How to: Photosphere or 360 Photography
Photospheres is a photography technique of capturing an entire room or space in one photo. The question becomes, how is it done? With the right tools, this technique is a trick every real estate photographer should have in their bag of tricks and the great thing is: this can cost much less than a Matterport camera and subscription. Let's dive in!
What you'll need:
360 stitching software
Explanation of the tools
This seems self-explanatory, but a high-quality camera is always great to have when doing a photosphere, but even if you have a basic camera you can shoot some stunning photospheres. As a Sony shooter, I started out with an A6000 and a 16mm lens. If, however, you don't have a mirrorless or DSLR, you can get by with just a point-and-shoot camera, but you will struggle with exposure variations in your image unless you can lock in your exposure settings. I currently shoot with a Sony A7RIV.
The wider the lens, the more pictures you'll be taking. Shoot for 12mm to 14mm lens. With a wide-angle lens, you can take a photosphere in 6 to 8 shots versus the 20 you'd need to take with a 20mm lens. The narrower or higher the mm number of the lens will always equal more shots taken. You can pick up a fairly cheap 14mm lens on Amazon for about $400.
You won't be able to freehand these shots. You may even need to run out of the room to take certain angles depending on how wide your lens is. I've found myself using a remote control as well when doing photosphere, but you can get away with just a timer.
These brackets help you track your angles so you are getting every angle of a room. If you are fancy, you can go all out and pick up a DJI Ronin SC and have the gimbal do the work of shooting all of your angles.
360 photo stitching software
This is where the magic happens. After you're finished with prepping your photos, you can dump them into this software and have a solid photosphere ready! Granted, you're not finished yet! You can do this in Photoshop, which is buggy. I prefer AutoPan Giga, which was discontinued, unfortunately. There are other software solutions out there and I'll list a few at the end of the blog along with product links.
Framing and camera set up
You want to shoot in a room that has good lighting. The first thing I always do is open every blind and turn on every light before I even take my camera out. You might need to bring extra lighting with you and get creative with placement unless you are extremely skilled with Photoshop. From there, you need to determine how many photospheres you need to take. Generally, every room should have at least 2 photospheres. If the room is small, then one is sufficient. Next, get your tripod out, mount your panorama bracket, and set up your camera.
Your camera's F-stop should be set at F8 and lock it. Your shutter speed will determine how much light you capture and shouldn't be an issue to have a wide-open shutter since you're on a tripod, expose for the darkest part of the room, lock this setting. If the room is flanked by windows or you want to show what's outside the windows, you may want to consider HDR bracketing. Set your ISO as low as possible so you don't introduce noise into the image, typically no higher than 400 ISO(that's my preference). Lock in your white balance so it's consistent in all photos. You are now off to the races.
You'll want your camera's lens to be at about eye level, so raise your tripod to that level along with your panorama bracket. Try to keep your tripod's footprint as small as possible, while also keeping your camera set up steady. If you are shooting a dark room, you'll need a remote or a timer to reduce blurry photos, which most cameras are equipped with. You'll also want to shoot RAW files, if your camera can, in case you need to make serious edits to exposure. Never shoot JPEG.
Pro tip: try to set up your camera so your lens stays in the same relative location, usually at the edge pivot point of the bracket so distortion is limited. Refer to your bracket's specific setup instructions.
Think of the photosphere as a planet. I always start with taking a picture of the north pole(zenith) and south pole(nadir). To do this, tilt your camera in the panorama bracket straight up with the lens looking at the ceiling and snap your shot. Then, point your camera straight down, with the lens looking at the floor. You'll be capturing mostly bracket, but this will help make a seamless nadir later. From the equator of your photosphere, you'll want to overlap with the zenith photo you took by a 1/3, which might require you to tilt your camera up a few degrees. From there, you'll spin your camera in this locked angle being sure you overlap each photo by 1/3. I find that, if your panorama bracket has degrees, using degrees to make sure you are capturing equal pictures and the entire scene. Once you have the equator and northern pole captured, repeat with the south pole. You'll then take the camera off the bracket and, as carefully as possible, shoot the floor without the tripod. You will be in the frame, but that's okay. Rinses and repeat for your other photospheres.
You can't just dump your photos in the stitching software and go. You'll need to drop them in Lightroom or other photo editing software. You'll want to go to the darkest photo and raise the exposure. Copy these settings and paste them onto the other photos in the group. If you see that your adjustments blow out too much on the bright part of the room, back off the exposure and find a happy medium. Export the photos as jpeg and let's get stitching!
Load your photos into your preferred software. For AutoPan Giga, make sure you set your photos to fisheye if you are shooting with a wide-angle lens to reduce distortion. It's likely other software may have similar settings. The software will then compose a preview and you may notice some "ghosting" or transparent overlap. You'll need to add or remove points until the ghosting is fixed. Sometimes, you may not be able to remove every ghost, unfortunately. With your photosphere ready to go, you'll need to export your work! Most online hosting services have a limit on the size of files you can upload. I recommend exporting your photosphere at 3000px by 6000px. You can export at a larger size, but it will take a while to render and the quality gain may not be worth the time spent.
You have several sources to host your new photosphere. Facebook does a great job of rendering a photosphere and is very interactive. You also have options, such as kuula.co to host your images. If you are doing tours, I recommend paying for their subscription, which is $12 a month and can be embedded on websites easily.
Photospheres are something that anyone with the proper tools can put together, but not many people will have the patience to actually put them together. It's good to try yourself first! You never know, you might just pull it off!
AutoPan Giga (Discontinued): http://download.kolor.com/apg/stable/history
Hardware (Amazon Affiliate Links)