Here’s an obvious statement: The shift from film to digital changed the way we take photos and record videos. What’s less obvious about that, or at least easier to forget, is that this shift wasn’t just a one-time thing. Digital photography has given photographers, videographers, and the companies that make the tech the freedom to try out all sorts of new ideas.
Some of these experiments have stuck, like how we have miniaturized cameras to the point that we can shoot 4K video with our smartphones. Others, like 3D video, have flailed.
One of the newest experiments, virtual reality, is a grand one. And as we wait to see if that takes hold, we’re seeing some of the tech that powers VR spawn a more accessible version of the idea: consumer-level cameras that shoot 360-degree video and photos. Samsung’s new Gear 360 is already one of the most recognizable of these cameras, and it’s one of the first from a big company with major imaging resources. Like any tech that tackles a new idea, the camera has its drawbacks. If you’re looking for a tool that will let you experiment in 360 degrees right this moment, the Gear 360 is a good place to start — but only if you’ve already bought into the Samsung ecosystem. Samsung’s counting on this, too; the Gear 360 is inherently more compelling if you already own a Samsung phone and a Gear VR. If you don’t, you can still find ways to enjoy the Gear 360. It’s just going to take a lot more work.
First let’s run through the basics. The $349 Gear 360 uses two fisheye lenses on either side of the camera. You can use just one of these lenses if you want — the super-wide view could substitute for the look of an action camera in a pinch, though it doesn’t approach the quality or versatility of a GoPro or one of Sony’s cameras. But the point of the Gear 360 is to shoot with both lenses, and then either use one of Samsung’s newest smartphones or a PC app to stitch the images or videos together.
Each lens works with a 15-megapixel sensor, meaning the camera can shoot 30-megapixel 360-degree stills or 3840 x 1920 video. That’s just under true 4K, which puts the Gear 360 near the top of the market in terms of resolution — for example, other 360 cameras, such as the 360fly and Kodak, offer full 4K shooting, while LG’s 360 Cam and Ricoh’s Theta S shoot lower-resolution footage.
It’s important to note, though, that 4K here doesn't mean the same as it does when we're talking about regular 4K video. When Samsung and its 360-degree competitors use 4K, the pixels they’re talking about are spread around the entire sphere. At any given time when you’re watching a 360-degree video you’re only looking at a fraction of that full 4K capture, and so the quality of the image that these cameras can record is not on par with traditional digital cameras — not even the ones in your smartphone.
Photos look great, videos are just fine
With that said, the Gear 360 captures a higher-quality image than most of its competitors. 360fly and Kodak might be able to sneak a few more pixels in, but overall Samsung’s done a good job at balancing all the basics like good color correction and dynamic range. You can certainly see the line where the two images get stitched together, but if you keep your subject more than five feet away it’s easy enough to mitigate. Photos are even better, especially in broad daylight. The only problem there is that your options for sharing 360 photos (like this one) are even more limited than with spherical video. Facebook is your best bet, but they have to live there completely — you can't embed them around the internet like you can with 360 videos.
What I liked best about the Gear 360 is how simple it is to operate. There are some settings to play with if you want to fuss around, but you don’t need years of experience to shoot with the Gear 360. A lot of this has to do with the three-button setup: there’s a menu button that cycles through shooting modes and settings, a power button, and a black-and-red record button on top.
The shame is that Samsung has put roadblocks in the way that limit the value of the Gear 360's ease of use. The first is that, if you want to use it with a phone, it has to be one of the newer Samsung phones, such as the Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge. You can get by without that but only if you have a PC — Samsung’s desktop software, which lets you stitch and edit the footage, is Windows-only.
That pseudo ecosystem lock-in has a few benefits. For one, it’s really easy to view footage that you’ve shot with the Gear 360 on a Gear VR. Second, the camera plays nice with Samsung’s phones (with limits, which I’ll get to in a moment). You can control the camera from the Gear 360 app, tweak settings, and even get a live preview of what the footage will look like.
This doesn’t mean you won’t run into headaches. The Gear 360 is a simple camera, but it's also often a frustrating one. The biggest source of that frustration comes from what should be a simple process: transferring footage from the camera to your phone.
If you shoot a video more than five minutes long on the Gear 360, it takes at least 10 minutes to transfer to your phone. An example: I brought the camera to a friend’s wedding. It was a short ceremony that lasted only eight and a half minutes, but it took me three days and multiple failed attempts to get that file from the camera to the S7 Edge to Facebook. It ultimately took more than 20 minutes to transfer over, which is a long time when you consider that the transfer can be disrupted by either a hiccup in the Bluetooth connection or the camera dying (you can’t transfer footage while the camera is charging).
There was a problem with uploading the footage, which is admittedly not just Samsung’s problem. This video wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to edit down to save on file size — I wanted to share the full ceremony with the people who were there. (This wouldn’t have helped with the transfer either because, even though you can trim clips in the Gear 360 app, you still have to transfer them to the phone first.) But Facebook currently caps its 360-degree uploads at 1GB, something that I only found out when I tried to post the video in the Facebook app; until then, I had been trying to upload the video to Facebook from inside the Gear 360 app, where the process would repeatedly get about 40 percent complete before quitting.
It’s hard to say how much of an outlier this case was because 360-degree media is so new. And transfers of shorter clips went much smoother. But shooting 5, 10, or even 20-minute videos with the Gear 360 won’t be unheard of when you’re still figuring out the format. For a camera that works best when you just hit record and walk away, it's just easy to wind up recording longer videos. Shooting at this length unearthed other troubles, too, because the camera tended to overheat and shut off after about 15 minutes of continuous recording. This part of the experience is probably just a temporary bump in the road for Samsung, but it’s enough to discourage people from experimenting with this camera.
And that’s a shame, because experimentation is really what this version of the Gear 360 is best for. This is not the 360-degree camera you will own for years — it’s a first-generation product that, before we know it, Samsung will replace with a true 4K or even 8K model. The shelf life of this version of the Gear 360 is the same shelf life of other pioneering digital cameras: short.
Still, it’s fun to get your feet wet shooting in this new format, because no one has really nailed down what makes a "good" 360-degree video outside of the highly produced, near-VR stuff available from news outlets and big name brands. Cameras like the Gear 360 open up room at this opposite end of the spectrum — especially considering that Facebook supports the format.
With this in mind, I found myself using the Gear 360 to film moments that were more like home movies, like that wedding. The idea that, years from now, I could throw on a pair of VR goggles and immerse myself in a memory — footage of a friend’s wedding, of me playing with my dog, or even an otherwise normal lunch date with my girlfriend — is a powerful one, and might wind up being the ultimate driver for buying a camera like this in the first place. And the implications of that power are only going to become more pressing as the quality of the cameras increases in the coming years.
Beyond that, I still don’t have any concrete answers on what constitutes a "good" spherical video or photo. What I do have are some basic tips for shooting. One, there’s a standard one-fourth-inch tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. You should use this. The Gear 360 comes with a little stand of its own but you want to get the camera off the floor, off of tables, or off the ground, otherwise you’re wasting a big chunk of the 360 degrees available to you. The most effective video you’ll shoot with a camera like this is probably going to be shot at an average eye level, five feet in the air or so.
Two, don’t move around with the camera, unless what you’re shooting really demands it (like on the hood of a car). And definitely don’t hand-hold it. The more the camera moves, the more that viewers are going to have to try to compensate for that — either by clicking and dragging around in a browser window or by spinning their head in a VR headset. Neither of those things are good.
The Gear 360, and basically any other 360 camera on the market right now, is at its best when it’s in the middle of a scene, or in the middle of the action. You want your subjects to be relatively close, but not so close that the stitching becomes really noticeable.
Samsung needs to make this camera more rugged
Figuring this out for myself illuminated my last problem with the Gear 360. The camera is dust and splash resistant, but it’s far from sturdy — I scratched one of the two lenses just a few days into using it. And while I like the look of the camera, it doesn’t help that it’s slippery to the touch and the spheroid shape makes it awkward to hold. You really have to treat this camera with kid gloves, which is a bad thing, because the nature of the format demands that the camera be placed in the middle of the action. As of now, Samsung doesn’t sell protective cases (a la GoPro) for the Gear 360, but it’s something that would be worth investing in if the next version isn’t ruggedized.
The Gear 360 is far from perfect, and Samsung’s going to have to advance the camera’s tech at a pretty quick pace if it wants to stay relevant — Nikon is finally ready to release the 360-degree camera it announced at CES, GoPro is supposedly working on a 360-degree camera as well, and existing competition like 360fly and Kodak are quickly iterating on their own products.
If you’re clamoring to shoot in 360 degrees, the Gear 360 balances simple design with workable image quality — but you really need a Samsung phone (and a Gear VR, and a good hunk of money) to get the most out of it. And, for now, that's fine. This version of the Gear 360 is more likely to be looked back on as a relic anyway, a recognizable but eventually dismissible attempt at a new idea, and the foundation for whatever Samsung does next.