who Is Willing to Get Their Hands Dirty

Three Back-Bone Gear Ribcage Air Modified GoPros, Three 220° Fisheye Lenses, and a 3X Mount Kit

Look, the GoPro HERO4 is a great camera, but I think we can all agree that its lens isn’t the best. Sometimes you just want to put your own glass on it. Fortunately, Back-Bone Gear has made that possible. With the Ribcage Air modification, you can mount M12, CS Mount, and C-Mount lenses on the action cam. This is potentially cool in many cases (such as aerial imaging, where GoPros also see frequent use), but it’s particularly helpful with 360 video.

Back-Bone Gear Three Ribcage AIR HERO4 Black Cameras with Three 220° Fisheye Lenses and 3X Mount Kit

Entaniya has a handful of ultra-wide-angle lenses, including 250° models and the 220° ones included in this kit. These lenses, one nearly as wide as what you’d find on the 360fly and the other even wider, potentially allow for a best-of-both-worlds type of scenario. Instead of needing six different cameras to capture a full sphere, you can do it with three. This means there are fewer seam lines to fix—which is great—and that when you do see a line, there’s still some decent overlap between images that will allow you to fix them in post, which is even better. You won’t get the resolution you’d get from a rig with more cameras, but you can still end up with a more-than-respectable 5800 x 2900 resolution when shooting in UHD.

Entaniya 250° Fisheye Lens for Ribcage Modified GoPro

This setup is not as easy to use as the Insta360 Pro or even the GoPro Omni. There are no electronics in the mount, so you’ll need to keep track of everything manually and make sure you use motion and/or audio cues to help you sync when you bring the footage into post. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it will definitely do what you need it to.

For the Person Who Owns a Production Company that Is Going All-In on this Whole 360 Video Thing

JAUNT ONE

The first 360 video I ever saw was produced by JAUNT. It was a horror short, where I was bound in a chair and looking around. It turned into some cultish thing. I don’t really remember the content all that much, to be honest, but I do remember the name on the project: JAUNT. Below me, the image had been removed entirely, so I just saw a black circle with that text. It ruined the mood a little bit, but it forever associated that type of content with the company’s name. So, I was a little excited when I saw that B&H would be selling the company’s premiere camera system, the ONE.

JAUNT ONE VR Camera System

The ONE is ridiculous overkill for 99.99% of people, a unified, 24-camera setup that isn’t even available for online order; you must talk to a B&H employee directly to get one. While its price is hidden on our site, believe me when I say it’s substantial. This is a serious product not for serious people but for full-on production companies that truly want the highest-end equipment available. This is a truly hardcore solution, one that uses cloud services to automatically stitch and render out video at resolutions up to 8K for each eye of a 3D video.

If you want the best of the best, there is no other option.

But what do you think? Did I miss anything big? Is spherical video just a fad? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

13 Comments

We bought the Theta S through B&H as our intro to VR. For photos, we LOVE it. Stupid simple to use, good quality and quick and easy to post on line. To address the problem of always seeing what's "under" the camera (the tripod, a table of what have you), we created a small cardboard disk with our company name and logo. So, if you "look down" while in the 360 experience, you always see who shot it.  Video is terrible. We never use it. We're hoping Rocoh comes out with a 4K version for video or we'll step up to something more professional if we feel the need. I have to admit, we haven't had any compelling reasons yet to use VR. It's mostly been just for fun.

You missed out the Panono Camera. Ex-Kickstarter and the one of the funkiest looking cameras, it's an excellent choice for high resolution stills.
Super simple to use with really quite amazing results. 

Sorry, Ex-Indiegogo. Made in Germany.

We sell the Panono, but it doesn't belong on this list because it is very explicitly not a video camera. If someone just wants to take pictures, it's probably a fine choice, but I don't really know what the market for a stills-only spherical camera is.

What about the Samsung Gear 360 camera? From everything I've seen it's got better IQ than any of the other single camera solutions you mentioned.

I haven't gotten a chance to play around with it, in large part because I don't have a Samsung Galaxy phone. That requirement bothers me a lot, even if there are app hacks that allow some level of broader compatibility. I wouldn't really be surprised, though: Gear VR is objectively better than its smartphone headset competition (though I haven't gotten a chance to really play around with the Pixel or Daydream yet), but it's also Samsung-only, so... that kinda doesn't matter.

If you've got a Galaxy phone, though, it may well be the way to go. I can't really say one way or another.

Thanks for reading!

This article is definitely helpful, thank you for posting.

You're great.

Thanks for the article. Any thoughts on tripods or mounts for the camera ?

Well, thank you for reading. With regards to mounts: you want a monopod, not a tripod. A tripod is wide and will be all up in your shot, requiring more time in post or meaning you have to cut out part of your shot or whatnot. Monopods, on the other hand, often disappear entirely in the stitch.

As far as specific recommendations: Freedom360 is pretty legit, and they've got a small but very heavy tripod base that will add some good stabilization. The fact that it's small is key to that post thing (it can also be hidden in grass or sand or whatever, depending on where you're shooting; worst case scenario: minimal rotoscoping or you just allow for a little bit of stabilizer in your shot). They've also got a suction-cup mount that is very sturdy.

I noticed that you didn't mention the Nikon Key Mission 360. Sure it hasn't seen great reviews from buyers initially, but a lot of the intial bugs have been ironed out, and most tech sites consider is better than the Theta S, and in fact call it the best sub-$1000 or sub-$500 spherical video action camera out there. So, what is your take on the KM 360?

The Nikon product needs to go through more iterations.  The app that you must run it with on your phone is next to impossible at this point and is highly non-user friendly and unrelaible - two conditions no one should have to think about with a Nikon product.  There are other issues with it such as poor stitching and seams and less than acceptable quality footage.  I am sure Nikon will fix this product but right now stay away.  I am used to paying professional prices and thought that this minor 500.00 invstment would be  good introduction to the format but the software was so poor that I returned it...It is hard to understand why Nikon rushed out such a poor product.

True story: I had originally wanted to put that one here, because the Nikkor glass excited me, but after getting some hands on time, I walked away with a similar impression to Auggie. The biggest issue is really with the app. If you've got an Android phone, it's just annoying. If you've got an iOS device, though, it's a straight-up nightmare. They're working on it, and it's better than it used to be, but the whole point of that kind of product is that it's simple and user-friendly, and the process for controlling the KeyMission, at this point in time, is anything but.

The Theta, on the other hand, is genuinely easy to use. Even if it doesn't have the best image quality and its seam lines aren't perfect, it's a really good intro to the tech.

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