In the 360 camera industry, there has always been a great divide between consumer 360 cameras and professional 360 cameras. Insta360 Pro is the first one that packs the power of a professional 360 camera into a package that is as easy to shoot and stitch as a consumer 360 camera.
I’ve been shooting with the Insta360 Pro for a couple of weeks now. This multi-part review is based on my HANDS-ON experience using it IN THE FIELD (it’s definitely not a “review” from simply browsing through photos and videos shot by other people). I also have sample photos and sample videos (which I took myself).
This review is based on:
firmware version 153
iOS app version: 0.8.0
Insta360Stitcher version 0.9.17 and 1.0.0 (they issued an update while I was writing this).
|Insta360 Pro at CES 2017|
When Insta360 announced the Insta360 Pro at CES 2017, they astounded the 360 camera industry. Prior to their announcement, they had said they would create a camera to compete with the GoPro Omni, an 8K 360 camera rig that was and still is used by many professionals. With the Insta360 Pro, they not only created a camera with 8K resolution, but they also added capabilities not found in the Omni, including 3D 360 photos and videos, and the ability to live stream in 4K (in 2D or 3D). And it was $3,499, fully one third less than the price of a GoPro Omni.
|Max Richter presents the Insta360 Pro at a press conference|
Soon after, they also posted sample photos and videos that showed impressive quality, and I got to see more sample photos and videos in a VR headset at NAB.
Even though I saw the samples with excellent image quality, I was still a little bit hesitant to order the Insta360 Pro. It would be the second most expensive camera I’ve ever bought and there were no tests or reviews for it. Due to a customs snafu, I also wasn’t able to try it at NAB Show 2017, so I didn’t know what it was like to actually use it either. Was it too difficult or impractical to use in the real world? What if it takes too long for my modest PC hardware to stitch? How does it really perform?
At the same time, I had been writing about Insta360 for a while now (since February 2016) and I knew that they were extremely committed to doing the best for their customers. Since 2007, I’ve purchased cameras (360 and otherwise) from most major manufacturers including Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji (sorry I never had a Canon other than point-and-shoot) – and honestly, I’ve never seen any company that was as anywhere as dedicated to its customers as Insta360. Their responsiveness is amazing, and they issue significant updates to improve their cameras at an incredible pace. For example, they added the 360 camera industry’s first realtime image stabilization to their Insta360 Nano and Air via a firmware update (!). In one quarter they probably issue more updates than a typical camera company issues in the entire product cycle of a camera.
I thought to myself that if this highly customer-centric and highly capable company has poured all their resources into making the best 360 camera, then that 360 camera should be amazing. So I took a leap of faith and ordered one. Here’s what I found.
SPECIFICATIONS and KEY FEATURES
First, here’s a quick rundown of the specs:
– six lenses, with f/2.4 aperture
– fully spherical field of view
– 2D 360 photos: up to 8K (7680 x 3840)
– 3D 360 photos: up to 8K (7680 x 7680, top bottom format)
– 2D 360 videos: up to 8K (7680 x 3840 @ 30fps)
– 3D 360 videos: up to 6K (6400 x 6400 @ 30fps)
– 2D 360 live stream: up to 4K (3840 x 1920 @ 30fps)
– 3D 360 live streaming: up to 4K (3840 x 1920 @ 24fps)
– in-camera stitching available for photos (8K resolution, in 2D or 3D) or videos (up to 4K resolution, in 2D or 3D).
– photos can be in Adobe DNG raw format
– gyro-based image stabilization
– uses one SD card (V30 minimum) or USB 3.0 external hard drive (SSD recommended)
– 4 microphones for 360 audio; external microphone jack
– battery life: 75 minutes; removable battery; can also be powered by an adapter
– Weight: 1228 grams
– Size: 143mm in diameter
Price: $3499 (stitching software included).
WHAT’S IN THE BOX
The package includes:
– the Insta360 Pro with removable stand / grip
– a silicone rubber lens cap / ring to protect the lenses
– battery (can be charged in the camera)
– AC adapter and cord
– USB to Ethernet adapter
– USB cable
– Ethernet cable
– microfiber lens cloth
– a waterproof hardcase with custom foam cutouts
– shoulder strap for the hardcase
– quick start guide, warranty, a thank you letter from the company.
If you got the battery combo package, you’ll also get:
– a dual battery charger (it uses the same AC adapter as the Insta360 Pro)
– two additional batteries
Here’s an unboxing video:
The Insta360 Pro is somewhere between the size of a large cantaloupe or a small honeydew. Here it is next to the Panono and the Vuze Camera.
The Insta360 Pro’s body uses aluminum alloy and polycarbonate. It feels very solidly built and is quite hefty. It is about the weight of my old Nikon D3. The removable base acts both as a stand and as a grip. It’s not totally spherical in shape and has recessed areas at the top and bottom that can be used for gripping even without the removable base.
Something interesting is that I thought the Insta360 Pro was black/gray (or silver) based on the samples I saw at CES. Actually, it has a gunmetal blue finish.
HOW TO USE THE INSTA360 PRO
Until I got the Insta360 Pro, I had no idea how it was actually used. To my surprise, it was as easy to use as a point-and-shoot camera, not just while shooting but even for stitching. Here’s a demo on how to use the Insta360 Pro, from shooting (on-camera or with the app) to stitching. The Insta360 Pro is so easy to use that by the end of the video, you too will know how to shoot and stitch with the Insta360 Pro.
As shown in the video, the startup takes about a minute and a half with the current firmware. There is a coming update that will reduce the startup to about 30 seconds.
Stitching is much easier than a rig. You only have one SD card to manage, and each photo and each video has their own folder, so you won’t get the files mixed up. Each folder has all the individual files for that photo or video (you can turn off this feature) and a 1920 x 960 preview file so you can get an idea of the final photo or video. Honestly, it is much easier to handle than compared to, for example, my Kodak PIXPRO SP360 Dual Pro.
As for stitching time, it’s less than I expected. My PC setup is VR ready but still modest:
– Intel Xeon W3565
– 15GB RAM
– GTX 1060 6GB graphics card
I have an SSD drive but I rendered the file into my storage drive which is a regular HDD, not SSD. I didn’t assemble my PC. I just bought a Dell workstation which had the processor and RAM for around $270, then I added the graphics card. The total cost was just around $540.
With this hardware using version 0.9.17 of the Insta360 Stitcher on a 6K 3D 360 video, it took me around 15 minutes of stitching time per 1 minute of video using optical flow stitching. Scene-based stitching is about twice as fast on my PC. But with version 1.0.0, it takes me just 10 minutes of stitching per minute of video! Insta360 said that they are improving the stitching speed even further with future updates.
Videos stitched on the desktop have 360 metadata (2D or 3D as the case may be) and can be uploaded directly to YouTube or Facebook (I haven’t tried uploading to Vimeo, but I’m sure it will work). As for in-camera stitched videos, it seemed they did not have the correct 360 metadata as of firmware 153 but they will fix that issue in the next update.
IN THE REAL WORLD
OK so what’s it like to shoot with the Insta360 Pro in the real world? I had many worries. I worried if it would be too complicated to use in the field, or if it would fail unexpectedly right when I need it, or if I would be chased out by security guards, or if I would drop it accidentally. In reality, it’s much easier to shoot with it that I imagined and was completely hassle-free.
I took the Insta360 Pro to a local pier with a lively atmosphere. To make it faster to use and to avoid drawing too much attention, I decided not to use the hardcase it came with. Instead I just used an old camera bag (you can see me carrying it in the sample videos). It made it much easier to carry the Insta360 Pro.
I used my favorite monopod combination, the extra tall Kodak PIXPRO monopod with the tripod legs from the Monoshot.co. I simply carried the Insta360 Pro with the monopod, holding it like Gandalf’s staff, using the lens cover and wiping the lens with a microfiber cloth in between shots,. It was much faster to shoot that way than putting it back in the camera bag every time.
Another thing is that because of the Insta360 Pro’s slow startup time (around 90 seconds), I kept the Insta360 Pro on the whole time. And believe it or not, I was able to shoot with one battery for almost 2 hours (not 2 hours of nonstop recording but 2 hours of walking around and shooting), even though I never turned it off and the internal fan and Wi-Fi were turned on the whole time. The key to making this work is to exit to the main menu as soon as you finish recording. I learned from Insta360 Pro’s CEO JK Liu that if the camera is on “Ready” mode, it will drain the battery as fast as if it was recording a video. Needless to say I was very impressed by the battery performance. (I also brought backup batteries but I didn’t actually need them).
So here’s how it works: I scout for an interesting spot for shooting. When I decide on the location, I setup the monopod legs and adjust the height for the Insta360 Pro. I got into the habit of doing a stitching calibration with every new location. (This is easier than it sounds and only takes about 15 seconds.) After calibration, I simply switch to photo and/or video and take the shot. For some scenes, I used my phone to start and stop recording. It really is that simple, and it worked perfectly and predictably throughout the entire 2-hour shooting session.
I was worried that security guards would stop me from using it, or people would object to me using it, but I only got curious looks and a few who asked me about it, none of them hostile, and some who looked interested in getting a 360 camera. Most people were oblivious to it, not minding it at all, at least at this location.
I posted a couple of sample photos the other day. See sample photos here. In summary, the photos have excellent quality. The photos are very detailed from edge to edge, and the dynamic range is impressive. The stitching is very smooth if you use optical flow stitching (note: the in-camera stitching also uses optical flow), except for objects near the camera’s zenith or nadir which can look a little warped.
The colors are natural-looking and remind me of the look of negative film. You can also adjust the appearance of the photos before taking the shot with the app. The photos also have good latitude for adjustment in postprocessing. And of course, you can shoot in Raw, which will capture each lens in DNG format as well as stitch a 2D or 360 photo in DNG.
Here are 2D shots in full resolution (7680 x 3840) from a 3D 8k photo shot in JPG (for a 3D sample see below).
The lens appears to have very good flare resistance. Here is a scene where the sun is low on the horizon, shining directly into the lens, and there’s only a small flare artifact on the right side. Note: this video was not edited and is an in-camera stitched video.
In my opinion, what really sets the Insta360 Pro’s photos apart is if you shoot in 3D 360. The 3D effect is simply beautiful. As of July 2017, Insta360 Pro is one of the very few 360 cameras that can shoot 3D 360 photos (right now, Vuze’s 3D 360 photo mode is just a short video clip, so it’s really just a framegrab from a video).
Here is one of the photos in 3D 360. To view it in 3D, you need to view it on a phone and tap on the Google Cardboard icon.
The screenshot above is not from a photo. It’s a crop from a frame grab from the 8K mode of the Insta360 Pro. In fact, this is just a framegrab from the version uploaded to YouTube, so it’s not even the full detail. But as you can see, the detail is amazing (click to see the full version). At 8K, each frame of the video has 29.5 megapixels (7680 x 3840), around twice the nominal resolution of a Ricoh Theta photo. Just think about that…
While I love the 8K mode’s detail, I’m still drawn to the 6K 3D 360 mode. Even though it has noticeably less detail, viewing the videos in 3D 360 is mesmerizing to me. 🙂
|8K frame grab|
|a 2D frame grab from a 6K 3D 360 video|
Unfortunately, one practical limitation is that YouTube cannot play videos above 4K smoothly. This is true for any 360 video on YouTube — it’s not an issue with the Insta360 Pro. Therefore, as a practical matter, you can only watch the videos on YouTube in 4K. Nonetheless, a video shot at 8K or 6K then viewed as 4K has more detail than a video shot at 4K.
|8K viewed as 4K|
|6K 3D viewed as 4K 2D|
|4K 2D framegrab from 4K 3D 360 in-camera stitched video|
As for audio, the Insta360 Pro has four microphones for 360 audio. However, in the real world, audio is not one of its strengths. First, there is a lot of ‘popping’ when the sound is too loud for the microphone. Second, the internal fan is quite loud. Outdoors it is not an issue, but indoors in a quiet environment, it can be heard easily. Third, the volume of the microphone is sometimes too low. Fourth, the audio seems to be out of sync with the video.
Insta360 has added a noise cancellation feature for the fan noise, but I haven’t compared to see how effective it is. As for the other issues such as volume and synchronization, Insta360 is working on them. UPDATE: Insta360 has improved the audio by adding a spatial audio mode and a fanless mode (which will allow the camera to shoot video without the fan, for up to 15 minutes).
In any case, it is possible to use an external microphone (it has a mic input jack), although many pros will probably record audio on a separate device.
Insta360 Pro allows you to choose between optical flow stitching or scene-based stitching.
Scene-based stitching is a type of template-based stitching. It stitches the videos according to a specific distance (determined during stitching calibration). This is the mode that Insta360 Pro uses for videos with realtime stitching. It is faster but the stitch is perfect but only at the specific stitching distance. Objects that are within the stitch line and move farther or nearer that specific distance will have some doubling (if they are farther than the stitch distance) or splitting (if they are closer than the stitch distance).
The other stitching mode is optical flow stitching which can move pixels during stitching. In theory, it can stitch at all distances simultaneously (i.e. both near and far objects) as long as there is sufficient overlap between the lenses. The Insta360 Pro’s stitching with optical flow is smooth and seamless except for objects that are within the stitch line near the camera, especially near the zenith or nadir. Those objects can look like they are vibrating or oscillating. However, Insta360 already has a new optical flow stitching algorithm that addresses this issue. I’ve seen the result and it does work. We should see an update in a couple of weeks.
To avoid issues with stitching, you need to ensure that important compositional elements, especially people, are not within the stitch line. Because the Insta360 Pro’s lenses are approximately eye-width apart, it is instinctive for people to face it the way they would face a person, and if they do that, they would be squarely within the stitch line. You need to show them how to avoid the stitch line by having them face one lens at a time.
Here is a playlist with 8K 2D 360 and 6K 3D 360 videos. I also included both optical flow and template stitched samples for each so you can compare how the stitching looks with each method.
MORE SAMPLE VIDEOS
Here is a playlist with more sample videos in daylight conditions. The first two are 6K 3D 360 videos that were stitched on a desktop with scene-based stitching (similar to template based stitching but it’s calibrated for a particular scene). The third is a 4K 3D 360 video stitched in-camera (it was taken later in the day, hence the different color temperature). I also added samples with optical flow stitching. I composed the shots for 3D so I implore you to watch these in 3D to get the full effect.
Here is a playlist with sample videos in indoor lighting conditions (somewhat dim). All of the videos are 6K 3D 360, and I also posted versions with both scene-based stitching and optical flow stitching.
In summary, the Insta360 Pro produces amazing photos and videos with excellent image quality. I especially love the 3D 360 modes (for photo and video). The 3D effect is very noticeable yet natural.
Beyond the image quality, I was surprised at how easy it is to use, both while shooting in the field (not just in controlled conditions) and stitching the files. It is much more practical than I expected, and is easy enough to use that I will be using it as my primary 360 camera whenever conditions allow, not just for assignments.
In Part 2 of this review, I will discuss other features of the Insta360 Pro such as image stabilization, super slow motion, live streaming, time lapse, and other features.
If you have any questions, please post them in the comments. In the meantime, if you want to buy Insta360 Pro, contact me via email or the 360 Rumors Facebook page so I can tell you how to get an exclusive discount! Or if you are in a hurry, you can get it through Amazon or B&H Photo. Thank you for using these links to support 360 Rumors at no additional cost to you so I can do more tests, reviews, techniques and updates.