Everything you need to know about 360-degree video
Everyone knows how to shoot video. You take a camera, you point it at something and you press a button. Simple. However, in the past couple years – thanks to the rise of virtual reality – we’ve seen a new kind of filmmaking emerge.
360 video isn’t as simple as regular video. In fact, you’ll have to rewire the way you think about cameras to properly shoot a 360-degree video. It can be complicated, and it can be tough to get started.
I’ve been using a couple 360 cameras over the past couple weeks, and I’ve learned a lot. The good news for you, my friend, is that I’d like to share my newly earned wisdom. I’ll walk you through what you need to know before you even pick up a camera, and what you need to do as you place your camera and choose your shots.
Not all 360 videos are the same
The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of 360-degree videos: monoscopic and stereoscopic. You’ll often see these referred to as 3D 360 and 2D 360. It can get pretty confusing, so if your head is hurting trying to parse the two don’t worry.
Basically, 2D – or monoscopic – 360 video is flat. There’s no depth to what you’re watching. It’s kind of like someone wrapped a TV around you. Even though you can look around and see in all directions, what you’re seeing is no better than something you’d see on TV – or on you computer screen or phone (like the video above).
3D – or stereoscopic – 360 video has depth to it. Like a 3D movie, you can easily tell – and feel – a difference between the foreground and background. In fact, you may believe that you could fully explore the area rather than being on rails and watching a regular video. The big thing with 3D 360 is that it’s immersive. You really feel like you’re in a space and not watching a video.
Find the smallest camera possible
As you’ll soon find out, shooting 360-degree video is much more difficult than shooting regular video. You don’t have the luxury of a limited viewpoint with 360 cameras.
There are a variety of different 360 cameras out there, but whether you’re a professional or an amateur, try to find the smallest camera possible. It’ll make life a whole lot easier. You’ll be able to put the camera in more spots, you’ll be able to carry it around far easier and, most importantly, the smaller the camera, the more likely it is that you won’t have to stitch together the footage.
A lot of basic cameras, like the Samsung Gear 360 or Insta360 or Ricoh Theta V, will stitch together the footage for you – automatically. The lenses are on the same body after all. Many big rigs, like the GoPro rig or the Facebook Surround 360, use a whole lot of different cameras that will have you stitch the footage. And that is a huge pain in the rear, though companies are releasing software to make that burden easier.
Mind the stitch
Speaking of stitching, if you use a more consumer-friendly camera, you probably won’t have to worry about the stitch. However, the most perceptive viewers will notice that there’s something funny going on in your video.
That’s the stitch, also known as the point where the footage from your two cameras is “stitched” together. It can always look a bit off, so when you’re placing your camera, make sure that the things you want to record are facing the two lenses on your camera. It’s a small thing, but it’ll make a world of a difference.
Get some distance
It’s worth remembering that 360 cameras use fish-eye lenses, which means that if you get way too close to one it’ll distort the image. What you’ll need to do is keep your subjects a couple feet away from your camera. In fact, you’ll need to keep it a couple feet away from everything in all directions.
In the video I recorded above, the camera was about a foot away from all of the plants around it. For the most part, this turned out fine. The plants were fairly small and I wanted to put the viewer in the center of a tiny garden. However, there’s very little room for error here. If I had put the camera any closer you would have gotten a very warped image.
Elevate your camera
360 cameras record everything – in every direction. That means that a viewer can, and probably will, see the situation the camera is in. If they look down, they’ll be able to see what the camera is sitting on. Or, they’ll also be able to see your fingers holding onto the camera. That’s horrendously ugly.
There is a solution. You can get a stand or monopod. Don’t get a tripod. As you’ll quickly find out, if the legs go beyond a certain point, the camera will pick them up and when your viewer looks down they’ll see the leg of a tripod floating out in the middle of nowhere. You might actually spot that in a couple of my videos here. Do your best to get a monopod. Do even better to not hold your camera, you don’t want anyone to see your fingers.
The other benefit of elevating your camera is that you get it further away from the ground. If your camera is too close to a large, flat surface that surface will become a great part of your shot. You don’t want people that close to cement, do you? Of course not!
The camera is a person, not a camera
This may sound silly, but it’s absolutely true. Do not think of your camera as an actual camera, because if you do you’ll revert to the old way of shooting with a camera. You’ll keep wanting to point it at something. You can’t do that with 360-degree video.
Think of the camera as a living creature, and make a point to put it in the middle of the action. You want as many interesting things around your shot as possible. This is so people can look around and take in what’s going on.
In the video I created above, you can see I placed the camera in the center of a couple different things. On one side is me, talking to the camera. On the other side is the Stanford Mausoleum. On another side is a statue of Leland Stanford himself, though it’s a little further away. Regardless, the viewer has a couple different things they can look at.
That brings me to my next point. If you’re going to talk in your videos, make sure you engage the camera like it was a person. If you want attention, call attention to yourself. If you want to point something out, actually point it out. In a regular video, you can assume where a person’s attention will be. You can’t do that in a 360 video.
Learn to hide
Have you ever just shot some beautiful, serene scenery and just knew you didn’t want to get in the way of what you wanted to share with people? On a regular camera, that’s so easy to do the only time you ever think about it is if someone walks in your shot.
In 360-degree video, you soon come to realize that that means that you need to get out of your own shot. Otherwise you’ll have plenty of footage of a nice moment and then as a viewer looks around they’ll see you staring at the camera, arms crossed, waiting to pick it up and go.
How do you get around this? Well, many 360-cameras comes with companion apps that let you take a look at what you’re recording before you actually record. Use this, and specifically look out for where you are in the shot. You’ll need to get really good at finding a spot to hide, so that you can remotely watch what you’re recording. You’ll also be able to end it. The vast majority of the basic cameras, like the Insta 360 or Gear 360, have this functionality.
In the video above, try to find out where I am. I set down the camera by this nice fountain, I opened up the Gear 360 app, and then I ran off to hide, watching on the app as I did. It turned out pretty well, though if you look hard enough you may spot me.
Give people some time
When you first go to a new place, you naturally look around to get your bearings. You want a sense of place, and you want to understand how you fit into that place. The same thing is true of 360 videos, which ultimately put someone in the center of the action.
So when you start your video, take your time at the beginning. Create some buffer time where people are encouraged to look around. Or, find a way to direct their attention to what you want them to see. Be aware that they’re not just watching a video, they’re following you to a new place. Be a kind host.
Be careful with motion
In a regular video, the filmmaker has full control over the focus and the viewpoint of the viewer. That means that the filmmaker can do a whole lot of interesting things with motion. You can zip up, down, around, wherever you want.
In a 360 video, that’s tougher to get away with. You need to be aware that people are looking around. They’re already in motion. By moving around the camera, you’re adding a second layer of motion that’s throwing a whole lot of visual information their way.
So if you’ve got a video where you have a camera moving through an alley or something – maybe there’s cool graffiti on the wall – take it slow. You want people to be able to look around and really see what you’re trying to show them. If you go too fast, people will feel overwhelmed trying to see everything before the video is over. And if they miss something that they thought looked interesting, but they couldn’t see it because you’re hustling along, they could get frustrated and turn off the video.
By the way, notice how bad my hand looks holding the camera. It gives the viewer the impression that I’ve trapped them in a little box, rather than they’re immersed in the same environment I’m in.