The best thing about the best 360 cameras is that they do something unique. No other camera can dynamically capture an entire scene the way a good 360-degree camera can – no matter where you point it, or how you hold it, a 360-degree camera will capture everything. Which makes sense. It is in the name.
There are quite a few good 360-degree cameras around these days, many of which offer a suite of shooting options. The flagship 360-degree content can be enjoyed using apps or platforms that are specifically designed for that purpose, however, this content can still be edited into a more traditional “flat” video for wider consumption. The best part, though, is that you can do this after you’ve captured the shot! Perfect if something happens from a direction you didn’t expect.
There are a fair few 360-degree cameras around. GoPro is something of a market leader here, with the sublime GoPro Max setting a standard for what 360-degree cameras can do. As you’d imagine, it’s waterproof as well as highly capable. However, there are other great options available, including innovative models like the fantastic Insta360 ONE X2, which is potentially a better choice for those new to 360-degree shooting.
But first, let’s take a look in greater detail at what’s involved in 360-degree imaging.
How 360 imaging works
Imagine the scene captured not as a flat 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.
360 cameras still use 'flat' sensors, but back-to-back fisheye lenses, each capturing a 180-degree angle of view. The camera merges these two hemispherical images to produce a 360-degree spherical view of everything around you.
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 view 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.
The best 360 camera in 2021
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 at the top of our list because of its good 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
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.