360 cameras are unlike any other type, so it’s worth spelling out what they do and what this means.
The key is to imagine capturing a scene not in a flat rectangle, but on the inside of a sphere. You view a 360-degree image from within this sphere, moving your smart device or a window in your web browser to look around.
360-degree stills are easiest to figure out because everything is static. 360 videos are more confusing because you have the freedom to look where you like, but the action carries on regardless, which means as a viewer you kind of have control but don’t, and it’s easy to end up looking the wrong way while things are happening.
Read more: How to take 360-degree videos and photos
You can either consume 360 photos and videos directly via smart devices and websites with the necessary navigational interactivity, or as a content author you can use this spherical raw material to produce smaller, ‘flat’ windows on the scene with a lot of editing control.
For example, with 360 stills you can create wide-angle shots and panoramas. It’s 360 video that offers most potential, though, because you can shoot from a static position and than pan and zoom with moving subjects later in software.
Read more: 10 of the best 360-degree videos ever filmed
There is just one thing. These cameras sound like they’ve got good resolution for stills and videos, but it’s spread over the inside of a sphere. When you start viewing and editing smaller sections of this, that resolution doesn’t go very far.
And another thing. Broadly, there are two types of consumer 360 cameras: spherical action cams designed to survive hazardous adventures, and lifestyle cameras that are cheaper, smaller and often easier to use.
Our buying guide has three of each 360 cameras to help you decide which is best for you.
1. Garmin VIRB 360
The VIRB 360 has everything: ruggedness, quality and features
Weight: 160g | Dimensions: 39.0 x 59.3 x 69.8mm | Waterproof: 10m | Stills resolution: 15MP | Video resolution: 5.7K | Memory: MicroSD | Mount: Various, via supplied cradles | Battery life: 65mins
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 even here the video quality is just about the best in this group. 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. This feels the most complete 360 camera here.
2. Ricoh Theta V
The classy lifestyle alternative if you don’t need action cam toughness
Weight: 121g | Dimensions: 45.2 x 130.6 x 22.9mm | Waterproof: No | Stills resolution: 14MP | Video resolution: 4K | Memory: 19GB internal | Mount: Tripod: | Battery life: 80mins
The Theta V is instantly likeable. Its tall, slim shape is perfect for holding in one hand without obscuring either lens, and you have easy access to the controls. These are very simple and you don’t need the smartphone app to start shooting. You set the Theta V to stills or video mode and press the shutter-release button to capture the image – and that’s all there is to know. The smartphone app is equally simple. You can browse images both on the camera and already transferred to the app, and simply tapping on a file on the camera to view it initiates the transfer and deletes the image from the camera’s memory – and as it’s fixed at 19GB, that’s probably just as well. The app has basic but effective VR viewing options and there’s a separate Theta+ app for editing your images. The still image quality is very good, and the video isn’t bad either, though there is strong purple fringing where the two hemispheres blend.
3. GoPro Fusion
Powerful, tough and smart, but the dual card slots can be annoying
Weight: 220g | Dimensions: 74 x 75 x 40mm | Waterproof: 5m | Stills resolution: 18MP | Video resolution: 5.2K | Memory: 2x MicroSD | Mount: GoPro | Battery life: Not quoted
The GoPro Fusion is slimmer than the Garmin VIRB 360 and Nikon KeyMission 360 and, like its other two action cam rivals, it’s waterproof, though only down to a depth of 5m. With a maximum video resolution of 5.2K, the Fusion uses a feature called OverCapture to allow the extraction of regular ‘flat’ Full HD movies from its spherical footage. The extra resolution can be exploited either by the companion smartphone app or by the free-to-download GoPro Fusion Studio software. The QuickCapture button starts recording with a single press, even if the camera is switched off, and there’s a Photo button which does the same. You can also use voice commands to start and stop recordings and add Highlight Tags to find key moments later. Like other 360 cameras, the Fusion is effectively two cameras back to back. Oddly, though, it requires two matched microSD cards to go with them, which makes image transfer to a computer more fiddly later on.
4. Insta360 One
It’s iPhone-specific, but the Insta360 One is neat, easy and effective
Weight: 82g | Dimensions: 96 x 36.5 x 25mm | Waterproof: No | Stills resolution: 24MP | Video resolution: 4K | Memory: MicroSD | Mount: Tripod, Lightning port | Battery life: 70mins
The Insta360 One is designed solely for use with an iPhone (or iPad). It has a flip-out Lightning connector that plugs straight into the iPhone’s Lightning socket and also fixes it to the phone. It feels reasonably secure but would feel even better if there was some kind of additional fixing point. But this direct connection offers fast, reliable and fuss-free communication. The accompanying app launches automatically and provides an instant, lag-free live view of what the camera sees. If you to use the camera independently, you can use its single power button to capture stills or video, or fire the camera remotely via Bluetooth. There’s no Wi-Fi so there’s no live view, and your iPhone now simply acts as a remote release. The image quality is great and the editing tools in the app are second to none at rendering ‘flat’ video from your 360 images, with a Viewfinder mode for panning and zooming in real time, a SmartTrack mode for tracking moving subjects and a PivotPoints to create smooth panning movements.
5. Samsung Gear 360 (2017)
It’s cheap and it’s cute but the Gear 360’s images aren’t the best
Weight: 130g | Dimensions: 100.6 x 46.3 x 45.1mm | Waterproof: No | Stills resolution: 15MP | Video resolution: 4K | Memory: MicroSD | Mount: Tripod | Battery life: 130min
The Gear 360 (2017 model) is just as appealing as the Ricoh Theta V but in a different way. Its rounded shape gives it the cute look of a toy robot and it's ideal for handheld shooting, although there’s also a tripod socket in the base. Like the Ricoh Theta it’s very simple to use, and this time you’re helped by a small LCD screen for navigating through the camera modes, which include Video, Photo, Time lapse, Video looping and Landscape HDR. It’s cheap enough in the UK, but in the US the 2017 Gear 360 is an absolute steal, and the companion smartphone app is straightforward to use and offers a good range of viewing options. Still images look somewhat soft, but the 360 video quality isn’t bad. We did have to re-initiate our Wi-Fi connection to an iPhone from the camera a couple of times, but connectivity issues are seldom far away with 360 and action cameras and smartphones.
6. Nikon KeyMission 360
Nearly a great product, but let down by its SnapBridge system
Weight: 198g | Dimensions: 65.7 x 60.6 x 61.1mm | Waterproof: 30m | Stills resolution: 24MP | Video resolution: 4K | Memory: MicroSD | Mount: Supplied mount base | Battery life: 230 shots
It doesn’t take long to find the KeyMission 360’s weak spot; it’s let down badly by its SnapBridge 360/170 app and unreliable Wi-Fi connection. In our hands the Wi-Fi connection persistently dropped after just a few seconds or a couple of inputs from the app, which made any attempt at remote control both frustrating and futile. All of this is a great shame, because the KeyMission 360 is a very attractive, well-made and substantial camera that really feels like it means business. It doesn’t offer the 5.7K ‘overcapture’ of the Garmin VIRB 360 or GoPro Fusion, being limited to 4K spherical video, but it does offer 24MP stills. Furthermore, it’s shockproof to a height of 2m, waterproof down to a depth of 30m, and both freeze-proof and dust-proof. The KeyMission 360 can still be used as a standalone 360 camera, with stills and video transferred later to a computer for stitching and editing with Nikon’s KeyMission 360/170 Utility software. This is a simple editor that doesn’t offer the same tracking or panning tools as other 360 editing software, but it’s a start.