It’s ironic that despite a pandemic, where virtual presence is all the rage these days, 360 camera manufacturers haven’t stepped up their game to fill that need. 2020 was a quiet year for 360 cameras, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting ones to choose from at the start of 2021.
YouTuber Ben Claremont has just published the latest in a series of looks at the entire market of sub-$1000 cameras, this one for early 2021. There are the usual suspects that you’d expect: the Ricoh Thetas of the world, Insta360, and Kandao models, but then also some odd ducks, such as Vuze and X Phase Pro models that are built with some very specific purposes in mind (in the case of the Vuze models, it’s 3D photography, while the XPhase Pro focuses on using many, many cameras to create a higher-than-average quality still 360 photo).
One of the things that was nice to see is that while some manufacturers have all but abandoned their 360 cameras, other models have gotten numerous firmware upgrades to make them even better than they were at launch, such as the Kandao QooCam 8K, my favorite camera of last year, that Claremont notes has gotten more than a 100 firmware updates. While I never noticed any reliability problems with the review unit I got, he did note that many people did, and that’s largely been fixed.
That said, with no major updates or surprises in the 360 world, the reigning champions of the industry have mainly stayed on top, with one notable exception being the displacement of the stalwart Insta360 One X with its successor, the One X2, which can pull off a few more photo tricks and adds built-in weather resistance. The One X was my go-to camera for a long time when it came to 360 work or at least a year and a half, which is a lifetime in the world of 360 cameras. Of course, the Ricoh Theta Z1, which packs some of the largest sensors in its class at 1”, makes the cut again.
If I had to point a finger at why 360 camera remains somewhat of a gimmick even in 2021 where it’s such a necessary thing to create “presence” is that the process of both assembling a decent 360 photo and showing the general public a 360 photo remains difficult. Many operating systems still do not natively support 360 photo viewing, and there’s no way to present those photos in their intended viewing format on popular platforms such as Instagram. Likewise, while most cameras can spit out JPEG files easily, those are rarely usable out of the box, and assembling raw files from any 360 camera is still an exercise in frustration even for experienced editors. Add to that the proprietary software and workflows and you have many cameras that are left in the lurch after just a couple of years. Just ask anyone with a Samsung Gear 360.
Perhaps instead of a fancy new 360 camera, the giants of this small niche can come together to create a universal set of file formats and editing/presentation standards to make 360 truly useful.