Interview with Keith Martin, 360 Photography Pioneer


Keith Martin has been a friend and fellow panorama addict for many years now. Originally American and now living in the UK for a very long time, he is a former editor of MacUser magazine, and has been regularly posting on 360-related forums since the beginning of the last decade.

When did you first become obsessed with photography? And what else are you obsessed with, besides photography?

I first became obsessed with photography when I was 15. I took some photography and darkroom classes and I got an SLR for my birthday; a Fujica STX-1. Totally manual, so I quickly learned the intimate relationship between shutter, aperture and ISO (or ASA for me, back then). I couldn’t afford to print all that I wanted to shoot, so I would mostly take shots virtually: set up, compose, evaluate exposure, etc., just not actually press the shutter unless I was absolutely certain. Later I bought a Canon A-1. I had a few digital cameras in the early 2000s, but I didn’t turn from film until I got my first proper digital SLR, the Nikon D70.

Other obsessions? Oh boy – I have quite a few! Typography is a major one; I studied graphic design at university, but I was already obsessed with type when I began that. I researched and wrote a large part of a book called ‘1000 Fonts’ a few years ago – no plot but endlessly interesting for type freaks like me! I enjoy designing for print print, and I’ve been developing multimedia software projects since the beginning of the 1990s, using HyperCard, SuperCard, Director and Revolution/LiveCode. Boy, things have changed a lot since I started all that!
I’m also obsessed with longboarding – that’s big skateboards, not the surfing kind. It’s a regular part of my commute to work, and I launched Thane Magazine to connect it with my other obsessions; print and digital publishing, experimental media, and so on.

How did you discover 360 photography? When was it and what happened next?

I first saw QuickTime VR back around the mid-1990s, with the first CD-ROM demos. I never got my head around MPW but I experimented a little with ‘The VR Worx’ in the early 2000s. This was with scanned slides, negs and prints; the kind of affordable digital cameras back then really weren’t up to the job. It wasn’t until late 2005 when a friend showed me some techniques and swapped one of his pano heads for a mint-condition eMate that I was really hooked. I got myself a 10.5mm fisheye lens for my Nikon D70 and began exploring what was possible at the time with QuickTime VR, Java and early Flash players. I began this chapter of my pano life using Realviz Stitcher but, thankfully, I graduated to PTGui sometime around 2008. I’ve been shooting panoramas constantly since 2005 – always spherical; I never like feeling restricted when I look around a panorama – and I’m always trying to improve.

I particularly like the challenge of exceptionally crazy dynamic environments: festivals, raves and clubs where lasers, smoke, acrobats and dancing people are kicking off all around. That really makes you sharpen your techniques!
I also enjoy the events. Shooting a panorama as a way of interpreting a theme, just for the fun of it, is actually a really good way to make yourself try new ideas, and the WWP itself is a great community-focused project with a lot of history behind it.

Are you a professional or amateur photographer?

I teach publishing and cross-media design full time at university, so my photography is a part-time thing. It’s not my main income but yes, I do professional panorama shoots from time to time. I also shoot for the love of it, and I do pano creation as part of experimental projects with and for friends. However, I am very keen on client work being done only for appropriate payment; anything else harms our industry.

Do you travel much to do your photography?

For commissions, I’ve travelled around the UK (I live in London) for festival shoots, but my panos taken in other countries are almost always done in conjunction with travelling for other reasons; trips to conferences, press events or with my students, and holidays. A couple of years ago I was in discussions with an organisation in the US about doing a big pano shoot over there, but it eventually went to a more local photographer. That was fair enough of course, but it was a shame not to get the gig.

What kind of photography do you like the best? and of what kinds of things?

Spherical panoramic photography. That’s one of my obsessions. I like capturing the feel of a place, particularly with people in it, unless it’s a remote nature scene where people are a distraction. I find panos and regular photos of most spaces to be sterile and boring if there’s no life in the shot – and I particularly like taking this to the extreme with my festival panoramas.

What is your opinion on today’s state of VR? Will VR, as we know it now, hit the Mainstream in the next 12 months?

360 VR imagery (still and video) is becoming properly recognised, if not actually understood, by the mainstream media and the general public. This year will be when Oculus finally releases a product that’s not actually meant for developers. 360 video in particular is starting to really take off, and that’s going to get a lot of attention over the next 12 months.

I don’t know if it’s going to become truly mainstream, but as long as we get past the point where people just say either “oh, like Google Street View?” or “that would be great for real estate sales!” I’ll be happy. What we do is SO much better than either of those things…

Who are some of the interesting companies or people who are getting into VR/ 360 Photography these days?

It was really good to see Ricoh take a bold step into spherical photography with the Theta, and I was even more thrilled to see two new models developed. The Theta m15 and then the Theta S each took the product a little further, adding 360 video and improving the output. It’s still in the general realm of toys in terms of absolute image quality or device control, but it’s the best all-in-one 360 device I’ve seen from a big-name mainstream manufacturer.

In terms of people, it’s very hard to pick out individual names because there are so many people exploring things and helping develop techniques iteratively. There are always interesting presentations at the IVRPA conferences. Your adventures in gigapixel creation have been great to see, of course. Aaron Priest’s time-lapse wilderness panoramas are magical, and I’m delighted that he’s been so good about sharing the details of how he makes them. All I need now is the budget for some of those specialist bits of hardware… 🙂

What is your opinion about 360 Video?

360 video is not something that is perfect for every situation, but when the moment is right – oh boy, it is utterly magical! There are significant challenges to doing this well, and many of the hardware products available through to the end of last year have been as flawed as they have been exciting. Through to the end of last year the closest to a ‘turn-key’ solution was Ricoh’s Theta S, although that’s not really capable of pro-level output or serious control. In terms of products, this year is looking very interesting indeed – but time will tell.

Video is more than just a photographic medium. I’m working with a stop-motion animator (who is also, conveniently, one of my sons) on a 360-degree stop-motion ‘panimation’ project. This has its own set of challenges and things to learn, but that’s what keeps life interesting. When there’s something to show it will be on

Technical production aside, the biggest challenge 360 video poses to film makers is how it affects story telling. The entire history of filmmaking is based on the premise that we, as directors, have perfect control over what the viewer sees; we choose what they look at, and that’s how we tell the story. This new 360-degree form of video media puts the viewer right into a scene more immersively than ever before, but they are free to look where they want, when they want. In 360-degree immersive VR video, directing the viewer’s attention in a non-disruptive manner is hard, and perhaps the basic idea of the single linear storytelling method itself needs to be rethought. We’re at the beginning of a new form of visual story-telling. A new film-making vernacular is needed, and it’s being developed right here, right now. That’s mind-blowing.

As a pioneer in building the equipment that panoramic photographers use, what kind of trends have you noticed in the last years / decade that might not be obvious to other people?

Over the years I’ve seen manufacturers try to come up with cameras and equipment for panorama creation without fully understanding the technical requirements of the medium. At times that’s been quite entertaining, but it’s also frustrating to know that a bit of consultancy with the right people could have turned a forgettable flop into a memorable success.

Within the specialist panoramic photography industry itself, panorama heads have been getting slowly but steadily more precise and better designed. I have an ancient Kaidan QuickPan Pro head (aka ‘the boat anchor’) in my attic that weighs more than my entire pano setup, camera and bag included, does today. Also, despite it being a relatively niche market, robotic heads are becoming affordable; the PanoCatcher is a really interesting new option in this area.

Finally, there’s the sensor megapixel race. For most photographers anything much above 18 megapixels is rarely needed, but for panoramic work more really IS better. When I got my 24MP Nikon D3x I was able to capture complete spherical panoramas with three shots and produce high-resolution final results. That camera is no longer ‘out there’ in resolution terms, so I’ve been eyeing up the 36 megapixel D810 for a while now. Canon’s 50 megapixel 5DS is also superb for pano work, although I would prefer slightly better high-ISO performance.

How do you think our panoramic medium will evolve over the next years or decades?

Oh boy, that’s a tough one. Here’s a thought to work on: for end users of any medium, convenience is by far the most important factor. Follow this thought through and you’ll be able to predict at least a little of how things will work out.

For example, stereo panoramas are fascinating things. They’re challenging to make, but the solvable parts of the equation are being worked out. The problem here is the absolute requirement of a headset viewer or special glasses in order to see the stereo effect. That’s why I think this strand of pano creation, while highly impressive and great in some circumstances, won’t become truly mainstream.

I don’t have the same fears for 360 video, partly because it doesn’t absolutely demand extra viewing hardware to work but also because as a medium it can be exceptionally emotionally involving. The biggest challenge there, as I’ve already said, is more about learning how to adapt film-making and script-writing ideas to the immersive medium.

I’ve enjoyed exploring, training and teaching about panoramic photography for as long as I’ve been shooting it. I hope I can stay abreast of where things are going in the 360 photography and video fields so that I can keep helping others get more involved. I’m a firm believer in sharing tips, tricks and techniques, not hoarding them. When someone becomes better than me through my help I am delighted, and I then try to learn from them. Long term, that’s the only way for both individuals and complete industries to keep growing and improving.

What’s your main panorama gear?

I normally use my Nikon D3x and 10.5mm fisheye lens, and sometimes a 16mm fisheye. Because so many of my shots are in lively locations I’m not much of a gigapixel guy, although maybe one day…
My most-used panorama head is the 360Precision Atome, as it mounts perfectly to my 10.5mm lens, but I use a 360Precision Carbone or a Nodal Ninja pano head when I use a different lens. I recently got a PanoCatcher robotic head for scripted, automated rotation, and I’m finding out what that’s good for and where its limits lie.
For fun I carry a Ricoh Theta S with me most of the time. It’s great for quick and ‘impossible location’ shots, although the quality is nowhere near what my regular equipment produces. It’s also a good way to experiment with 360 video, although, again, the quality could be better.

You can find Keith’s work at:

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