In the automotive world, there’s a saying that there’s no replacement for displacement — a bigger engine is a bigger engine, and that’s all there is to it. One can say that this is the approach that Kandao is taking with its new QooCam 8K: more resolution and larger sensor sizes that make for quite an appealing 360 camera on paper and, as it turns out, in real life too.
The QooCam 8K is the successor to the Kandao QooCam, an oddly-shaped camera with the neat party trick of switching from a standard 360 camera into a 180-degree “3D” camera. The QooCam 8K, as the name suggests, adds 8K resolution (7,680x3,840) to the mix coming from a pair of larger 1/1.7” sensors, which in the world of 360 cameras is actually quite large and an increase from the original QooCam. Photos come in at 30 megapixels, and the camera can shoot 8K at 30 fps or 4K at 120 fps for smooth slow-motion. Like almost every 360 camera out there these days, the image is stabilized, and you can use the app or desktop software to reframe the image and produce 2-dimensional video after the fact. The camera can also live-stream at 4K, which is notably higher than most competitors in this price range.
But while the original QooCam featured almost no external controls and a bunch of things photographers would never really use (like 3D photos from a tiny sensor that required a very, very cumbersome process to even upload to Facebook), the QooCam 8K is a different beast entirely. The similarities to the previous camera start and end with the name only. Kandao, this time around, has listened to what photographers might want from a camera to create the perfect blend of features, image quality, and price in the QooCam 8K.
Features Photographers Want
There are a lot of little features about the camera that add up to make the QooCam 8K stand out among its peers. Aside from the high-spec video, the camera features 64 GB of built-in memory. Built-in memory is something every manufacturer should have been doing for years so that you never have to worry about having a memory card handy or worry about having one that’s fast enough for 8K video. That it’s 2020 and Kandao is one of only a handful of companies doing this is shocking.
While I mentioned that the camera could reframe video for 2D presentation, something that vloggers can appreciate, what’s a bonus for that same crowd is that you can plug a microphone directly into the camera using a standard 3.5mm input. Not having to record to a separate device and later sync the audio is a huge bonus. Audio is not bad out of the camera itself, but having the ability to plug in a microphone for better audio can’t hurt.
But for me, the most important feature that the camera has is the 2.4” color touchscreen. It’s true that the GoPro Max also has this feature, but then again, the GoPro Max is down on resolution compared to the QooCam 8K. That touchscreen allows control over almost every feature of the camera. I never need to touch the app. If my phone gets out of date and can’t support the latest version of the app, I don’t need it. This is game-changing in the world of 360 cameras.
The feature frees up your hands and devices to be more creative since you’re not fiddling with a phone app to be able to get full manual control access to the camera's advanced features. Let’s face it. No camera manufacturer has a good app. While Kandao’s app, like others, is serviceable, to not need it is a huge bonus. I’ve been beating this drum forever, and for once, it actually happened.
Another major upside of not having to use an app is that the battery drain on the camera (and by extension, your phone) is lessened by not having to enable the WiFi. Indeed, I shot the Kandao QooCam 8K side-by-side with an Insta360 One X all day at Montauk Point in New York, and halfway through the day, the One X’s battery had quit while the QooCam 8K was still at 68 percent. While the QooCam 8K’s battery isn’t removable like the One X, it lasts so long that it’s not necessary. In any case, the camera can be charged with an external battery pack through its USB-C port if needed in the field.
There is, of course, full control of the camera available through the QooCam app, but like all cameras, the second you move any reasonable distance away or put a wall between you and the camera, the signal is dropped. All the more reason on-camera controls are so important.
The selfie stick and camera build quality overall have improved from the original, and each part included in the package feels well-thought-out except for one: the wrist strap. It screws into the tripod mount at the bottom of the camera, and so using the wrist strap precludes using the selfie stick or mounting it to any sort of platform to create a steady image. I took the strap off and never used it as a result.
But How Do Images Look?
With all this talk about features, how do the images actually look out of the camera?
Pretty damn good.
I’ve been using 360 cameras since the original 2016 Samsung Gear, and my love has gone from the Nikon Keymission 360 to the Garmin Virb 360 to my mainstay camera for the last two years (an eternity in 360 camera time), the Insta360 One X.
The Kandao QooCam 8K beats all of them. I even took the $599 camera out to the same spot I shot with the $5,000 Insta360 Pro 2 to compare 8K to 8K, and while it did not beat that camera (the Pro 2 uses six lenses and sensors compared to the two on the QooCam 8K), the QooCam 8K came surprisingly close. It easily beat the much lower resolution Insta360 One X. See for yourself (these were taken on different days, and so the sky was a bit more overcast for the QooCam photo):
Insta360 One X
Insta360 Pro 2
Obviously, a camera with six lenses and sensors (The Pro 2) will beat a camera that’s only got two when it comes to stitching, dynamic range, and fringing at the edge of the lenses, as was the case here. But what struck me is how close the QooCam 8K came for a lot less money, size, and complexity. In all but the most demanding of situations, the QooCam 8K will fit the bill. It’s a lot easier to get the image when you have the camera with you, and the QooCam 8K, at the size of about two smartphones sandwiched together can fit much more easily into a backpack than a soccer ball-sized Insta360 Pro 2.
I did notice some occasional blooming with pin-point light sources (as in the case of the photo of Stony Brook University above, if you look extremely close), but nothing too crazy that wasn't easily fixed with a healing brush. Kandao says they're working on a fix in a future firmware update.
Video quality is equally as impressive as still photos, serving up sharp, detailed visuals and very good stitching. As with the photos, there is little to complain about here. If I had to nitpick, I’d have to say color isn’t quite where I’d want it to be, and the “gravity correction” feature of Kandao’s Studio software doesn’t always quite get the horizon right, but both of these are a few clicks away from being fixed in Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Having the base image be this high resolution is a great platform to start working with. Have a look at the raw, unedited footage from the camera here:
I shot the same visuals with lower resolution cameras, and there will be no going back after seeing footage at 8K on a camera this portable. The sharpness difference is that real, and even with only two lenses, the camera stitches well and keeps fringing mostly down.
That Workflow Though
There is one caveat to this, though. While standard JPG+DNG settings are available here, the real magic of the camera comes in the form of its DNG8 mode (the mode used in the two QooCam 8K 360 examples above). In shooting with DNG8 mode, the camera takes eight photos in quick succession, producing a DNG format raw file for each photo. You then take the photos off the card and merge the eight files into one DNG file using Kandao’s RAW+ software. In the year and a half since I last used the software on the original QooCam files, whereas I couldn’t see much of a difference then, it’s definitely visible now. The software uses the first file as a reference file to compensate for movement, then uses the other seven files to combine for greater dynamic range and less noise. Between the extra development time in the software and the larger sensor of this newer camera, there’s almost no reason not to shoot in this mode all the time, except for the extra steps added in the workflow. Kandao promises that a coming firmware update will allow for the merging DNG8 files in camera, but that firmware wasn’t available at press time.
To get the best quality out of the images or video, you’ll also need to stitch using Kandao’s QooCam Studio software on an actual computer, and it’s here where another workflow issue presents itself. Kandao’s latest software is only available for Windows machines. The Mac version of Studio is several versions behind, and throughout the course of the review, a new version of the Mac software was never released. Luckily, I have both platforms and was able to use a PC to get the most out of the camera, but your mileage may vary if you have a Mac.
These workflow issues are not unique to Kandao. It seems like I make the same noise about it for every manufacturer every time I review a 360 camera. There’s a lot of the world that works only on a Mac. I’d prefer to be able to use this software on the go since my laptop is an Apple. But I don’t want to sacrifice quality, and for that, the Kandao, for now at least, has me chained to my desktop PC. And while the workflow for the QooCam 8K is less cumbersome than some manufacturers, it’s still not easy for beginners, and the first company that can streamline the stitching and editing process will have a real winner on its hands by default.
The resolution and image quality on this camera is so surprisingly good. I had no idea what I was missing while I was shooting less than 8K for 360 images and video in my day-to-day immersive images. This kind of camera can easily find a home for real-estate shooting, live events, and anywhere a photographer wants to create “presence,” something more and more valued as this global pandemic wears on. In the QooCam 8K, Kandao has truly created a photographer’s 360 camera. In my opinion, it’s the best sub-$1000 360 camera currently on the market.
What I Liked
- The resolution advantage is real: 8K video and stills are sharp and detailed.
- Almost every control can be accessed via touchscreen, which also lets you preview the 360.
- Microphone input on the camera.
- Built-in memory eliminates the need for a memory card, though you can use one, too.
- Great battery life.
- Punches above its $599 price.
What I Didn’t Like
- Useless wrist strap design.
- Mac software isn’t up to the same version as PC software.
- DNG8 workflow provides the best results but takes a lot of work.
Click the following link to purchase the Kandao QooCam 8K.
Holy Land, USA Insta360 Pro 2 photo courtesy of Taylor Sniffen, used with permission.