The best 360 cameras allow you to fully immerse a viewer in the world you’re capturing. Whether you want to shoot stills or video, being able to capture the full scope of a scene and produce an interactive image a viewer can literally “look” around is something that ordinary cameras and smartphones can’t really do. That’s what makes the best 360 cameras a unique tool.
Most of the best 360 cameras recognise that you don’t necessarily want to shoot in this spherical format all of the time, and so will also allow for editing of the content (post capture) into a more traditional “flat” video or image. This means you can simultaneously capture conventional imagery as well as the full 360-degree experience to be enjoyed using apps or platforms specifically designed for that type of content.
You can select which part of a 360-degree scene you want to convert to a traditional video, which also means a 360-degree camera is a very handy tool for capturing unexpected scenes and moments. So the question is, which 360 camera to choose?
There are a fair few brands competing for your cash here. GoPro has been a market leader for a while, starting out with the GoPro Fusion and evolving to the sublime GoPro Max, which sets a high standard for 360-degree cameras and is waterproof into the bargain. But there are plenty of other options. Insta360 has made a name for itself with a few competitive models, including the Insta360 ONE X2, which is a bit more user-friendly for new 360-degree shooters.
But first, let’s take a look in greater detail at what’s involved in 360-degree imaging.
How 360 imaging works
When visualising how 360-degree images are captured, imagine someone photographing a sphere from the inside, making sure they get every contour of its inner surface. That’s essentially what 360-degree cameras do – place you in the centre of a sphere, and use extreme wide-angle lenses to capture everything around that point.
The sensors are ordinary ‘flat’ types, but the key is in the lenses, which are extreme fisheyes capable of capturing a 180-degree view, placed back to back. This captures two hemispherical images, which are then merged to produce the final 360-degree image. A viewer can then explore this image with a mouse, touchpad or touchscreen, depending on how they’re viewing the image.
360-degree videos are, naturally, more complex than stills, as the action all around the viewer will continue even if they’re not looking at the portion of the image where it’s happening. As streaming platforms get more sophisticated, live 360-degree broadcasts are also becoming more common, which is an unparalleled way to immerse yourself in an unfolding event (short of, y’know, actually being there).
Editing 360-degree imagery can be a daunting task, though it is possible to divide them up into smaller ‘windows’ to handle individually, giving yourself a bit more control. In stills, you can crop out one of these windows entirely and export it as a ‘flat’ image. In video, this flexibility allows you to essentially simulate camera movements like tracking, panning and zooming, even though your shot was captured from a fixed position. Handy!
There is one thing to be aware of when dealing with 360-degree imagery, which specifically is resolution. As the surface area of a 360 image is much larger than a conventional one, 12MP on a 360-degree camera means something pretty different than 12MP does on a DSLR, and you can’t crop in as close expecting the same level of detail.
The best 360 camera in 2021
While the tech in the GoPro Max is pretty sophisticated, this really is a 360 camera that more or less anyone can use. And the best part is that it's a functioning action camera too, with waterproofing and a generally hardy exterior designed for tough situations. The video and image capture on the Max is excellent, good enough indeed that it makes the top of our list. The good-quality on-board microphones mean it can double up pretty capably as a general-purpose vlogging camera, and while it doesn't have 4K single-camera capture, most people will still get a lot out of the many, many things it can do. It's a huge step forward for action cameras, vlogging cameras and 360-degree cameras all at once, and for that reason it's our top pick.
Read more: GoPro Max review
A seriously impressive action camera that uses its 360º lenses not only for virtual reality, but for a plethora of creative editing modes for widescreen videos, the One X2 consistently produces exquisite videos and photos. It takes time and patience to master, and its processing-intensive app demands the latest phones, but for filmmakers wanting to try something different the One X2 cannot be ignored.
Read more: Insta360 One X2 review
The QooCam 8K the best 360 camera right now for image quality. A massive (by 360 standards) 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor, 10-bit colour and, of course, that 8K resolution make sure of that. When it comes to the quality of its photos and videos, the QooCam 8K is peerless in the 360º market. Photos have plenty of color and contrast like nothing we’ve seen before from a camera like this. The ability to spit out a great-looking photo from a 360º video is welcome, while the detail, sharpness and smoothness of video – whether in 360º or cut-down to widescreen – itself makes the QooCam 8K a giant leap forward for creative filmmakers. It does have an audible fan, however, the battery life isn't great and it's not waterproof without a housing. It's also pretty expensive.
Released at the start of 2020, the Insta360 ONE R Twin Edition is a very enticing proposition indeed, and may well be an indication of the future for 360-degree cameras. Essentially it's called "Twin Edition" because it's two cameras in one, coming with two lens modules that are easy to swap between. One turns it into a straight 4K action camera, the other gives it 360º-shooting capability, and it's got loads of extra features too, including 5m of waterproofing (which can be extended with a special housing). AI-powered algorithms also augment the various shooting modes, and particularly impressive Auto Frame mode, which can automatically find and pick out the action in a 360º video. A new 1-inch Leica camera mod gives you another option – you can swap out the 360 module for a high-quality action cam.
Read more: Insta360 ONE R Twin Edition review
There is an Insta360 EVO which offers both 360 imaging and 3D but it's boxy and bulky, and we prefer the enduring appeal of of the Insta360 ONE X, thanks to its shirt-pocket design, excellent stabilization and an app that offers advanced video editing and subject tracking on your smartphone. Insta360 makes a great play about this camera's 6-axis gyro system and 'FlowState' stabilisation, and it's every bit as good as they say – we got the odd 'shimmer' during low-light shooting indoors, but in decent light it's as smooth as you like, and playback stays level however you angle the camera (just make sure you calibrate the gyros now and again). Even better, if you get the optional 'invisible' selfie stick, it's hidden in the recorded footage and it looks like you're a bystander in your videos and photos and not actually holding the camera at all. On release, the Insta360 ONE X felt like a massive step forward in simplicity, usability and quality for 360 cameras, and it still works brilliantly now. The only reason we've put more recent 360 cameras above it in our list is that newer models offer better quality, versatility or waterproofing – but for casual 360 experimenters and travel videos, the One X remains superb.
Designed to make shooting 360-degree and 180-degree photos and videos into an easy and intuitive process, the Vuze XR is effectively two cameras for the price of one. With the press of a single button, you can switch between 360-degree (2D) and 180-degree (3D) modes, shooting half a sphere or a full sphere of VR footage as you please. The XR also allows for in-camera image stitching as well as live broadcasting, further opening up your creative options, and the useful smartphone app also allows you to better monitor and control what you’re doing. The integrated hand grip makes it excellent for casual day-to-day usage – it’s not waterproof unless you add a separately sold case, so don’t go bringing it on kayaking trips and the like, as you would the GoPro Max. Beautifully designed, and producing excellent footage to match, the Vuze XR is an excellent tool for 360-degree imaging though perhaps a little bulky and offbeat for mainstream users.
Read more: Vuze XR review
The VIRB 360 is a rugged action cam which is waterproof to a depth of 10m and comes with clip-on cradles for both a regular tripod mount and a GoPro mount. You can operate it as a standalone camera via a small mono display and three multi-function buttons, or you can control it via the VIRB app. The VIRB’s stills show average sharpness but with very little colour fringing and well-blended seams where the two hemispherical images are stitched. Its 5.7K capture should yield better results, but you need a computer for that. In-app stitching is restricted to 4K, but the app’s HyperFrame Director offers simple but efficient tools for adding smooth camera pans and angle of view changes to create separate standalone movies for saving and sharing. The in-built GPS and G-Metrix sensors also offer data overlays for extreme sports fans who want their viewers to see this extra data. If you like your adventures rugged, this is the tool for job, but newer cameras like the GoPro Max and Insta360 models mean the VIRB 360 now feels a little dated.
Note: The Garmin VIRB 360 is becoming harder to find outside of the US, so international users may want to consider some of the other options on this list.
The first Ricoh Theta Z1 was announced and released in 2019 – back when a 360-degree camera was still at least something of a novelty. Since then, not much has changed, save for a slightly revamped version launched more recently, boasting 51GB of storage rather than the original’s rather limiting 19GB. It’s worth double-checking which one you’re getting before clicking the “Buy” button.
The Ricoh Theta Z1 produces impressively high-quality 360-degree video – as you’d hope at this price. It’s not as rough and ready as some other cameras on this list, without waterproofing or a protective shell, but it’s got a smooth design that’s comfortable to hold and intuitive to use. Its sensors are slightly larger than are usually found on cameras of this type, which improves dynamic range and arguably makes up for the fact that some other cameras edge it out in raw resolution terms. It’s expensive, but this is definitely an option worth considering.