360° Photography

The creative approach to capturing the world around you

Like any other type of photography, 360º requires a combination of technical skill and creative choice. The photograph is always an interpretation of what things look like to the naked eye. In real life, when you turn your head, your brain processes light, depth and focus in a very dynamic way. A truly successful panoramic photograph gives the impression of what we see naturally while revealing the photographer’s impression of it.

Tools and techniques

There are many techniques available for capturing 360º images and video. You probably have the ability to make a panoramic image on your own mobile phone. You can even shop online for a seemingly high spec 360° camera for less than €500. Simply comparing specifications is deceptive. To achieve professional looking results it’s important to understand what the real issues are in shooting high quality 360°.

What is 360º?

Panoramic images wrap around the viewer. They are generally not meant to be seen all at once but framed by a window. Much like the way our eyes take in only part of what surrounds us. It’s usually possible then to rotate your view to look in other directions and see what is normally out of eyeshot.

There are two basic types of 360° image – cylindrical and spherical. Mobile phones often generate cylindrical images where the top and the bottom of the panorama are missing. Spherical panoramas can be stored in a variety of ways – equirectanglar where the sphere is stretched out into a 2×1 image and Cubic where it is cut into flat planes.

Cameras for 360º photography

Instant or Stitched?

There are two very different ways of capturing 360 images – Instantaneously using a camera with more than one lens or by taking a series of photographs and then joining them together seamlessly (Stitching).

If the subject of the photograph is not moving or can be captured over a short period of time then taking a series of photographs is possible. Otherwise a camera with more than one lens is used.

Multi-Lens 360º Cameras

One shot purpose-built 360º cameras are widely available. They can feature anything from 2 to 100 lenses. Usually the process of joining the images that comes from these lenses is done automatically to create a seamless 360° panoramic image. There are some fundamental issues which limit the performance of this sort of cameras. The lens and the sensor that receives the image from the lens are usually much smaller than on a professional SLR camera. The arrangement of the lenses and sensors makes truly accurate 360 images impossible to achieve. In many cases this is not apparent unless the camera is close to objects in the photograph.

When to use an SLR camera

To achieve the highest quality photograph two things are vital – a good lens and a good digital sensor. The quality of these items on a professional single lens reflex camera is far above anything you can find in an all-in-one 360° camera. Not out of failure, but simply because the physical space available on a one-shot camera is much less.

It doesn’t mean, however, that you can use an SLR for 360º photography all the time – in some situations this isn’t possible. For example when there isn’t enough space to put the camera in position or when the subject of the photograph is moving quickly. In the situations we will use a multiple lens one-shot 360º camera. It provides a relatively high resolution but the possibilities for postproduction are limited.

360º Video

Capturing moving images in 360° is usually only possible with a multi lens camera. There are a wide range of 360 video cameras that can offer very high resolution. This is usually achieved by having many lenses and sensors in the same camera. These hi-res cameras are very effective for outdoor photography but quite limited when the subject of the photograph is very close because problems will begin to appear in the stitching of the separate images.

The other issue which is very important with 360 video is how to watch it. Streaming high resolution 360 video is hugely data intensive. It requires a very powerful computer or a very wide bandwidth. Currently YouTube maximum resolution is 4K. So watching any higher resolution video online is not really available to mainstream users.

Shooting 360º

Shooting on location in 360° is unlike standard photo shoots. One of the main differences is that adding extra lighting is not normally a possibility because the lights themselves would be visible in the shot. Also it’s usually better to have a continuous look from one POV to the next. Windows and darker interior areas etc. can be quite problematic visually and things need to be evened out so it’s often wise to photograph in high dynamic range HDR. This means taking a series of different exposures from each angle so that you can deal with big differences of light and dark in post-production.

Capturing the environment

360º with a single lens camera

Using a full format digital camera to capture high quality images requires a number of steps. We shoot a series of high resolution images from exactly the same position but a different rotation. Normally this means four directions at 90° to each other. Each one of those angles will often be bracketed for different light levels, so in effect one panoramic image can be made from 20 still images or more.

One-shot wonders

Sometimes it’s very tricky to fit the camera into the space. For example, inside a closed compartment. In these situations, the one shot camera is a good replacement for the SLR. There is some reduction in quality, but the shots that you can achieve can be very interesting. It is sometimes a challenge however to get artificial lighting into dark environments because when you shoot 360, you can see everything. We use a series of special lights, which either look natural or hide directly beneath the camera.

Post production

Often what makes a photograph look really professional is post processing – how the originally captured image is digitally enhanced to improve its appearance, or give it a particular stylistic tone. This is both a creative and a technical challenge which requires intention, experience and specialised digital tool sets.

In the case of 360º there is the added challenge of seemlessly stitching together images and ensuring that nothing looks either too dark or too bright as the viewpoint rotates.

Stitching images together

Any 360° photograph is made from more than one image which has been joined together. The process of joining images together and blending the overlapping areas is called stitching.

If you take a photograph, keep the focal point in exactly the same position  and rotate your camera in theory the overlapping elements will blend perfectly together. The reality is that lenses are not perfect and any minor distortions will create blending issues which need to be corrected.

Even the tools for blending and stitching images have become more intelligent over the past 10 years, what’s really important is the source material. These images below show for 90° views which are stitched together to make the image underneath.

Colour grading

The colour of the light in a photograph affects the way the colour of the objects in the space appears. Electric lights have a yellow colour to them while daylight is slightly blue. Our brains are excellent at appreciating the colour of light so that we can tell the real colour of objects that we see.

Although it takes a lot of high-powered kit to grade images at this very high resolution the challenge to make colours look real and also to add creative styling to them is what makes professional photographers into creative interpreters of the subjects they record. Below is an example of how the  untreated image differs from what what was finally used in the Insite.  

Stitched Graded
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