Lessons Learned in 360 Degrees

On a recent trip to Japan I was able to experiment with 360Rize’s Pro6 360 degree camera rig. Though I didn’t quite get the quality of captures I was hoping for, I still ended up learning a lot about the process of capturing and creating 360 degree video. This is in no way a complete list of tips for shooting in 360 degrees. There are already many blogs, from far more qualified writers about that. This should be considered more an addendum specific to my goals and my experiences.

I particularly want to explore timelapse photography in this new dimension. What experiencing timelapses in 360 degrees would be like, and how best to capture it. I love timelapse photography and am especially intrigued by the idea of time flow all around me. Taking my 2D experiences and applying them to a whole new dimension was and is something I look forward to exploring.

Also, please forgive the water marks. It turns out the license for the stitching software remains prohibitively expensive for my hobbyist experiments.

360RIZE Pro6 Bullet360 Holder

The Camera Rig

First off let’s talk about the rig. The Pro6 Bullet360 is a six camera rig which supports the GoPro Hero 4/3+/3. In terms of camera rigs, this one is particularly approachable for an enthusiast. Both in terms of cost and complexity. Especially now that these kinds of systems are entering the rental market.

Operating the Pro6 was fairly straight forward. Boiling down to individually configuring the camera settings and then hitting the record button on the remote. The only issue I ran into was an incorrectly connected cable. The only sign of which was one of the cameras not being turned on in series with the others. But otherwise the rig itself was pretty straight forward and user friendly.

This was also my first time using a GoPro as a timelapse camera. The little cameras are great, but I sure was hurting for the familiar control my normal camera provides. Problem is, there isn’t exactly a whole lot of DSLR 360 camera rigs out just yet.

360° video of the cherry blossoms along the Hinokinai River in Kakunodate, Akita Japan

Stitching and Synchronizing 360 Video is Difficult

Stitching and synchronizing 360 timelapse video is even harder.

Showing how the 6 videos overlap and stitch together

There are six cameras in this rig, producing six separate videos, each with slightly different start times. Those videos first need to be synchronized and then stitched together into a sphere. Adding more cameras, like in the more expensive GoPro rigs, will quite literally compound the issue. The typical workflow for overcoming this problem involves making a distinct clap/noise in order to have a reference point around which each video can be synchronized.

This synchronization technique doesn’t work for timelapses though. Unless you’re recording straight video with plans to speed it up in post production, a typical timelapse doesn’t also capture audio. So the technique I ended up using for synchronization was to cover the cameras with a bag, remove it quickly, and try to sync it up visually.

This had some success but since each camera is capturing each frame at a preset interval, the footage will never be perfectly synchronized. This deficiency is especially noticeable around the seams of each video as objects move from the view of one camera into another at a slightly different time. But close is almost good enough. I would love to know if anyone has any suggestions for a better method.

The Problems of GoPros 4k Timelapse Mode

The biggest mistake I made in my experiments was recording with the newer timelapse video mode. Since this was my first time shooting a timelapse with a GoPro I sought out advice and this was the recommended setting. To be fair, there isn’t an inherent problem with the mode, unless you’re shooting in 360 degrees.

The problem is that the 4k timelapse mode constricts the output video’s aspect ratio. Instead of recording in 3:4 and taking advantage of the whole sensor, the camera records in 16:9. This becomes an issue when stitching the videos together as the 16:9 ratio takes away a significant amount of camera overlap. The resulting video ended up with holes in reality that would’ve otherwise been captured.

A smaller problem with the mode is the lose of control over individual frames. With my background being in photography, it’s easier for me to adjust for exposure differences between cameras by manipulating and processing the frames individually. But that is probably a personal preference more than anything else.

Either way, it’s a good thing these were only experiments.

360° Timelapse of the cherry blossoms along the Hinokinai River in Kakunodate, Akita Japan

“Behind the Camera” is non-existent

It really makes for a much more honest kind of film making and is something you really need to keep in mind.

Easily one my favorite parts of photography/videography is the fact that I don’t have to be in it. That becomes rather difficult when every angle is being captured. As such you’ll either need to find a place to hide (a frightening prospect when leaving your obviously expensive camera rig in a crowd). Or more likely (especially with extended timelapse photography) try to integrate in with the scene.

Also keep in mind that everything around you and the camera will be in the scene. Everything. So pay close attention for distractions and unwanted elements while setting up your shots.

Bigger subjects are better subjects

My biggest takeaway from these experiments was that I need to pick bigger subjects. Ones that the camera can be surrounded with. After all, If you’re going to shoot in all 360 degrees you may as well use all 360 degrees.

The combination of the GoPro’s focal length, the limited resolution of most 360 degree viewers, and the loss of focus that framing provides means you need to encompass the camera inside your subject.

Clouds rolling from horizon to horizon, stars streaking through the night sky overhead, crowds flowing around a camera would make for great subjects. But those clouds should be big, those streaks distinct and long, and the crowds dense. I found myself a little underwhelmed from the footage I captured due to not taking this into enough consideration.

360° Timelapse overlooking the Sea of Japan from the Oga Peninsula

Wrapping Up

All-in-all the experiments were a success in what they needed to be. A first test and first step in to a 360 degree world. I’m already excited for my next opportunity to shoot with these kind of rigs and expand on what I’ve learned.

Hopefully you can take something away from it too. Happy shooting!

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