Step 1: Select Your Equipment
The first thing you’ll need to do in your quest to create a VR tour is invest in some hardware. There’s a wide range of options for most budgets but as with all things, the more you spend the better quality you’ll get. You’ll need to invest in both hardware for shooting your tour and software for creating the final 360 images. Let’s go through exactly what you’ll need and some options at different price points.
Unsurprisingly the first thing you’ll need it a camera. High quality virtual tours are created using DSLR cameras rather than the cheaper all-in-one 360 cameras. If you want to use your virtual tours for professional purposes then I suggest going the DSLR route as it really does make a difference.
You’ll need to select a DSLR that has automatic bracketing option as well as a timer and have an image resolution of at least 24mp. Pretty much every DSLR from the past 8 years has these features so you don’t need to get the latest or most expensive model, in fact it makes more sense to spend less on the DSLR and more on the lens.
Some camera options that would be good for a VR Tour:
Panasonic G7 – Cheaper Option
Nikon D7200 – Best Option
The Lens you buy will largely determine the quality of the VR tour. If you want the absolute best quality images then you’ll need to spend more money on the lens but for professional VR tours you can get a fairly standard price lens and still have decent quality. You’ll need to specifically buy a wide angle (fish eye) lens for the purposes of shooting a VR tour as these types of lenses capture the maximum fiend of view in a single shot. With a wide angle lens you’ll be able to create a full 360 image in as few as 6 shots whereas a normal lens may require 15 or more. You’ll want to find a lens that deals with light well as you’ll be shooting in a lot of different lighting conditions.
Here are some Lens options for you to take a look at:
Pentax 10-17mm Fish Eye – Best Value
Samyang 7.5mm – Cheapest
Nikkor 8-15mm – Best Quality
It’s very important that your camera is kept in the same position as you create the images in your virtual tour; for this you’ll need a sturdy tripod. You don’t necessarily need the most expensive tripod but the more you spend the more durable and long lasting the tripod will be. Make sure the Tripod can extend upwards to around the height of the average person and is able to take at least a few KG worth of weight.
Neewer Carbon Fibre Tripod
Panoramic Tripod Head
This is a unique piece of kit that is essential for creating 360 images with a DSLR. A panoramic tripod head allows you to rotate your camera over the entire 360 degrees and therefore capture every part of the room. There are different typed of tripod heads, some as cheap as $50 and some as expensive as $350. The cheaper options will require you to manually move the tripod head and may not be as accurate whereas more expensive options can be controlled remotely and measure exactly where you need to move for maximum accuracy. I tend to use cheaper options for Real Estate Tours as any issues with accuracy can usually be fixed in the editing process.
Panoramic Tripod Head Options:
Neewer Panoramic Tripod Gimbal Head – Cheapest
Bushman Panoramix Gobi Head – Best Value
Manfrotto 303 SPH Panoramic Head – Best Quality
You’ll need something to carry all this kit around. Make sure the travel case is able to secure and separate each piece of kit as you’ll be moving around with it a lot.
This program is used to create HDR images from multiple exposures. When shooting our virtual tour we will be shooting 3 exposures in every shot so we will need to use this program to combine these images. By using HDR images we have more control over lighting and exposure.
You’ll need this program to stitch the individual images into a 360 image. This is the most important program you’ll need and is an industry leader for VR tour creators.
You can use these programs to further edit and improve the overall quality of your images.
Step 2: Shoot Your VR Tour
Set Up Your Tripod and Panoramic Head
Attach your panoramic tripod head to your tripod and extend the tripod so that it’s around the height of an average person. This is an ideal height for a real estate virtual tour as it replicates what an average person would see if they were actually walking around. Now attach your camera to the tripod head so that it is vertical. Your final setup should look like this:
Change Camera Settings
Your camera should be set up to automatically shoot 3 exposures for each shot; this is usually called bracketing. You should then set up a self timer for at least a few seconds so that when the shutter goes off there is nothing touching the camera (to avoid movement). You should also be using manual mode and adjusting the settings so that the lighting is roughly equal for each shot.
Shoot Your First Images
Once your kit is set up find an ideal place to start your tour; make sure the position is somewhere central and ideally away from any walls. When you press the shutter the self timer will count down and the shutter fire three times, capturing three exposures. That’s the first image done.
Move Tripod Head
You can now rotate the camera using the panoramic tripod head to the next position. You need to rotate the camera so that it’s capturing a new area but that it still overlaps with the previous image. I tend to ensure that 20% of the new image overlaps with the previous one; this is to ensure the stitching process is as easy as possible.
Repeat Until All Areas Are Covered
Repeat these steps so that you cover every area of the room you are photographing. You’ll need to capture the floor and ceiling too, you can do this by rotating the panoramic tripod head attachment and the camera.
You should shoot at least two or three 360 images per room; less if it’s a very small room and more if it’s very large. Each image should take around 3-5 minutes to shoot
Step 3: Create HDR’s
Import and Organise Files
Once you’ve finished shooting your virtual tour you’ll likely end up with hundreds of individual images. Your first step is to organise these into logical folders. Ideally each room you shoot should have its own folder and then a sub folder for each panorama. This will make it much easier to work with your images and know what panoramas you have completed.
Use Photomatix Pro to Create HDR’s
Load up Photomatix pro and go to the “Create HDR” tab. Here you’ll create your first HDR image and select the right settings. Select the first three exposures you shot and combine them into a HDR image; you can select the automatic settings and adjust the sliders to tweak the lighting and color settings. Once you are happy you can go ahead and create your HDR.
Thankfully you won’t need to do this for each individual image thanks to the batch HDR function. Now you have the correct settings you can select every image in the folder you are working on and create batch of HDR images for that entire panorama automatically. You will now have a set of 6 or so HDR images which you can use to create your panorama.
Step 4: Stitch Images and Create 360 Image
Use PTGui to Create Your 360 Image
This is the last and most important step for creating your panoramic image for your real estate virtual tour. Using PTGui select the set of HDR images you have selected and load them into the program. PTGui will ask you about the lens you used so it can accurately stitch your image; if the program doesn’t recognise the lens then you can manually input the focal length.
Press the “Run Optimiser” button and the program will attempt to create your panoramic image. Most of the time it will be successful, however you may notice some issues with the final image; for example there may be stitching lines running through the image or the program may be unable to stitch a certain image. If this happens you’ll need to add manual control points.
Adding manual control points allows the program to know where the images overlap and create a more accurate image. You add control points by finding identical points on two overlapping images and simply clicking on them. Once you’ve done this you can run the optimiser again to get a more accurate image.
Once you are happy with the panorama you can go ahead and create the final image. You can select the final resolution at this stage (I tend to go with 10,000 x 5000) and PTGui will create the Panorama.
Repeat for Each Stage Of your Virtual Tour
You’ll need to repeat the previous steps for every panorama of your virtual tour. Editing your virtual tour takes a lot longer than actually shooting it, so bare this in mind when working to a deadline.
The next stage is finding somewhere to host your tour. There are many options, some free and some paid. You can also upload a tour to Google if you are a verified Google Street View photographer.