A 360-degree camera is great if you want to capture the full view of the summit on Half Dome or take in all of the surrounding architecture in the Piazza San Marco in Venice and share that experience on Facebook or YouTube so friends can pan around a scene and fully be there in the moment. After researching 360-degree cameras for 30 hours and testing four top contenders, we think the Ricoh Theta S is the best affordable, user-friendly entry point into this rapidly-developing new category of photography.
The Theta S is one of the easiest-to-use 360-degree cameras on the market thanks to its clear status icons and comfortable feel. It’s capable of more advanced shooting modes, but for the most part, using it is literally as simple as just pointing and shooting with the big button in the middle of the device. Sharing your images and videos is similarly easy. Built-in Wi-Fi connectivity lets you adjust capture settings and trigger the camera remotely from an iOS or Android device using straightforward apps. While its two ultrawide-angle lenses can’t shoot in 4K resolution, they do capture great-looking stills and video with better color accuracy than rivals.
If you’re willing to spend more for 4K video alongside water- and dust-resistance to go with your all-weather outdoor lifestyle, we like the 360fly 4K. Additional upgrades over our top pick include a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, electronic compass, non-assisted GPS, and eight times more internal memory. However, its single-lens design only captures 240 degrees of vertical visibility, meaning that resulting videos and images will either be missing a chunk of the sky or ground. It’s also annoying that the capture button only works for starting video recording; shooting still photos requires opening the app.
The Samsung Gear 360 would have been our top pick if not for its limited compatibility—it works with only a handful of recent Samsung phones. The Gear 360 offers better image resolution than the Ricoh Theta S in a compact two-lens design that lets you change settings and shooting modes directly without a connected smartphone. A removable battery and memory mean you can swap in spares as needed, and the included tripod/handgrip is useful and well-designed. In March, Samsung debuted a redesigned Gear 360 that promised improved compatibility with iOS devices. We’ll test the new model soon.
I’ve written books and articles about photography for nearly 10 years and about video editing and technology in general for longer than that. Outlets include The Seattle Times (where I write a monthly column), Macworld, TidBITS, iMore, Lynda.com, and other ventures. I’ve written dozens of books with Peachpit Press, including The iPad for Photographers, several titles in the Snapshots to Great Shots series, and many titles for Take Control Books, including two volumes of Take Control of Your Digital Photos on a Mac.
Much photography is documentary, a visual way to say “I was there. I saw this.” But with traditional cameras, what you’re really saying is, “I was there, and here’s a small slice of what I saw.” You can show an incredibly beautiful slice, and you can capture several slices that give the viewer the impression of what that scene was like, but it’s not the same as experiencing the entire moment.
The appeal of 360-degree cameras is the ability for the viewer to see (and often hear) not just what’s in front of you, but the entire visual sphere of that location. 360-degree images and videos enable the viewer to look around independently, whether that’s by dragging within the picture window in an app or on a computer screen, or by moving their body while holding a phone or tablet that can register its place in 3D space. When you wear an inexpensive pair of Google Cardboard goggles or more advanced VR gear, the experience you record becomes fairly immersive.
This type of recording isn’t new—Walt Disney strapped nine motion picture film cameras together in the 1950s to create Circle-Vision 360°—but the technology is, allowing us to do this with a device that fits in the palm of your hand. Ways to use 360-degree cameras are still evolving, but here are some scenarios that lend themselves to this kind of shooting.
We started by reading reviews and combing through specifications for nearly 30 cameras that offer 360-degree recording capabilities. Based on a reader survey of how much you’d be willing to pay for a 360-degree camera, we then limited our scope to models priced under $600. Working on the assumption that more megapixels would be beneficial, especially when shooting video, we looked closely at 4K-capable models. But since only a small number of them currently exist, we brought in a Ricoh Theta S for testing to see how its HD video differed from 4K footage in real-world usage. We dismissed solutions like the GoPro Omni that require strapping together two or more cameras using novel brackets or cages for 360-degree coverage due to complexity. Ultimately, we were able to limit our contenders to just a handful of models: the Ricoh Theta S, 360fly 4K, Samsung Gear 360, Insta360 Nano, and Nikon’s KeyMission 360. For more details on what we dismissed and why, please see our competition section.
We took the cameras on vacation to Vancouver and Disneyland, and we also used them on everyday excursions in and around Seattle. In addition to testing ease of use and image quality, viewing results on computers, mobile devices, and cardboard VR viewers, we looked at the post-capture process: editing using dedicated apps and sharing to social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and other outlets that support 360-degree viewing.
Breaking out of that pipeline, however, introduces complications. Editing an image in an external application like Photoshop or cutting together multiple video clips into one movie can remove the metadata that identifies the media as 360 so it displays as a flat image rather than a sphere, necessitating an extra step to reintroduce it. And you can’t assume that every outlet knows what to do with the end result. Facebook displays the images correctly, for example, but as of this writing, Facebook-owned Instagram does not.
We think the Ricoh Theta S is the best all-around choice for a 360-degree camera. Its two lenses capture a true 360-degree sphere of view with good color fidelity, sharp image quality in still photos, and pleasing video quality (even though it’s limited to 1080p resolution). The camera is comfortable in the hand and easy to use on its own, but it can also be controlled from a smartphone app. Editing and sharing clips and photos is an easy-to-understand process, something we couldn’t say for some of its rivals. The Theta S was the camera we reached for first when going out to shoot footage.
The Theta S uses two 12-megapixel sensors paired with ultrawide 240-degree lenses in order to create 360-degree footage along both horizontal and vertical axes. It grabs nearly all of that imagery—hiding only the camera itself—and splices the captures from each lens into one seamless 14-megapixel image or 1080p video. The result is technically still a flat image, but when viewed in the Theta S app, or in some outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr, the effect can feel like you’re standing where the photographer stood. Why look out over just one vista when you can see every view from the top of a mountain?
In daily use, we found the Theta S delivered good color reproduction in a range of lighting conditions. Images and video shot in low-light settings also looked good. In fact, especially when viewed on mobile screens or browser windows, we actually preferred the overall image quality of the Theta S over its higher-resolution rivals. For more challenging conditions when shooting still photos, the Theta S app on your mobile device offers exposure compensation adjustment, shutter speed and ISO priority modes, and a fully manual mode to control settings directly. Several white balance presets are available to tweak the scene’s color temperature. (When shooting video, you’re limited to using the camera’s Auto mode.) Each continuous video clip can be 25 minutes in length. (The step-down Ricoh Theta SC, among other shortcomings, records for only 5 minutes per clip.)
One under-appreciated aspect of any photographic tool is how it feels in-hand, and that applies to 360-degree cameras, too. The Theta S is around half as wide as an iPhone and twice as thick, 5.2 inches tall, 1.7 inches wide, and weighs 4.4 ounces—small and light enough to act as a secondary camera while on vacation without getting in the way. Its slightly grippy rubber surface and rectangular shape is comfortable to grab and operate. And while the Theta S isn’t designed as an action camera (the company makes no claims about durability), it can be attached to any mount that has a standard tripod screw.
The Theta S’s button layout lets you shoot either stills or video without having to fire up its app on your phone; with our upgrade pick, capturing a still image can only be done via the app. There are also buttons for activating the Wi-Fi radio (or turning it off to conserve battery power) and for switching between still or video capture modes. LED indicators on the Theta S face tell you at a glance which mode you’re in and whether Wi-Fi is enabled. Very helpful.
Ricoh doesn’t provide an industry-standard CIPA rating for battery life but estimates you’ll get 260 exposures before the Theta S needs to be recharged, which is a little like saying breakfast will last for eight pancakes without knowing how big they are or how fast you eat. When shooting mostly stills, we found that battery power was usually not an issue while being out and about during the day. Using the phone app to direct the action will cut into the battery life, though, because it’s using the Wi-Fi radio extensively. Shooting stills from your phone presents a low-resolution live preview of the scene, which can drain your phone’s battery more quickly. Battery life is much more limited when shooting video: We got about an hour’s worth of footage on a single charge. Because the battery isn’t removable, it’s a good idea to bring along a portable USB battery pack if you’re going to be away from power for a while.
The very nature of 360-degree imagery means that some post-capture steps need to be taken in order for the results to be viewed properly. The shots themselves are just JPEG and MP4 files, sprinkled with a little metadata that identifies them as 360-degree videos that need to be handled in a special way by an app or social media site—the ways you’re most likely going to be sharing the imagery.
First, of course, you need to get the footage off the camera. The Theta’s mobile app transfers data over Wi-Fi. For videos this can take some time, consume a lot of storage, and tie up your phone for the duration, because the app asks that you not switch away from it during the transfer. Copying a 1 minute, 10 second video (135 MB) over Wi-Fi to an iPhone 7 took 3 minutes, 46 seconds. You can also plug the camera into a computer via USB and copy the files there (a swift 18 seconds for the same video), and then use Ricoh’s sparse Theta desktop application to view the images.
Wi-Fi setup was straightforward using an iPhone. After pressing the Theta’s Wi-Fi button and selecting the Theta in the phone’s Settings menu, we were asked to enter the password, which is the camera’s serial number printed on the bottom of the Theta—no poking through documentation looking for an admin password. You can then change the password in the app if you want. During testing, we had no troubles connecting to the camera’s wireless network using the phone’s Wi-Fi controls.
Viewing photos and videos in the app gives you the immersive experience of being in the scene, either by swiping to explore the 360-degree view or relying on the phone’s accelerometer to pan the scene in the direction you move the phone. There’s also a twin-lens VR view if you’re using even inexpensive VR goggles.
If you want to edit your footage, separate Theta+ and Theta+ Video apps let you add filters, stickers, and text for still images, or filters and music for video. You can trim video footage as well. In both apps, you can also create “cropped” shots that change how the image is wrapped, creating the Little World effect, shown below, that wraps it into a ball.
Since the still photos are just flat images, they can be adjusted in any editor. Editing video can sometimes be more tricky. If you want to cut several video clips together into a sequence, you need to take it to an outside video application. Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple’s Final Cut Pro X now recognize 360-degree footage and can accommodate it so you aren’t working with a stretched rectangle containing the entire image while editing.
Joshua Goldman at CNET likes the overall appeal of the Theta S, saying it’s “fun to use mainly because it gives you a simple point-and-shoot experience for creating immersive content. It might not be perfect when it comes to image quality, but to me, that’s forgivable considering the camera is aimed at consumers who want a camera they can stick in their pocket so they can start experimenting with 360-degree photography now and not in a year or two.”
Writing at B&H’s blog Explora, Todd Vorenkamp notes the freedom that comes with not having to frame every shot. “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. ”
And Wirecutter A/V editor Geoffrey Morrison, writing at Forbes, emphasizes how the Theta S offers a better sense of place. “[I]t makes for an excellent additional camera to add something new and exciting to your travel photos. Short (or long) videos show a time and place better in many ways than regular photos. There is definitely more of a ‘being there’ feeling with 360-degree videos.”
The most obvious limitation of the Theta S is its lack of 4K video. It’s a feature users are coming to expect on any type of camera they buy. Keep in mind, however, the way most viewers are going to experience your footage: compressed in a browser window or viewed on a mobile device, rather than watched on a 65-inch 4K TV.
The included 8 GB of memory holds about 1600 still photos or an hour of video footage. It would be nice to have a little more overhead or a slot to use interchangeable memory cards. The 360fly 4K, for example, is loaded with 64 GB of memory. The Nikon KeyMission 360, Samsung Gear 360, and Insta360 nano all accept microSD cards that you can swap out when they fill up. Another benefit of removable cards is you can transfer images much faster than Wi-Fi by using a compatible card reader connected to a mobile device (such as Apple’s Lightning to SD Card adapter) or to a computer via USB.
A snag can arise when exporting the finished work: Some apps strip information from the file that identifies it as a 360-degree clip to services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr (on the Web). After the black-and-white image above was edited in Photos for Mac, Facebook correctly identified it as a 360-degree image (based on the camera make and model number in the metadata), but Flickr displayed it only as a flat scene. When that happens, you have to use a third-party utility to write a bit of specialized metadata to the file’s EXIF data so the clip will display properly. In this case, the black-and-white shot needed to identify its ProjectionType attribute as “equirectangular” before Flickr would render it properly. Adding that data wasn’t difficult, but it was still another step that had to be taken.
Since the Theta S captures the entire 360-degree area when you’re holding the camera and operating it using the Record button, you’re bound to see fingers in the shot. You can avoid this by mounting the Theta S a small tripod or selfie stick and triggering it remotely via smartphone or timer.
Because the Theta S uses two lenses, its recorded images are stitched together to make one 360-degree scene, creating visible seams where the edges overlap. The Theta uses algorithms to automatically blend these edges together, but that creates seams that are sometimes marred by smudged artifacts or horizontal compression. To its credit, the Theta S offered the cleanest stitching of the cameras we tested. Still, some may find this distracting. Others may hardly notice it, especially if they’re viewing the footage in their Facebook feed. This is an unavoidable byproduct of the technology, and, like the issue of seeing your fingers at the bottom of the image when you’re using the Theta S button directly, is something you adapt to quickly. Future cameras with greater processing power and better algorithms will undoubtedly improve on this, but for now it’s not a big deal. The stitching that the Theta requires does mean you’ll wait a few extra seconds for the Theta S app to display the shot you’ve just taken on your phone’s screen.
To avoid the need for stitching multiple images together, the makers of the 360fly 4K went with a different approach. The camera has just one lens, capturing a 240-degree vertical view and a 360-degree horizontal view. Because it captures that view in 4K resolution, it offers sharper footage with greater detail than our top pick. The images are still treated as full 360-degree scenes, and since it uses just the one lens, there’s no stitching where two images are joined together—but there’s a blind spot under the camera, replaced by a black or faux-reflected area. The practical effect, when viewing the footage, is feeling as if you’re being prevented from looking down (or up, depending on the camera’s orientation).
For example, during one of the first excursions with both cameras, ziplining in Canada, the 360fly 4K was mounted on my helmet using its included GoPro-style mount. (At many outdoor experiences such as this, you can now request helmets or gear with GoPro attachments.) I attached it with the lens pointed up, but since the camera was on top of my head, the natural field of view looking down—where my eyes were—was blocked. The resulting imagery is fine if you like to look at the sky, but frustrating if you want to see more of the country you’re skimming over.
In that situation it would have been better to mount the camera with the lens facing down, but that requires more flexible mounting options. Or, if you’re taking a stationary photo or video with the 360fly 4K, place the camera on a table, tripod, or other relatively low surface.
The 360fly 4K is designed as an action camera. It has an accelerometer, electronic compass, unassisted GPS, and a gyroscope for positioning. It’s small and light (about 6 ounces) as any action camera should be. It may look silly mounted on a helmet (what action camera doesn’t?), but it’s water-resistant (to 33 feet), and dust- and shock-resistant. There’s a tradeoff, though: the 360fly 4K charges using a magnetic base that’s connected to a USB charger; if you lose that base, you can’t recharge the camera.
The 360fly 4K has one-button capture, but it triggers video recording only. If you want to capture a still image, you need to use the app. Fortunately, the app is more than just a remote switch. In addition to offering rudimentary controls for adjusting brightness, exposure, contrast, and saturation, the app enables POV mode for capturing the rectangular area right in front of the lens and a time lapse mode. Clips and shots can be reviewed within the app, copied to the phone, and shared to social media with the 360 effect intact. Clips can be shared to 360fly’s own servers in order to view them in full 4K resolution. The app also incorporates basic video editing features, such as selecting sections of a clip to keep, capturing stills, adding visual presets (like black-and-white conversion), changing the playback speed of sections, and adding a music track.
The Samsung Gear 360 excels in all the areas we determined were important for 360-degree cameras. It has good image fidelity and shoots video at 4K. Its physical design is compact and feels good in hand (with its included mini tripod that doubles as a handle), with the best external controls of any of the cameras we tested. And working with the images after you’ve shot them in the Samsung Gear app is easy and straightforward. But it’s fully compatible with only a limited range of Samsung phones, which prevents us from making it a top pick.
Like the Theta S, the Gear 360 captures a full 360-degree sphere around the camera using two lenses, and it does so at 4K resolution (up to 3840×1920 pixels). Still photos are shot at 7776×3888 pixels when both images are combined; you can also choose to shoot using just either lens. Image quality is very good, although the lens distortion appears exaggerated when viewing it within the Gear 360 app; it looks fine when shared to Facebook or YouTube, however.
The Gear 360 has three exterior buttons, used for power, capture, and navigating the internal software menu, which is displayed on a small-but-useful half-inch 72-by-32-pixel OLED screen. Without turning to the mobile app, you can switch modes (including time lapse and video looping), and control settings such as video resolution and image size. Discreet orange LEDs indicate when the camera is recording and which lens is in use. And we quite like the combination tripod and handle, which gets your fingers mostly out of the shot or, when expanded, sit easily on a table. It connects to a standard tripod mount, so you can attach the Gear 360 to nearly anything. The camera is water- and dust-resistant enough to work as an action camera.
Also noteworthy is the ability to remove the microSD memory card and battery, accessible via a hatch at the side of the unit, when you need more power or storage space and quickly return to shooting.
The Samsung Gear 360 works with only a handful of Samsung phones, though—the Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+, Note 5, S7, S7 edge, and S8. If you don’t own one of those, you can still capture photos and video using the on-camera controls, but you don’t get a live preview or a way to review the results after shooting. An unofficial workaround to extend compatibility to other Android phones exists, but we couldn’t get it to work. If you have an iOS device, you can only trigger the shutter remotely—using the Google Street View app, of all things. But if you already own a compatible Samsung phone, the Gear 360 should be your pick.
In late March, Samsung announced a new version of the Gear 360. The 2017 model has a redesigned form factor, shoots 4K video, and offers live streaming ability. The company also claims the Gear 360 has, “greater compatibility with iOS devices,” which hopefully addresses our complaints of limited functionality when using an iPhone. Samsung has not announced pricing or availability but told The Verge it should be “more accessible than last year’s camera,” which debuted at $350 but can now be found for a little more than $200. Once models become available we’ll bring one in for testing and update this guide.
Although the field of 360 cameras under $600 is fairly small, big differences exist in both features and design.
The Nikon KeyMission 360 shoots 4K video from two lenses, records to removable media, and is waterproof, shockproof, and freezeproof. However, it’s maddening to operate. Although it pairs easily via Bluetooth, you also need to connect via Wi-Fi as a second step to control the camera functions, requiring a detour to the iPhone’s settings. (And one that sometimes failed for us on an iPhone and iPad.) A firmware update released just before publishing improved the connectivity issue but didn’t resolve the odd two-step process—if the camera requires Wi-Fi to control, why not just enable Wi-Fi immediately as nearly every other camera does? We had better luck connecting to an Android phone, but even then the software often complains that there’s a problem with the connection without indicating what that problem is.
Two external buttons capture stills and video. They also power the camera on, so you can snap a photo or start recording video right away. It’s a neat idea for an action camera, but in reality I inadvertently triggered several unwanted shots just by handling the camera. You can turn on the power without initiating a capture by pressing and holding the video button for three seconds. We also found the stitching to be more noticeable and often distracting. With its otherwise impressive hardware specifications, however, we hope Nikon can offer firmware updates to make the KeyMission 360 better-suited for real-world use.
A slightly less expensive version of our pick, the Ricoh Theta SC, costs about $50 less as of this writing and shares many of the same features (and is available in four colors). It has no HDMI port for live-streaming to a computer, however, and video clips are each limited to 5 minutes instead of 25 minutes compared to the Theta S. We think that limitation alone makes the extra cash for our top pick worthwhile.
The Pixpro SP360 4K and Pixpro SP360 limit the image to a 235-degree vertical field of view due to a single lens design, just in 4K and 1080p respectively. To get the full 360, the Dual Pro Pack pairs two of the cameras using a bracket that holds them back-to-back, but this nearly doubles the price, putting it well above our $600 threshold. Plus, once you’ve captured that two-headed footage, you need to use software on a Mac or PC to stitch it together.
Several reviewers ranked the LG 360 Cam lower than the Theta S due to stitching and low-light performance, along with still and video quality as being inferior. That said, the LG 360 is slightly more compact and is certainly more affordable ($168 as we write this), so it may be a consideration for someone who wants to get a taste of 360-degree photography while spending as little as reasonably possible.
The Insta360 nano is more compact and affordable than the Theta S and connects to an iPhone’s Lightning port. You can capture shots and videos manually without the phone by pressing its single button, but with no built-in wireless networking, you need to connect it to the iPhone to view or access the images. Similarly, Insta360 just announced, but isn’t yet shipping at this writing, the Insta360 Air, a similarly-featured camera that connects to a limited selection of Android devices.
The 360fly HD shares many of the same features (and limitations) of the 360fly 4K camera mentioned earlier but with a lower-resolution sensor, a single microphone, and 16 GB of internal storage.
The Giroptic 360cam uses three lenses to capture the scene, although it still omits a lower section where the lenses can’t get around the camera’s base. It started as a Kickstarter project that was set back by manufacturing troubles; some backers waited for their cameras more than two years after the campaign concluded, and many others required warranty replacements.
A number of cameras on the market use what appear to be the same hardware, such as the JoyPlus 360 Degree Spherical Panorama VR Camera and the DETU OEM Wireless 360 Degree Panoramic Sports Action Camera. They all have limited resolutions and fields of view.
VNS Mobile’s V.360 camera looks like a handheld coffee grinder, with a single embedded lens surrounded by a clear plastic chamber that we worry is a magnet for scratches. It’s waterproof down to 1 meter for 30 minutes (IP67), but its 60-degree vertical viewing angle makes it more of a grand panorama than a 360-degree immersive experience.
The TOPVISION Panoramic (Dual Lens) camera uses two lenses to grab the entire 360-degree sphere of view, connects to a smartphone app over Wi-Fi, and has removable memory. Its resolution is lower than that of the Theta S.
Late in 2016, Monster Digital introduced Monster Vision VR, a dual-lens camera with 960p video recording in a compact action-camera design. The video and stills resolutions don’t match up to the Theta S and the company’s cheaper Monster Vision 360.
In April 2017, GoPro announced a pilot program for its 360-degree camera called the Fusion that will begin this summer. The Fusion will shoot 5.2K video at 30 frames per second. GoPro did not reveal the camera’s pricing or say when it’d be available to customers, but we’ll pay attention to the pilot program and will update this guide as soon as that information is announced.
(Photos by Jeff Carlson.)
Originally published: December 22, 2016