Category:360

6 months on, Theta Z1 review

The Theta z1 is an incredible piece of technology, made even more impressive by the size. For something that fits into the palm of your hand, it packs a punch. In the post, I’m going to break down my experiences over the last 6 months with the Theta z1, both good and bad.

The first impressions of the camera are just how small it is. When I’m talking about the Theta z1 and I get it out, it’s the first thing people mention. They expect it to be the size of a DSLR with a lens attached to it. In reality, the Theta z1 can fit into the palm of your hand and slide into your pocket when you’re not using it. The discreet nature of the camera is fantastic if you’re taking photos where it’s prohibited to do so, it doesn’t look like anything else, so people are usually confused by it and think it’s some kind of selfie camera. Oh how wrong they are…

Design

The body is a magnesium alloy, lending itself to a sleek matt look which, in my opinion, makes the theta z1 look like a luxury item and lends to the professional build. The body itself is a mere 24mm thick, with the lenses adding a few mm on either side of that. A small screen on the front of the camera gives you all the information you need to shoot, battery life, self timer, how many shots left and some other tidbits of info. The screen is small and is made up of tiny block, menaing you can’t preivew your photos without use of the app, something that some people will find annoying, but I don’t mind. Adding a preiview screen would mean more battery life consumed, less room for the tech that matter inside and would probably make the camera bigger and heavier too.
The lenses on either side offer a wide viewing angle which captures full 360. They protrude out from the camera body so extra care needs to be taken when handling the device, no putting it down on the side where the lenses will easily be scratched. I’ve heard a few horror stories where people have dropped or scratched their Theta z1 and have had to get replacement lenses or buy a new camera. Not ideal, and although accidents happen, there are ways to reduce the chances. Admittedly, I’m slightly clumsy and take extra, extra care when using my Theta z1.

The four buttons on the side of the camera feel robust and you can feel them once you’ve pushed them in. This makes a big difference over touch screen buttons as you can easily use the camera with touch alone. The buttons include the power button, a function button, a connectivity button and a mode button.
The function button allows you switch between downloaded plugins, regular shooting and self timed shooting, and allows you to control the sound. The connectivity button lets you toggle the bluetooth and the wifi on and off, and the mode button switches between 4k video recording and shooting modes.
The bottom of the camera features a screw for a tripod (no tripod feet needed, just spin it carefully straight onto the tripod) and a USB C connectivity slot. The USB C allows for faster data transfer and quicker charging too.
Holding the Theta z1, you can tell its a premium device, it has weight to it, although not too heavy, the cold metal body feels robust and expensive and it looks amazing.

The Tech

The Theta z1 has some of the most impressive tech I’ve seen inside a camera. Seriously, it has no right to be this small and this powerful. The two lenses on either side capture still images of 24MP each, they have the stops, F2.1, F3,5 and F5.6. The camera does an amazing job shooting on the automatic settings, allowing you to easily shoot indoors and outdoors when the light can be difficult. You can choose to save in RAW and in JPEG which allows you to have full control over your image, just like a DSLR camera would allow you. The image sensors, one for each lens, are 1 inch square. This means that colour and detail can be captured that just isn’t possible with the competitors of this device, and something that still amazes me. The one inch sensor allows the camera to perform in low light so well, that I’ve never had a underexposed shot. As you’d expect with most cameras, you can choose to set the Theta z1 to aperture priority, shutter priority, ISO priority or choose to go manual and have full control, although the app will be needed for this.
As well as capturing high definiton images, the camera shoots 4k and 30fps, I wasn’t kidding when I said this camera was good! The 4 channel audio captures audio from all directions meaning a fully immersive VR experience can be had once the video has been processed.

App and Plugins

Gone are the days where you can expect a fully functional piece of tech without needing an additional app to use it to its full potential, as is the story here. To unleash the full potential of the Theta z1, the theta app is needed. You can download it for free on the google play store or get it on the apple store.
The theta app has been my biggest gripe with using the camera. I remember my first trip out, trying for half an hour to get my phone to talk to the camera, and when it did, I took one photo and then it disconnected. I thought it was all over and that I’d never be able to capture photos with the device until I started doing some research and found the plethora of plugins available on the theta store. Seriously, in the early days, these plug ins saved me. The problem with the app wasn’t only happened on my device, the forums were full of people complaining and experiencing different problems with it. Really frustrating for a camera that cost £1000! Recently though, there has been major updates for the app and I’ve not been experiencing any problems. The app allows you to have full control over everything, allowing you to shoot creativly and realise whatever vision it is you have. I’ve been having so much fun with the camera since the update came out, the connetion is stable and it stays connected even after a photo has been taken. The phone and the camera link with each other via wifi, meaning you can’t browse the web whilst the camera is connected, something I don’t mind but other people might.
The live preview of what you’re shooting is obvioulsy a big plus to using the app, allowing you to frame your shot properly and takes so much of the guess work out.
The app also allows you to view and manage the data on the Theta z1, which has been a lifesaver when I realised the internal memory on the camera was full and I was out shooting!
The live preview is super cool when using it, it gives you a full 360 view that you can spin around, zoom in onto someones face, or zoom out to give a small planet effect. I love it!

The plugins have been and still are, in my opinion, one of the most impressive features of the camera. To activate a plugin, you first must go to the Theta store, pick the plugins you want to install, download them to your computer and then upload them via USB C to the Theta z1 using the Theta app for mac or windows. You can have three installed at any time on the camera, so pick carefully! The three I currently have are the Dual Fish eye, Time Shift Shooting and Instant Night Snap. I’ll only talk about the Dual Fish Eye here though as I feel it unlocks the potential of the Theta Z1 like no other pluging

Once the plug in of your choice has been uploaded to the camera, you have to select it. Do this by holding down the fn button until the plugin screen comes up, scroll using the fn button again and then click the shutter button to choose the plugin. Note, the app doesn’t work when plugins are activated, which is great for times when the app and the camera don’t want to play nice with each other.

The Dual Fish Eye plugin was my saviour in the early days and I still use it more often than not. There are several setting within the plugin which allow you to choose file format, jpg or hdr or both, allows you to pick how many shots you want (each bracketed by 0.5 exposure and up to 9 shots), allows you to choose whether you want a HDR image and also gives you the option to set a 10 second self timer. Made by a third party developer which gives support, it’s truly an incredible plug in. I set it up to take 9 HDR-DNG shots with the 10 second self timer to allow me to run out the shot (if this isn’t possible, I take two shots and move each side of the camera and then do some magic in post to erase myself). It takes about 30 seconds to take 9 shots, process them and then stack them into one image. When I download it on my computer and look at it in lightroom, I have such a wide amount of dynamic range that allows me to push the limits of the image. I’ve never seen any camera that does all of this at a push of one button and I know I’m going on now, but it really is a feat of technology, for something so small too! Big shoutout to Hirota for this! https://sites.google.com/view/h360/top

Image Quality

If you want to compare the Theta z1 with a high end DLSR, it’s obvious who’s going to come out on top. But I still think the theta Z1 punches above its weight. The images are sharp, even at stitch lines, have great colour and the automatic settings ensure (as best as the camera is able to) that over exposed areas are pulled down so the data in the image isn’t lost. There are some instances of purple fringing, especialy around trees and windows that can be fixed in post, but it would be great if these things didn’t exist in the first place. I have heard in the forums that this is dependant on your camera as some people suffer from it more than others. The 4k video is a little fuzzy at times, but I can’t really complain as I’m using it mostly for photographs although I have started to use the video feature more and more. The audio is really impressive and I was surprised just how sensitive the microphones were. Having 4 channels means that the audio is directional, so when viewed in VR with some headphones, you get a real sense of the environment.
I use several pieces of software in post to get the most out of the images. Sharpen AI, Noise Reduction AI and Gigapixel AI, whilst they aren’t perfect, they do manage to make the image higher quality and Gigapixel increases the size of the image by 600% without any loss of quality. This is really great for viewing in VR as ideally, you want the image to be the highest quality possible. I’ll do a seperate post for post (production) to better explain how I get from shooting to the finished product at some point.

Verdict

If you’re thinking of buying a Theta Z1, there are some things to consider. It’s one of the highest end models on the market right now and is in high demand, meaning that it will set you back. £1000 for a brand new model, although I paid under half of that for a fully refurbished ex display model that I haven’t had any problems with, so it’s worth looking around.
After 6 months, I find myself using the Theta z1 more and more, even surpassing the use of my DLSR. I love the fact that the image is now immersive and can be explored in many ways, rather than being a static image, it’s now something you can be engaged with.
The Z1 is a compact piece of kit that pulls well above its weight when it comes to tech. The app issues seems to have been fixed and the fringing is no big deal if you know how to fix it. Holding it in the hand, you can feel that it’s a special piece of tech and everyone I show it to are impressed and curios about it.
The thing that I’d like to see more of is official merch for it. While the theta z1 comes with a softcase, a hardcase would be great. I’m currently using the softcase and an old glasses case to keep it safe from knocks and bumps whilst i wait for a case from china. There’s an underwater case you can buy which would be pretty cool to have if that’s  your thing.

All in all, I couldn’t be more impressed with this little camera. It does everything you expect it to and more. The 4 channel spatial audio was a nice surprise as well as the extra functionality that the plug ins enable you to have.
10/10 would buy again



Epping Forest

Epping Forest

Just twenty minutes on the overground, I find myself in Epping forest.

Oxford House Chapel

Oxford House Chapel

Oxford House, situated in Bethnal Green and founded in 1884 has been at the heart of the community since its foundation. Though the use of the house has changed over the last century, it remains as welcoming as ever. After a recent refurbishment, it now hosts a coffeeshop, a theatre, several offices and is home to many community focused groups

Haggerston Park

Haggerston Park

Haggerston Park in East London is on the ground that used to belong to a large farm, some of which remains a working farm to this day (something unusual for central London). Now, it’s used recreationally, with an old wall being built around its perimeter. For the best views of the park, climb the old brick balcony which gives great views and is a perfect spot to sunbathel

Under The Bridge Downtown

Under The Bridge Downtown

This was pieced together on my Pixel 4A 5G and was one of the first 360 photographs I ever took. The setting is the ever-changing bridge that is less than 2 minutes walk away from my front door, with the trains running to and from Liverpool Street Station running overhead. The graffiti you see changes every month or so and so this is a  true snapshot of time. Google historic street view gives a great walkthrough of time and you can see how each year layers of paint get added.
Placeholder

VR Photography Software

I’ve fully entered into the foray of VR 360 photography. I’ve been shooting on my Pixel 4a5g, using the photosphere feature to stitch photos together. This method, despite it being an inbuilt feature of my phone, proved very effective. During the lockdown, I managed to get some fantastic photos of places that, ordinarily, would be full of people. Places like museums, galleries, parks and streets. It really was a unique time. My favourite shots came from the Victoria and Albert Design museum.

Using my phone, although effective, took time and precision. I have to stand very still whilst the phone maps a 360 environment onto my phone using rectangles. Each rectangle would be blank until I lined my phone up with the middle of the rectangle when it would then automatically expose and shoot. The automatic exposure was great because it meant that I could have super bright parts of the image and really dark areas and they would both be correctly exposed. Although it did require a few minutes of standing around turning in the spot to capture an entire scene, not good if you’re trying to be discreet!

Using my phone, although effective, took time and precision. I have to stand very still whilst the phone maps a 360 environment onto my phone using rectangles. Each rectangle would be blank until I lined my phone up with the middle of the rectangle when it would then automatically expose and shoot. The automatic exposure was great because it meant that I could have super bright parts of the image and really dark areas and they would both be correctly exposed. Although it did require a few minutes of standing around turning in the spot to capture an entire scene, not good if you’re trying to be discreet!

So in January, I did a fair amount of research and bought the Theta Z1. Theta’s flagship 360 camera model. Usually just shy of £1,000 when bought new, I managed to get mine for less than half of that. It was an ex-display model and has a very tiny paint chip in the body, but nothing that affects its usage. I couldn’t be happier with it. I’ll write more about my experiences with the theta z1 at a later date.

The aim of getting this camera is to make virtual tours. After being inspired by Google arts during the lockdown and seeing some of the amazing things they’ve created which allow people to experience the world from their homes, I knew I wanted to get in on the action. I want to be able to create tours, tell stories and document buildings and places for future generations.

Now I’ve got the camera, I already know how to edit photos (although 360 photo editing requires a slightly different workflow), all I need now is to pick the right software that will build and host my tours. Picking one is no easy task though.

Choosing software is a commitment, make no mistake about it, so it’s important that you understand exactly what you’re paying for before committing. If you’re 12 months into using a tour software and then decide to cancel your subscription, you’re in real danger of losing all the tours you’ve created and having to rebuild them with the new software that you’ve chosen. This is perhaps the biggest dilemma.

Let’s look at 5 different tour providers, the pros and cons of each and then my recommendation at the end of the article.

  • Matterport
  • Panolens
  • Metareal
  • KR Pano
  • Seekbeak

Matterport

Matterport has earned a reputation for being an industry leader in dollhouse creations. Their patented software will render a 3d space that you can view from outside of the space itself. Imagine a photorealistic dollhouse without a roof. You can see all the floors, the furniture, the walls etc, but can walk around the outside, get closer to or further away from, this is one of the big advantages Matterport has over its competitors. The ease of use and collaboration make it a very popular choice amongst 360 photo enthusiasts and professionals. Matterport allows for a wide range of compatible 360 cameras to be used and can even use iPhones to create a 360 space (providing you use their app). The prices start at $0.00 a month for one hosted tour but rise to $69 a month for the professional plan and $309 per month for the business plan. The free option is great if you want to see what features it has and if it’s the right platform for you.
The measurement feature is a really handy tool that really shines in the real estate industry, especially where measurements and floorplans are paramount.
Matterport is great if you’re already into the 360 tour business and are looking to add a professional touch with the dollhouse and the measurement feature can be invaluable. Downsides include a lack of customisation for hotspots, whilst you can embed images, videos and audio, they all need to be attached to a preset hotspot and clicked. This might not be a problem for some, but for those that want a more customised experience, there may be better options.

Pros Cons
Has a free membership option Can get expensive if using it for a hobby
Creates photorealistic dollhouses Lack of customisable hotspots
Measures accurately Requires two tours if there’s an external property such as a garage
Industry leader with great support
Tours can be made with a phone or tablet

Panolens

Okay, so panolens is less of a software and more of a javascript library used for spherical photos and to create tours. This obviously requires you to know some simple coding in order to build the tours in the first place but in return offers you much greater flexibility once you’ve learned the basics. Panolens is built with coders in mind and probably wouldn’t be suitable if you’re planning on doing many tours with many clients. Panolens relies on the three.js framework to work fully, both scripts can be downloaded easily from the panolens website. Being able to add interactive elements to each picture allows for a more immersive storytelling experience, encouraging the user to fully engage with the project rather than being a passive observer, something that can be very powerful if used correctly. In my opinion, the best thing about panolens is that it’s free. Once you’ve downloaded the scripts, you can create, edit and host your tour wherever you want. There are no monthly fees, no fear of your tours being delisted if you decide to swap providers and you have full control over where it’s hosted and by who.

Whilst there are many examples on panolenses website that showcase the possibilities of Panolens, it’s hard to find real use cases to see what people have made out there in the field. The photos don’t seem to render in very high quality and there seems to be a lack of support when it comes to newcomers. It’s hard to find good youtube tutorials (although they do exist) and it’s a really steep learning curve. If you don’t code, then this one isn’t for you.

Pros Cons
Free for life Requires knowledge of Javascript
Can be hosted anywhere Lack of support and user community
Very customisable
Open-source software

Metareal

Metareals big selling point is that they offer to build the tours for you. That’s right, you upload your photos, edited or not, and they do the rest of the hard work for you. Great if you’re not computer savvy or simply don’t have time. This can be very useful if you want to spend the time you would have spent making the tours, growing your business instead. One of my favourite features of this tour provider is the smooth animation from one frame to the next, almost as though you’re walking through. It really adds a professional touch to the tour. Marketed towards people who want fast tours without much context or information. Metareal is much cheaper than its competitors but you can also see why. I think the reason for the low cost of the plans is that if you want someone to build the tour for you, it’s extra. This extra charge enables them to lower the price of the main service.

At this price, you wouldn’t expect a dollhouse feature, but Metareal really delivers. The dollhouses are photorealistic and could even give Matterport a run for its money. Metareal is a decent buy with a free account available and the most expensive account $39 per month, it should be in the price range of most people. But it’s worth noting that whilst it does have the dollhouse feature, it lacks any other kind of feature that you’d expect to see in 360 tour software.

Pros Cons
Metareal will build the tour for you Lack of hotspots
Pretty cheap compared to its competitors Almost no customisation
Dollhouse feature is pretty good Lacks professionalism seen in other tours
Very easy to use
Good for beginners

KR Pano

A real heavyweight. KR Pano occupies a space in between coding and software. Whilst the licences give you everything you need to get yourself up and running, there are many add ons that you’ll soon want, which all come with their own prices attached to them. But this is what gives KR Pano its strength. The user base that’s constantly growing is always contributing new plugins for KR Pano and therefore functionality is limited to only what your imagination can offer. Whilst KR Pano could be seen as the ultimate solution to everything 360 VR tour related, you have to ask yourself if you have the skills and expertise to fully master this software. If you don’t have experience in coding or building tours, maybe this isn’t the one for you, but if you do, and you’re willing to part with $159 for the basic licence, then I’d recommend it. They have a great forum that is in constant use, has great support and are constantly updating. Whatsmore, because it’s open-source, the amount of add ons one can get for it is ever-expanding. They’ve just added 3d depth maps, meaning dollhouses and even walkthroughs (using directional arrows to walk through like a game character rather than clicking into the next area) are now a reality. It really feels like this is where 360 tours are going but, and I must stress, it’s for people who are really tech-savvy, and for those that are, the learning curve is steep.

Pros Cons
One-off licence fee Really steep learning curve
Great forum and support
Open-source
User-contributed plugins

SeekBeak

SeekBeek is something I came across when asking for advice for my 360 photography in one of the Facebook groups I’m a part of, and I’m so happy I did. The creator and owner of SeekBeak are really engaged with his community and answers most questions personally. The community is small, but growing and the support is second to none. SeekBeak itself took me totally by surprise. The ease of use, the customisation and the low price were all huge positive factors for me. I’ve used the two-week free tour available and have got some of the best results of any tour provider I’ve used. It offers polygon hotspot shapes, meaning you can create a layer over a part of the image which when clicked, will open up a variety of different things, for interaction and storytelling, this wins hands down.

Whilst not a giant like Matterport, SeekBeak offers unrivalled support. The tour creator is in-browser and all photos get stored on SeekBeaks servers, allowing for quick loading times and ease of mind because you know everything is going to be backed up. For a personal account, you can expect to pay $14 per month which gets you unlimited tours and photo uploads and for a business account, the price rises to $49 per month. Little added features like a QR code generator and shortcode make this tour provider perfect for use with clients as it’s so easy to share.

Pros Cons
Great support NONE!
Simple to use
Good price
Highly customisable

Summary

There are many more 360 tour providers out there and I’ve only gone through 5, but I hoped to have offered a range of different tours for different suitabilities. Panolens is a great lightweight system that requires some Javascript knowledge to get to work, whilst Matterport is a real heavy hitter which comes with the prestige of the name and along with it, a hefty price tag. Depending on what you want, will ultimately depend on what you choose to use.

My two recommendations are SeekBeak and KR Pano. KR Pano is truly the ultimate when it comes to customisation and with an absolute army of geeks adding functionality to it, there’s nothing it can’t do. However, if you’re looking for a smooth experience where everything is hosted for you and the interface is easy and streamlined, you can’t beat SeekBeak.

VR First project


Virtual Reality and Augmented reality have really captured the imagination of people. Being able to dive into a world completely of your making, meeting up virtually with your pals, seeing Mars as if you were there. It’s all possible thanks to new technology.

I remember my first time experiencing VR. It was a GAME store that you had to book in at. I was taken to underwater worlds that ghouls inhabited and over the skies of Paris as I flew with doves. I was really excited for it, but the VR boom that we were promised, never came.

Whilst VR is an amazing concept, I don’t think its future lies in gaming, at least not only gaming. We’re already seeing different professions utilising this technology in novel ways. F1 drivers are now able to race their track from the comfort of their home, army combatants can be trained in combat, scientists can stand on Mars and there’s even research going into how it may help people with mental problems.

One of the coolest things I’ve seen was on a BBC show a couple of years ago. The host was touring the historic cities of Italy, giving us a history lesson into why these places were so important. At the end of each show, he’d be in this room with a tech guy. They’d pop the glasses on and as they did so, entered a whole new world. I say new, but really, it was how the world looked back in the city in questions heyday. In reality, a few rocks pocking out of a grassy mound was transformed into a Roman city, alive with citizens, market stalls and houses. They were able to view Venice from a birds-eye view and then, with a flick of a wrist, zoom down straight into a courtesans room.

I’m a photographer at heart, and whilst my VR scapes are nowhere near as advanced as those previously mentioned, I hoped to capture something of the here and now and preserve it for the future, even if it’s just me looking at it.

So far, I have 10, but I’m adding more when I feel obliged to take another 360 photo. Not all of them have turned out perfectly, especially when the subject is close or there are straight lines all in a row. But, the more I take, the better they become.

I’ve added the hyperlink to the catalogue of spheres here and at the top of the page
Enjoy!
https://tagriffin.co.uk/my-spaces/

Parallax Animation

I’m starting to get to grips with these new programs. Whilst Joel, my tutor, focuses on adobe suite, I find his instructions translate well over to Final Cut Pro, which I’m using on my Mac.

The task was simple enough, to create a parallax animation using the ken burns effect. I had only used parallax in terms of background and scrolling before, so whilst the concept wasn’t new to me, the methodology was.

I started by sketching out a rough idea of what I wanted my frame to contain. I settled with a mountainous forest scene at night. I planned to have different levels of mountains, a canoeist, a beautiful night sky and some other subjects. On my sketch, I wrote down what order the layers in and jotted down some notes on how I wanted the individual layers to move in relation to each other.

From Paper to Digital

To get from my sketch pad to a parallax animation, I first found the images I wanted to use on the internet. I used a mixture of royalty-free images and images I could find no copyright for.

For the sky, I used the Hubble Deep Field image. This was taken back in 2004 when scientists instructed the famous telescope to stare at the darkest spot in the sky to see what was there. This is the resulting image. It always gives me a sense of awe and wonder so I was keen to use it.

I found the other images, cut them away from their respective backgrounds and layered them up in photoshop. This would give me a good sense of size and what order the layers need to be in once imported into FCP.

Once sizes and layers were figured out, it was time to import and animate. It took me several minutes of resizing, moving around and cropping before everything was right for me to begin animating.

Accessing the Ken Burns effect was a little trickier than expected and initially, every time I applied the effect it would resize the layer. I persevered and eventually got the hang of applying the effect. I had fun experimenting with the effect to see what would happen.

After settling on the animations and making sure nothing was being too blown out or moving too much, I exported to google drive and watched it on my phone. The one thing I noticed was how dark everything seemed. This is probably in part to the colour I added to the mountains and decreasing the light in the trees to match the darkness of the sky. It was much to dark to be viewed on my phone however, and so I opened the file back up on my computer and ran the exposure up a little.

In the end, I’m really happy with the result. It makes you focus on the sky as everything else begins to shrink away and the sky gradually grows bigger. It’s a serene scene, putting one within touching distance of the cosmos and nature. The surreal colour of the mountains gives the scene a dream like quality and the sole boat on the lake makes one feel at peace.