How to Take Better 360 Photos

A Quick Guide for VR Pioneers

Preamble: Hi, I’m Robin Har, a Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Viro Media. Viro Media is a platform for web and mobile developers to easily build VR experiences. For the past year I have been exploring design and content creation for our VR platform, and I’ve discovered some helpful tips that I will share on this blog and in our documentation to help you build your own amazing VR apps.

So… you want to take your own 360 photos. Welcome to an exciting new world of immersive photography. Whether you’re sharing to Facebook or creating a VR experience, there’s a few things to consider in order to make a 360 photo that’s usable and ready for your audience. This guide will help you find the right hardware and help you take 360 photos like a pro.

What is a 360 Photo?

Traditional vs 360 Camera

Traditional cameras, like on your mobile phone, take pictures within a frame. The photographer controls what the viewer will see through the initial framing of the shot and by cropping the photo afterwards. . There is no framing with a 360 photo. 360 photos no longer limit the viewer to a traditional frame and offer an immersive experience. The audience now can stand where the camera was positioned and view the scene in full 360°.

Camera

Which camera is best? I get asked this a lot. Today, there are quite a few options, but here are just a couple I have used and prefer (in order of preference):

Ricoh Theta S

Ricoh Theta S — $349

Pros

  • Portable, fits in your pocket.
  • Decent connected mobile app with live view.
  • Easy transfer process.
  • Compatible with iOS and Android.
  • 360 photos are automatically stitched.
  • Easy to post and share on social media.

Cons

  • Image quality is not that great, especially in low-light situations.
  • Video is low resolution. I want a bigger sensor!

Samsung Gear 360

Samsung Gear 360 — $349

Pros

  • Image quality and max resolution slightly better compared to the Ricoh Theta S in good lighting conditions.
  • High Video Resolution.

Cons

  • Not as portable, always needs a tripod to take a picture.
  • Image quality is muddy and very grainy in low-light situations.
  • Connected app is very buggy and has connection issues.
  • Only compatible to Samsung Galaxy phones.
  • Transfer process that’s limited to only a desktop app on the PC. Where’s Mac support?
  • Photos may only be stitched after importing the photos to the desktop app.
  • Bad social media support.

Paired Phone

360 cameras like the Ricoh Theta S allow you to take the shot by simply pushing its hardware button, but I prefer to use the companion app through a paired phone. This helps take a cleaner shot without you in the scene.

Accessories

Tripod

Manfrotto MKBFRA4D-BH BeFree Compact Travel Aluminum Alloy Tripod

Manfrotto MKBFRA4D-BH

My go-to tripod. It’s not the cheapest at $150, but its solid build quality and ease of quickly adjusting height and angle makes it worth it for me.

Manfrotto MTPIXI-B PIXI Mini Tripod

Manfrotto PIXI

This is a stylish portable tripod I use when carrying the MKBFRA4D-BH isn’t an option. The collapsible legs make it a nice handheld extension when you have to take the picture above your head and the ball mount allows for easy angle adjustment.

Resolution and Format

Go Big

Take your pics at the highest resolution possible. There’s nothing less immersive than a fuzzy, low-res photo that reminds the user that it’s artificial. We’re trying to make the user feel like they’re really there.

It’s better to have the option to down-res later, if necessary. The Samsung Gear 360 can take pics of up to 7776 x 3888. Consider getting a bigger memory card, it’s worth the investment. Plus, they’re pretty cheap nowadays.

Weirdly Warped Photos

Flat 2:1 format

360 photos look strange in their raw form. They are saved in a flat 2:1 format so they can be easily shared using existing file formats. For this reason, you will notice they warp every third of the canvas and stretch along the top and bottom portion of the photo. This is because they will be mapped onto a curved surface that pinches along the top and bottom. Once imported into a 360 photo viewer, your photo will be mapped onto a 3D sphere and will appear as expected.

EXIF Data

Every photo you take is tagged with the camera model and other metadata. Editing your 360 photo in an image editor may strip the EXIF data from the photo when you export it. Having proper embedded EXIF data is important for photo viewers to correctly idenfity how the photo should be projected. So, you may have to inject the EXIF data back into the photo if you plan on posting to social media sites like Facebook.

I use: http://www.thexifer.net/#exif-general to inject EXIF data to my edited photos.

More on this topic here: https://facebook360.fb.com/editing-360-photos-injecting-metadata/

Get Out of the Picture

It’s not about you, it’s about the scene, transporting the viewer to where you were and have them feel what it’s like to be there.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be in the 360 photo, it just means to be mindful of your position when taking the photo. Unless you intentionally plan on taking a 360 selfie, there’s nothing worse than having a large portion of the scene covered by your face.

Try using a tripod and taking the picture remotely through your paired phone.

Level the Horizon

Make sure the photo you take is level to 0°. You rarely look around the world with your head tilted. Prior to taking a photo, ensure that the 360 camera is mounted perfectly level on your tripod. Taking a tilted picture could result in the viewer experiencing the scene offset from their real world expectations.

For this guide, we will be using my current 360 camera of choice, the Ricoh Theta S. Although there may be some differences, this guide can be applied for any other 360 camera.

1. Find the Center Point

  • Find a great center point in the scene you want your audience to view from. Make sure it’s not claustrophobic and there is plenty of breathing room around.
  • Extend out the legs of the tripod and place it on the ground.
  • Mount the 360 camera on the tripod.

2. Level the camera

Adjust the angle of the tripod mount. Make sure the camera is as level as possible.

3. Go Hide

Find a nearby place with cover to get out of view. If there’s nothing to hide behind, just stand at a decent length like a bystander.

4. Take the picture

  • Use the Theta S app and check the live view.
  • Important: Make sure the areas of focus are not at the edges of the screen. The stitching algorithm may cause edges to be distorted.
  • Check the level again in live view and make sure it doesn’t look tilted.
  • Adjust the EV values if needed.
  • Take the picture. Take multiple shots and adjust if necessary. Chances are, you won’t get that perfect shot the first time.

5. Import the picture

  • Using the Theta S app, tap on Cam images on the bottom nav. Make sure the Not transferred tab is active and you should see the picture(s) you just took at the top of the screen.
  • To import to your phone, tap on the thumbnail of the 360 photo you wish to import.

6. Export the picture

  • Once the picture is transferred, it will open on your phone. If you want to share to Facebook, tap the Share icon.
  • To export to your computer, open the photo gallery app on your phone and transfer.

That’s it! Our next post will cover “Editing 360 Photos”.

I’d love to see the pictures you took! Please contact me with a link. Also, if you have any questions or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

Shameless plug: Interested in VR development? Check out my company, Viro Media, and sign up for access to the platform here.