It may be flat, but it’s also round. No, we’re not talking about the Flat Earth Society, but about 360° images. While panoramas were challenging shutterbugs from the dawn of photography (back when cropping a photo actually meant cropping it with scissors), the digital era made everything so much easier. With the ability to take digitized images, came the option to combine several landscape photos to a single image using software. And with the recent evolution of media sharing, came the amazing opportunity to astonish people with 360° images straight on your photography website or Facebook page. To make the most of this exciting trend, we put together a complete handbook that will give you an all-inclusive 360° tour to the world of 360° photography.
What is a 360° photo?
A 360° image is basically a spherical panorama image with the added element of interactivity (that can exist only in the online world). Also referred to as VR (Virtual Reality) photography, virtual tour photography and spherical photography, this technique can capture a location from multiple angles (and not just a single perspective). Using specialized equipment you can create a virtual tour of literally any scene – be it a bird’s eye view from a skyscraper, an erupting volcano, or turtles sunbathing in the Galapagos. The purpose of 360° photography is to give the viewer a “behind the scenes” experience as if they were present in the very center of the action.
Wish they were here? Now they can be! Thanks to 360° photos, your viewers can explore a scene in so many ways: they can rotate the scene in all directions (to the sides and upwards-downwards), enter and exit rooms, zoom in and out, read texts, watch videos, and even click links.
What’s in it for you
With the arrival of specialized 360° cameras and apps, as well as the option to easily share them on Facebook, 360° photos became widely used in various fields. Here are just a few places, where having 360° skills would be extremely valuable:
Wedding/event photography – an original service to offer your clients.
Interior photography – interior designers, hotels, real estate agents, and basically any business in the tourist industry.
eCommerce – product overviews, as well as “behind the scenes” store interiors.
Social media – many brands experiment (and succeed) with creative 360° photography to engage with their online audience.
Nature and Landscape photography – if the mountain doesn’t come to Muhammad, he can experience it with a virtual tour.
First – gear
A 360° image consists of several images that are joined together using a special image stitching software. There are a few ways to capture those images for stitching, each technique has its pro’s and con’s:
01. A DSLR with a fisheye or wide-angle lens and a panoramic head. Pro: best way to go for high-quality results. Con: requires buying specific gear plus a lot of post processing.
02. A 360° camera (such as Ricoh Theta S and Samsung Gear 360). Pro: almost no processing required, just point and shoot. Con: again, requires buying a ~ $400 camera.
03. Your smartphone, with a built-in app or a downloadable one (like Google Street View). Pro: as simple as it gets, no skills or software required. Con: not as high quality as in the two previous options, plus the need to rotate the phone manually in one spot makes image stitching harder.
The main difference between these options is that the last two do not require specific experience or post-processing skills – the image stitching is performed automatically by the embedded software – for better, or for worse. If you are just experimenting with 360° photography for fun, then it doesn’t really matter what choice you make. However, if you’re a professional photographer, hired especially for creating a 360° photo for a client, then it would make lens (sorry, sense) to take the road less traveled and use a DSLR.
On the other hand, if you’re a wedding photographer looking to add new exciting services to your packages, the option of acquiring a 360° camera sounds more appealing. Point, shoot, repeat and you’ve got yourself an original outcome that is sure to wow your clients.
The process and the post
If you take the more intriguing path of using a DSLR, the amount of photos you take and their overlapping areas are under your responsibility. With a fisheye or wide-angle lense (and the panoramic head to avoid showing your tripod) you’ll need to shoot at least eight images for a decent outcome. Make sure each image overlaps with the next one in line.
You can think of the landscape in the form of an unfolded cardboard box – unlike a traditional panoramic image, it has both right and left sides, as well as an upward and a downward point of view.
Some post processing measures need to be taken before stitching the photos. These include vignetting, luminosity, color balance and removing the tripod. When the photos are ready to be combined with each other, you can merge them into a spherical image – this is where the 360° panorama stitching software comes in. The most widely used are, PTGui and Hugin (the latter being free and available in more languages than English). The main challenge these programs come to solve is parallax errors, which are very common in stitched panoramas.
Take viewers on a tour
Several 360° images can be combined together to create a virtual tour. What does that mean? For example, if you work for a real estate agent, creating a tour of a property: after preparing panoramas of each room separately, you combine them together to create a tour. This means that the viewer can move from one room (i.e. spherical image) to another. This step requires another type of software: many are available today, like Easypano or Pano2VR, to name just a few.
This step is also where you’ll be able to add various interactive elements to enhance the experience. We’re talking: hotspots, sounds, video – anything that would take the users one step further into believing they are actually exploring the surrounding in real life.
How to wow
Not all that glitters is gold, and not all 360° photos are perfect. Now that the technicalities are over, let’s see what it takes to create an image that will truly capture your viewers’ attention. Your main focus should be putting the viewer in the very center of the action. When you capture the images, try to think what would grab their attention from every angle. You are the tour guide! Give them the full experience of being present at the location.
Think of interactive elements that can encourage your viewers to explore every single corner (does a sphere have corners?) of the panoramic image. Instead of “behind the scenes”, think “inside the scene itself”. You can create a story, challenge viewers to find a hidden element, add sounds, or go wild and place an image of a unicorn! The options are endless. This is where it finally pays off to be creative 😉
Sharing is caring
Let’s be honest: be it a 360° or a 183° image – if it’s not shared online, it doesn’t really exist. If you put the effort into creating it, make sure to share your achievement with the world. How? Here are the two best options:
Upload it to your photography website If you have an online portfolio, it would only make sense that it shows the full range of your services. Luckily, Wix offers a free 360 Images app that will upload and display your 360° images in the easiest and most stunning way – all in a couple of intuitive clicks.
Share it on your Facebook page Believe it or not, exactly one year ago on this day (June 9th, 2016) Facebook launched the 360° photo sharing feature. Coincidence? We think not. To share your 360° view of the world, all you need to do is upload the image to your Photos, just like you would do with any other image. Facebook automatically recognizes its “three-hundred-sixtiness” and will present it to your followers with the respective functionality. You can choose which frame your viewers will see first. By the way, 180 panoramas are treated the same way – Facebook will automatically make them navigable.
Since posting a 360° image became easier than easy, it would be a pity not to make the most of this engaging type of content on your business or personal page. If you haven’t had the chance to shoot spherical images for clients just yet, you can experiment by documenting a typical shooting day or a beautiful landscape and share it with your followers.
Adding a virtual tour is also possible: not as a page post, but in a separate tab. Here’s a detailed instruction on how to embed a virtual tour on Facebook.