Since they launched a few years ago to much fanfare, 360° cameras have been largely ignored. Why did they fail? Partly because it’s difficult to deliver quality footage in 360°, but largely because it’s very hard to use them professionally, from both a storytelling point of view and from a practical one: where does the crew hide?
Today the world of 360° is looking a little brighter, because quality is getting better, and because VR headsets have become more popular — Apple are expected to release a new headset this year that could reinvigorate the landscape somewhat.
But you don’t need to be delivering to a headset to make use of a 360° camera. Whether you’ve dabbled in 360° or never touched it, let’s take a bird’s-eye overview at how to use footage that lets you look everywhere at once.
A word about cameras
One company still dominates the consumer and prosumer space, and it’s Insta360. Most of their cameras land under $500 and some higher-end options above that. A few more esoteric options exist from other companies, but Insta360 is to the general 360° market what DJI is to drones. They’re very popular, and good enough for many. Here, I’ll be focusing on the Insta360 hardware and software ecosystem, because they’re probably the best choice for most of us. There are other choices at the high end, and Ricoh make some compelling options for those who only shoot stills, but Insta360 is otherwise pretty dominant.
This year’s high-end prosumer option (the Insta360 One RS 1-inch 360 Edition) comes in at $799, and can deliver, to my eyes, significantly better video and stills than previous cameras in the range. While that might not sound unusual — shouldn’t most cameras look better than their predecessors? — it hasn’t been the rule in small two-lens 360° cameras for many years. The 1-inch sensors do make a difference though, and for the first time, I’m able to shoot video that I can reframe for standard 1080p delivery and not feel embarrassed. While it’s not as portable or as light as the Insta360 One X3 it takes better video and stills, and for many jobs, that’s key.
Resolution has been the factor crippling smaller 360° cameras for years now; with only 6K (or a little less) to cover a full 360° sphere, you’re left with about 1000 not-very-good-looking pixels to cover a standard field of view. Delivering a standard frame with more wide-angle look uses more of the source pixels to increase resolution, but until now, the image didn’t just look low-res, it looked bad, like old smartphone video; smeary with heavy noise reduction. The sensors have been tiny and it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it’s been like magnifying a polaroid photo — there’s no detail.
While larger cameras (6 or more lenses in a giant ball) do exist, they’re much more expensive and the workflows can be much more complicated. Here, we’ll stay in the land of consumer cameras and easily-processed media, because 360° delivery is still a mess, and capturing is tricky too. Let’s dig into the capture process for stills, and then video.
Shooting 360° stills
If you only care about shooting stills — because you want to deliver stills, or pan around them in video — then you don’t have to use a 360° camera. Instead, you can use a wide-angle lens on a traditional camera, then stitch the image together in post. This definitely takes more work than the simpler workflow from a true 360° camera, but the quality is usually very good. Of course, your subjects can no longer move, but that’s the sacrifice they must make for art.
With a nice modern camera, the process is straightforward. Use a selfie stick on a small tripod or free-standing monopod to move the camera away from the floor and minimize its footprint in the shot. (A light stand can also work.) Set the camera at a consistent height (about 5’ above the ground works) and place it near the center of each location you need to capture. Keep the camera facing a consistent direction between each of these spots, and make sure you give people interesting things to look at. Don’t go too close, because you’ll end up with stitching artifacts near the camera, but don’t keep things too far away either. Look at the world in all directions from the perspective of the camera, then clean it up once you notice the mess that surrounds you. Papers, rags, dust — it’s easier to clean it up in the real world.
Now, controlling the camera from your phone, run away, hide behind something, and press the big red button. If your camera supports it, shoot 3 or more bracketed shots so you can capture details in shadows and highlights, and shoot raw if you can too.
And what if you need to capture movement?
Shooting 360° video
For scripted or at least planned content, video is superficially pretty similar to stills. Place the camera on a monopod, hide, push the big red button, then call action. Don’t let your subjects get too close to the camera, and make sure everything the camera can see is worth looking at. But it’s nothing like being on a set, because you have to hide the whole time. Lights will be seen, and you’ll have to consider delivery heavily at time of shooting. If you’re delivering in 360°, you won’t be cutting from shot to shot, so your actors have to deliver the whole scene like they’re in a play, and you probably won’t be able to move the camera. Sure, constraints inspire creativity, but come on!
Movement is doable with wires if you’ve got a roto budget, but it’s next to impossible to deliver moving 360° footage to headset users for the unpleasantly visceral reason that it will make a large percentage of them sick. We’ll return to delivery discussions soon, but if you’re planning on carrying the camera around, you’ll want to focus on reframing for traditional delivery.
If that’s the plan, don’t worry too much about where you are, and focus on moving the camera to be near interesting things. You can sweep the camera up and down, place it in hard-to-reach spots, and use a really long selfie stick to make movements like a drone might. The one thing you don’t have to worry about is the orientation, because gyros inside the camera know which way is up and will keep the ground at the bottom of the footage no matter what.
Here are a few tips for shooting 360 with a view to flat delivery. Also remember that timelapse or hyperlapse is a great way to condense time, and you can move around the frame to bring more life to it if needed.
Delivering 360° photos
It’s fairly easy to deliver 360° photos in their native form, either in a headset, or on a website as part of a virtual tour for anyone to view. The process of getting from from camera to the end user isn’t too painful, either. You’ll need to use the software that comes with the camera to download the images from the original two lenses, then stitch them to an “equirectangular” 2:1 image that encodes the full sphere, like a flat world map. Most cameras that can shoot HDR (to maximize dynamic range) will combine the bracketed shots as part of that process for you.
Since the 1-inch camera shoots raw combined HDR DNGs as well as the bracketed DNGs, I’ll start with the combined raw DNG file and extract as much as I can from the shadows and highlights. Still, the automatically combined shots sometimes have issues, so for maximum control, also export all the original exposures. Once the equirectangular conversion has happened, you can use any photo processing app to merge the files together, but a DAM like Lightroom Classic will make quick work of a large shoot.
From here, I like to export to PNG for any retouching, and Affinity Photo is the app of choice because Photoshop removed 360° support a few versions back. Activate the Live Projection > Equirectangular mode, use the Inpainting brush to remove the monopod legs, and be sure to exit live projection before saving.
You can now convert these PNGs to high quality JPEGs for upload to the virtual tour software of your choice (Kuula, Cloudpano, etc.) or load them direct to a headset, but keep the PNGs and DNGs in case you need to reprocess anything later. Each virtual tour platform has strengths and weaknesses, but you’ll be spending a bit of time connecting photos here, so be sure you like the editing and publishing sides of the site.
Delivering 360° video
Processing is much the same if you’re in Final Cut Pro — stitch the two shots into a single 2:1 equirectangular video with the camera’s software, then move to your editing app of choice. In Premiere Pro, with Insta360 Studio, you can use a plug-in to avoid stitching until later if you prefer.
Either way, you’ll find that you have to really change the way you plan and edit in 360°. Are viewers looking in the right place? What devices are they using to view your videos, and how clear are they? Are you trying to tell a story, or just documenting a space for a period of time? You’ll need to test how your videos work, and you might be surprised that viewers don’t see what you expected them to.
A few guidelines: don’t move the camera, try fading to black rather than using straight cuts, and keep shots longer than you normally might, to let people look around. Audio can be important, but recording fully immersive audio requires special microphones and extra ambisonic processing (which Premiere Pro can handle but FCP can’t). Final Cut Pro and Premiere will both let you edit video in 360° though — even fancy 3D variations of 360°. You can reorient a 360° shot so that sequential images face the same way, and use cloning to hide the monopod legs at the nadir of the scene.
Even if you do a good job, quality will likely be a problem unless you’re using the latest cameras. The problem is that 4K really isn’t enough for a full sphere, and even if bandwidth is plentiful, playback of 6K or 8K is a big ask of most systems. While there are intelligent playback systems that can dynamically deliver only the part of the image where a viewer is looking, they won’t work for wider distribution yet. If you can get direct access to the headset, great.
In short, photos are easy and look much better; video remains hard. Fingers crossed that next year’s headsets and even better cameras make things look nicer soon, but delivery of high quality 360° video is not always possible.
Delivering reframed regular video
You can easily use 360° video in a regular timeline, and if you just want to control the orientation of a shot and its field of view, that’s now part of the editing job in your NLE. This is only something you’ll do when delivering regular video — you don’t need to aim the camera during the shoot, and if you’re delivering 360° video, the viewer chooses what to look at. As well as the normal projection modes (essentially a super-wide fish-eye) you can use a Tiny Planet mode to wrap the whole shot into a small world for a neat special effect.
While “normal” projection usually looks OK, the edges can be a bit bendy, depending on the field of view, the content, and the NLE you’re using. To straighten all the lines, perform this reframing in Insta360 Studio instead, and use Linear view.
You’ll also want to use this software if you want to smoothly track an object as it moves around a still shot, or produce a fancy timelapse, or add a smooth whip around.
But if you don’t mind the fish-eye look most of the time, just use the original 360° footage most of the time, then re-export (in H.264, HEVC, or ProRes) and replace special shots as needed. Either way is fine — there’s no shame in spending a bit of time prepping your shots in Insta360 Studio first, and then editing and adding titles in your NLE.
With today’s higher quality 360° cameras, you can get a unique higher perspective without a drone or jib, shoot perfectly framed video of yourself when you can’t set down a tripod, get action camera footage when you don’t know which way the camera should be pointing, and even get a third-person video game perspective over someone’s shoulder. Native 360° delivery is still hard, but you don’t need to deliver in 360° to make use of a 360° camera. If you’re shooting out of a car or in any other situation where you can’t be sure you’re framing a shot correctly, consider just putting a 360° camera there instead.
As an added bonus, a 360° camera makes a great travel companion. You’ll record everything around you, but you won’t be distracted by a screen in a beautiful place. And happily, when you look back on those memories in future years, you’ll now actually be pleased with the quality too.