Forget your standard video rules, when shooting in 360 degrees convenience may trump quality. 360 video -- that VR-like format that lets you look up, down, left, right, and behind -- is all the rage right now. But to get those wraparound views, you'll need a special camera (or multiple camera setup) and a large dose of patience.
I learned this the hard way during my month-long crash course comparing three different devices: the 360 Freedom (holding six GoPro Hero4 cameras), a Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K Dual Pack Pro (holding two Kodak Pixpro cameras) and the Ricoh Theta S (an single-camera all-in-one solution).
1. Not all 360 cameras are created equal
The first challenge was trying to figure out which cameras to include in our shoot-out. A quick Google search of 360 cameras will show you can spend anywhere from $200 (for the LG 360 Cam) to $60,000 (for Nokia's Ozo camera).
You also need to factor in the viewing angle. Even cameras that have 360 in the name won't produce shoot the entire 360 degree angle. The 360Fly and Kodak's Pixpro SP360 are two examples of cameras that only have a viewing range of 240 degrees vertically. To get a full spherical image, you can fill in the missing angle with graphics as in the case of the 360Fly, or set up two cameras back to back as in the case of the Pixpro.
To produce a full 360 shot with a GoPro you'll need at least 6 of them mounted on a third party rig or wait for GoPro's Omni, a fully integrated solution that incorporates the six cameras into one casing and syncs them all automatically.
The simple explanation for the vast difference in price is quality: the cheaper the camera, the lower the resolution. But there's more to it than that. Only the cameras at the high end of the price spectrum, like the Ozo, are capable of shooting stereoscopic video for VR.
2. There are two types of 360 videos
Monoscopic is the most common type of 360 image found on Google's Street View or in 360 players like Youtube 360 and Facebook. These are flat renderings 360 degree renderings of a shot which can be viewed on any screen or in a headset. You can move around the space, but you have no real depth perception.
Stereoscopic video amps up the virtual reality element by creating a 3D rendering of a 360 degree shot using a separate input for each eye. This type of immersive content is usually shot with two lenses (one per field of vision) and can be viewed in 360 with a VR headset.
3. There are different degrees of difficulty
For the purpose of our comparison we decided to test out only monoscopic 360 cameras at three levels: beginner, advanced, and prosumer.
Beginner: The Theta S is Ricoh's the second version of Ricoh's 360 camera and costs around $350. Point and shoot and you're ready to go. The stitching is done on the fly so you can share your shot right away without editing. Others in this category include the Samsung Gear 360 and the LG 360 Cam.
Advanced: The Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K Dual Pack Pro costs $900 and consists of two Pixpros mounted on a cage. Because you're getting video from two different sources, you'll need to stitch them together in post production. Nikon's KeyMission will have a similar quality, but will record all the shots in one device.
Prosumer: We tested out a Freedom360 rig, a third-party enclosure using six GoPro Hero4s. The rig requires you to press all six capture buttons at once and sync the videos manually with a special editing software. The entire setup may end up costing over $3,000 ($500 for the Freedom360 rig plus the six cameras and the software).
4. Convenience is king
Only the Theta was compact enough to fit comfortably in my pocket during a weekend excursion. Both the Freedom360 rig and the Pixpro require some planning and setup time so don't expect to take a spontaneous hiking shot next.
The Theta is also the only one that does not require an SD card -- it comes with 8 gigs of storage on board and a built in battery. With the other two options I had multiple SD cards to keep track of and multiple batteries to charge.
5. Objects in 360 are not always as they seem
It's hard to know what your shot will look like in 360 when you're getting ready to shoot. Everything in plain sight of the camera is fair game when shooting in 360, but you don't know at what distance it will apear, what the lighting looks like or when you're standing on a stitch line.
A stitch line, I learned, is the point at which the video from each lense meets the other to create the full sphere.
Because the Theta does all the stitching internally in real time, it allows you to use your phone as a view finder with the mobile app if you want to preview. The stitch itself is relatively seamless and even stitches the actual camera out of the shot.
6. The stitch is a b#&ch
Dealing with a multiple camera setup like the Pixpro and the Freedom360 rig means you'll have to go in and manually stitch all your footage from each individual source.
Kodak offers a free stitching software for Mac or PC that uses the audio as a base to match the clips with a click of a button. The process is pretty straightforward, but objects and people seemed to disappear right around the stitch line. The program lets you tweak this manually, but the editing software is limited to the basics.
GoPro bought Kolor, a company that specializes in stitching software for 360 video which you can use to put together the footage from the rig. It gives you way more control over the stitch and quality of the video, but it's not cheap. The Pro version we used for our test runs around $650 on the Kolor website.
7. Resolution is not as good in 360
Most 360 cameras will advertise the maximum resolution at which they can shoot a flat RAW image, but once it's rendered into 360, the resolution is considerably worse. The Theta, for example, boasts a 1080P resolution (1,920 x 1,080), but in "headset mode" it looks more like 480P (852 x 480) and starts to get blurry around the edges.
Same goes for the other two, which shoot in 4K (3,840 x 2,160) flat. The Kodak looks sharp head on, but is not consistent as you move around the image once you're in 360.
The GoPro footage was the most consistent with a high definition output even in 360 headset mode, but the RAW footage looked muted, and I had to go in and color correct manually to get the same vibrance as the Pixpro.
8. Be prepared to sacrifice video quality when sharing
Most 360 players like Youtube and Facebook compress the video file when you upload. The higher the starting resolution, the better it will look on each site, but it was still significantly worse than the version I had exported onto my desktop and phone.
The Theta videos were the easiest to upload (right from the app), but they also took the biggest hit in terms of picture quality.
9. Max out the viewing quality on Youtube and Facebook
One rookie mistake I made when I first played the videos on these sites was to rely on the default resolution which made them look terrible. Click on the settings icon on Youtube to max out the resolution to 4K if it allows. On Facebook make sure to select the HD option. It makes a huge difference.
10. Accept the imperfections as part of the journey
Even if you do everything right things are bound to go wrong when shooting in 360. I learned the most valuable lessons from trial and error during our shoot: avoiding the stitch line, remembering to take the lense cap off, erasing SD cards, and realizing I was being filmed no matter where I stood in 360.
It seems like everyone from the camera makers to the content creators are still trying to figure out new frontier and you may be better off waiting a few months if you want to get your feet wet in 360. By the end of the year expect the products and the footage to improve significantly.