November 11, 2014

I have tried many programs and apps over the years to capture 360-degree interactive photographs. None has been as easy to use as Google’s Photo Sphere Camera app. Android users have had this at their fingertips for more than a year but the iPhone app is fairly new.

This is PhotoSphere’s instructional video. It really is as easy as it looks.

Photo Sphere tells me to aim my iPhone camera at an orange dot (the dot is blue on Android phones) on the screen. When I get it aligned, the camera snaps, and I do this over and over as I turn in a 360-degree motion. Once I get all the way around, I tilt up to capture the ceiling and down to capture the floor. In all, I captured a 18 images. I knew I was done when there were no white spaces left on my screen to fill with a photo. The photos will overlap, but not to worry. When I am done capturing I touch the check mark on the screen and the photos are stitched together. A minute or so later, the image is ready to be emailed, shared or sent to a web page editor to embed.

I am working in Chicago this week, so I stood in the lobby of the beautiful Palmer Hotel to give Photo Sphere a try. This is my first creation. Click on the photo and drag around to get a 360-degree look at the lobby.

Nice ceiling, right? I did the project a couple of more times waiting for crowds to clear out before I captured the 360-degree panoramic image. One issue to be aware of is when the image has a lot of motion in it, you can get blurs.

I got hooked on 360-degree imaging years ago when saw a Washington Post 360 of a fireworks display. That project included an audio track of the crowd yelling and clapping for each explosion. But the process of creating them was too time consuming for me. I wanted to be able to capture images quickly, sew them together and turn the photos into a panorama in minutes, not hours. Then came along some auto-stitching software that would match sections of the frame for me.

My first try was with and it was surprisingly good, but it is not free. Here is a long list of panoramic stitching applications, some free and some not. As you can see a lot of them have free versions, but the images are watermarked.

Microsoft’s Photosynth is another great tool for 360s. The Microsoft tool has been around for years and now has a “synthing” algorithm that also allows the user to construct a three-dimensional model using photos sometimes from different directions. Microsoft says its program can meld 200 photos into one interactive in no more than 10 minutes, usually. Here is a demonstration of how to use Photosynth on a phone.

Microsoft’s Photosynth also allows large gigabyte-sized panoramic photos, which preserves details in high-resolution quality.

The software and hardware you use may depend on what you need.

There are lots of kinds of panoramic photos from a partial pano, which I often capture on my iPhone using the pano setting. I like this because it gives a sense of size and proportion to an event.


The Cylindrical pano is a full 360-degree shot but it does not include what is above and below the photographer which Photo Sphere now makes easy.

The spherical panorama like Photo Sphere provides is what really captures my attention. I love being able to zoom in and out on any part of the image around, above or below me.

If you really want to step up the quality of your panos, try using a DSLR camera and a pano tripod head.

This is how pros would capture an image like that using a 360-tripod head and a camera with a fisheye lens.

Real pano pros use motorized tripod heads they control with their computer or laptop.

Is there an ethical concern involved with stitching photos together for a news story? I could see the argument that we are taking several images, separated by several seconds or even longer and turning them into a single image that may not have existed that way in reality. For example, this image of Paris is certainly a collection of many images Photo Sphere stitched together.



The bird would have certainly moved and so would the people. So the bird and the people would not have existed in exactly the position that was captured. A key here is to explain your technique to the public and point out the image is a composite of many images captured over, for example, a minute. If you wanted to, you could even make the individual images available in a slideshow.

From an online point of view, it puts the user in charge of what he or she wants to see and obviously the interactivity increases the time the user spends on the site, which is a key metric these days.

Whatever tool you choose for putting panoramic photos into your storytelling tool bag. The old problems of cost and difficulty shouldn’t stop you anymore.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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