360 all starts with the camera. 360 camera technology has made some major strides in quality and innovation over the past few years. Thankfully, with those strides have come a lowering of prices. Lower prices – better tech, who could ask for more? Well, once you get your first 360 camera YOU will be asking for more because it is a technology that still has a lot of room for improvement. And, like with most technology, the longer you wait, typically the better it gets. Even in the last year we have seen some major improvements and this has been especially helpful with 360 cameras. Wait as long as you can before you buy a camera, but when the day comes to make a decision, this guide will give you some idea what to consider.
So where do we start?
You first have to decide how much you have to spend. Really, you might want a Ferrari but if you can’t afford it, you’ve gotta stick with the Toyota. You can spend as little as $150 (for the Vivitar 360 Action Camera) and that is not a bad place to start, but as you will see when you read through the following list, if you spend more, you will get more. Since 360 is still an evolving technology, new features (like better stabilization for example), can make a huge difference to the viewing experience.
For the purpose of this guide, all the cameras recommended are under $1,000 as of the time this guide was written (expect the prices to trickle up as time goes on unless you’re able to find a great sale). Shop around before you buy and in some cases you might find it cheaper to buy it in the U.S. or Asia. Be sure to do some online sleuthing to make you get the best price. Also, you will find that often when a new model of a 360 camera comes out, the older model price drops dramatically. An excellent example of that is the GoPro Fusion, which costed nearly $1,000 when it was released, and now sells for half as much. This is because the newer GoPro Max 360 camera is both improved and cheaper, with a sticker price of around $700 at the time of its release.
As we mentioned before, the focus of this guide will be the smaller, dual lens 360 cameras that we consider the most practical for the journalists and people on the go (and for people on a budget!). Larger, professional cameras like the KanDao Obsidian R (which currently retails for nearly $6,000), the Insta360 Pro (currently retailing for just under $5,000), or even the smaller KanDao Obsidian Go (which currently sells for about $3,000), are excellent cameras but are expensive and require a lot of computing power to edit the footage. The Vuze+ VR is cheaper at nearly $1,000, but it has eight lenses and is not a camera that fits easily in your pocket.
There are certainly advantages to the cameras with more lenses but, again, this guide is going to focus on smaller portable units. There is an old photographer’s saying that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” With small, pocket sized 360 cameras, you are much more likely to have it with you and actually use it. Also, with every release of new 360 cameras, these smaller cameras are getting better and better.
The purpose of this guide is to not recommend any one camera, but to highlight features that we consider important to have on any camera you choose. These are presented in no particular order:
As you will learn elsewhere in this guide, close-ups do not generally work well in 360. This is more of a wide angle medium where people can look around and view everything. When you are looking at 360 footage, especially through VR headsets, the ideal is for people to feel they are really there. And this is why resolution is VERY important. More resolution means more detail in the footage, which is what you want. You want the viewer to be able to read signs in the distance, or see people’s facial expressions, or other interesting details in your scene.
What exactly is resolution?
A visual device, whether it is a monitor, a phone or a television, all display a certain quality of picture. For digital images, size is measured in pixels. A pixel is the smallest element in the image. If you look really close at a screen you can usually see pixels as they appear as dots. These dots contain the colour information (aka sub pixels) which are red, green and blue (RGB).
A digital display, like a television, a computer monitor, or a smartphone, can display a certain number of pixels, or dots. They are measured both horizontally and vertically. Standard High Definition televisions, for example, are typically 1920 x 1080. This means there are 1920 pixels wide, and 1080 pixels high. It is helpful to understand that if a TV says it has 1920 x 1080 pixels, then the actual size of the TV (whether it is a 32 inch or a 65 inch) does not matter – it still only has that many pixels which is why smaller televisions traditionally looked better because there were the same number of pixels but in a smaller area. That is why 4K TVs, which have a pixel count of 3840 x 2160, will look better because there are more pixels.
Ok, so what on Earth does this have to do with 360? Well, as previously mentioned, if 3840 x 2160 (4K) is the number of pixels that a camera shoots, then that is all the pixels it shoots. But with 360 video, the camera takes those pixels and spreads them around 360 degrees. So, it does not mean that you are seeing 4K video when you are looking in one direction – you are maybe seeing 1000 pixels in each direction. This is why the higher the pixel count the better because it spreads them around the image, which is important because you have a larger viewing area. More pixels equals more resolution which is critical with 360.
Here’s a tip: sometimes a manufacturer will come out with an update for a camera that will improve the quality and look of the image on the camera you already own. This means you should keep your eyes out for updates that might add extra features and improvements to your camera. This is especially true of new cameras that are released. Typically there will be a firmware update for that camera at some point.
A few things related to resolution of the camera:
- Overheating. The higher resolution puts a great demand on the electronics of the camera which means the camera will get hotter. Some cameras, like with the Samsung Gear VR 360 (2017), will shut off if they overheat which can be more than an inconvenience.
- A higher resolution means a much larger file which means you need to have a computer that can handle that file.
- Larger files means your SD card will be filled faster which means you will need a larger SD card.
- More resolution puts a greater strain on the battery which means it drains faster. Some cameras, like the 360 Penguin Action camera for example, even offer resolution that cannot be accessed when using just a battery – you have to plug in the camera.
FRAMES PER SECOND
This is as good a time as any to discuss frames per second. This is something you have to consider when you are setting up the camera to shoot, but you need to know about it in advance so you can purchase the correct camera.
FPS or frames per second is exactly what it sounds like – how many different images or “frames” will be shown per second. If you think of the old style film cameras, they were just a bunch of frames of images that ran through a projector at a certain speed. Film typically runs at 24 frames per second and this trained audiences to recognize what is considered a “cinematic look.” When the analog television system was standardized in North America in 1954, the frame rate was 29.97 (rounded up to 30fps). This standard was called the NTSC standard after the technical group that created it (the National Television System Committee). As a side note, different analog systems (PAL and SECAM) were used elsewhere in the world which used a 25 frame per second rate. The higher frame rate of television (more frames per second) is why video looks more “fluid” than film (which has a “choppier” feel). This is sometimes called “The Soap Opera Effect.” This look works well for 360 since it looks more like real life and less like the film look of 24fps (although again, it depends on what you are shooting).
Older camera technology allowed you to only use one frame rate but digital technology changed all of that. Changing the frame rate on your camera will change the look and visual feel of your shots. For most purposes, 30 fps is quite appropriate. Anything higher, say 60fps, is used to create slow-motion effects or when recording action such as a sporting event.
When considering your frame rate (how many fps), you need to consider how much motion there will be in your video. Shooting movement at 24 or 30 frames per second, if the movement is fast enough, could mean that there is some motion blur if you try to do a slow motion effect on this footage when you are editing. Both of these frame rates do provide a fairly natural look to your shots even if there is normal movement in the shot, like people walking around in the frame. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with either 24fps or 30fps as they have been used at the professional level for years and continue to dominate the market. So more frames per seconds is not necessarily better.
Shooting more frames per second, like 60 or 120 fps, and then watching the footage at normal speed might look unnatural – almost like a staccato effect. However, freezing or doing a super slow motion effect with this footage will look great. Think of a hockey game where the player is taking a shot at the net. More frames per second means that when you slow the footage down you will be able to see sharp images of the puck as it flies towards the net. If you slow down the same footage if it was shot with 24 or 30fps, the puck would be blurred.
When buying a camera you will see different options offered. You might see camera specs like 5.7K @30fps, 4K@60fps etc. This means that the camera cannot offer a high frame rate at the highest resolution. We recommend that you always choose the highest frame rate your camera offers and only use a higher frame rate if you want to do slow motion with it.
CONCLUSION: Simply put, buy the best resolution you can afford. 4K is fine, but as you will see in the camera list at the end of this chapter, there are some very inexpensive cameras that shoot 5.3K+ which you should consider, but we would not recommend buying anything lower than 5.3K.
So let’s now talk about our next consideration when buying a camera – the battery.
Anybody who uses portable electronics knows the importance of consistent battery power. Go into any coffee shop or library and see how many people have devices plugged in and charging. Even malls have gotten into the act and offer free charging stations. Power is important.
Why does 360 video draw so much power?
Part of the issue is that as cameras get smaller and more portable, there is less space for a battery, which means manufacturers use a smaller size battery. Also, in order to effectively use just two lenses to capture the 360 image, manufacturers try to make the camera as thin as possible. Again, this leaves less room for a battery.
Another issue is that 360 cameras offer some kind of Bluetooth or wireless connection to a smartphone, which again draws more power. While all cameras have basic controls on the cameras, many cameras, like the Ricoh Theta V, require a smartphone (with an app of course!) to control most of the camera functions.
Good 360 footage is 4K resolution or higher which is very hard on your battery. We are actually recommending people to shoot 5.3K or higher which draws even more power. The KanDao Qoocam 8K even offers 8K recording capabilities but comes at a cost as it only records 40 minutes (and the battery is not interchangeable although you can plug the camera into a portable USB power source).
Finally, remember that there are actually two cameras inside a 360 camera and both are drawing power. This means there are two different sensors that need to be powered and the electronics to run them. So that is why you need to carefully look at the battery situation for the camera you are looking at.
The best solution is to buy a camera that allows you to change the batteries. Unfortunately, not all cameras have interchangeable batteries (like many smartphones these days) and this can be a problem. With perhaps maybe up to an hour of battery life (but probably half that), you must have an alternative power source. The easiest solution is to buy a camera that allows for you to change the battery, and then buy a second battery.
A note on batteries: you can buy after-market batteries for many cameras and these are usually cheaper. Usually though, these batteries do not last as long as the ones from the camera manufacturer. You should also keep the batteries warm as batteries in cold temperature lose power. When you are shooting in cold weather, the nice thing about most 360 cameras is that they get warm when you are shooting so the battery temperature is usually then at an ideal level.
If you purchase a camera that does not allow you to interchange the battery, then consider an external battery power supply that will allow you to charge up the camera.
You might also make sure that the camera will keep working if you plug it in to AC power (wall plug) especially if you want to use the camera to live stream long events.
Recommendation – buy a 360 camera that allows you to change the battery. Also, remember to keep the batteries warm (if you are shooting in a cold environment) so they don’t lose charge.
Watch a 360 video for any length of time and you will appreciate the importance of a rock steady image. Too much movement can actually make the viewer physically sick and of course they will then stop watching your video. Keeping a shot stable usually means using a stand of some kind is recommended and the type you get is important.
A traditional tripod (with three legs) will not work well with 360 shooting because the legs will be in the shot. Also, as you will read elsewhere about the importance of shooting eye level to a subject. This means you need a stand that goes high enough that it is “eye level” but is a single stand mount so that it is not very noticeable in the shot. As a side note, even the clamp used to mount the camera on to the stand can get in the 360 shot and should be avoided. This is a problem with stands that use a GoPro type clamp mount because it sticks out just enough to get in the shot.
A monopod with feet is what you are going to look for instead. Manfrotto sells a well-made stand (the VR PIXI EVO) designed for 360 cameras. It extends to about 4.6 feet which is a little low so just be aware of that. There are other stands for sale of course, but you want to make sure it goes to a decent height and that it is a solid construction and not prone to swaying in the wind.
The selfie stick is another necessity. You cannot just hold the 360 camera up like you might other video cameras because it will mean you will have a huge hand in the shot. This is where the monopod and the selfie stick shine. The selfie stick can also be used to put the camera in some interesting places. Placed correctly, the selfie stick can appear invisible in the video, which can help the sense of immersion. The proprietary selfie sticks sold by the camera’s maker are ones that should be strongly considered. Some selfie sticks can double as a monopod and come with feet that fold out or attach to the bottom of the stand so you can step out of the shot and get some steady images.
You may be familiar with gimbals. In recent years the gimbal has found popularity because they provide a rock steady shot even when the camera is moving. Many have HD cameras built in or are designed for a DSLR or smartphone, but remember 360 is a very different kind of shooting because you don’t want anything to obstruct the wider lens. A few companies even produced gimbals for 360 – like Moza’s Guru 360 or the Glide Gear CYL100. Stabilisation is a critical part of 360 as noted, but with the improvements in built-in camera stabilisation, external gimbals are not needed or recommended. If you have an older 360 camera with poor/no stabilisation, either just use the camera on a static stand or spend the money on a new camera (which may actually be cheaper than the price of a gimbal).
Now, having said all of that (and talk about burying the lead!), make sure that the camera you buy has great stabilisation. You will need this for any movement you might want in the shot. Say you want to do a 360 video of a theme park ride or something where the camera is moving. Without adequate stabilisation, your video could make people sick. Rock steady is the goal and good stabilization will get you there. You will see electronic stabilisation, which is fine but usually does not work on every shooting format the camera offers, and a built in optical stabilisation (some kind of a six or eight axis gyro) is preferable.
Some 360 cameras, such as the Ricoh Theta V and the Theta Z1, only offer built-in memory with no way to expand that. Again, think long and hard before you buy a camera with fixed memory. The Theta cameras come with only 19 gigs worth of memory, which is not a lot when you are travelling. If you plan to purchase a camera with fixed memory, keep that in mind when you are shooting and perhaps bring a laptop along to download the material to. Again, that’s not ideal and most 360 cameras now have a microSD card slot. We recommend only getting a camera that is built with some kind of removable memory card. Some 360 cameras, like the Kandao Qoocam 8K offer both built-in memory (an impressive 64 gigs) and a micro SD card slot – talk about having the best of both worlds!
For those of you who might say you will just delete the clips you don’t want, this is a dangerous way of thinking in the field. One slip of the finger and you might delete footage you didn’t mean to. Also, this takes up valuable time and battery power to do. It is far better to shoot when you are shooting and then only delete files after you have backed them up securely.
Another consideration with memory is to make sure you get memory that is fast enough to handle 360 footage especially if you are shooting 4K and above. This format shoots very large files and you need a card fast enough to hand the transfer. Not all SD cards are created equal. We recommend a U3 rated SDXC card. You also need to be aware that every electronic device that uses a digital media card like the microSD card has a maximum allowable size.
Our Recommendation: buy a camera that allows you to change the microSD card.
⫸Frames Per Second
In the next chapter we will discuss more about frames per second but if you are shooting high speed sports or action you will want to look at cameras that offer more frames per second (FPS) such as 60, 100 or 120 fps.
⫸Waterproof or not?
There are numerous waterproof cameras available and these tend to be marketed as action cameras which is great if you are going to use the camera for extreme sports. Some of these are also shock resistant. While you might be looking for a waterproof or shock resistant camera, you should remember that having a camera with these features may prove to be useful. Have you ever dropped your phone? There is a reason that smartphone cases are popular and shooting with a 360 camera will often put it in a place where it could be dropped, knocked over, or where it could get wet so having the extra protection these cameras offer is helpful.
One note about shooting underwater: For a camera like the GoPro Fusion, although you could shoot underwater with it without a housing, this is not advised because the water will create distortions. You will need a special housing for the lens to get proper stitching. The Nikon Keymission 360 recognizes this, and provides lens protectors. GoPro also now provides lens protector covers in their latest 360 waterproof camera (The Max). One side benefit from these lens protectors, is that they do exactly what they are supposed to – they protect your lens. As with any camera, a scratch on a lens pretty much means the camera is done. With a regular DSLR camera you can put a UV filter over the lens to protect it, so it is nice to have some kind of protection for the lens of a 360 camera.
Here is a list of some waterproof cameras:
GoPro Max ($700) – 5.6K with live streaming capabilities. The newest waterproof camera from GoPro and it is an improved version of the Fusion. Waterproof to five metres and comes with a protective lens, 18 megapixel photos and six microphones for spherical sound.
GoPro Fusion ($320) – Waterproof to 10 metres, 5.2K video, GPS, excellent stabilization, RAW photos, 18 megapixel photos. Since this is a discontinued camera it is available at a deep discount. It is an excellent choice for the price.
Garmin VIRB 360 ($970) – Waterproof to 10 metres, 5.7K video (@30fps), GPS, stabilization, speedometer overlay, 15 megapixel photographs (5640 x 2816), live stream (4K@30fps – Apple Only), MicroSD up to 128GB. The battery will last about one hour.
360Fly 4K ($175) – Waterproof to 10 metres, 4K, GPS, Single Lens
Nikon Keymission 360 ($220) – Waterproof to 30 metres (with the included underwater lens protector), taking whopping 23.9 megapixel photographs.
Something that is often overlooked when purchasing a camera, is the stitching software that comes with the camera. Different camera manufacturers offer different proprietary software and some of it is clearly better than others. The free stitching software is nice because it means you just have to import the footage from the camera and it will stitch the footage for you. More on stitching elsewhere in this guide but it is something you need to be aware of when buying a camera. Stitching software has improved a lot and now some cameras can stitch in camera.
While a camera might be a solid piece of technology, you might look into the propriety stitching software that comes with the camera. This is also something that is constantly changing as manufacturers continue to update their software and cameras.
⫸Photo taking Capability
While the focus of this guide is 360 video storytelling, all 360 cameras can also shoot photos and different cameras have different photo taking capabilities. If this is important t0 you, pick a camera with a decent sensor (12 or more megapixels for photos is very good) and one that shoots RAW photos. RAW is an uncompressed file and offers much higher quality images.
⫸Audio Recorder and external microphones
Since most cameras record poor sound of people talking from a distance, an external audio recording device like a Zoom H1n (which sells for $160 on Amazon) or even a smart phone is helpful. A few cameras (like the KanDao Qoocam 8K) have mic inputs and with those cameras you can plug in a wireless or shotgun mic. This of course is a challenge because it will most likely be in the shot somewhere. Ricoh is one manufacturer that sells a 3D microphone (TA-1) specifically for their camera which plugs into the bottom of the camera and it retails for less than $300 CAD. Having this 360 spatial audio is a huge plus to your 360 production.
Ok. So, you better understand what to look for, but are there some suggestions that we might give you? So here are some…
CAMERAS TO CONSIDER
As with most things in life there are different levels of products that will appeal to different people. This list is by no means definitive, but it gives you a solid idea of what is out there.
THE TOP TIER – For Professional Cinematographers
At this level, not only is the cost larger, but so are the cameras. They have more lenses which improves the overall look because this creates a lot of overlapped images for stitching. As mentioned, the early days of 360 involved a bunch of GoPros mounted together. The technology has moved this idea – multiple cameras using multiple SD cards – to the next level by incorporating all of the camera lenses and SD cards into a single entity. We are not going to focus on these but they are mentioned as the best 360 has to offer at any price!
Cameras at this level include:
Tier 1 – Cinematic quality 360 for professional filmmakers while still being compact and portable
Insta360 Titan ($20,000) — The price and the name says it all. Top of the heap with an incredible 11K video recording capability, 10 Bit colour and a 9-axis stabilization gyro. Also shoots in 10K 3D.
Insta360 Pro 2 ($6,700) – 8K 3D and offers long-range live monitoring.
KanDao Obsidian R ($6,000) – 8K recording with (3D or 2D) and a 36 megapixel photo capability.
A demonstration of the KanDao Obsidian R camera (KanDao).
The next level is really where we suggest you should start looking for a camera if you can afford it. These cameras range from about $500 to $1000.
Tier 2 – High quality results for producers and storytellers (Cameras below $1,000)
KanDao Qoocam 8K ($800) — This is a big step forward in small, portable 360 cameras as it offers 8K resolution. Though smaller than other KanDaos on the market, this camera is the largest two lens 360 camera on the market (about double the size of the new GoPro Max) and is also heavier than most cameras. Also offers 10 bit video (which offers one billion colours vs 16.7 million colours for 8-bit video) and a larger than most sensor (1/1.7” vs 1/2.3” which is about 50% larger). This camera uses H.264 or H.265, which offers an astounding 200mbps bit rate. Also allows for editing on your phone. Excellent slow motion with one of the highest frame rates (120 fps). Offers RAW mode for photos and has a good size touchscreen (2.4”) which makes navigating the menu much easier and allows you to see (in 360) what the camera is seeing. This means you no longer need a smart phone to view your footage.
Something else that is huge is that it has a mic input. It is actually one of the few cameras to have this feature. Also offers built-in memory (a respectable 64 gigs worth of internal memory) and a micro SD card slot for upto 256 GB. There are so many great features in this camera including excellent six axis stabilization. If there is one weakness it is the non-removable battery, which will give you about 40 minutes of heavy shooting. However you can shoot with this camera while charging so you can connect it to a USB power supply and keep going. This camera also comes with optional replaceable lens covers to protect the lens. There is also an optional waterproof housing for this camera.
This camera looks promising and Kandao has an excellent track record with 360 cameras, but there are still some questions, mostly about the stitching capabilities. There is an excellent comparison of this camera to the Insta360 One X and the GoPro Max cameras here. Surprisingly, the footage looks very close to the 8K Kandao and in some cases performs better.
GoPro Max ($799) — Offers 5.6K with live streaming capabilities. This recent waterproof camera from GoPro and is an improved version of the popular Fusion model. This camera is waterproof up to five metres and comes gives you 18 megapixel photos and six microphones for on-board spherical audio recording, which is a big bonus.
Insta360 One X ($500) — This is a solid performer right in the middle of the pack on price and a personal favourite of our production staff. It offers a gorgeous 5.7K resolution with 18 megapixel photo capabilities. It has excellent stabilization (six axis gyro), and the ability to edit on your smartphone. What is especially impressive about this camera is its ability to handle tough shooting situations like backlighting or areas with lots of shadows. It does a nice job overall with colour saturation as well as it provides an HDR option. If you get this camera, we recommend you also buy the Insta360 invisible selfie stick along with it. A waterproof housing is also available for this camera (up to 5M).
The Insta360 One X is one of the most popular consumer-facing 360 cameras on the market (Insta360)
Tier 3 – Cameras Below $500
YI 360 VR ($150) — The YI 360 VR is an excellent camera, especially considering how the company has dramatically dropped its price tag in recent months. It offers 5.7K resolution (unreal for the price, really), very good stabilization and in camera stitching. It also has a removable battery, microSD card slot and a very functional built in menu. While this camera is not as slender as other cameras (appears quite boxy), this is very functional as it stands vertically quite comfortably.
Samsung Gear 360 ($200) — Agile and versatile, the well-known Gear 360 doesn’t pack a lot of shooting punch (maxing out at 4K resolution), but it is a tremendously user-friendly camera and a solid choice for hobbyists just getting into 360 content. Allows expandable memory and offers time lapse shooting and straightforward live streaming to Facebook or YouTube. If your primary interest is having an affordable camera to take 360 pictures and video clips of your vacation for social media, this pocket-sized device is ideal.
GoPro Fusion ($380) — Waterproof to 10M, 5.2K video, GPS, excellent stabilization, RAW photos, 18 megapixel photos. Since this is a discontinued camera it is available at a deep discount. It is an excellent choice for the price.
GoPro has discontinued its Fusion cameras in favour of newer models like the Max, making them fantastic bargains if you can find one. (GoPro)
Hopefully, this guide to cameras has left you with a better idea with what you’ll need to get started. Use this as a starting point to do your own research and figure out what camera and equipment will best suit your needs. Once you get your camera, here’s an important piece of advice before you move onto Chapter 3 (Shooting tips!) — really get to know your camera. Understanding precisely what kind of 360 camera you have is vital because the features it has (or does not have) will directly impact your shooting. For example, if you did not buy a waterproof camera, but want to shoot in the water, then obviously you will have to purchase a waterproof housing of some kind. Before you do anything read through the manufacturer’s instructions for your specific camera or watch online videos about your camera’s features. As with any piece of equipment you are using, getting comfortable with how it works can be the difference between footage that is tremendous and footage that is trash.
- With 360 video, higher resolution matters in terms of getting the best picture quality and viewing experience possible. Get the highest shooting resolution you can afford. Your camera should, at minimum, give you the ability to shoot 4K, although we highly suggest going for a camera that can do 5K+ if you’re able to afford it
- The most important accessory you can have with a 360 camera is some kind of selfie stick or monopod that is designed to be used with these kinds of cameras. These will help stabilize your camera when shooting (incredibly important for 360) but will be thin enough to disappear or look subtle in your footage
- These cameras drain batteries like crazy, so it’s always a good idea to purchase spare camera batteries and always have them charged up and ready to swap in
- These cameras differ greatly in terms of how much on-board memory they contain. High resolution video will fill up the memory quickly, so ideally, look for a camera that allows you to add additional SD card memory.