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)

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

 

First Impressions

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.

 

Example Images

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!

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:

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.

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.

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

 

Storage

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!).

Cost

The Theta 360 will cost $399 when it goes on the market next month (October 2013) in North America and Europe.

 

Conclusions

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.

 

23 Comments

  1. Keith Martin says:

    Interesting, very. How about some specifics? Resolution of output? Guide price level? Does it use memory cards or does it have built-in memory? Can shots be taken without it being held in someone’s hand? And for the pano professionals and geeks, what does it actually output?

  2. Emaad says:

    it seems like its first of see behind lens in digital era Just like Nikon 8mm lens.

    will be great for panoramas as well.

  3. Mark Fink says:

    What I hope this does is to make VR images more mainstream and accepted by the general public. Then, they might become more desired or even required by the general public for web sites that they visit. Maybe, just maybe, it will help create more business for us VR photographers.

  4. Dennis says:

    I read the specs online. Has only enough battery life for ‘approximately’ 200 pics?

  5. Carl von Einem says:

    Hi Jeff,

    you state that “…this camera can produce 360° photos that don’t have any “stitching errors”…” but cobble stones are unforgiving as we can see in your example with the rose petals.

    Other than that it’s an interesting device to quickly deliver layout dummies, e.g. lo res panoramic tours.

  6. Florian Knorn says:

    A truly game-changing camera. Thank you for this extensive review, and coming from you (rather than some DPReview journalist) gives this test three times the weight. Also, fantastic ideas already how to put it through its paces :-)

    Now, give me access to RAWs from this baby, and video, and I’m all sold. Just kidding, it’s a 1.0 and an incredible one at that, so no bickering about ;-)

  7. Bill Edwards says:

    I agree with Florian – a game changer! Certainly a very compelling item for someone who wants to travel light and just wants a visual record of their trip. I’ve been hauling 10 pounds of camera gear into the mountains to make 360′s at fire lookouts and such and while it’s a production to get set up and get it right I think it’s been worth it because of the quality. And now… just imagine if you are a technical alpine climber, or an aerobatic pilot, or a whitewater kayaker, the possibilities are wide open. It will be to 360′s as the GoPro Hero is to outdoor adventure video. Very tempting. Can’t wait for a high resolution version.

  8. Joe says:

    Very cool– It seems like a short step to 360 video. How cool would it be to watch a video in which you could look around in any direction you wanted?

    Of course, better resolution has to be a priority for Ricoh. I’m a little suprised they would release this with the resolution it currently captures. With camera phones and GoPros making beautiful high resolution images these days, the Theta’s picture quality is glaringly poor.

    Our old-timey ways with DSLRs have the edge for the moment, but it is clear that our time will soon pass. . .

  9. Geoffrey says:

    I have to agree with Joe, the picture quality is painfully bad. Any grainier and I’d plant it and wait for wheat to sprout. Also, not excited about the proprietary image hosting solution. All things considered, I’ll stick with traditional DSLR solutions or even Google’s PhotoSphere.

  10. Jeffrey Martin says:

    Hi Joe and Geoffrey,

    I think the camera has 2x 5MP sensors – that’s my guess from the image size.

    Squeezing such image quality out of lenses like this is difficult, and it’s a question of economics. If they sold a $2000 camera like this then of course it could have 4x the resolution (but maybe also be significantly larger, with larger lenses)

    And really, let’s be honest – image resolution is not the primary feature. Instagram proved that once and for all. Plus, I think this camera is being marketed towards primarily mobile use, which (like Instagram) is more forgiving towards low resolution.

    That said, I also want higher resolution, of course :)

    cheers.

  11. Charles says:

    Your camera was mentioned on Reddit which lead me here. I just finished looking at your sample photos with the Oculus Rift (3D virtual reality goggles http://www.oculusvr.com) using VR Player (vrplayer.codeplex.com/) in the spherical view. Wow! Aside from looking into that one guy’s mouth it was a good experience on par with when I use Google Street View with the Rift. Only problem I had was trying to orient a few of the photos you took at an angle such as the pizza eating photo and one near a street lamp and a group of people. The ones where the camera was vertical posed no orientation problems. Obviously the resolution is low given it’s spread of a 110 degree field of view, but I’m sure that will only improve in time.

    When the consumer version of the Oculus Rift goes on sale next year cameras like yours are going to be in big demand. Hopefully you have access to a Rift developer kit so you can see how cool your photos from that camera look when used with it.

    My questions: are you looking to develop stereoscopic 3D 360 degree photos with your cameras? I personally don’t think they’re important given the illusion of depth 360 degree photos already offer. Also, will you be developing a video feed version of your camera?

  12. Charles says:

    Doh! You’re a reviewer, not a developer. Sorry. Hopefully you’ll be able to check out your photos on a rift or some other type of VR headset.

  13. Ignite Images says:

    I really like this.

    Think I’ll get one to add to my camera collection

  14. Hardi says:

    How can I make these?

  15. Sergey says:

    Veri nice think about stereo and 360 panoraming, only trouble – with panoraming rotation makes over nodal point of lens. If we hawe 2 nodal point in each lens (in head :) )- we have permanent change parallacs. Only rotation stereocamera with 2 objectivs can make real “human” stereopanorama for all 360 degrees.

  16. John says:

    Very cool. I really hope this will not be the end of high quality panoramas though. There’s a risk that people won’t know or bother with the difference between a one-second panorama and a painstaking high-resolution focus stacked HDR panorama with hours of shooting and days of processing. Anyway, I want one too!

  17. John Willetts says:

    Fascinating. It’s revitalising my interest in panoramic photography. It could be as revolutionary as the GoPro.

    The concerns are lack of Android support and quality.

    What would 360 Cities attitude be towards accepting pictures taken in bright sunlight?

  18. John Willetts says:

    I’ve just taken a look at Jeff’s full sun image in NX2. CA is minimal and easily corrected. Exposure/ lighting/ colour are easily tweaked and a touch of sharpening really makes it sparkle.

    I did notice a strange thing at the Nadir. A slice had been taken out of Jeff’s hand. An interesting camera management challenge.

  19. Keith Martin says:

    Having spend some hands-on time with a Theta I totally agree with Jeffrey’s view: this thing is magical and fun! It makes previously impossible shots actually easy. It was really tough giving it back, dammit.

    I don’t see this as the entire future for panoramic photography, but it is going to be an important part of where we go from here. Traditional methods aren’t obsolete; rather, we have a whole new bag of tricks as well!

    Seriously exciting stuff. Ricoh, I take my hat off to you. :)

  20. Yasin Koçan says:

    Dropbox uncropped / unretouched sample photos links are not working. Can you send me the link of the photos again or is it possible for you to upload them again?
    I’ll be glad!

  21. Frank says:

    Dear Jeffrey,

    thank you very much for your thorough review and the excellent images! Could you pretty please either upload the samples again or send them to me via e-mail?

    I’m still looking for a panoramic one-shot-camera that I can use for some of my reportage jobs. (I did some tests with a roundshot robot, which did work quite well but a) was quite an attention grabbing show that confused my subjects and b) took 4 shots with a 14mm lens. (Not even mentioning all the set-up and postproduction hassle)

    Also, as you did not embed the panoramic shots on this site: Have you seen:
    http://panoramicearth.com/news/ricohtheta360.html ? It appears that you actually can embed the Theta’s images with krpano… Or do you have any other information about this issue?

    Regards
    Frank

  22. x says:

    “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)” yes,, can be reoriented in ptguipro…just insert roll value in the numerical transform in panorama editor to straighten the equirectangular…that means that it´s possible to hold the Theta the way you like….and yes..the result image is a plain equirectangular..so krpano is possible..also hdr playing with different exposure times and the nadir post edition…a whole rocket pocket

  23. Rigo says:

    Can you set the camera in some sort of time-lapse mode?? so it can take a picture every 2 or 3 seconds??