Shenzen-based Insta360 has been making 360-degree cameras for a few years now, but — like most consumer 360-degree cameras — none of them have been anything terribly special. The resolution is usually spotty, the image stitching is noticeable, and they don’t help solve the problem of when, where, and how we should use 360 cameras. That changes today with new $299 Insta360 One.
The shape of a Beats Pill speaker, but the size of small sausage link, the new camera won’t blow you away with high quality imagery. (It uses two cameras to shoot, in total, 4K at 30 frames per second, and captures 24-megapixel stills — all about par for the course for current consumer 360 cameras.) But it does offer something that makers of 360-degree cameras have seemed to be heading towards for a little while now: the ability to pluck a photo or a 1080p frame of video from the 360-degree photos and videos that you shoot.
With the Insta360 One, you shoot 360-degree videos and photos like you normally would. You can set the camera up on a tripod, or hold it steady in an outstretched hand (it has, surprisingly, fantastic gyroscopic stabilization for a tiny little camera) and capture the world around you. Those photos and videos look fine.
The breathtaking difference is that afterwards capture. Insta360 calls it “FreeCapture,” saying you can “shoot first, point later.” Here’s the way it works: when you’re playing back a 360-degree photo on your phone, you spin and pinch and zoom the image until you’ve framed up a 16:9, 4:3, or even 1:1 composition that you like. Then just one tap of the button saves a full-resolution still of that newly-composed 2D image to your phone.
The same goes for video, though the process is a little different. With video, you shoot in 360 degrees, and then during playback, you can actually pan around the sphere of imagery by moving your phone like you would when you’re shooting a video. It’s as if you have stepped back into that part of the world where you and your camera originally were and were given the opportunity to shoot it all over again. It honestly feels like magic.
That ability completely changed how I typically use 360-degree cameras. Over the weekend, I was walking my dog with the camera in my hand, and we ran into another dog that she plays with. As they started wrestling on the sidewalk, I just tapped the camera’s shutter button twice to start a video. I didn’t hold the camera up and out away from me, and I didn’t have to pull my iPhone out of my pocket and risk dropping it or distracting the dogs. I just kept the Insta360 One by my side with my arm hanging down, knowing full well that half the 360-degree sphere was being blocked by my body.
And yet, later, I was able to pull all the action out of the 360-degree frame and save it as one normal video. The video looks better than anything else I could have shot in that situation. It’s like there was a third person standing right next to me filming the dogs on their own phone.
Now, the Insta360 One’s app is still awfully buggy, and the camera — which you can shoot with hand-held, or with it plugged into the bottom of your iPhone while connected via lightning cable (an Android version is on the way) — isn’t the best-made thing in the world. (It doesn’t quite sit flush with the bottom of my iPhone 7, for example.) I also fear, like with most 360-degree cameras, that the dual lenses will get scratched because of how exposed they are. I haven’t had nearly enough time with it to say anything for sure about how durable it is, both on the outside and inside.
You also still need to be really close (within five to 10 feet) to your subjects for any of this to work well — another video I shot at a baseball game, even from the front row, was less impressive. And, like I said before, the quality isn’t that great. You need plenty more resolution from spherical video (8K or higher, really) before the imagery looks as good as we all inherently expect video to look, and so pulling a 1080p video out of the Insta360 One’s 4K frame means you’re left with a cell-phone quality video at best.
But you can do it. And it’s far more compelling a use case for a 360-degree camera than what’s been offered by anyone else who’s sold one to date. 360-degree cameras are an fascinating new technology in the photography world, but for the first time, I’m actually excited to keep using one.