A Year in 360: Lessons learned shooting spherical video across the globe

Steve Johnson, Founder of Boundless, in Muir Woods National Monument shooting a 360 video feature for The Washington Post. (Photo by Ryan Jones)

Written by: Steve Johnson, Founder, Boundless

It’s not every day you get to experiment with new forms of media. We’ve seen astonishing new ways to move the camera — from drones to gimbals — that can push the boundaries of photography and videography. We’ve seen the rise of in-depth podcasts from companies like Gimlet Media change the radio game. And news as a whole has seen drastic changes in distribution, from social networks to digital subscriptions.

But with 360 video we had to invent the techniques and write the book ourselves — all while in the middle of trying to produce quality content.

It started for me when The Weather Channel asked me to shoot some 360 content during my trips to Iceland and Norway this February. I quickly got in touch with some colleagues and arranged for a guide to take myself and a climate scientist into a glacier to show our audiences what work is being done to study Earth’s changing climate.

Explore Iceland’s changing climate from the inside of a glacier. (Video by Steve Johnson)

A lot went wrong — from breaking a rig the day before a shoot, to dealing with cameras freezing and overheating, to figuring out how to avoid stitching errors with people on camera in 360.

I brought along my MacBook Pro and stitching software to test the first 360 interview inside of a glacier in Iceland. (Photo by Steve Johnson)

But we’ve figured out a lot in these early months of 360 production, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of shoots and to participate in many forums and workshops on what to do and what to avoid.

The first 360 time lapse of the Northern Lights for The Weather Channel. (Video by Steve Johnson)

In 2016, we went from experimenting with janky 3D-printed molds for GoPros to test-driving fully functional camera systems, capable of spherical audio and video recording, that can fit in a backpack.

Fortunately for those reading this, we’ve made a ton of mistakes and learned a lot from picking up the pieces (sometimes literally).

Gear

The GoPro Omni six-camera 360 rig in the Palo Duro Canyon. (Photo by Steve Johnson)

Let’s get this part out of the way. It’s almost always the first question asked and in my opinion the least important.

360 video gear has come a long way in a year. Right now the GoPro Omni (six-camera rig) is the most user-friendly professional rig out there, providing enough control over your settings to shoot in complex scenes but simple enough to run and gun. And at $5,000 for the rig, software, external power and a case, it’s a pretty good buy for those wanting to offer 360 video professionally.

Nikon KeyMission 360 getting pounded by a wave at Muir Beach, California. (Photo by Steve Johnson)

My recommendation for everyday shooters and those looking to start shooting 360 video is the Nikon KeyMission 360. At $500 it won’t break the bank and it stitches your video in camera. Oh, and being waterproof, shockproof and freezeproof doesn’t hurt considering the pain I’ve put cameras through this year alone.

There are other great products out there from Ricoh, Samsung, 360fly and others. But after using almost every consumer 360 camera in the field, I’d stick with the Omni and KeyMission 360 in my bag every day.

Narrative

The most difficult part of making 360 video work is the narrative. Cool toys and new technology are always a reason to get outside and experiment, but once we figure out how to use these tools, we need to apply them to tell stories. In most cases, news organizations and publishers have used them to bring people to an experience. I did this early on too. I brought people along with me airboat riding in the Everglades and to check out the Northern Lights in Norway.

After a scene or two, our audiences want to feel more — not just see more.

Building an immersive narrative has been the most challenging aspect of my career. I’ve partnered with some brilliant storytellers at The Washington Post, with various colleges of journalism across the country and with fellow visual storytellers to try to make sense out of immersive storytelling.

Google News Lab and the Knight Foundation have brought many of these lessons together in an ambitious effort to fund the development of immersive news called Journalism 360.

Building a narrative is much more difficult than what we normally work on with traditional stories. Not because 360 is any better, but because we don’t have a strong library of examples to learn from.

Before deciding to use 360 video, you always have to ask yourself: Why do my viewers need to be here? Will immersion help them understand the story better or just confuse them?

A Washington Post feature in 360 on the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. (Video by Steve Johnson)

There’s something great about being able to control a camera’s focal length and perspective to tell a story, and 360 video removes that control. However, it more than makes up for this loss by adding the power to engage your audience on an emotional level in a way that we’ve never been able to before.

So, in building your narrative, use tools like scripted voiceovers and audio interviews to guide your audience through a scene. Gentle nudges like “as you walk through the X” or “when you look up you can see Y” give direct cues to your audience that they are in control. Words like “you” directly address the audience as a participant in the story, not just as a passive viewer.

This voice has improved drastically with experience. Even when you compare my earlier pieces from Iceland to my later work in Palo Duro Canyon, you can hear a shift from talking to the audience to talking with the audience.

Join me and The Washington Post as we dig up dinosaurs at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. (Video by Steve Johnson)

You must also slow everything down. Really slow. Your viewers have to orient themselves within every scene to which you cut. A normal 2–3 minute traditional video may have 20–30 scenes, while a 360 video of the same length might have 6–8 scenes. Using a voiceover and scenes that include motion or action will work much better for a 360 narrative than cutting really fast and losing your audience.

We will continue to develop better narratives as more content is produced and more news outlets and magazines are doing 360 well. We still have a ways to go to get over the cool factor and make 360 a purposeful and useful storytelling tool.

Shooting in 360

The logistics of shooting 360 video are actually quite simple. Most 360 cameras are pretty much on auto mode — with the only controls being a few bumps in exposure either direction. The more complicated GoPro Omni allows you to adjust some of its Protune settings, but for the most part, shooting 360 video is a one-button operation.

While it may be easy to shoot 360 video, it’s where you place the camera, how you factor in light and stitching, and how the user will be situated within the scene that make all the difference. All of this is important as you start to build an immersive story.

Shooting 360 video in Rosenberg, Texas for The Weather Channel. (Photo by Steve Johnson)

Let’s break that down:

Lighting a scene in 360 is near impossible without showing the lights — so natural light is your only option for run and gun. You have to determine what each lens of the 360 camera will see and if contrasts in light are dramatic enough to notice when stitching. For example, if you’re shooting with a two-camera Nikon or Ricoh and one lens is pointed directly at the sun while the other is in shadow, your exposures will be so different that you’ll see the stitch line between cameras. This is less of a problem for rigs with more than two cameras but still a factor to consider when shooting.

A stitching error while filming on a fishing boat in Fredvang, Norway. (Steve Johnson)

Stitching errors will continue to haunt us 360 shooters until we have an affordable stitch-free camera that has no blind spots or minimum distance requirements. More expensive 360 cameras like the Nokia OZO ($45,000) don’t have these issues, but are bulky and less similar to the gear most photographers are used to shooting with. Stitching video together may be a thing of the past with more advanced cameras like the Nikon KeyMission 360, but you still have to be cognizant of the “lines” between lenses to make sure you don’t end up creating a Picasso painting.

Where you place the camera is also critical to a successful scene. As in the days of shooting traditional film, you cannot monitor what you’re shooting live. You have to train your eye to think wide in every direction, and you have to make sure there’s a strong focal point to grab the viewer’s attention in a specific direction and trust that you’ve shot it correctly. As you gain more experience with a 360 camera, you’ll develop an idea ahead of time of how close an object should be without stitching becoming a problem and even whether it’ll work in a 360 scene.

Looking Ahead

The many shapes and sizes of 360 video production. (Photo by Steve Johnson)

The possibilities of using 360 to tell compelling stories in new ways and bring people to amazing places are what get me out of bed. We have a tool that’s untested, unproven and ready to be experimented with. In 2016, we’ve only begun to see how we can use immersive content to share stories with millions of people.

As VR headsets become more popular, as social networks roll out more immersive features, and as smartphones become more VR friendly, photographers are going to be leading the charge in immersive content.

The trained eye knows where to find that great light, in every direction, to create a compelling scene. We can frame the sense of place so well that our audience can join in too. And we can reach those places inaccessible to most in order to share an otherwise unknowable story.


Steve Johnson is the founder of Boundless, a visual storytelling company, based in Washington, D.C. You can follow his work on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, read more how-to articles on Medium and see more stories produced at www.seeboundless.com/stories.