360° Full Photo Sphere Hardware – A Comprehensive Overview

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360° photo spheres, for example like this one, are a comparatively new, but fascinating and thus rapidly growing trend in the area of social content creation and sharing. To be part of the community you need a tool like HoloBuilder to give others interactive access to your photo spheres and of course some equipment for the capturing process itself. Like in any other application area several approaches for choosing the right hardware do exist, targeting people with different backgrounds, ambitions and budgets. To give you a general overview that helps you to decide which equipment fits your needs best, we decided to present some existing and upcoming hardware for three different kinds of people: casual, intermediate and expert users.

Equipment for casual users (€0 – €300, high portability, automatic image stitching)

  1. Smartphone Apps (€ 0,00)
    As you might already own one, using a smartphone should be the cheapest and most portable option for the creation of photo spheres. In our basic tutorial we have shown how it can be done on Android smartphones without the need for any additional tools. For iPhone users we have compared two popular apps, that produce different results: Google Photo Sphere Camera and bubb.li.
    Google Photo Sphere vs. bubb.li
    This approach is suitable for users that capture photo sphere on an infrequent basis, because as you might have seen from the tutorial the capturing process takes some time for each scene, which has to be post-processed afterwards as well.
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  2. RICOH THETA m15 (€299,00)
    RICOH THETA Tech Specs

    RICOH THETA Device (image by RICOH)

    It is the only device, yet available at an affordable price below €300, which is capable of instantly capturing full spherical images with one button click. It is doing so by combining images taken using two super fish eye lenses. Full spherical videos are also possible. With a size of 40.6 x 127.0 x 22.9 mm it perfectly fits into your pocket. It is available at Amazon or directly at RICOH for €299.

    The tech specs:
    – 2 cameras with 3.2 megapixels each and 180° bird-eye lenses.
    – Resolution of 3,584 x 1,792 pixels for equirectangular images.
    – Resolution of 1,920 x 960 pixels @ 15 fps for equirectangular videos of 3 minute length.
    – Max aperture of f/2.1 and a lens range of 0.8mm.
    – ISO sensivity of 100 – 1600 (ISO100 – 400 for video).
    – Manual exposure composition of +/- 2 stops.
    – Shutter speed between 1/8,000sec and 1/7.5sec (1/8,000 – 1/15 sec for video).
    – 4GB of storage (for 40 minutes total video, consisting of 3 minutes long video clips or approx. 1,200 still images).
    – Connected to smartphones (Android and iOS) via WiFi: Can be used as remote trigger and for storage extension.
    – Built-in lithium ion battery (for approx. 200 still images).

    In our opinion the THETA is the best option for casual users that want to capture photo spheres on a regular basis in a very short amount of time. It is best suited for outdoor usage, because the image processing capabilities are limited due to the good price performance ratio in combination with the capturing speed. If you want to get an impression of the results please have a look at example presentations like this one on HoloBuilder.com, that have been captured with the RICOH THETA. Furthermore several detailed user reviews and tests are available, showing all aspects worth noticing and providing detailed information about image quality as well. 

Equipment for intermediate users (€300 – €1000, medium portability, automatic image stitching)

  1. Panono Camera (€599,00)
    Panono Device

    Panono Device (Image by Panono)

    It is a throwable ball with WiFi, 11cm in diameter, which carries 36 fixed-focus cameras with 3 megapixels each, resulting in high quality 108 megapixel images at maximum, depending on the overlapping for stitching. It offers no support for video capturing yet. It is available for €599 in Panono Web Shop only.

    The tech specs:

    Panono Product Specs

    Panono Product Specs (Image by Panono)

    If you are interested in details you can have a look into a review of an early version of the product. The producers also provide a nice overview with details on the capturing process. Some B2B-examples on their website provide an impression of whats possible with the device.

  2. Bublcam ($699,00 – pre-order)
    Bublcam Device

    Bublcam Device (Image by bubl)

    Bublcam is a ball device, equipped with four cameras with 5 megapixels each, which provide equirectangular images with a resolution of 5,376 x 2,688 pixels. Videos are possible as well. It is targeting consumers and commercial users.
    Bublcam is not available yet, but the estimated start for delivery is announced with spring 2015 and it can already be pre-ordered for $699.

    The tech specs:
    – 4 x 5 megapixel cameras.
    – 4 x 190º FOV lenses (160° used).
    – Focal length 1.2mm.
    – Resolution of 5,376 x 2,688 pixels for equirectangular images.
    – Resolution of 2,688 x 1,344 pixels @ 15fps or 1,984 x 992 pixels @ 30 fps for equirectangular videos.
    – Tri-axial accelerometer will be able to assist in stabilizing images.
    – Live streaming to mobile devices via WiFi.
    – Images and videos are stored on microSD card.

    More details can be found on the bubl website. If you want to get an impression of the possible results you can have a look at some examples already available there as well.

  3. GIROPTIC 360CAM ($499,00 pre-order)
    GIROPTIC 360CAM Device

    GIROPTIC 360CAM Device (Image by GIROPTIC)

    It consists of three cameras with 185° fisheye lenses that enable it to capture 360° x 300° equirectangular still images and videos. It is designed for maximum versatility and offers many extra options: rechargeable battery, tripod mount for adaption to any camera accessory, a light bulb mount for any light socket for streaming over WiFi and much more.
    GIROPTIC  360CAM is not available yet, but can already be pre-ordered for $499.

    The tech specs:
    – 3 cameras with 185° fisheye lenses.
    – FOV of 360° x 300°.
    – Resolution of 4,096 x 2,048 pixels for equirectangular images, 2,048 x 1,024 @ 30 fps for equirectangular videos.
    – Real time streaming video over WiFi.
    – Special features like time lapse, timer, burst and HDR for still images.
    – Gyroscope for image stabilization.
    – 3 microphones for surround sound.
    – Compatible with Oculus Rift for Virtual Reality usage

    More details can be found on the product website. For an impression of the possible results you can have a look at an example available there as well.

Equipment for expert users  (> €1000, limited portability, automatic or manual image stitching)

  1. 360Heros spherical mounts for use of/with (several) GoPro Hero cameras (>$495,00)
    H3PRO10HD Device

    H3PRO10HD Device (Image by 360Heroes)

    With a focus on videos the company of 360Heros Inc. provides spherical mounts for users of GoPro Hero4/Hero3+/Hero3 cameras. The mounts arrange them in a way that the images of all devices can be combined into one very high resolution spherical image. Depending on the amount of GoPro Hero cameras you own you can buy holders that match this number of devices, for example six or ten. This gives you the flexibility to set an individual output resolution, so for example the H3Pro10HD provides 360° full spherical video in 12,000 x 6,000 pixels.
    The holders are made out of one piece of high strength aircraft grade flexible nylon and are available in their
    store, starting at $495 for the H3PRO6, which can hold 6 GoPro Hero 3 cameras (that have to be bought separately for around €200 each).

    The tech specs (exemplary for the H3Pro10HD):
    – Mount can hold 10 GoPro Hero 3 Black cameras.
    – Cameras are oriented vertically for full spherical images without nadir’s on top and bottom.
    – Cameras provide the Hero3’s HD format with 2,716 x 1,524 pixels resolution.
    – Overall resolution of 12,000 x 6,000 pixels for equirectangular images, 5,200 × 2,600 @ 60/48/30 fps or 8,000 × 4,000
    @ 30 fps for equirectangular videos.
    – Weight of 176 grams for the holder alone, 851 grams with all cameras equipped.

    Holders are even available for underwater usageFor an impression of the possible results you can have a look at a video captured with the H3Pro10HD or into their video library. The technical background is nicely explained on the 360Heroes YouTube channel.

  2. iStar (price on request)
    iSTAR Device

    iSTAR Device (Image by NCTech)

    It consists of four cameras with 10 megapixels each, providing an effective 50 megapixel output. iStar is sold as 360° imaging system for professional usage scenarios. It is available in three different versions that provide different features. The iSTAR Fusion can only capture still images, the iSTAR Pulsar can capture still images + videos and the iSTAR Pulsar Infrared can also record both, but in zero light with infrared vision. The system can be bought at several authorized resellers that have to be contacted for pricing details.

    The tech specs:
    – 4 sensors with 10 megapixels each: effective 50 megapixel output (resolution up to 10,000 x 5,000 pixels, +/- 7% due to stitching overlapping).
    – Full spherical 360º x 137º +/- 5º images.
    – WiFi and Gigabit Ethernet (RJ45) connectivity.
    – Capture time of approx. 4 to 6 seconds for full 360º photo sphere.
    – Auto white balance

    Many more details are available on their website. An example of a high resolution result is available as well.

  3. DSLR with fisheye or wide-angle lens and panoramic tripod head (price individual)
Panoramic Head with Camera

Panoramic Head Manfrotto 303PLUS, Panoramic Rotation Unit 300N and Levelling Base 338 with Canon EOS 700D (Image by Wikipedia-User Hubertl)

The probably most common approach for professional users consists of a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) equipped with a fisheye or wide-angle lens and mounted on a panoramic tripod head. The popularity results from several advantages. It is the most flexible solution, because you can choose all parts for yourself and combine them individually, from the camera itself up to single rings and screws for different lenses. This allows you to achieve awesome image quality, if you are willing to invest the according time and money, like examples on the new impressively demonstrate.
Because the post processing has to be done manually you have to choose the right software as well, for example you have to decide between a professional product for image stitching (like Kolor Autopano Pro) or a freeware solution (like Hugin), according to your skills and requirements.
As you might see the combination of equipment like this is kind of a science in itself, so that many websites provide reviews for valuable equipment. Many tutorials give suggestions for a combination of different hardware and software elements, enabling you to create the best result individually for you and according to your needs.
The fact that you can (and have to) determine every aspect on your own is the greatest advantage of this approach, but is also the biggest obstacle for getting started. This is also the reason why we will just provide some starting points (besides the links mentioned above), to give you an idea about where you could get the photo sphere equipment for your DSLR and how much money you can spend on it:

– A large variety of photo sphere equipment (panoramic tripod heads,  aerial poles, camera accessories etc.) is available at Nodal Ninja. A good first panoramic head could be the NN3 MKII Starter Package (F3500) for $189.
– Motorized, fully automated mounts can be bought at Gigapan, starting with the GigaPan EPIC 100 (for DSLR) at a price of $549.
– The “world’s most advanced automated stitching head” Roundshot VR Drive 2 full is available for €3,360 at Kolor.
– Rail track and cart systems (motion control systems that rotate and slide a camera) can for example be bought at Cinetics for $899.
Eye mirror offers innovative lenses (starting at $453) that support one-shot capturing of 360° videos or still images with different camera types.
– The variety of DSLR cameras available on the market is unfortunately too large to give one representative example with pricing or a concrete recommendation, but different websites with product tests and comparisons might help you to make the right buying decision. The same applies to the according fisheye or wide-angle lenses that have to match the camera.

Finally we are hoping that you got a first impression of the options you have for choosing the right equipment to become part of the community of photo sphere creators. If you think that we have forgotten something or should add a different approach we would like to read your feedback in the comment section.