Shooting virtual tours is a big business. You’ll find dozens of virtual tour creators in every large city in the world. Virtual tour photographers create VR tours for businesses who want to use VR as part of their marketing strategy.
It’s been proven that virtual tours can be beneficial to many types of businesses. Restaurants, co-working spaces, museums and hotels are some of the common businesses that use VR tours to bring in more customers, not to mention the huge real estate market which is adopting virtual tours rapidly.
So how can you get a piece of the pie? If you have been thinking about starting a VR tour business then now is as good time as any. The market for VR tours is growing and it’s never been easier to start. You can do this as a solo venture or partner with others if you want to take things to another level.
I worked as a VR tour photographer for years before this website become popular. I started from the ground up on my own so I hope the advice in this post can help you do the same.
Equipment You’ll Need
The first thing you need to consider is the equipment you are going to use. You will likely have a start up budget in mind and this will largely guide what equipment you’ll buy. The more expensive your equipment the higher quality images you’ll be able to shoot and the larger your potential client base will be.
You don’t necessarily need the best equipment at the start; many businesses are happy with VR tours shot on lower end equipment as long as your pricing reflects this.
You’ll obviously need a camera to start your VR tour business. There are a huge number of cameras to choose from and you could spend thousands just on this. At a bare minimum you will need a DSLR with the ability to shoot bracketed images on a timer.
I wouldn’t recommend spending the majority of your budget on a DSLR as long as it meets the minimum requirements you should be fine. Here are some options for you:
Best Quality: NIKON D610
Best Value: PANASONIC G85
Budget Option: CANON EOS REBEL T100
Very advanced virtual tour creators may use a system like Matterport which comes with a specialised 3D camera which allows for room scale scanning. The Matterport cameras cost thousands and also require a monthly subscription, they are therefore not ideal for those just starting out.
You may also want to use one of the all in one 360 cameras that are currently available. Shooting VR tours with these types of cameras is far simpler and easier than shooting with a DSLR, however the quality is significantly lower. The only all in one 360 camera I could recommend for VR tours is the Ricoh Theta Z1.
Fish Eye Lens
The most important piece of hardware you’ll buy is your fish eye lens. All 360 panoramas shot in a DSLR setup use fish eye lenses, this allows the user to shoot the minimum number of shots required to create the full panorama.
The type of lens you buy will largely determine the quality of your images. It’s advisable to get the best quality lens you can afford at the start, but once again a budget option is fine if you price your tours at the lower end of the scale. Here are some great fish eye lens options that work great for shooting 360 virtual tour
Best Quality: NIKKOR 8-15mm
Best Value: HD PENTAX 10-17 mm f3.5
Budget Option: SAMYANG 7.5mm
This specialist piece of equipment is designed to allow you to take 360 degree panoramas with a DSLR camera. The head is able to spin at a 360 degree range of motion so you can shoot every section required for a 360 photo.
Some panoramic heads are automatic and some are manual. Manual heads are harder to use as you’ll need to be very very accurate each time you move the head into a new position, however they are also much cheaper. All tripod heads will be compatible with any DSLR.
The last piece of equipment you’ll need is a sturdy tripod to hold the panoramic head and camera in place. You may be tempted to get a cheap tripod but I’d advise against that. To shoot high quality, error free 360 images the camera needs to remain stationary as you shoot your images, a poor uality tripod will make this a difficult task.
The tripod should ideally reach the height of the average person so that the image are shot from a familiar point of view, it should also be strong enough to bare the wights of a DSLR and panoramic head.
Best Quality: MOVO MOTORISED PANO HEAD
Budget Option: NEEWER PANORAMIC HEAD
Software You’ll Need
Now that you have your hardware sorted you need to invest in some software. Unfortunately there really is no getting around purchasing professional software when creation VR tours and you should consider doing so an investment in the future of your business.
When shooting your virtual tour you will be creating dozens of 360 images, each of which will be made up of 6-8 individual photos which need to be stitched together. This stitching process is done via software on your desktop. The software I use and recommend is PTGui Pro which has been the premiere stitching program for the past decade.
While the software requires some skill to operate, recent advances have allows much of the process to be automatic. The latest version of PTGui Pro has received a much needed user interface update which makes it far more user friendly.
PTGui has a free version that let’s you practice with the program but any panoramas created will have a watermark. The pro version is a one off cost and does not require a monthly subscription
This is an optional extra however it is common for VR tour photographers to shoot HDR photos for their virtual tours. HDR photos have greater dynamic range and generally look better than normal images. HDR photos are created by shooting three exposures and combining them together.
I use Photomatix Pro to create HDR photos. I find the program very easy to use and has a great range of options for creating different effects, which is important if you shoot in a range of environments.
Photo Editing Software
Finally, you may want to invest in some general editing software. When you create your HDR photos you might want to do some final retouching, or indeed retouch your final 360 images. Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard but requires a monthly subscription.
Skills You’ll Need
Once you’ve invested in the necessary hardware and software you’ll need to make sure you have the necessary skills to create your virtual tours. The first thing to learn is how to shoot 360 photos with a DSLR. This video from Patick Niddre is a great guide on exactly what to do.
Here’s another awesome video from the same channel teaching you how to use PTGui pro to stitch your final 360 images. The video is a few years old and he is using an older version of the program, so your version may look different.
It only took me a few hours of practice before I could confidently create my first 360 panoramas. Try shooting a whole virtual tour of your house for a full practice session, then do a friends house and see how you can improve. Go outside and shoot around some famous landmarks in your city/country. Practise is what will make you a skilled and efficient VR tour photographer.
Do I need to be a Trusted Street View Photographer?
For years it has been possible to upload custom VR tours to Google Street View so that anyone using the google maps service can take a VR tour of your business. When a person clicks on the business listing an option for a Street View Tour will appear; this a popular way of attracting customers for many businesses.
In order to upload a customer VR tour to street view you need to be a trusted street view photographer. When I started by VR tour business one of the first things I did was to become Street View Trusted, this was accomplished by uploading 50 360 images to Google Street View (anyone can upload single 360 images in public spaces).
At the currently time Google has paused their Street View Trusted service to new applicants, however they may be relaunching in the future. It may seem like you are missing out, however I’ve never had a client specifically ask for a Street View Trusted photographer. When the service restarts then it might be worth joining, but consider it an afterthought as it’s not essential to start your VR tour business.
So now you have the skills and the equipment necessary to start shooting VR tours, but how do you get your first clients? Start by making a list of the types of businesses in your area that may benefit from a VR tour (I gave some examples at the start of this post).
Search for these businesses in your city and area to see how many already have VR tours, for each one that doesn’t make a note of their name and website. You now have a list of prospective clients.
Even if you have a great list of potential clients there’s no use contacting them now as you have little in the way of proof of your skills. Ideally you should create a basic website for your business where you can display your skills and contact details.
Remember those practise tours you made? Now’s the time to perfect them and display them on your website for prospective clients to see. Make sure your website has a contact form and a description of the services you provide.
With your list of clients and website ready you should begin contacting them via email. You may have to do this many times before you get a reply. Make sure the email is personal to each potential client. You may have to offer very low rates or even a few free VR tours in order to get some reviews.
See Also: Best 360 Camera for Virtual Tours