How Do 360 Cameras Work? [Full Explanation]

Have you ever wondered how a 360 camera works? You might be considering using or buying your first 360 camera but want to know how these strange looking devices produce immersive media like 360 photos and videos.

To put it simply a 360 camera uses two or more lenses to capture every inch of the environment around you. Software then takes the images shot with each lens and “stitches” them together to create a seamless single image. In this post I’ll explain in more depth the realities of using a 360 camera and exactly how they work.

People have been creating 360 media for a very long time, however up until recently the equipment required was very expensive and it was mostly limited to industry professionals. 5 years ago it was very unlikely that you would have watched a 360 video or viewed a 360 photo. Fast forward to now and YouTube is full of immersive 360 videos and anyone can upload a 360 photo to Facebook.

So what happened? In 2015 Ricoh launched the first all-in-one 360 camera, the Ricoh Theta M15. This started a whole new camera category with dozens of easy to use, relatively cheap cameras being release. The current crop includes the GoPro Max, Insta360 One R and Ricoh Theta Z1. 360 cameras are now very much part of the mainstream.

The Rise of VR

The popularity of 360 cameras coincided with the rise of VR as a product category, and this is not  a coincidence. VR and 360 cameras go hand in hand. The best way to view 360 media is in a VR headset, which offers the immersive experience that the cameras are designed to provide.

Having said that, 360 media is not the same as VR. Unlike VR, 360 photos and videos are real life recreations where as virtual reality is the opposite, it’s not real at all. A similar comparison would be filming a short video of yourself on your phone or creating an animation of yourself. You would be able to view both on your phone but they are not the same thing.

In most VR experiences you are free to roam around the made-up envirnment whereas with 360 video you are restricted to the position of the camera. VR also has depth whereas most 360 media is two-dimensional (although there are a few 3D 360 cameras available).

How They Work

A typical consumer 360 camera features two lenses on opposing sides of the camera body. Some more professional 360 cameras have more than two lenses but in the interests of keeping things simple I’ll focus on two lens setups.

360 cameras use fish eye lenses to capture around 200 degrees of image per lens. Combined each lens will capture around 400 degrees which, obviously, includes some overlap. After the footage is captured software will work out where this overlap is and work to make the image seamless. This is sometimes done automatically inside the camera but sometimes requires you to use desktop software or a phone app.

Stitched 360 images 

Usually the seam will not be visible, or barely so. Different cameras have different success rate at creating a seamless stitch line and this is something to consider when buying a 360 camera.

Sensors

360 cameras need to be small, compact, affordable and easy to use if they are to be attractive to the consumer market. It’s for this reason that the majority of 360 cameras use small lenses that are commonly used in action cameras and even webcams.

You will struggle to replicate the dynamic range and color saturation that you’re most likely used to seeing in video shot with a DSLR or even your phone. At the moment the technology is not there for more advanced sensors to be cheap and small enough for a 360 camera. A notable exception is the Ricoh Theta Z1 which uses dual 1 inch lenses and is well established as the best 360 camera for photography.

 

Thankfully pretty much all 360 cameras offer full manual control much like a DSLR. You can adjust exposure, shutter speed, ISO and in some cases aperture to get the absolute best quality out of your camera. Some 360 cameras also offer RAW shooting and HDR.

Re-framing

While 360 cameras were originally envisaged as immersive capturing devices, that is capturing 360 photos and videos to be viewed on a VR headset, they have become arguably more popular as action and vlogging cameras.

Re-framing is the act of taking your 360 video and turning it into a “normal” video but with keyframes telling the camera where to look at any one time. A reframed video often looking like someone has moved the camera when in actual fact the camera has remained still the whole time.

Here’s the difference between an immersive 360 video and a re-framed video shot with the same 360 camera:

Immersive

Re-framed

Each 360 camera comes with an app that allows you to re-frame your footage quickly and easily.

 

I hope this short history of 360 cameras and how they work has answered any questions you might have. It can be a bit confusing for those who have just started thinking about using 360 cameras, but trust when I say they are not much different from recording with a normal camera (and in some ways, even easier!).

Check out my YouTube channel for more 360 camera tips as well as review and guides.

 

Owner of threesixtycameras.com. Writer, photographer and videographer. You can see my YouTube channel for guides of how to shoot 360 video. I've written for The Times, Digital Photography School and Sunday Express. 

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