How to choose a 360 camera

Picking the right camera for immersive journalism can be a headache — choosing among those already in stores, the prototypes, the DYI experiments and the models coming out in the next months or years. This blog post is not meant to be a shopping guide comparing cameras, but rather to provide you with an evergreen chart you can refer to before selecting a camera, now and in the future.

Photojournalism students learn of the exposure triangle: that to take a picture worth its salt, one must strike a balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO (or ASA) to capture the right amount of light. Newsworthiness, composition and the decisive moment don’t matter much if your picture is over/underexposed, unintentionally blurry or overly grainy.

Following this idea, when I started shooting 360 journalism, I initially thought choosing the right camera would require drafting another triangle, to try to strike a balance between image quality, cost and ease of use.

Now, after months overseeing euronews’ immersive journalism project, I realize the truth is much more nuanced. Turns out it’s not about a triangle. It’s more about squaring the circle.

This octagon represents what are, in my experience, the key factors you need to work with when picking a camera for immersive journalism.

Some are obvious, like buying a true 360 camera, which captures 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. You’d be surprised how “donut” cameras still advertise themselves as 360 cameras. By “donut cameras,” I mean cameras that typically cover 360 degrees horizontally, but lack the ability to film 180 degrees vertically. You end up with a “hole” at the zenith, the nadir or both. If both, you get only a circular “band” of footage, hence the name “donut.”

For accuracy’s sake, cameras with a hole at the zenith or nadir should be called “cup” or “dome” cameras, respectively. You get the idea. My point is, these kinds of cameras, which are often attractively priced, will fall short in the field.

As for resolution, 4K is the minimum for any professional output, with 60 frames per second the goal to avoid dizziness. Higher resolution increases the size of the video files, which makes transferring footage via the internet a much slower process, especially if you’re on the ground using spotty mobile networks.

Other criteria, like picking a capture system that’s both easy to get the hang of and easy to use in the field, are crucial when you can’t afford hours of training for each journalist sent out to shoot. Cost can vary in relevance, depending on your newsroom’s budget. However, a more expensive camera will not necessarily mean economy of resources prior to and during shooting, or in postproduction.

Mirror mirror on the wall…

Last but not least (I did not include this in the octagon due to lack of experience with the technology), you could choose to film in stereo rather than mono. Please note, however, that doing so can double the number of cameras, memory cards and files to process and stitch — unless you have access to high-end capture systems like the Google Jump and the Nokia OZO.

Stereo can be worth the trouble, to bring more life into your coverage, but you must be prepared to deal with pretty much twice the workload, twice the cost and, the pessimist side of me would like to add, twice the potential for something going wrong.

I hope this octagon will be a cheat sheet helping you in your immersive endeavors. In the future, perhaps I’ll refine it into a decagon, or even a dodecagon, but it’s possible that improvements in camera technologies will make our current dilemmas, such as resolution versus cost, things of the past. I am not alone, I think, in looking forward to that moment.

Case study:

Let me explain how we at Euronews chose the most convenient 360 camera for what we’re trying to achieve. Our aim is to produce news items with the shortest turnaround and the highest newsworthiness possible, in decent-quality 4K resolution. With every new video, we’re streamlining our workflow a little more, learning — from our failures as well as our successes — in the process. So the Samsung Gear 360 ticks these boxes, along with a couple more (cost, battery life, simple to use on the ground). It might not be the right camera for you and your media organization, but we found it convenient to use.

Here are two recent examples:

The Icarus Cup is a free-flight gathering near the French Alps. The Gear 360’s small size and ease of use allowed my colleagues to multiply the shooting angles, even embedding the camera on ultralight aircraft. The weather was very nice, so the colors really pop. Shot over the course of two days, with a lot of rushing at the end, the video took less than a week to stitch, edit and publish.

Shot last week in the so-called “Jungle” of Calais, the following video took only a few days from shooting to publication. As the Gear 360 is light, it’s easily transportable. It’s also relatively inconspicuous, so it doesn’t scare people away, nor does it draw too much attention. The low-light conditions decreased the overall quality of the footage, but as the proprietary stitching software doesn’t need reference points, the largely white or gray skies were not a problem.

Like every camera out there, the Gear 360 has limitations (see the octagon). Caveats include easily scratchable lenses, overheating and fogging issues, clunky stitching software (here’s an AVP tutorial instead), no horizon stabilization or 60 frames per second, and difficulties with high-contrast lighting.

But honestly, the Gear 360 is an easy-to-use camera for immersive journalism. I’ve sent colleagues to shoot with it after a concise 30-minute briefing (e.g., warning them there’s a blind spot of up to 1 meter on each side), which is a huge plus for our objective. It’s also easy to get a hold of even if you aren’t familiar with VR technology. And for 350 euros/dollars (more if you purchase a flagship smartphone to use as a viewfinder or remote control), it could very well be a fitting camera for immersive journalists eager to get close to the action.

In short:

- Follow the octagon.

- Inform yourself; read specs and camera reviews carefully. Comparative shoots in real-life conditions, like this one from JOVRNALISM, are truly helpful.

- Prioritize the criteria that matter the most to you and your news organization.

- Beware overpromising vaporware.

Full disclosure: Euronews receives financial support for its immersive journalism project from the Google DNI funds, and currently has an exclusivity partnership with Samsung.