360 photos in Bonn with the Iris360

You might have seen some of the 360 photography we’ve done recently. We’ve uploaded over 200 photos to Google StreetView under various accounts and they’ve been viewed nearly 400,000 times. Most popular? The Post Tower. It’s surprising to look at other places through. Matthieu’s, a restaurant we worked with recently, has a small tour that’s gathered over 6000 views. That’s impressive. 360 degree photography is an exciting area to be working right now and clearly important as part of any business’ marketing plan.

Recently we teamed up with Fotowerkhaus in Bonn to test something that could give more people access to the marketing advantages of 360-degree photography. The Iris360 from NCTech is the highest quality one-shot 360 camera on the market. It’s expensive but it’s quick which means companies like HiBlue can go out and do more shoots per day. Basically it brings the cost of 360-degree photography down, especially when Google Maps is part of the plan.

360-degree photograph at Marriout Hotel in Bonn taken with the ThetaS camera. We tested the Iris360 last week. See below.

The Iris360 has 4 cameras mounted in device that, quite frankly, looks like a big functional block of surveying equipment or speed-testing equipment. In fact we found that if you place it on a path next to a road you’ll reduce the average car speed to below the speed limit!

There’s a processing unit, WiFi hotspot and web server inside the camera along with a Micro SD slot and standard 1/4 inch tripod mount. There’s a removable (non-standard) battery that should, if you’re quick, be good for a few hundred 360 photos in one day. A few hundred 360 photos in one day. Think about that for few minutes…that’s how long it takes to position the Iris360 and shoot a set of 20 RAW photos – 5 images from each of the 4 cameras. Optionally the Iris 360 will then stitch those photos, adjust the contrast and sharpness, add a logo and present the output on its built-in web page. That process takes an extra minute but when you consider that you can start the whole process from one button on the Google StreetView app and have an impressive HDR image uploaded in 3 minutes, it’s lightning fast in comparison with a DSLR-based manual process. So how good are the photographs coming out of it?

Can the Iris360 really give you high-end 360-degree photos every three minutes? It depends on your definition of high-end. We took the Ricoh Theta S out with us during our tests and made some comparisons. The Theta S can’t reach the resolution or definition of the Iris360 and you won’t get RAW photo’s out of a ThetaS but there’s little difference if you’re quickly scanning a 360-degree photo on Facebook. Even our indoor tests of the ThetaS in HDR mode were impressive. The question is, is this professional-grade, best in class or just a stepping-stone to something better? Our tests results show there’s huge room for improvement in image quality but that there aren’t many other options out there if you want to offer cost-effective 360-photography to a large customer base.

The two sample images from the Iris360 above were taken in extremely challenging light conditions…typical of indoor 360 photography. Light levels range from daylight to indoor shadow and the Iris360 copes well. 5 RAW images were post processed on a laptop in the NCTech processing tool and we re-adjusted the colour and contrast in a standard photo editing program. We’ve pushed the colour a little bit to compensate for poor laptop and smartphone screens and to give a little bit of ‘theater’ to the results. The image of Bonn Markt above was filtered in software and shows one of many effects that can be applied to images being prepared for social media. Sharpness isn’t great and we found some fogging on the HDR results but we rarely saw a stitching error and at 400 ISO you can leave it on auto and forget about it when indoors. ISO 200 / auto for a reliable auto-experience outdoors. That makes the process so so quick and reliable – perfect for on-location customer shots.

DSLR-based 360 spherical photography isn’t easy. Taking 5 RAW photos at fixed angles in identical lighting conditions and then post-processing them in software can take 10 minutes per spherical photo and requires a lot of practice. It is, effectively, a very expensive process. But the results can be impressive and you get a lot of flexibility in the creative stages of the processing. You can add lighting to shots as you take them, you get to stay with the camera (imagine leaving 2000 euro of camera in the middle of a market square while you try to hide yourself)  and you get very acquainted with the post-processing options. The results are sharper too. If you’re selling 360-degree photography to customers as part of an online marketing package there’s huge value in being able to pull 3 or 4 social-media-grade images from a single 360 image and post-processing into a video is also going to result in better quality. DSLR-based 360 photography remains the most flexible and high-quality option.

In our 3 day test-run with Iris360 we shot about 120 photos in 4 locations and we were impressed at how simple the process is. That’s the point of the Iris360. It’s a process so quick and simple that it breaks the business model of many companies doing it using a DSLR. Although the quality is not up there with high-end smartphone photography it’s enough for most business requirements in 2017. Let’s say it’s business-class and not 1st class where the ThetaS and other low-cost options are more standard-class options. More interesting are the options for NCTech. The Iris software is relatively stable, the work they’re doing with Google is interesting and it might only take a small hardware refresh to push the Iris360 into 1st-class territory.

The Iris360 will be part of a toolkit we’re putting together under a new product launching in March 2017. We’ll have the ThetaS and our DSLRs in the toollkit too though! Stay tuned for more information about our new 360-degree photography and StreetView tour product by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram