In this guide, I will present the best 360 camera for virtual tours as of December 2018. I will let you know the best 360 cameras for both photo quality and workflow. My recommendations are based on my experience as a photographer since 2007, and as a 360 shooter since May 2015. I have over fifty 360 cameras at the moment, and I am a Google Trusted Photographer (with 63 photos that have collectively been viewed 3.7 million times).
To determine the best 360 cameras for virtual tours, I compared seventeen 360 cameras, ranging from under $100 to $5,000. I shot them under the same lighting conditions and compared them side-by-side. Here are my findings. UPDATE: I’ve added part 2 of my analysis which includes professional 360 cameras.
Table of contents:
Part 1: consumer 360 cameras
Here is the video (it goes live December 5, 2018, at 5:30pm PT):
Part 2: professional 360 cameras
As I stated in my videos, when shooting virtual tours, you have to strike a balance between photo quality and speed. The ideal balance varies depending on what kinds of clients you have or would like to have. I therefore gave two scores for each camera: one for quality, and the other for workflow.
The quality score depends not just on image quality but on factors that can impact your ability to take repeatable, good quality photos. The workflow score on the other hand takes into account both the time and the effort that would be required to process the photos. Insofar as this guide is for virtual tours, I have assumed that you will be shooting with a tripod or monopod, under fairly controlled conditions (as opposed to event photography, which tends to be more spontaneous and candid). Accordingly, I have taken bracketing into account for the image quality, for cameras that have such a feature.
I encourage you to compare photos from the cameras below side by side using the 360 camera comparison tool.
Best consumer 360 cameras for photo quality (reverse order):
4. Samsung Gear 360 2016 (under $100).
Photo quality: 8.5. Among the most detailed consumer 360 cameras. However, it is vulnerable to glare. It also has limited exposure controls (exposure compensation, auto ISO limit).
Workflow: 8.3. The desktop software can do batch exporting. Please note: the desktop software is compatible only with Windows PCs that support Open CL 2.0 (which means a 3rd generation Intel Core processor or newer).
3. GoPro Fusion ($699)
Photo quality: 8.6. Almost as detailed as the Gear 360 2016 when used in Raw mode, despite having only around half as much resolution. Raw format improves its detail and bit depth significantly. As with the Gear 360 2016, it has limited exposure controls (exposure compensation and auto ISO limit). The Fusion has excellent flare resistance.
Workflow: 8.3. The desktop software has batch exporting and has a workflow for Raw stitching. However, the workflow is convoluted. Each photo has two files, and you will need to sync the edits. The Raw file is then exported to JPEG using a specific naming convention. The exported JPEGs then need to be placed in the same folder as the original JPEG files to enable the desktop software to stitch the edited JPEGs.
2. Insta360 One X ($399)
Photo quality: 8.7* ( the rating here assumes that you do use exposure bracketing, which is standard practice for virtual tour shooters). About as detailed as the GoPro Fusion, but with better sharpness at the stitch line. It features full manual exposure, with the option to use exposures as long as 55 seconds. There is also an ISO priority and shutter priority mode.
The dynamic range is less than the Fusion, but it has an HDR mode that can take three shots, up to 4EV apart. With the HDR mode, its photos have more dynamic range than Fusion. The smartphone app can stitch and fuse the HDR, but the fused HDR may appear flat. Instead, to get the best quality from the HDR shots, I used a 3rd party software, Photomatix. With Photomatix processing, the Insta360 One X’s HDR photos look excellent.
Workflow: 8.7. The One X app can use batch exporting, and can stitch DNG Raw photos as easily as JPG photos. As mentioned, it can stitch and fuse HDR photos. At the same time, the three HDR photos can also be exported separately to be processed with 3rd party software.
1. Xiaomi Mi Sphere (around $250)
Photo quality: 8.8* (*as with the One X, the rating here assumes that you use exposure bracketing). About as detailed as the Insta360 One X but more detailed than the One X in shadows. The exception is that the Mi Sphere’s sharpness drops suddenly right at the stitch line.
As with the One X, the Mi Sphere has full manual exposure, with ISO as low as 50, and shutter speeds as slow as 32 seconds. It has ISO priority and shutter priority as well.
Like the One X, the Mi Sphere has less dynamic range than the Fusion (specifically, highlight range). It doesn’t have HDR built-in but does have exposure bracketing that can take 3 shots automatically, up to 3EV apart.
The Mi Sphere has better flare resistance than the One X.
Workflow: 8.5. The Mi Sphere app can use batch exporting for both JPG and Raw photos. It can export bracketed photos with consistent stitching for easier processing with third party HDR software.
Best 360 cameras for workflow (in reverse order)
3. Insta360 One X ($399)
Photo quality: 8.7, for the reasons stated above.
Workflow: 8.7, also for the reasons stated above.
The Insta360 One X was the only 360 camera to appear on the list for top 360 cameras for photo quality as well as top 360 cameras for workflow.
2. Garmin Virb 360 ($799)
Photo quality: 8.2. Similar to Ricoh Theta V but Sharper than Theta V toward the stitch line. However, the stitching is template-based (not optical flow), and therefore has some ghosting. The default colors are also a bit flat.
Workflow: 9.0. Garmin Virb 360 has in-camera stitching for both standard photos and HDR photos, making it among the fastest 360 cameras to use.
1. Ricoh Theta V ($399)
Photo quality: 8.3. Similar to Samsung Gear 360 2017, but is less sharp toward the stitch line. Excellent optical flow stitching. Vulnerable to chromatic aberration and flare.
Workflow: 9.0. Ricoh Theta V has in-camera stitching for both standard photos and HDR photos, making it among the fastest 360 cameras to use.
Best professional 360 cameras for virtual tours
Photo quality: 8.5. It has less dynamic range and slightly less detail than the Mi Sphere
Workflow: 8.5. Detu Max can stitch photos in-camera. There is also an option for batch exporting on the desktop.
Photo quality: 8.8 It has similar detail to and slightly less dynamic range than the Mi Sphere
Workflow: 8.7. Insta360 Pro can stitch photos in-camera, and can also batch stitch both JPG and DNG Raw photos. It can also stitch and fuse HDR photos. HDR photos can be exported as individual exposures that will be stitched identically.
Insta360 Pro 2
Photo quality: 9.0 It has similar detail to the Insta360 Pro 2 but has better dynamic range. It also has a much better HDR mode that can shoot 9 exposures (up to 0.9EV apart) in both Raw and JPG.
Workflow: 8.7. Insta360 Pro 2 has seven memory cards, but only one card is required for photos. Its workflow for photos is therefore as simple as it is for Insta360 Pro. As with the Pro, it can stitch photos in-camera, and can also batch stitch both JPG and DNG Raw photos. It can also stitch and fuse HDR photos. HDR photos can be exported as individual exposures that will be stitched identically.
Ultracker Aleta S2C
Photo quality: 9.0 It is more detailed than Insta360 Pro or Insta360 Pro 2 but the stitching has some warping. The standard mode dynamic range is poor, but there is a WDR mode that increases dynamic range significantly. Aleta also has an “HDR” mode that takes 3 shots that are stitched identically, making it easy to fuse them into an HDR.
Workflow: 9.0. Aleta has in-camera stitching for both standard and WDR photos. It can also export bracketed exposures with identical stitching.
Photo quality: 9.5 It has the most detail and the highest dynamic range among one-shot 360 cameras. It is significantly more detailed than Aleta S2 or Insta360 Pro 2.
Workflow: 8.5. Panono can stitch photos and can both stitch and fuse HDR photos automatically, but it does this via the cloud. Ordinarily I would rate in 9.0, but because the cloud-based stitching diminishes the user’s control, I reduced the workflow score to 8.5.
Panoramic heads for GoPro: Panohero, Pano5+1 mk II, and iGo 720 VR
If you want Panono quality but you don’t have the budget for it, consider a panoramic head for a GoPro Hero (they work with Hero5, Hero6, or Hero7).
Photo quality: 9.7 With a Hero7 Black, I found that a 360 photo from a GoPro panorama has more detail than the Panono, although it has less dynamic range than the Panono. One advantage over Panono is that it has the potential for almost perfect stitching even in small spaces.
Workflow: 7.0. It takes much more time and effort to shoot compared to a one-shot 360 camera, and there is a higher possibility of error during shooting (e.g. moving the tripod by accident, or having inconsistent exposure or white balance between the photos).
DSLRs and Interchangeable lens cameras
The quality and workflow of a DSLR panorama can vary widely, depending on the camera, lens, and panoramic head used.
Photo quality: 9.3 and above. The quality of a DSLR panorama depends on the type of camera and lens used. In general, a circular fisheye produces the lowest resolution. The Meike 6.5mm on the 24mp Sony a6000 will produce similar detail to the Aleta S2C but with much better bit depth and dynamic range.
Workflow: 6.8 and below. The workflow for a DSLR panorama depends primarily on the camera and panoramic head used. It will have a slightly worse workflow than a GoPro panoramic head, with a higher chance of error. Possible errors include incorrect nodal point setup, inadequate depth of field, wrong focal distance, inconsistent exposure, or inconsistent white balance.