It sounds like magic, but the best 360 cameras can capture a full 360-degree spherical view of everything around you.
They create unique video and stills which can be enjoyed as virtual reality content or edited into regular 'flat' videos where you can point the camera where you like or follow any subject – AFTER you've captured the video.
Imagine the scene captured not as a rectangle but on the inside of a sphere. When you're viewing a 360-degree image or video, you're effectively positioned in the middle of this sphere, navigating either by physically moving your smart device, by dragging across a touchscreen or moving a window in your browser.
How 360 imaging works
In 360-degree stills, everything is static, so what you see is what you get. You can navigate the image at will, choosing which portion of it you wish to focus your attention on. However, 360 videos are more complex, as you might expect; while you have the freedom to look where you like, the action in the video will continue regardless of your perspective. This means it's possible to look the "wrong" way when something is happening. With a regular video you can always rewind, but live 360-degree broadcasts are becoming more and more common thanks to the increased sophistication of streaming platforms.
It's easy enough to consume 360 photos and videos: you can do so directly via a smart devices, or through your browser on websites that have the necessary navigational interactivity. If you're in the business of making them yourself, it's also possible to use the spherical raw material created by the camera to effective crop in and produce smaller, ‘flat’ windows of the scene, giving yourself a bit more editing control.
This works for both video and stills. If you've got a static 360-degree image, it's not too complicated at all to use it to create rectangular wide-angle shots and panoramas. It’s 360 video that offers most potential, however, as it allows you to create pan and moving zoom effects from a shot taken in a static position. Not bad!
One important thing to note: when looking at the resolution stats for these cameras, keep in mind that those pixels have to stretch all the way around the inside of a sphere, not just in a rectangle. So 12MP on a 360-degree camera means something considerably different to 12MP on a DSLR. This means that crops and edits may not be as sharp and detailed as the resolution suggests as you think. It's something to bear in mind.
And now there's 3D VR!
It doesn't stop there. 360 cameras have now become an established thing, but makers are now experimenting with 3D imaging using the same camera. This is a clever adaptation of the existing 360 camera design. With a 360 camera, you have back-to-back lenses covering over 180 degrees each to produce 'hemispherical' images which are then merged to produce a 360 degree 'spherical' image. With these 3D models, the lenses can be rotated so that they face forwards, side by side, to capture twin 'stereoscopic' 180 degree views of the world.
Camera makers have been trying to turn stereoscopic 3D into a commercial product for a long time, and these new camera types certainly make it easy. But while capturing 3D is easy, displaying it is more problematic, requiring special 3D viewers or headsets, or special lenticular screen designs or overlays. 3D display technology is still very much a work in progress.
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.
That's enough explanation from us. Let's take a look at the best 360 cameras!
The best 360 camera in 2020
The GoPro Max looks like a 360-degree action cam for enthusiasts, but actually anyone could use this camera. The magic of 360 and the GoPro Max is that you can hit record and forget about framing (within reason), then edit your footage in the app. We've put this ahead of our previous favorite, the Insta360 One X’s because of its better quality capture and microphones, and the way it can double up as a vlogging cam and an action cam too, though not in 4K. Regular 4K single-camera capture would have been better still, and the app experience could use some work, but given everything the Max can do, it’s still a sensational step towards what could genuinely be the future of film making and right now we think it's the best 360 camera around.
Read more: GoPro Max 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. Right now the Insta360 ONE R Twin Edition is one of a kind, but we wouldn't be surprised if many future 360º cameras look a lot like this.
Read more: Insta360 ONE R Twin Edition review
Although the Insta360 EVO (below) offers both 360 imaging and 3D, the enduring appeal of of the Insta360 ONE X is undiminished, 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. 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, switch from 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.
The Theta V is instantly likable. 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. It's good, but it's no longer among the best 360 cameras, having been completely upstaged now by the similar looking but much more powerful Insta360 ONE X (above).
The GoPro Fusion is now discontinued - but you can now found it reduced to very low prices it some places, and for that reason is worth considering. It is slimmer than the Garmin VIRB 360 and, like its other 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. This alone makes it too complex and fiddly to rank amongst the best 360 cameras any more.