I am one of the lucky people to have received a Ricoh Theta 360 Camera for testing before its global release next month.
Portrait of the beautiful Theta 360 Camera (next to a glass of tasty Czech beer for scale). Click image to open on Instagram
If you haven’t seen the Theta 360 before, this camera is something totally new: it makes completely spherical photos via two back-to-back fisheye lenses which are separated by only a few millimeters. The camera is tiny and very easy to use (it really has only one button). There are no errors in the image, and no post processing of any kind is necessary.
[Edit: as some fellow panoramic photography experts have pointed out, there are sometimes a few small errors in images with subject matter less than ~ 5-10cm away - still, I am extremely impressed and sometimes shocked with how well this camera creates 360 photos!]
You can literally capture a whole place, everything around you, at one instant. This allows photographers to easily take photos that have never been possible before. Until now, to make a fully spherical image, it has been necessary to combine multiple shots and then join them together afterwards (there are also 360 mirrors, but they are universally terrible quality, and don’t make a spherical image)
Unboxing and Short Review Video
My very first reaction when I saw a picture of this camera was, “This thing is only a mockup, it’s fake, it can’t be real! It’s too thin!” The device just seemed impossibly small and thin. I know enough about optics to see that there is something strange going on with this camera. Turns out, I was correct that fisheye lenses can’t be so short. The folks at Ricoh have done some amazing tricks to pack these two lenses so close to each other. I won’t bore you with the details – suffice to say, there has never been a camera like this before. What does it mean that the lenses are so close together? It means that this camera can produce 360° photos that don’t have any “stitching errors” – parts of the photo with broken lines or other discontinuities – even with pictures of things that are nearly touching the lens!
Setting up the Camera
Currently the camera comes with a companion iPhone app which you can use to remotely trigger the camera. This extremely important if you don’t want every picture you take to be a self-portrait, with your hand as the largest feature in the picture. Additionally, it is important to find some kind of lightweight monopod (luckily I already have something very similar to this one. It works perfectly, although the base of the monopod that attaches to the camera is a little bit too big, and it shows in the image; I will trim it down later).
The iPhone app installs without any issues. Then you turn on the camera. Go to “settings” on your iPhone, and find the Wifi network that the camera is making (it’s called THETA). Join the wifi network. You’ll need to enter a password the first time you do this. I had no issues with this at all, and afterwards the iPhone connects to the camera automatically.
Once you have paired you iPhone and your Theta, you can put the Theta somewhere else (up to 10 meters away or so) and use your iphone to take the picture. After you take the picture, the Theta sends the 360 panorama to your iphone an you can see it! This is really quite magical.
I only had a few small hiccups with the iPhone and Theta. Sometimes the connection dropped when taking the first picture, but after that it performed flawlessly. I expect that it will become more robust with future updates of the app and the firmware.
I’m told that the Theta app will be available on Android by the end of the year.
While triggering the camera remotely and then seeing the result on my smartphone was magical, it did feel a little bit cumbersome at times. I wished for a more tiny wireless remote that doesn’t require a smartphone. Accessories like this, and the monopod, I would not be surprised to see from Ricoh in the future (just as GoPro makes most of their money from accessories rather than the camera itself)
One killer feature of the Theta 360 is that it has a built-in orientation sensor, which senses which direction is “up” in your panoramas. So no matter which way you point the camera – upside down, sideways, and so on – your photos will always be oriented in the right way. This is something that has always been a problem for 360 photographers, and with this camera, you would never know that it is an issue.
Click each image to open the interactive version on the Theta 360 site.
Be sure to SCROLL (or use the on-screen zoom buttons) to zoom in and out!
This is a perspective that I have never seen before in a photo. Click the image to open the interactive version.
This photo was shot by placing the camera directly against the surface of my LCD monitor. You can see the white wedge-shaped thing just to the left of the monitor – that is the Theta 360 camera. The black part around it is my monopod.
This is one of my favorite pictures that I’ve shot so far with the Theta 360. It is shot inside a 30 liter bucket. Shots like this aren’t really possible by any other means. Even with extensive panoramic photography experience, a shot like this might take many hours of post-production. With this camera, you can do it in one click and see the result a few seconds later. How fun!
How many photos of the Astronomical Clock at Prague Old Town Square are shot every day? None of them look as cool as this.
There are frequently weddings held in the chapel at Old Town Square. Here are the leftovers from one wedding – rose petals on the ground.
Notice that this camera has everything in focus. The nearest rose petals in the image are just a couple of inches away.
I was walking through Prague Castle with Jim Watters who remarked, “Hmm, I wonder if the camera will fit through there?” Well, there was only one way to find out. And yes, it did! Try fitting your SLR through that fence!
Another “camera on end of a long stick, fitting through through the small holes” picture, this time on Charles Bridge:
I have always been a fan of “tower panoramas”. While these aren’t quite as high resolution of some of my other efforts, these pictures take about 1 second to shoot and process, while my other large images take a few months of work. This is not a real comparison of course, but it is still something to think about.
Having a vantage point that is just millimeters from the ground can result in some stunning effects.
The camera has an orientation sensor built in, which allows the software to orient the panorama, no matter which way you are holding the camera.
Of all the small spaces, I thought it would be fun to see if the camera fits inside a beer glass (while I’m drinking the beer). It works quite well.
Image Quality, Size, Format
The camera “stitches” the two fisheye images (which are captured by two different sensors) immediately after the picture is taken. This single panorama is 3584 x 1792 pixels. It is a 2:1 aspect “equirectangular” projection, which makes it easy to manipulate or publish using other panoramic imaging software.
Note for hardcore panorama photographers: the orientation of the image does not seem to be currently accessible, so if you want to publish this panorama somewhere besides the Theta360 site, you’ll have to either shoot your images with the camera pointing straight, or re-orient them somehow)
The image quality shows the usual signs of a very small sensor. In normal daylight the image quality is good. In low light, image quality begins to suffer.
The dynamic range is decent. The automatic exposure usually picks the correct exposure, and the camera does a good job of compressing the dynamic range of the entire scene so that both clouds and land are visible.
If you want to play around with some uncropped / unretouched sample photos, you can try these:
overcast daylight example
direct sunlight example
sunny day / shade example
low light example
very low light example
interior low light example
The Theta 360 has 4GB of internal storage, which seems to be enough for thousands of panoramas – each panorama is around 2.5MB.
When you plug the Theta 360 into a Windows PC, there is a folder accessible with all the images. On a Mac, I was not able to access this disk (although Dropbox did, and it let me import the pictures!).
The Theta 360 will cost $399 when it goes on the market next month (October 2013) in North America and Europe.
My overall honest opinion of the camera: it is an extremely fun device, and for a version 1.0 device it is overall very polished and with very few bugs. With time, as with any other new kind of camera, the price will come down, resolution will go up, and there will be plenty of accessories to make using this camera more easy and fun.
This camera is something that is truly new: you can make images with this that were never possible before, even for the most talented panoramic photographer and days of post processing.
It is still missing a few crucial features to guarantee that it will be a “home run”. But if Ricoh is as smart as they have been so far, I think that the future of photography has taken a very, very interesting turn.