360-degree Photography Guide (Ricoh Theta S)
I took the Ricoh Theta S all around Hong Kong and Guangzhou for the holidays. The Ricoh Theta S is a freshly released camera featuring two 180-degree wide-angle lens that can take 360-degree (equirectangular) photos with a single exposure or button press, opening up immersive 360-degree photography to the masses. With most familiar only with flat 2D photography, there is a completely different workflow to adapt to. Taking the Theta to the streets of Mong Kok, the most population-dense area and literally the busiest district in the world, here is what I learned about 360-degree shooting workflow and composition.
About the Ricoh Theta S
The Ricoh Theta S is the successor to the Ricoh Theta, featuring improvements across the board just crossing the line of producing usable images. Quick rundown of the technical specs:
- Two 180-degree fisheye lens (f2)
- 12-megapixel JPEG images (4200x2800)
- Remote connectivity through Wi-Fi with Android and iOS app
- Manual exposure capability (though aperture is fixed at f2)
- Low quality video capability including audio (30fps, upscaled 1920x1080)
It retails at $350. Given the specs, it is an expensive toy for enthusiasts and early adopters
Here's what I learned about shooting the camera itself, the physical aspects.
Remote Shutter is Mandatory
If you handhold the camera, your hand will be very prominent on the lower half of the 360-degree image. The shutter button is situated underneath the lens, and there is no way to hide your hand while pressing the button. Unfortunately, the Theta S does not have a built-in timer capability.
So you must use the Android or iOS apps (linked above) to trigger the shutter remotely. Install the app, make sure Wi-Fi is not switched off on the camera, connect to the camera via Wi-Fi (the password is on the bottom of the camera), and launch the app. You can get a (choppy) live view of the image from the app as well.
Tripod is Mandatory
We can shooting remotely, but we need a tripod to hold the camera without filling up the shot. The Theta can stand up by itself, but placing it on a flat surface will cause the surface to take up a lot of the shot. A tripod, being a stick, won't take up as much room.
It also allows complete freedom to compose the shot. And it allows us to hold the camera well above head-level.
I use the Sony VCT-R100 Tripod. It's cheap, lightweight, very adjustable, and folds up small enough to fit comfortably into a messenger bag. The pan handle is also useful as a hook to carry the tripod around hands-free. It's useful for holding above head or placing on the ground.
For a tripod purely for walkaround street photography, I'd also consider the Pedco Ultrapod II, to be very discreet. Although it is less versatile than having a tripod that can go to full height.
The Theta has auto, shutter priority, ISO priority, and manual modes. The aperture is fixed at f2. I switch between shutter speed and ISO priority depending on the situation.
I mainly shoot ISO priority as it leaves less guesswork. During the day, I might use about 200-400 ISO just to make sure I get a good shutter speed. During the night, if the scene had no moving subjects and the camera was on a stable tripod, I might use ISO 100 to get reduce noise.
Shooting shutter speed priority has bitten me. During the day, I tried to set 1/80 maximum shutter speed and everything was blown out. It's hard to guess what the minimum shutter speed is so using ISO priority at a low setting ensures getting that minimum shutter speed.
Review Images Often
There is less instant feedback when shooting with the Theta since there is no LCD on the camera. Images must be transferred over Wi-Fi which can take several seconds. And using the app, it is often too much of a hassle to go to image viewing mode and then back to shooting mode.
But every once in a while, make sure to chimp on your images to make sure the exposure settings are correct. Especially when learning to use the camera, it also helps to check if the composition looks good. It can be surprising with the wide-angle lens how much it stretches perspective.
I found some tips on handling the Theta you will want to know about:
- The Theta goes to sleep after a while. The LED above the shutter will blink. To wake it up, just press the shutter button.
- The Wi-Fi server on the camera takes a few seconds to boot up. So try to leave it on while you are shooting or carrying it around. This probably affects battery life, so bring along some USB battery packs. The Theta might last only about half a day.
- Just turn off live view in shooting mode. Turning it off reduces shutter lag, probably saves battery life, and the feed is too choppy and grainy to be useful anyways.
- The app will also sometimes become unresponsive so you will have to restart it.
- Turning on noise reduction immensely improves image quality.
- Keep the cover on when not in use. It's bound to get scratched or dropped.
- Don't seriously use the video function. 30FPS at less-than-HD quality is pretty useless for consumption.
Shooting Alongside a Regular Camera
If you're out on a shoot, you will probably still want to pack your regular camera alongside the Theta. It will be difficult to wield your regular camera along with a tripod with the Theta attached.
I heavily recommend the Capture Camera Clip. The Capture allows you to holster the camera on a belt or strap. This allows you to carry a camera hands-free when not in use, without any annoying camera straps. It's secure; I carry my Pentax K3 on my hip even in tight subways in China without worrying about getting it swiped.
I also recommend getting a tripod head with a quick-release plate. With the Theta on a quick release plate, and the Capture being compatible with quick-release plates, you can switch on the tripod between the Theta and regular camera rapidly without having to spend time screwing around (pun intended). I got a quick-release tripod ball head in Mong Kok for $40!
Here's what I learned about shooting 360-degree photography overall, the mental aspects.
What You See is What You Get
Traditionally with wide-angle lenses, the perspective is dramatically stretched. The foreground will appear very close, and the background will appear very far. In normal photography, it would be important to get close to the subject else everything would seem very far.
With 360 photography however since the resulting image will be wrapped around a sphere rather than displayed on a 2D plane, the perspective will appear like what you see with your own eyes in real life. Thus, what you see when you take a shot with the Theta is what you get.
Height Level for Immersion
Be mindful about how people will view your image. Mostly likely, they will either be standing up, or sitting down. For optimal immersion, the image would be shot at the same height level that people would view it. It would feel off if someone was standing up with a VR headset with the image being taken two feet off the ground.
Thus for general shots, take at head level for those standing up, or shoulder level for those sitting down. The height difference between the two shouldn't be terribly different.
The Theta has a sweet spot of five feet or less. Farther subjects and the background will have less resolution, giving a reason to bring subjects closer.
Keep it Level
Keep the camera as level as possible with the horizon. If it is not straight, when people view your photo, they may get sick from not being straight in the photo despite being straight in real life. It would be possible to straigthen it afterwards, but you save a lot of work getting it right out of the camera.
Fill the Frame
Note that it is 360-degree photography. Since you are capturing the whole environment, you most likely and should not just have one subject. With only one subject, when people look around in the picture with the headset, they might have trouble finding the subject as most of the frame will be empty. So make sure the frame has interesting subjects in every direction.
Alongside the advice of shooting close, 360-degree photography seems to lend itself better to shooting in tighter scenes. I shot the Theta inside a small wooden model of an ancient Chinese building, and the image seemed like it was taken in a full-sized house.
Limit your Presence
Try to get out of the shot as much as possible. Since it takes an image in every direction, it can be difficult to hide. The best option is to get out of the shot entirely. This means setting the tripod down, and hiding behind a bush or corner while remotely triggering the shot. Unfortunately, this is a bit awkward in street photography and snapshot situations.
The second best option is to be directly under the camera. Hold the tripod up, resting it on your shoulder or head, and have the camera be above your head. This helps that when people view the photo, they would have to view directly down to see you. And your face would not be visible, only the top of your head, which is much more discreet.
The Theta is so small, and with 360-degree photography being something most people have no idea about, it is extremely easy to take candid or street shots.
A lot of the time in Hong Kong, I would just walk around holding the tripod like how a Queen's Guard would hold their rifle, and just take photos using the app. Using the app really makes it look like you're just checking Facebook or something, and people never really know you're taking a photo. Or I might just set the tripod down, lean against the wall like I'm texting, and take a photo.
Well, it does emit an annoying shutter sound that I don't know how to turn off. But even then, people won't know what that little thing is yet. Not until it becomes more popular.
You can now try out my project threeschwifty to view and share your 360-degree images online!
In an upcoming post, I'll talk more about how to easily share Theta images using A-Frame VR. It'd be a few lines of HTML, and then most people can view the 360 image on their smartphone. They'd be able to move and rotate the phone to look around the image, and even use something like a Google Cardboard holder.
<html> <head> <script src="https://aframe.io/releases/latest/aframe.min.js"></script> </head> <body> <a-scene> <a-sky src="360-image.jpg"></a-sky> </a-scene> </body> </html>
Try it with one of my sample shots in a small Japanese toy store in Mong Kok.
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