The Whole World, in Your Hands
As the name implies, a 360-degree camera captures the entire world around it. The space has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year, with cameras coming in several shapes in sizes, and prices starting in the budget range and going all the way up to several thousands of dollars for pro-grade models.
If you're thinking about buying a 360-degree camera, you should first think about what you're going to use it for. Some models feature rugged, all-weather designs and also fit solidly in the action cam category. They're designed to be mounted on the top of a helmet, the front of a kayak, or the like.
If your needs aren't so outdoorsy, you can opt for a model that isn't rugged and likely save some money. The least expensive models we've tested are very small and plug directly into a smartphone, but quality isn't on the same level as cameras with large lenses and image sensors.
If your needs are more professional, you'll need to spend more than a couple hundred dollars. We haven't yet tested the Insta360 Pro, so it's not eligible for this list, but the $3,500 camera feature eight lenses and captures video at 8K quality. The sample footage above, provided by Insta360, is the best we've seen from a 360-degree camera.
4K or Not 4K?
We're used to seeing small camcorders capture 4K footage, a format that squeezes 8MP of detail in each frame. Our favorite 360-degree cameras also shoot in 4K, but those pixels aren't limited to a 16:9 video frame. Instead they're stretched out across a sphere.
When you couple the stretched-out view with the ultra-wide nature of 360-degree capture, you'll notice that video looks soft, more like traditional 480p or 720p video, especially when viewing objects that are far away from the lenses.
Models that shoot video at 2K resolution, typically 1,920 by 960 when stitched together for viewing, simply don't offer enough pixels to deliver the video quality that a generation of videographers weaned on HD capture are used to. We do include a couple on this list, as they are typically an inexpensive starter option for someone who simply wants to get their feet wet with 360-degree capture.
Reception at the Avant Garden #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
There's also the question of whether you are more interested in still imaging or video. The vast majority of 360 devices are designed as video cameras that also shoot stills. If you're approaching things from the opposite perspective, consider a Ricoh Theta model—video quality isn't great, just 2K, but they're solid options for stills.
Stitching and Editing
Because 360-degree cameras use multiple lenses to capture a scene, video must be stitched together in order to view it. Sometimes this is done in-camera, as with the Nikon KeyMission 360, and other times you'll need to use software to do so, as with the Samsung Gear 360.
Stitching can be a completely painless process, requiring just a little bit of CPU time from your computer or smartphone. But it's important to pay attention to the software. The now-discontinued first version of the Samsung Gear 360 (the new one is a lot better) came along with an absolutely painful software experience that made using an otherwise solid piece of hardware a major drag.
You should be aware that, even with the best models, there can be stitching problems when objects get too close to the camera. You'll have no problem with someone walking right up to the front of a lens, but the same subject getting close to the side may disappear into the ether. There is some overlap between multiple lenses to help blend the two halves of video together, but we've yet to see a device that can do it perfectly in all situations.
Once video is stitched into a flat equirectangular projection, you can edit it just like any other video file. The latest version of Adobe Premiere Pro CC handles 360-degree footage easily, and outputs it in a format that you can upload directly to YouTube or Facebook.
Viewing Footage: Screens and Goggles
The rise of inexpensive VR headsets has certainly driven the desire to capture immersive 360-degree footage you can view in a headset and navigate through by turning your head. It's too early to tell if this method of content consumption is here to stay, or simply a fleeting fad.
Immersive video and images can also be viewed on a traditional screen, be it phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. YouTube and Facebook allow you to embed videos and navigate through them with a mouse, or by tilting your phone in different directions. Facebook also lets you upload 360-degree pictures (YouTube doesn't), but if you want to share them without giving folks access to your Facebook profile, you can use a free hosting service like Vizor.
Right now, most 360 footage is simply viewed in this manner. But a new player is set to enter the arena soon—GoPro. The company has announced its Fusion camera, which records footage at 5.2K quality. One of its big features is something GoPro calls Overcapture. It's an editing tool that turns your 360-degree footage into more traditional flat 16:9 video. The trick is that the software pans around the frame for you, highlighting important parts, and does so using some very slick pans and zooms, all while mixing up speed between standard and slow-motion. We've only seen one demo video so far (embedded above), but to me it's a glimpse into what 360-degree capture can really accomplish as a storytelling tool. We'll have a review of the Fusion when it goes on sale later this year.
You'll notice that none of the cameras here have earned an Editors' Choice nod. We've been close to awarding it to a couple of different models, but each has had a few too many drawbacks to earn top marks. Two have come very close. The Nikon KeyMission 360 delivers strong video, but is pricey and can't be used as a traditional 16:9 action cam. The 2017 version of the Samsung Gear 360 does double as a 16:9 camera and is priced affordably, but is only compatible with Android phones from Samsung, and its iOS app is riddled with bugs, making it a poor choice for iPhone owners.
You may want to wait a little while before jumping into the 360 capture space. But if you're excited about the tech and are willing to be an early adopter, these are the best models we've had the opportunity to test.
Featured 360 Camera Reviews:
Insta360 Air Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Insta360 Air adds 360 degree video to your Android phone for a reasonable price, but is held back by so-so resolution and battery-draining power requirements. Read the full review
Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K is one of the first 360 degree cameras to add 4K support, but resolution is still a problem with the format. Read the full review
Nikon KeyMission 360 Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Nikon KeyMission 360 is the easiest 360-degree camera to use and delivers strong quality video, but the technology is still in its infancy. Read the full review
Ricoh Theta S Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Ricoh Theta S is a 360-degree camera that is capable of capturing still images and smooth video. Read the full review
Ricoh Theta SC Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Ricoh Theta SC camera offers a stills-first approach to 360-degree capture, bucking the trend of competing devices geared more toward video. Read the full review
Samsung Gear 360 (2017) Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Samsung's second version of the Gear 360 improves on the original, delivering better video and a more refined user experience, but the iOS app needs work. Read the full review
Vuze VR Camera Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Vuze VR records 360-degree footage in 3D, but you pay a premium compared with other cameras. Read the full review
360fly 4K Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The 360fly 4K camera promises to deliver crisp video that covers a 360 degree field of view, but the technology itself has a long way to go. Read the full review
Insta360 Nano Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Insta360 Nano is an inexpensive 360-degree video camera, but you'll need an iPhone 6 or newer to edit and share the footage. Read the full review
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By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
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