360 Cameras are here to stay – but are they good enough for virtual tours?
360 Cameras, such as the Samsung Gear 360, have been making a huge splash of late; the market has gotten big enough that players like Nikon and Samsung have released their own models. Naturally, I’ve had a lot of people asking if these cameras are suitable for shooting virtual tours. The short answer is ‘yes,’ but the long answer is ‘it depends.’ The decision to use either a traditional setup (with a DSLR, fisheye lens and pano head) or a 360 camera is going to depend entirely on the purpose of your shoot and/or your clients’ needs.
What is a 360 camera?
360 Cameras are built by combining multiple lenses and sensors into a single unit, which allows you to capture a full 360-degree video or image with the click of a button. There are quite a few options on the market, with price points ranging from $300 to $800. The cameras are usually fully automatic – including the stitching – and shoot in 4k resolution.
What’s the Catch?
If you shoot virtual tours, these cameras can seem like a godsend. In an instant you can capture a full 360 panorama with no stitching required – and on top of that, they’re cheaper and lighter than a traditional 360 photography rig. However, these 360 cameras do come with a few sacrifices, which may be deal breakers depending on your application. I’ve listed the primary issues below:
- Image Quality: The 360 cameras’ image quality is visibly poorer than that of the DSLRs. The color depth and dynamic range are similar what you’d expect from smartphone camera, which doesn’t hold a candle to the average DSLR’s image sensor. The lenses on the 360 cameras deal poorly with flaring from bright lights, as well as purple fringing on edges.
- Stitching Errors: The multiple-camera nature of 360 cameras means that there will be some stitching errors, and no software will be able to fully correct for that. However, most of the stitching errors seem to be visible only on objects that are close to the camera. If you are photographing in the middle of a room, you may not even notice an issue.
- No Manual Controls: Most 360 cameras are fully automatic, so you have no control over your exposure, white balance or any settings. This makes HDR shots difficult, because you cannot manually bracket. It will also negatively affect your image quality in dark rooms; whereas with a manual camera you would be able to shoot with a long shutter speed in low light, the fully auto camera will compensate by pushing the ISO higher.
- No Fully Immersive: You’re unable to get a view of the nadir (ground) with a 360 camera.
Is it Good Enough for Me?
360 cameras have a lot to offer for people looking to make simple virtual tours. The images will be ‘good enough’ for most applications. Real estate agents who want to give decent 360 views of their listings will definitely be satisfied with the quality of today’s 360 cameras. However, if you are a professional photographer hired by a large hotel or country club, for example, a 360 camera will not be adequate. You’ll need to stick to the heavy, expensive, post-processing intensive traditional method of creating 360 images. Sorry!