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Buying Guide: Which is the best 360 camera for virtual tour (2018): detail vs. dynamic range vs. usability

Best virtual tour camera (2018): detail vs. dynamic range vs. usability
Best virtual tour camera (2018): detail vs. dynamic range vs. usability

Virtual tours are more popular than ever, with an increasing number of 360 shooters seeking to shoot virtual tours, and many platforms adding virtual tour features.  In this post, I will discuss my recommendation for the best camera for virtual tours, with supporting evidence, based on my experience as a photographer since 2007, and my experience owning more than forty 360 cameras and panoramic heads.

Table of contents:
Factors considered
Detail
Usability
Dynamic Range
Conclusion

For purposes of this comparison, I only focused on 360 cameras.  For maximum detail and image quality, you can use a DSLR with panoramic head.  I have a few that I will be comparing in the future.

Factors

In choosing a 360 camera for virtual tours, the three factors I consider most important are: detail, dynamic range, and usability.  To clarify, detail is how much actual detail is visible, regardless of the nominal resolution.  It depends on the lens of the camera as well as the sensor.  Within detail, I also include the stitching performance, which depends on both the stitching algorithm as well as the lens performance at the periphery.  Dynamic range is the range of shadows and highlights that the camera can capture.  Usability includes both the shooting controls (exposure, features such as bracketing, etc.) and workflow.

Of these, the one that is most important to me is detail, then workflow, and finally dynamic range.   The reason dynamic range is least important to me is because virtual tours are almost always shot in controlled conditions, making it easy to bracket your shots and blend the exposures.  However, no amount of blending or bracketing will increase the detail that the camera can capture, which is why detail is most important to me for virtual tours.

I compared four of the most popular 360 cameras for photos: Insta360 One, GoPro Fusion, Ricoh Theta V, and Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere.   Although some professional cameras such as the Panono and Insta360 Pro have higher detail, they have a large minimum stitching distance, which makes them more challenging to use for indoor virtual tours, therefore I did not include them in this comparison.

I compared samples shot in identical conditions, using the 360 camera comparison tool.

Detail

Here are 100% crops from each of the four cameras:

Best virtual tour camera: resolution and detail comparison
Best virtual tour camera: resolution and detail comparison

Here is a comparison between Insta360 One and Ricoh Theta V:

Insta360 One vs. Ricoh Theta V: detail comparison
Insta360 One vs. Ricoh Theta V: detail comparison

Here is a closeup comparison between Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere and GoPro Fusion:

Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere vs. GoPro Fusion: detail comparison
Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere vs. GoPro Fusion: detail comparison

Here is how I would rate them for detail, in reverse order:

4. Ricoh Theta V (8.0). Average level of detail (8.0), although softer near stitch line. But the stitching is excellent (+0.1).
3. Insta360 ONE (8.3). Noticeably more detail than Theta V (note the window frame).
2. GoPro Fusion (8.6). Noticeably more detail than Insta360 ONE (note the shingles on the roof are more detailed in the Fusion than Insta360 ONE).
1. Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere (8.8). Noticeably more detail than GoPro Fusion (look at the shingles on the roof; you can discern the grid pattern of the net of the soccer goal).

Usability

Shooting controls: Ricoh Theta V, Insta360 One and Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere all have full manual exposure, and have ISO priority and shutter priority.  GoPro Fusion allows the user to specify the ISO, and has a night exposure mode for long exposures, but cannot specify shutter speeds less than 1 second.  Xiaomi and Theta V both have bracketing, although Theta V’s bracketing controls have more control  Theta V is the only one with built-in HDR in this group.

Raw mode:  The Insta360, Fusion, and Xiaomi all have raw mode, although Insta360 ONe is unique in being able to stitch in raw, not just shot in raw.  Theta V does not yet have a raw mode.

Workflow: The easiest workflow is the Theta V’s because Theta V stitches the photos in-camera.  Insta360 and Mi Sphere have similar workflows except that Mi Sphere has no desktop app for Mac.  Fusion’s workflow is more tedious because as of April 2018, you cannot export a 360 photo as an equirectangular photo on the smartphone app.

For usability for photos, here is how I would rate them, in reverse order.  Note: the rating is different for the usability rating in my comparison tool, because factors for their usability for video are excluded from the scores below.

4. GoPro Fusion (7.9)
+ raw mode (requires third party stitcher)
o partial exposure control
– can’t export 360 photo to mobile

3. Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere (8.5)
+ bracketing option
+ extensive exposure controls
+ can shoot DNG raw but stitching requires 3rd party app

2. Insta360 ONE (8.8)
+ stitch DNG raw with desktop app
+ shoot DNG raw
+ extensive exposure controls
– no bracketing option

1. Ricoh Theta V (9.0)
+ Built-in HDR
+ in-camera stitching (with high quality)
+ extensive exposure controls
+ extensive bracketing options
– no raw mode

Dynamic Range

Here are crops from each of the four cameras.  The crops are shown in approximately normal field of view.

360 camera dynamic range comparison
360 camera dynamic range comparison

Here is how I rate them for dynamic range, in reverse order.

4. Ricoh Theta V (8.0 without HDR)
o average highlight range
o average shadow range
o average overall dynamic range

3. Xiaomi Mi Sphere (8.3)
+ excellent shadow range
o average highlight range
+ above average overall dynamic range

2. Insta360 One ver 1.16 (8.7)
+ excellent highlight range
+ above average shadow range
+ excellent overall dynamic range

1. GoPro Fusion (8.8)
+ class-leading highlight range
+ above average shadow range
+ excellent overall dynamic range

CONCLUSION

Here is a table tallying their scores, and my personal overall rating for their suitability as virtual tour cameras:

CameraPriceDetailUsabilityDynamic rangeOverall Rating (not an average)
Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere
or
Madventure 360
270 (approx.) or 309.99 for Madventure8.88.58.38.8
GoPro Fusion6998.57.98.88.6
Insta360 ONE (ver 1.16)2998.38.88.78.5
Ricoh Theta V
or
Ricoh Theta SC
399 or
Theta SC 199
8.09.08.08.3

Here is a summary of my recommendations:
– To me, the best 360 camera for virtual tours is still Xiaomi Mi Sphere (check here for discounts), if your priority is image quality and are willing to do some edits.
– If you want detail that is almost as good as Xiaomi but you don’t want to do much editing, then I recommend GoPro Fusion.   Be warned that there is no 360 photo export for mobile as of April 2018, so you’ll need to stitch via desktop.
– If your priority is speed, and being able to get decent photos without much editing, my recommendation would be Ricoh Theta SC.
– If DNG processing is important to you, my recommendation is Mi Sphere (assuming you have a Windows desktop) or Insta360 ONE.  Fusion is also a good option, although its RAW workflow takes more steps.

If you want to see how other 360 cameras would compare, check out the 360 Camera Comparison Tool. Also check out this real estate camera comparison which includes indoor photos.

 

About the author

Mic Ty

10 Comments

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  • Thanks for the comparison. Wouldn’t the Theta V (and S as I think the photo is unchanged) benefit from using HDR, especially for interior virtual tours ?

    • Hi Bill. Yes they would. But you can do a manual HDR as well on the other cameras, particularly because virtual tours are typically controlled situations. Built-in HDR is therefore more of a matter of convenience, which is why Theta V rates the highest for usability.

      Best regards,
      Mic

      • Thanks, might look into the Theta S again because bracketing with the Mijia is a bit of a pain since you generally need -3 to see the “content” of windows in a darker room but then +3 is of no use so you have to do it manually. Not to mention the actual merging in Photomatix or such…It’s too bad the Thetas don’t have a 50 ISO setting.

  • You wrote an article targeting specifically making a virtual tour and workflow and don’t mention GPS?

    most decent tour software benefits from GPS coordinates being in the exif information.

    MANY of the cameras and some of the software options, lack this feature.

    If I’m making a tour, I’d damn well want to know if the combination of hardware and software includes it-
    or my workflow is going to be blown to hell.

    • Thanks Marke. There are many virtual tour software that don’t require GPS. Anyway, of these options, mi sphere and theta V have GPS if you shoot with their respective app. Fusion also has GPS. Insta360 ONE doesn’t.
      Best regards,
      Mic

      • I use Pannellum.js for a virtual tour on a website. It’s a great package, but it would definitely have benefited from having at least compass information. It was somewhat painful to try to orient each picture to the same direction. If you don’t do that, then when you jump into a new place it can look like you are looking in a completely different direction than you should be. I used a Nikon Keymission camera. I wish I had something nicer, like the Panono though. Nothing can compare to the quality of that, other than, I guess, using a DSLR.

  • This is an interesting review however it misses one key aspect for me – low light. How do these cameras stack up against each other when you’re trying to capture internal images (for example visiting an opera house with painted frescos!!!).

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