Camera Choice is Key
The obvious choice seems to be using a fully 360 degree camera as there’s less hassle involved in set-up and post production. But unless you can afford the Nokia Ozo at an eye-watering sum of £40,000, your options are limited.
I’ve been using the Samsung Gear 360 (first gen) to capture photo spheres. The camera offers good photo fidelity and shoots video in 4K. It’s a perfect camera for beginners and even has the option of single-lens (180) capture. This camera sits mid-range in price with the Theta S and Nikon KeyMission. But frustratingly, Samsung have decided to take the inconvenient Apple approach with making everything closed looped. For example, to control the camera remotely with an app you’ll need a Samsung Phone. For stitching, you’ll need the Samsung 360 desktop software (which has very primitive editing capabilities).
The Gear 360 also has a few design flaws in my opinion. Condensation can accumulate between the lens and the glass. Making outdoor photoshoots on cold days difficult to produce. Also, the shutter button and LCD screen are positioned on the top of the camera making it impossible to use and photograph without getting a disfigured hand in the shot.
360 photographs are of course possible with straight forward DSLR or SLR cameras and a fish-eye lens. But the set-up needs to be correct and the stitching will take longer. What’s important to remember when shooting this way is consistency. Keep the nodal point the same with 0 degrees of pitch and roll. I would also recommend locking the white balance and exposure.
Alternatively, many people use a cluster of Go-Pros to achieve the same affect. Go-pros have very good specifications, especially when videoing. The editing and removal of the fish-eye effect will also need to be considered in post.
Lighting is Everything
Possibly the most delicate consideration is getting a good balance of light in both halves of the sphere. This is very important when shooting virtual tours and can be difficult to control. I recommend to shoot in RAW and to place the camera in well-lit and airy spaces.
A 360 degree images captures every angle and this includes the tripod. From experience, tripods aren’t the best supporting equipment. They cover a large base area of the photo and often have handles, knobs and screws that awkwardly obscure the image. You can easily undo these, but at the expense of an unstable tripod. The only solution: use a monopod.
To remove the tripod from the image in post there are two standard ways of doing so. The first and the preferable option is to use Photoshop to re-touch and remove. I switch between two main tools to carry out this task. Firstly, the clone stamp tool to easily sample around the tripod. I also use the healing tool to blend areas and therefore create a realistic ‘floating’ immersive image.
The second and much faster alternative is to implement a ‘tripod cap’. This is essentially a logo or block of colour that can be placed over the base of the image to block the tripod from view.
Pitch and Roll
This is simply the orientation of the camera in 3D space. It’s important as 360 images operate in three-dimensional world. Online publication platforms such as Google Street View, Facebook and self-publishing code libraries like THREE.js need this data. It’s important to know the difference, firstly pitch is up and down (also known as Y-axis). Roll is forward and backwards, also known as ‘tilt’ or Z-axis. For successful 360 photographs, both pitch and roll should be 0 degrees.
Manipulate the Meta
Meta data can be found in all digital files and in the HTML of webpages. It’s the basic description of information and a crucial element in producing 360 photos and virtual tours for the web. Facebook and Google both look for camera-specific metadata to process the images. Often, external editing can change or remove the correct metadata for your file. As a result, you will need to manually inject this data using specialist software or tools.
The image measurements need to be defined as well as image title, description and location taken. The image location is important for some services such as Google Street View. Fortunately, the Samsung Gear 360 has GPS built in so that users can easily publish straight to Maps.
North is Central
Recent changes made by Google on it’s Maps platform don’t allow for you to define the start location of the image. North is now the default focal point with an algorithm deciding what direction is most important in some photographic locations. It’s important to be aware of this when shooting in public spaces.
Know the Jargon
Stereoscopic Vs. Monoscopic
A standard 360 image or video is simply a panoramic stretched into a sphere. Where stereo differs from mono is that it creates more depth between the foreground and background. The improved depth of field can create a better 3D effect in virtual reality.
Patience, the road to completion is a long edit.
Once you know the basics, it’s time to put it into practice. So that’s setting up your camera correctly with correct levelling and lighting. Stitching the image, retouching to remove tripod, enhancements, meta injection, GPS check, dimension check (must be to the power of 2) and then any further virtual tour connections and integrations via Google Street View.
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