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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 things, and you may also know that they refer to effectively 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 have to 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 that you can truly interact with, 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.

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

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.

If you want it simple

Ricoh Theta S or Ricoh Theta SC  It doesn’t get much easier than the Ricoh Theta line. If all you want to do is take a spherical photo or video with minimal fuss, this is your best option. There are a few buttons on the side—power, Wi-Fi, stills/video mode—and a big Record button on the front. That’s pretty much all you need, but 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. Its dual 12MP sensors output 14.4MP stills or 1080p spherical videos, and it’s really just a very simple device to use. As is true with pretty much all of these products, you’ll need to be careful of the seam line that is caused by the two separate images being stitched together. 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 (the live view is very helpful for this), you’ll be able to compose your images to minimize the issue.

Ricoh Theta S Spherical VR Digital Camera | Ricoh Theta SC Spherical Digital Camera

The Theta S and SC are very similar devices, but the former is a bit more fully featured. It can record longer videos and even livestream them. If you don’t need either of those options, the SC is cheaper, lighter, and actually features a 1/8000 of a second shutter speed in all modes, instead of the 1/6400 of a second speed found in some of the S’s modes. But if you’re looking for simple spherical capture, you can’t do much better than the Theta line.

If you can’t stand the thought of seam lines

360fly 4K  This is a case of a non-spherical video camera that still falls under the 360 moniker. Rather than using multiple sensors and lenses, the 1080p 360fly and its 4K* sibling use a single lens with an extremely wide angle of view. At 240 degrees, the camera can see all around and even a bit behind itself. There will be a gap at the bottom of your image, but as long as you point the camera in the right direction, pretty much anything you would want to be in the image will be. In fact, since cameras are often on tripods and have other equipment left beneath them, this missing section may be useful. I’ve seen professional productions that had manually removed the bottom from the image to hide these elements.

360fly 4K Video Camera

The 360fly is more of an action cam than the Theta, and it’s meant to be used under harsher conditions. Its IP6X rating means it’s protected from dust, the 1 ATM water rating means it can withstand pressures equivalent to water 32' deep, and its 4.9' shock resistance means that short drops won’t send you into the infinite depths of despair as you cry over your shattered device.

*The 4K outputs 2880 x 2880 video rather than the UHD 4K (3840 x 2160) you might expect. However, the two resolutions have identical pixel counts (8,294,400) and square video is more appropriate for this type of image capture.

For the serious creator who still likes things (relatively) simple

GoPro Omni  We’re now stepping up to a whole different kind of product. While the low-end is made up, generally, of single-camera solutions, the higher end is much more complex. The Omni is not a single device; rather, it’s six GoPro HERO4s that are synced up. While it makes for a more complicated production than those other cameras, it has one major benefit: high-resolution capture.

GoPro Omni

With the right settings, you can end up with an 8K spherical video at the end of the whole thing, something that’s simply not possible with a Ricoh or 360fly camera. While that might sound like overkill, don’t forget that someone viewing your image through a headset is only seeing a small portion of the image at any time. Your screen doesn’t need to display 8K or even 4K to see the benefits of higher resolution, since it means what you’re seeing is sharper and more pixel dense. Now, not all players allow for that level of playback yet, but they will sooner than later, and with something like the Omni, you’ll be ready to take full advantage when it does.

But let’s talk about post-production. There’s a second benefit to these multi-camera rigs, which is the ability to correct errors. Using more cameras is a bit of a double-edged sword, though: You have more stitch lines, which means that there is more possibility for error, but you also have more overlapping footage, which allows you to more effectively correct for the errors that do occur. Depending on the complexity of your image, you may want more cameras or fewer. I’ve seen footage from the Omni of a fairly busy Times Square, and I was impressed by how few errors there were. It wasn’t perfect, but it was still very good, and that was with minimal post-production, as well.

There’s still some post required, of course. The different video files need to be brought into a software like Kolor’s Autopano Video Pro 2. GoPro acquired Kolor, so the software is included in this package—as are a number of other useful accessories, including cables, microSD cards, an external battery, a waterproof carrying case, and more.

GoPro Omni

What makes syncing easier with the Omni than with some other solutions is that the cameras are all gen-locked, meaning they start and stop at exactly the same time. And because they’re controlled by the electronics of the rig, you can be sure that they’re all starting and stopping or alerting you if any one of them is causing problems. It’s good practice to always check, but it’s definitely a perk of this particular option.

If you’ve already got some GoPros and don’t feel like you need the included accessories, then you can also get the Omni housing separately.

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 onto 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 the 220° ones included in this kit, as well as 250° ones that we’ve got in another kit that uses only two cameras. 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 also 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 definitely not as easy to use as the Omni, though. 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 thinks “Overkill” is a challenge

360RIZE Pro24 Bullet360  One nice thing about VR headsets is that they’re capable of outputting the best 3D you’ll ever see. That’s because each eye is always getting its own image, so they can be offset, giving the 3D illusion with none of the cross-talk or other issues that can come with more traditional playback. However, most of these solutions don’t offer the ability to record in 3D. If you really want to go all-out, there’s no product with more overkill than 360RIZE’s Pro24. Aside from the holder, you’ll need 24 (yep) GoPro HERO4s (HERO3+ and 3s also work, but the 4, as you may have noticed, is the go-to for these kinds of products). 16 of them face the horizon, four face up, and four face down. While sixteen is a lot, they’re only really capturing eight cameras’ worth of images. In each direction is a pair, so as you scan around the image, you’ll be seeing in proper 3D. The upward- and downward-facing cameras are 2D only, but the transition isn’t as odd as you might expect. Also, since the focus of the action tends to be on the sides, the top and bottom are there more to keep the image spherical than to really expand the space of the content.

360RIZE Pro24 Bullet360 360° Plug-n-Play Holder for GoPro HERO4/3+/3

Let’s be honest: post-production on such a rig is going to be pretty nightmarish, although the electronics in the Bullet360 mean that, like the Omni, the cameras are all controlled by the rig and don’t need to be turned on individually (can you imagine?). But 360RIZE has a number of other options, both electronically and manually controlled, for smaller numbers of cameras. If 24 sounds like too much but, say, ten seems like it could be about right, they’ve got you covered. And if you want to see something other than a GoPro, 360RIZE has got you there too: some of the upcoming rigs use Blackmagic Micro Cinema Cameras instead.

360RIZE 6/7/8-Camera 360 Video RIG for Blackmagic Design Micro Cinema 2K and M

Have any questions or suggestions? Post them in the Comments section, below.

Discussion 13

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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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