So, you’ve decided to take the plunge into the spherical video market. That’s great! But where do you begin to select a camera and a format? There are dozens of cameras to choose from; what should you look for? Do you need an expensive rig, or would a less expensive single unit suffice? We’ve cut through the specs to bring you a buyer’s guide to help answer these questions.
As with any camera selection, the first question you need to ask is: “How is this video going to be seen?” Currently, the YouTube 360 channel and Facebook are the simple and popular choices. However, there isn’t yet a standard format for these videos, like NTSC, HD or UHD.
Spherical cameras normally use two or more independent lenses to create the final image. Obviously the higher the resolution quality for each camera, the better your final image will be. There are a number of units out there that boast 4K, 6K and 8K resolution. That may be partially a misnomer, because as you combine images, in the process called stitching, you are naturally creating a larger image. What’s called a spherical 4K image is not exactly the same as a 4K flat image. Look carefully at the single camera specs to understand the real resolution.
The next concern is the lenses. How many lenses does the camera have and what kind of angle do they shoot? The more lenses a unit has, the better the quality will be at each viewing angle. For example, we have all seen how a fisheye lens distorts around the edges. If you take just two wide angle lenses and stitch together the image, there will be some distortion at the edges. Stitching software can do a great job of cleaning up the distortion, but if there are, say four cameras or eight cameras, the image will be much cleaner. One Hollywood spherical video cinematographer, Lewis Smithingham with 30 Ninjas productions, told us that he uses several different types of units for a single production. He says that they each have different qualities, and he thinks of it like changing lenses on a standard camera.
Stitching software can do a great job of cleaning up the distortion, but if there are, say four cameras or eight cameras, the image will be much cleaner
Of course, there’s always the matter of cost. A single unit with dual lenses is going to cost less than a larger multi-lens unit or a rig with several cameras. The good news is that often these smaller cameras have internal stitching; you won’t have to mess with any external software. Most newer models also allow you to link to Facebook and YouTube live with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. If you are looking to jump in, maybe the best place to start is at the shallow end. You can get a feel for shooting in spherical and learn what works and what doesn't before dropping down a large sum of money.
We’ve arranged this buyer’s guide to begin at the shallow end and work up to the more expensive, complicated multi-camera rigs. We’ve given you the resolution and number of lenses. You’ll also see the relative aperture that the manufactures provide and wide angle size where it was available. These numbers will give you a comparison of the image and help you make the best decision for your needs.
Dual Lens Cameras
The first category is the two-lens option. There are quite a few on the market in a variety of forms, but they are not all created equal. We’ve chosen a few stand outs.
Ricoh Theta S
The Theta S is a small camera stick that measures just 1.7×5.1×0.9 inches (4.4x13x2.3 cm) It has dual HD recording that is stitched with Ricoh’s free software. It has a max record time of 25 minutes and can live stream when connected to a computer via USB. You can use it to take spherical video or stills. It has a fish eye field of view and a relative aperture of f/2.3. This is a great entry level spherical camera, starting at $306.
Samsung Gear 360
This small globe-shaped dual-lens camera is just 2.2×2.6×2.6 inches and weighs in at 0.3 pounds. It can capture spherical videos in 3840×1920 at 30 frames per second using two 15 megapixels CMOS sensors. The lenses have an aperture of f/2.0, and the camera can connect of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or NFC allowing you to either stitch the videos directly through your phone or edit them later on a computer. The Gear 360 is also dust and water resistant. It sells for $350.
Nikon KeyMission 360 4K
Nikon announced this camera in the fall 2016, and they are now becoming widely available. Several international news organizations have chosen the KeyMission to use in the field. They are part of an action camera line from Nikon and are waterproof to 100 feet. The unit shoots on front and back in 4K that is internally stitched and transferred by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The KeyMission’s lenses have a relative aperture of f/2, and the camera is priced at $500.
Kodak Pixpro Orbit360 4K
This was unveiled at CES 2017 and represents a jump for Kodak’s PIXPRO line. The small action cam size housing is splash proof and has two 4K cameras. They can shoot independently or be stitched together with the included software or a free app. It will connect with the phone app with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The lenses have an f/2.4 relative aperture and a maximum 207 degree field of view. The list price is $500.
The next class of camera is the multi-lens, dedicated camera. These are going to give you a better quality image, but they are going to come in with a higher price tag.
HumanEyes Vuze 3D
The Vuze caught our attention at CES 2017 and we chose it for our Best Spherical Camera of CES award. The camera uses eight 4K cameras built into a 4.72×4.72×1.2-inch (12x12x3cm) body that comes in four colors. What makes it unique is the 3D aspect. There are four pairs of cameras stitched with the included software to create a more immersive image. The camera will not stream but does have four built-in microphones. It’s scheduled to hit the streets first Quarter of 2017 with an MSRP of $800.
Also unveiled at CES was the Insta360 Pro. This is an orb with six independent 4K images that can be rendered into an 8K 360 video, with post processing (7680×3840). It uses internal stitching and can stream at 4K in real time. There’s also a 100fps option that requires post processing. The lenses are f/2.4 fish eyes and it does not have built-in microphones. It will be released later this year for about $3000.
The Lexus of spherical video cameras is the Nokia OZO. It made quite a buzz at NAB 2016 and Hollywood has gravitated to it’s high-quality imaging. It’s a sleek orb that has eight 2K cameras, each with a 195-degree field of view with an f/2.4 relative aperture. The orb has a tail of sorts that houses cartridges for power and memory. It will shoot approximately 45 minutes on each cartridge. It has built-in microphones and will record 8-channel spherical audio. Of course, quality comes in with a high price tag — $45,000 MSRP.
Multi Camera Rigs
The third category is the multi-camera rigs. These are going to house a collection of separate cameras and will require an additional level of downloading and stitching. This will give you a higher level of quality and control over your image, but will be a bit more bulky. Plus, the additional cost of the camera. The total cost is shown in parenthesis.
It would seems that a GoPro is a natural choice for spherical video. They already have a wide angle lens and the HERO4, which is what the Omni is designed to use. The Omni shoots in 4K and features different wide angle views. The rig houses six HEROs in a cube formation. Each camera’s recording has to be downloaded independently and inputted, but GoPro has partnered with Kolor to provide Autopano Video Pro and Autopano Giga for stitching the recordings together in post. If you already own a couple of GoPros, this may be the way to go. The Omni rig runs $1500 ($5000 as a package with six HERO4s, Kolor software, and a plethora of useful accessories).
360RIZE makes housing for different cameras including GoPros. Their maximum is a 24 camera rig that costs $3500 ($11,396 when you add 24 GoPro HERO4s). They also have the 4/5/6 or 6/7/8 rigs, made for the new Blackmagic Design Micro Cinema camera. This would give you a high level of quality and control. The Micro Cinema shoots in high dynamic range HD but does require an additional lens. The 6/7/8 rig will set you back $2995 (approximately $14,000 with cameras depending upon the lenses).
The spherical video market is just exploding with possibility but it's always best to do your homework before you buy. Look at test videos online for each camera and search YouTube 360 to see what other people have done. Look before you buy, and if possible, give a camera a test drive in the conditions that you’ll be shooting.
SIDEBAR: The Phone 360
You know the saying, “There’s an app for that.” Well, it’s true for spherical video as well. There are many cameras that will communicate to your smartphone and allow you to stream video directly from your phone. There are also a few that will connect to your phone and shoot in 360. This can be a great, portable solution and price is less than a stand alone unit.
There are a few drawbacks, however — you’ll be shooting with your phone, so you may not be very steady. You might want to consider some kind of rig to hold your phone. Also, because you’re using the phone, you may not have the kind of memory or battery life that you’ll need for longer videos.>
With that in mind, here’s a couple solutions to turn your phone into your new spherical camera:
This tiny device connects to your iPhone or iPad via the lightning port — sorry, no Android unit yet. It has front and back 195 degree f/1.8 lenses. All the stitching is done within the device and the app, so it will go live to YouTube and Facebook. It’s just 2.9x 1.4 inches (73x35mm) and is only slightly thicker than the phone. The list price is $250.
Insta360 Nano & Air
Insta360 offers both the Nano for iOS and the Air for Android. The Nano is a clip-on pack and the Air is a ball. Both have internal batteries and can run as a stand alone device. The Nano has twin f/2.0 lenses, while the Air has twin lenses at f/2.4. Both have video and photo modes and both take advantage of the Insta360 app. The Nano runs $200 and is available now. The Air was still in a crowdfunding campaign at press time, but is going for $100 in preorder.
SIDEBAR 2: The Power of a Lens
Sphere Optics recently introduced a lens that purports to turn your interchangeable-lens camera into a spherical video camera. The (sphere) Pro is capable of capturing a 360-degree horizontal and 180-degree vertical field of view. A full-frame lens, it uses the Nikon F mount and has a fixed aperture of f/8. While the (sphere) Pro isn’t a perfect substitute for a dedicated spherical camera, it’s an interesting way to experiment with the spherical image. The lens is not yet on sale to the public, but curious videographers can rent it from Sphere Optics by the day.
Jeff Chaves is the Chief Creative Officer of Grace Pictures Inc., which he co-owns with his wife, Peggy. He got his start as an Army Broadcaster in the 1980s and spent 12 plus years working in broadcasting. Jeff left broadcast television to pursue full-time ministry.