360 Photography Guide
I started to play with 360° Photography around five years ago when I created a project called Funky Frankwell to promote small businesses in the Frankwell district of Shrewsbury. To differentiate the project I created 360° images and in some cases virtual tours of each business so that viewers could take a look and explore from the comfort of their homes.
The project was successful, featured on local radio and generated a fair amount of commissions locally and nationally. Consequently, I decided to create an up to date, comprehensive 360 Photography Guide.
Hardware for 360 Photography
Cameras, Tripods, Monopods, Extension Poles can all be used for 360° Photography. Even drones. Minimally, you’ll need a solid tripod and a camera with a fisheye lens.
Single Shot Cameras
There has been an explosion of 360° capable cameras in recent years, including the Insta360 One X and One R, Ricoh Theta Z1, Kandao Qoocam, Garmin VIRB 360 and GoPro Max. All of these feature two sensors and two 180°+ fisheye lenses enabling a single shot to produce two images that combined produce a perfectly spherical single image.
I have used the Insta 360 One X extensively and although the specs are not quite as good as the Ricoh Theta or the GoPro Max, it is a very capable camera, with software that does a decent job of stitching and outputs usable web usable jpeg images. If your requirement is for web use only, vlogs, and social media then any one of these cameras will do the job.
DSLR + Lens
If you are looking for a hi-res solution that will bear close inspection then there is still no camera that beats a high-end DSL or Mirrorless solution. Unfortunately, this solution though it creates wonderful images, depends on a fair amount of specialist hardware and software to deliver the end results.
A DSLR or mirrorless camera equipped with a fisheye lens is capable of capturing in a minimum of five shots a 360° rendering of a scene. A fisheye lens will cover 180° of its surroundings so if it is arranged with a slight tilt upwards and rotated around the no-parallax point it will cover the sides and ceiling (zenith) of the shot, leaving only the floor under the tripod (nadir) unexposed. Such an arrangement will give you the images you need to produce a gigapixel panorama with outstanding detail.
I use a Canon 5D Mk IV with a Canon EOS 8-15mm f/4.0 L fisheye lens. If I go for the standard four around and one down shot sequence I set the aperture to a minimum of 12mm to generate shots that overlap and provide great detail. The overlap is essential in 360° photography to give some flexibility in stitching. For example to remove blemishes or unwanted objects that fall into that space – a person walking thoroughly the frame.
Remember that you will be sticking multiple shots together so it is absolutely vital that your camera doesn’t shift while it is rotated. For single-shot cameras, a lightweight monopod like the Bushman Monopod is ideal. For a DSLR, you need a heavyweight tripod, I use my Giottos which is rock steady.
You will read accounts of 360 photography being done handheld. Frankly, don’t waste your time. It’s not just difficult, it’s a nightmare of badly aligned images and hours of photoshop correction.
Tripod Heads and Levellers
There are three specialist tripod heads that I’ve used and two that I’d recommend.
The first, the Manfrotto 303SPH is a beast of a head. Heavy but beautifully engineered, it is perfect for high-resolution imagery when paired with a Manfrotto 338 levelling head and a rock-solid tripod. Pragmatically, I prefer to use the lighter Nodal Ninja heads manufactured by Fanotec in combination with a Fanotec levelling head. The Manfrotto gear is world-class but requires a sherpa to move it from location to. location!
Nodal Ninja supply two excellent heads. First, the Nodal Ninja UR20 / RM4 / Ring mount bundle which is designed for the Google Trusted Photographers Business View program is a straightforward, pre-calibrated mount that is provided in lens-specific varieties. This is important because the specific mount for the Canon 8-15mm lens includes a stop plate designed to fix that mount at the no-parallax point. This is an excellent set-up suitable for all but the most detailed work.
The second head that Nodal Ninja offer is the NN6 with RD10 Rotator Base. This setup allows the use of lenses up to 200mm focal length to shoot immensely detailed multi-row gigapixel panoramas. The no-parallax point has to be set up manually and the number of images calculated for every lens.
If your tripod is not fitted with a spirit level, then you can use the Fanotec EZ Leveller, a lightweight attachment with three points of adjustment that is fitted between the tripod and head. Use this to calibrate a completely level platform for the camera.
The No-Parallax Point
If you hold a finger to the horizon and move your head, you will see the horizon “move” behind the finger. This is what is meant by parallax, where your finger is the lens and the sensor your eye. Since we need to rotate the camera it is important that the rotation is done around what is called the no-parallax point which lies somewhere between the sensor and the glass so that the images can be stitched seamlessly together. This point will differ with every combination of lens and camera. If you don’t get it right, the images you shoot will not fit together without extensive photoshop work.
How Many Images Make a Panorama?
The Panorama Shot Calculator hosted by the Panosociety is a table where you look up the lens and sensor information in a spreadsheet.
You can also calculate the images manually. This formula comes from Arnaud Frich’s Panoramic Photo Guide which was my go-to website for information on the subject when I started learning about panoramas.
You should factor in a large overlap in the panoramas to give you flexibility in editing. These calculations allow for roughly 30% overlap.
The calculation is based on the following formula N = F / ( 70 / 100 × HFOV)
N = number of images to shoot;
F = field of view of the panorama;
(70/100 = only 70% of the photo is effective since 30% is used in the overlap between neighbouring images).
HFOV = field of view of the lens. This field of view is the real field of view of the lens. It will be smaller if the camera is in a vertical position (portrait mode), larger if the camera is placed horizontally (landscape mode).
|Field of view/
8 mm FE – Circ.
2 or 3
15/16 mm FE/FF
6 + Z + N
2 x 8 + Z + N
12 to 18
2 x 8 + Z + N
2 x 10 + Z + N
4 x 15 + Z + N
6 x 18 + Z + N
Photographing the Nadir and the Zenith
When you shoot around a central position, the nadir is the spot under the tripod and the zenith is the spot immediately above the tripod. To get a full 360° image both need to be photographed.
Using a Fisheye lens the usual practice is to tilt the lens slightly upwards so that the zenith is included in the shot at the expense of a slightly wider circle extending to almost to the tripod legs. With the NNN UR20 this capability is baked in.
There are a number of methods of photographing the Nadir. I normally place a coin directly under the tripod column and use that to mark the centre of an extra shot taken from the same height as the horizontal shots. This will give you an image that will seamlessly stitch into the panorama, removing the tripod completely.
It’s worth noting that the NN6 can be bought with a Nadir Adapter that simply rotates allowing the camera to be pointed directly down. Move the tripod so that the camera is pointing at the centre of the spot and take the picture. This shot will have around 85% overall so don’t worry about getting your feet and the tripod in the edge of the frame, you only need a circle of less than a metre diameter for the final image.
360° Image Processing Workflow
As far as I am aware, outside the realm of the one-shot camera there is no all in one processing solution to take you from image to stitched panorama in one step. Individual applications such as PTGui extend their functionality towards HDR but don’t deliver the fine level of control that is needed to deliver outstanding 360° images. The extended functionality is still useful though in applying a uniform look to all the images that make up the panorama.
My workflow looks like this:
- Shoot bracketed exposures (3 or 5) for each point around the circle (four if I’m using the NN UR20 head)
- Shoot bracketed exposures for the Nadir
- Combine the bracketed exposures to create a single image with maximum dynamic range (I use Lightroom) This leaves you with five HDR images
- Combine the five images using PTGui
- Repeat for all locations in the Virtual Tour
- Using the panoramas exported from PTGui, build a Virtual Tour in Pano2VR or 3DVista
- Deploy to Amazon S3 so that you can embed it on websites.
If you’re using a hosting service such as Kuula or CloudPano you can skip steps 6 and 7.
Grading the Individual Images
I prefer to grade each individual image before I take it into the stitching phase. Typically I’ll shoot five bracketed shots at each stage of the rotation so that I have a good dynamic range. So for a typical 4 round one down panorama I’ll shoot 25 images.
I’ll combine the bracketed shots in Lightroom. The aim here is to get a natural-looking image with a good dynamic range. I remove any chromatic aberration here too. Fisheye lenses are notoriously good at introducing CA, so use the Loupe to examine the edges of anything that’s shot against a light background. The green and purple fringes are chromatic aberrations and they can be banished in a single tick box in the Lens Correction panel in Lightroom.
Once I’ve merged the bracketed shots if I’m happy with the result and only when I am certain I don’t need to revisit the process I’ll delete the originals – these files are big and storage isn’t free! Export the tif full size to a directory you can easily find. Your next step is to use the Panorama Stitching software.
The tools I’m going to discuss here are the tools I use most frequently. Check out my previous article on Panoramic Processing Software.
Panorama Stitching Software
There really is only one contender in this market. I have been using PTGui for many years and it just continues to improve.
The stitching engine is the best and most accurate that I’ve seen. The Panorama editor (pictured here) allows for sophisticated transforms to be applied in near real-time. Pretty much the industry standard these days.
Virtual Tour Software
When you have more than one panorama for a location, you can combine them into a Virtual Tour.
Much loved by estate agents, Matterport should be avoided by serious photographers. The one thing it does well is the creation of floor plans. Other than that it uses cheap cameras, ignores the nadir entirely (look at the floor of the next estate agent produced property tour you see) and other than ease of use, insists on stitching and hosting the panoramas for a fee. It is a proprietary system that allows you no flexibility or ownership.
Not as sophisticated as Matterport, Pano2VR is nonetheless an excellent, affordable Virtual Tour software. It is extensible in terms of the skins it uses to house the virtual tour, but you need to know some elementary code to make good use of this feature.
3D Vista is probably the most well-featured software available for creating really well-featured virtual tours. A beautifully intuitive interface it also supports time-lapse tours, a feature that allows you to have day change seamlessly to night, which is jaw droopingly effective. It also supports video in popups and embedded in the tour – so it’s perfectly possible to shoot a TC showroom and have TV shows playing on the TVs. One note of warning, The Stitching software supplied with the Virtual Tour editor is woeful. It is designed for specific camera setups and is inadequate for all of the use cases in this article. That being said, it’s a free add on.
Hosting Virtual Tours
Because the images are so large, serving a virtual tour is complex. The images are broken down into panes so that the host is serving lots of tiny images rather than a few huge images. This allows the tour to resolve quickly on a web page but creates hundreds of iNodes in the server environment. If iNodes are a feature of your hosting contract then this will become a problem.
Hosting is another area where the industry is settling around two solutions. Self-hosting and Hosting as a Service. I now host all of my own tours as I don’t see Virtual Tours as a central plank of my business. Other people use the Hosting as a Service provider as a white-labelled host so that they can sell the hosting as well as the photography. This comes at a price though and different providers offer different features. You cannot at this point migrate a tour from one host to another because you build the links between panoramas inside of the hosting environment.
If you want to leverage the power of 3DVista or Pano2VR, and have the ability to serve the tours from anywhere, you should consider Amazon. I have written an exhaustive and detailed guide to setting up a website using Amazon S3 and CloudFront.. Best of all, if you are a moderate to small user it costs nothing. I have over twenty panoramas hosted with Amazon and the service is outstanding.
Hosting as a Service
If I had to choose hosting as a service I’d choose Kuula without a shadow of a doubt. I still maintain a free account there. This is an image I made of Rosie’s Emporium for the Funky Frankwell project, this particular image has had over 14,000 views on Kuula.
The next best host in my opinion is Cloudpano very heavily focused on the Real Estate industry it has been around for nearly as long as Kuula and offers a good stable platform.
360 Photography is a niche that used to be prohibitively expensive but is now much more accessible. In terms of making a career at it if you’re in the UK it’s a tough market, Estate Agents pay buttons. I made it work by taking an entrepreneurial attitude and raising the money for the website from the businesses involved. The figures three years down the line are interesting – I used to submit tours to Google Street View and have amassed 1.17 million views to date. 340,000 of those views are businesses featured on the Funky Frankwell website. So there is a business case to be made.
Thanks for reading this far, if you’re interested, check out What Makes a Good Photographer on the blog.
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