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10 Tips for Mastering Your 360 Degree Action Camera

It’s not like a regular camera, so don’t use it like one.

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Maybe you received a 360–degree camera as a gift over the holidays — say, a cube-ish Nikon KeyMission 360 ($500), or Samsung’s Stormtrooper-hued Gear 360 ($308), or a 360Fly 4K ($500), the black sphere that feels like a cue ball in your hand. Or maybe you grabbed one yourself, curious as to what all the fuss is about. So there you are, holding your little camera-ball, wondering…well, now what? How do I make a cool 360–degree video? What even is a cool 360–degree video anyway?

It’s an important question because 360–degree cameras aren’t like regular cameras that you can just point at stuff and shoot. To make something engaging, memorable and fun to watch with this new tech, you have to actually think about what you’re doing. To soften that blow, we asked three high-level VR/360 producers how to get the best results with a 360 ball. Heed their advice, and you’ll be able to capture amazing footage of the world around you. All around you.

1. Remember, you will fail — at first. Be ready to experiment and prepare for failure, said Michael Hopper, a senior producer at Vice News. “Even pros are having issues with the transition to 360 and virtual reality content,” he said. “So you shouldn’t expect that everything you do will come out as cool as it does with an action camera or a DSLR. You have to take chances, get messy and make mistakes.”

2. Take it outside. Start off by shooting outdoors, during the day, Hopper added. “These cameras are good, but they don’t perform very well in low light,” he noted. “Besides, your results will be more dramatic and more exciting outside than if you’re trying to shoot inside. A dimly lit bar scene or your living room won’t be as cool as a forest or city street.”

3. Think in 360. Those city streets are actually ideal proving grounds because they have subjects and action coming from all around, said Jessica Lauretti, head of the RYOT Studio at The Huffington Post. “The 360 format is fairly literal, in that it works best in environments that are interesting from any angle,” she said. “In an urban area you’ll want to find a busy plaza or center like Times Square, where people and cars are hustling and bustling all around you.”

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4. Think of your viewers.
You want your audience to be engaged, to actually want to be there with you, suggested Heather Raikes, creative director of the Seattle-based virtual-reality studio 8ninths. “Capturing compelling spaces puts the 360 capabilities of your camera to good use, and the result can offer your audience the opportunity to feel virtually present in your piece,” she said. “Try to situate the camera in the center of the action.”

5. Keep your distance. Remember that a 360 camera is a giant fisheye lens, which has a big impact on what can and cannot be seen. “Things off in the distance will not appear very well or as clearly,” Hopper said. “Taking it to the top of a mountain to capture a dramatic vista — things might not come out the way you want them to look. On the other hand, things that are too close to the camera are not great, either. You want to find a happy medium range for objects you’re shooting. Six to ten feet is a pretty good focal length for action.”

6. Take aim. Just because it’s a 360–degree camera, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to still aim. “If it uses two lenses there will be a stitch separating the views, so keep the things you’re trying to capture away from that,” Hopper said. “Make sure the lenses are pointed toward things you’re most concerned about in your scene.”

7. Keep ‘er steady. Stability is key with 360 since viewers may be looking in any direction at any moment, and having too much camera shake can be nauseating. “Pick a good thing to mount the camera with,” Hopper said. “Something narrow that will disappear into the shot is great, like a light pole, which you can get at camera stores for just $50 or so. I’m also a fan of Gorillapods, which let you mount the camera to anything. Even a drone is great — with a little duct tape and some know-how you can get something really fricking cool.”

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8. Don’t shoot yourself. The 360 camera sees all, of course — including you. “There’s no safe hiding place for you behind the camera,” Raikes said. “If at all possible, get out of the shot.”

9. Only use 360 when it makes sense. Lauretti encourages shooters to be conservative with 360 — and to ask themselves if the shot really benefits from the technology. “If you don’t have a decent answer to that, you may want to stick to linear shooting,” she said.

10. Think outside the box. Because this is new turf, there’s still much to be learned, by everyone. “We spend hundreds of hours in post-production making fine stitches and smoothing everything out, and even then we may get something we’re only sort of happy with,” Hopper said. “So just go out and play — who knows, you might be first to get something really innovative and cool that we all end up copying.”

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