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Best virtual tour camera 2020 (DSLR + eleven 360 cameras compared)

Which is the best 360 camera for virtual tours in 2020?  I compared eleven 360 cameras and a DSLR using the industry’s first objective comparison for detail and dynamic range.  To compare the cameras, I shot them in a typical but challenging scene for virtual tours: a dimly-lit bedroom with bright windows.   Here’s the video:

If you just want to jump the conclusion, see here.

THE TEST SCENE
Because this was a virtual tour camera comparison, it only made sense to test it using a scene that is representative of what we would encounter in virtual tours.  I chose to shoot in a dimly-lit bedroom with no overhead lights, and a bright window facing west, while I was shooting midday.  The highlight of the room was its view, therefore a window pulldown was absolutely required.  At the same time, it was a bright day with sunny-16 conditions, and it was quite challenging to capture the full highlight detail of the window while also capturing the shadow details of the bedroom.

OBJECTIVE COMPARISON OF DETAIL, DYNAMIC RANGE, and EASE OF USE

One issue with 360 camera reviews is their subjective nature.  It is hard for buyers to compare 360 cameras when one reviewer’s “amazing” can be another reviewer’s “good.”  To minimize confusion, I created ways of comparing cameras objectively for detail, dynamic range, and ease of use.

To compare detail, I created a uniform resolution scale, where each half point corresponds to an increase of 1 stop in detail (2X detail).

360 camera comparison: detail scale
360 camera comparison: detail scale

To compare dynamic range, I created a scale where each half point increase corresponds to a 1-stop increase in highlight detail and 1-stop increase in shadow detail.  On this scale, a full-color window pulldown in sunny-16 conditions requires a dynamic range of 10.0.

360 camera dynamic range scale
360 camera dynamic range scale

Finally, to compare ease of use, I determined the number of steps required from shooting until sharing.  Cameras with fewer number of steps score higher, with a maximum of 10.0, for a camera where the only step is to take a photo, such as a standard JPG photo from the Theta V (reviewed here) or GoPro MAX (reviewed here).

360 camera ease of use scale
360 camera ease of use scale

Cameras with additional features such as bracketing or built-in HDR were able to reduce the number of steps to shoot and process the photo, resulting in a higher score than a camera without such a feature.  Some steps required more time, and I took that into account.  For example, Labpano Pilot One has only two steps: take the photo and stitch the photos in the camera.  However, the latter takes up a lot of time, therefore its ease of use rating is 8.5, unlike the theta Z1 HDR which also has only two steps but requires very little time.  Using this scale, cameras with the same score will have similar level of convenience.  For example, a DSLR and GoPro Fusion manual HDR both have a score of 6.5.  If you ask me which I would prefer to do, I would say I would be indifferent.

I also added “penalties” for cameras that lack essential features such as a self-timer.  The rationale is that these cameras are harder to use, or take more time to use, hence it is similar to having one or more additional steps (see “no self-timer penalty” in cell H6 for GoPro Fusion Raw).

The XPhase is unique because it has a very simple workflow because it can stitch and merge HDR photos in one step.  However, it is prone to stitching errors and glare, and it takes time and skill to fix those errors. I therefore gave it two scores: 8.0 for its workflow but 6.0 if you need to fix the stitching and/or glare.

IMAGE QUALITY POTENTIAL / HQ METHOD

One issue with comparing 360 cameras is the editing.  Some cameras are highly processed by the in-camera processor.  Other cameras have a lot of potential but require editing to bring out that potential.   How do we compare these cameras and for example, how aggressively do you use sharpening or other adjustments?  To resolve this, I created two scores for cameras where the potential had to be unlocked through editing.  The first score is for a fast workflow with little or no editing.  The second score is for what I call the “HQ method,” which is a workflow that increases the image quality significantly but is still a realistic workflow for virtual tours where you have to take dozens of photos.  I’m working for the tutorial for the HQ method, which I will post here.

HQ method for virtual tours
Left: Insta360 One R 9-shot HDR, Right: Insta360 One R HQ method

CONCLUSION AND SIDE-BY-SIDE COMPARISONS

Top 5 best 360 cameras for virtual tours
Top 5 best 360 cameras for virtual tours: (#5) Qoocam 8K; (#3) Insta360 One R / One X; (#3) Mi Sphere; (#1) Theta Z1, (#1) XPhase

You can compare these samples side by side using the updated 360 Camera Comparison Tool.  Here are the top 5 cameras (not including DSLR):

  • 1 (tie). Theta Z1 ($999, reviewed here).  If you want a camera that is easy to use, but also has excellent quality, this is the best one.
  • 1 (tie). XPhase ($879, reviewed here).  If you want a camera with the best quality, this is it.  It’s the only one that has the detail of a DSLR.  But it may have some stitching errors indoors, which can take time and effort to fix.  Please note that some users have been able to fix their stitching issues with calibration.  A few, like myself, have gotten better stitching after calibration, but there are some stitching errors that remain.
  • Mi Sphere ($199, reviewed here).  If you want Z1-like detail, but don’t want to deal with stitching errors, or can’t afford XPhase, get Mi Sphere.
  • Insta360 One R ($459, reviewed here) or Insta360 One X ($399, reviewed here).  If you want a camera that is easy to use but can’t afford Theta Z1, Insta360 One R or One X are also easy to use.
  • Qoocam 8K ($599, reviewed here).  If you want a camera that has good photos but also excellent video, this is a good option.  UPDATE: For a fast workflow with minimal editing, Qoocam 8K’s SuperHDR now has the easiest workflow for achieving a dynamic range of 10.0.

About the author

Mic Ty

16 Comments

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  • You talk about a workflow to get better results from the Insta360 one r but you don’t give any details. Could you let us know what that workflow is?

    • Hi Ryan. I’m working on the tutorial that will teach the HQ method. I’m working hard to get it released as soon as possible. It will be posted on 360rumors.thinkific.com.

      • Hi Mic, Thanks for the great review. Thats what I wonder. I am between qoocam and insta360 one r now. I need to buy immediately. it looks like that workflow you are talking about will be game changer for me. At least can you give me couple of words about it. Thanks in advance.

  • Thanks so much for all of your content, I’ve been checking out your yt channel recently.

    I wonder if you can help me?
    I have been asked by a local charity to create 360 video virtual tour with hotspots that when clicked starts playback of media (eg sounds, videos or a simple pop up graphic). They don’t have much budget and I’ll be filming with my Insta360 One X. I’ve looked at lots of 360 photo tours platforms but there aren’t many 360 video platforms.

    I wonder if you can point me in the right direction on any platforms which I should look at?

  • Is there a bracketed photo mode option for the Insta360 One R? What exposures do you usually take for bracketed photos on One R?

  • hi thanks for the great video. You mentioned that you will be giving a way on how to fix stitching errors with Xphase. Where I can find it?

    Thanks.

  • Hi Mic, is there any workaround for Z1 to get close to XPhase in term of details and sharpness? Would image stacking of, lets say, 8 images at 4 different exposures make noticeable difference and improvement? I have Mi Sphere and by doing this way it make a difference.

    • Hi Kresho. No there is no real way to increase detail. Software can increase the sharpness, but the actual detail will not increase. Using HDR can decrease the noise and therefore make details more apparent, but the actual amount of detail will not increase.

  • Hey there,

    Do you know the best HDR merging software besides Lightroom? What is the best HDR software without having to pay a subscription? Btw thank you for the information on the virtual tour cameras.

    Sincerely,
    Vincent

  • Hey Mic,

    What is the best HDR software without a subscription for 360 cameras? I don’t like Lightroom because you have to pay monthly. Whenever I use AuroraHDR, I have a seam line in the photo. Please give me some info on this. Thanks!

    Sincerely,
    Vincent

    • Hi Jose. If you mean a virtual tour with 360 photos, it’s not easy to use the osmo pocket for that. There is no panoramic head that I’m aware of that is made for Osmo Pocket. So you’ll need a regular panoramic head such as nodal ninja. But that will take more effort than shooting with a DSLR with a panoramic head.