Adventures with 360° Photography

For the past year or so I have been playing around with 360° photography but it’s taken me a while to really appreciate it. Whilst I totally understand the appeal of being able to capture an entire scene (including the sky above your head and the ground beneath your feet) I have struggled to produce content which I felt had much impact. I was also frustrated that it is difficult to widely publish the photographs in the form that they are meant to be seen; as images you can rotate, twist and explore.

I’ve been using consumer grade 360° cameras with varying results. On more than one occasion I nearly gave away my Ricoh Theta S, a camera I bought purely because I owned an iPhone and therefore couldn’t use the higher spec Samsung Gear 360 which required a Samsung phone to operate it. The Theta lived in the bottom of my handbag; I would use it for occasional photographs but was getting increasing annoyed at my inability to get any output from it that I was happy with. One night when a guy down the pub started talking to me about his interest in 360° photography I very nearly whipped the Theta out and gave it to him. Fortunately, good sense prevailed, and it was this very camera which finally helped me develop my love of 360° content. I have since used the Nikon Keymission which I like a lot and the Samsung Gear 360 2017 (this newer model has iPhone compatibility) but my lack of access to cameras has meant that I haven’t been able to try out as many types as I would have liked and therefore I have limited myself to buying 360° cameras on the cheaper end of the range.

Ricoh Theta S, Samsung Gear 360 2017 and Nikon Keymission 360° cameras. © Emma Gibbs.

It’s still fairly early days for consumer 360° cameras and as a result the image and video quality isn’t always as good as you’d expect which can be disheartening. Whilst venting my frustrations to a colleague at work I suggested that I was impatient for a standard of technology that doesn’t quite exist yet and my co-worker said it was like when people go to weddings with a point-and-shoot camera and end up disappointed that they don’t have DSLR quality photos. It was a good point; having a camera that can miraculously send stitched 360° digital images instantly through to my phone is so amazing that of course I expect the images to be as sharp as anything my other cameras can do. And to be fair, the pictures and clips *do* look tight when displayed as flat equirectangular files (or even as rotatable pictures via the camera’s accompanying software) but as soon as you view them spherically via sites such as YouTube, Flickr or Facebook the content loses a lot of clarity and you find yourself wondering why it doesn’t look as good as it should.

The other challenge I’ve found is how best to present images. When I started taking 360° photos I found (to my disappointment) that I couldn’t put rotatable pictures onto Instagram because the platform didn’t support it. The 360° photos I found on Instagram looked great, but they had been twisted and manipulated, with many being made into ‘tiny planets’ which look really cool but aren’t accurate representations of the subjects they are supposed to be capturing. I had always approached 360° photography in a very literal sense, thinking it should show what a place looked like from all directions, when in fact other ways of displaying 360° images are equally as valid and perhaps creatively more exciting.

Where I had been looking for places that would be visually interesting to explore via a photograph that you could navigate around, I realised that I could also look at capturing other environments which had prominent landmarks or textures (such as grassy parks and wide open spaces edged with recognisable buildings) and whilst they wouldn’t be that exciting as rotatable images they would lend themselves really well to spherical manipulation as tiny planets.

Tiny Planet test shot of me taken outside my office. I later cut the string off my Samsung Gear 2017 because it was impossible to hide in pictures. © Emma Gibbs.

Realising that there is more than one way to approach 360° content was a bit of a light bulb moment for me but that said, I still wanted to find subjects and environments which would be enhanced by being viewed as a rotatable image. 360° visuals still felt a bit like a novelty approach and I wanted it to be something that gave viewers an experience that regular stills or video couldn’t. So, when I was working on a week-long radio outside broadcast capturing images for the station’s social media feeds, I asked the production team if I could take a few 360° stills of the studio and OB location during the broadcast along with the regular DSLR shots I would be producing. I didn’t make a big deal about it or promise anything amazing but they agreed and so I had a pilot.

The first obstacle was how to publish these photos. I wanted ‘true’ 360° images that the show’s audience could explore online whilst we were on air and I didn’t want to make flat modified versions; but neither Twitter nor Instagram support this kind of content natively. I looked at using third party sites such as Kuula and then sharing the content to Twitter but in the end the decision was made to put my images onto the station’s Facebook page where the files would be instantly recognised as 360° content and be viewable as rotatable images on computers and mobile devices.

This worked well, the only slight downside being that FB compresses images and 360° content doesn’t look anything like as sharp as it does when you view it via the cameras’ own proprietary viewing apps. That said, the response from the production team and audience was really positive and I found myself being approached a week or two later by the same department asking me for more 360° images, but this time of an art and sound installation which had been created for Manchester International Festival.

This turned out to be a great opportunity and perhaps the perfect subject for a 360° capture. The artwork was made up of stories from homeless people that had been painted during the festival onto cardboard panels which were fixed to the walls, floor and stairs of a disused shoe shop in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The venue was long with pillars dotted throughout; there were different lighting levels and the art filled every wall and parts of the floor, so visitors were completely surrounded. It was a work you couldn’t photograph in its entirety in a single frame and it was impossible to capture the feeling of how the words surrounded the whole room; unless of course you photographed it in 360°.

Underworld’s Manchester Street Poem at the Manchester International Festival 2017. A rotatable version of this image is on my Flickr site and works with desktop browsers. © Emma Gibbs.

I photographed the venue using the Theta S (because I did not own a Samsung Gear at this point) and I took some images with a tripod and then some low shots down on the floor, placing the camera gently on top of the art in places where the public simply couldn’t stand. The resulting photos captured the work really well and were put onto Facebook as rotatable images whilst on the programme website page there were standard DSLR pictures of the artist and presenter that I also took. The images were used to promote a radio documentary about the artwork, which was broadcast with binaural sound, making the fact that we had 360° images as well as sound even sweeter. I also wanted to create images which could be used on Twitter and Instagram so made some manipulated flat images which showed the walls of the room shot from a higher angle using a tripod.

Underworld’s Manchester Street Poem. Shot on a Ricoh Theta S. I tried to make the tripod as small as possible but it still dominated the shot. I now use a light stand which is much thinner than a conventional camera tripod. © Emma Gibbs.

I still wished I could have created a rotatable image for Instagram so a colleague of mine suggested I look at making a rotating gif of one of my images to give the feeling of 360° on platforms which couldn’t support that type of content. We looked at a few ways of doing this but I was reluctant to use any method which wasn’t extremely quick and simple to do because a lot of my work involves me photographing events in real time with images needing to be ready to use during live broadcasts in seconds. We eventually opted for the paid app Pi2Video (which costs less than two quid), which enabled me to import 360° images, select the angle and speed I want to view them in and then make a short video clip of the picture rotating. I put one of these on my Instagram feed not knowing if it would display correctly or if it would be that satisfactory because viewers couldn’t explore the image manually but the clip got a great response so it’s a method I would definitely use again.

Flat version of a 360° image of Berlin Alexanderplatz with the Tiny Planet version below. © Emma Gibbs.
Berlin Alexanderplatz Tiny Planet. © Emma Gibbs.

So that’s where I am on my 360° journey so far. I am keen to find more projects where 360° material will enhance the viewing experience rather than be an unnecessary addition and I want to find ways in which AV 360° content will form an integral part of storytelling in a way that standard material can’t. I want to try out more cameras and particularly those where the offload and stitch is relatively simple and would be accessible to self shooters/editors who need to generate content very quickly. I’m also hoping that with the technology moving so quickly it won’t be long before a new crop of affordable cameras come onto the market which have better resolutions and improved low light capability. This photographer is impatient for more.

Night image using a Samsung Gear 360 2017. Not brilliant but hopefully low light capability will improve soon. © Emma Gibbs.



Media Archivist and Researcher | Freelance Photographer | Tech Lover | #ActuallyAutistic | Writing mainly about autism and mental health.

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Miss Emma Gibbs

Media Archivist and Researcher | Freelance Photographer | Tech Lover | #ActuallyAutistic | Writing mainly about autism and mental health.