An opening caveat: 360 is an emerging medium. It’s constantly evolving. So, “rules” are constantly changing and being broken. Many of these tips cite examples from local newsrooms but while they are in part geared toward local TV newsrooms, they are just as applicable to anyone starting out on a 360-making odyssey. These are merely suggestions based on watching a lot of bad 360 content, watching a lot of good 360 content, analyzing the elements common to each, and then embarking on a 360 content creation adventure. Ergo…
Watch a lot of 360 content
And when you think you’ve watched enough, go back and watch some more. Watch in a headset and without a headset. Play some VR games and explore some VR experiences — both of journalism and fiction variety. Dive in. It’s the best way to learn about the medium, which is truly a horse of a different color. In particular, if you have a filmmaking background, watching 360 content will help reorient you away from standard video camera and storytelling techniques and toward specifically 360 camera and storytelling techniques. It will help you avoid obvious mistakes and will make your first stabs at creating 360 content more creative, thoughtful, and successful.
Put yourself in the viewer’s shoes
360 photos and videos are truly new media. They can be tricky to conceptualize beforehand at first — even those that are just one shot or scene. Imagining what it will look like to the viewer can help avoid poor production choices and 360 faux pas. It’s why being a viewer first, then a creator is so important. A lot of the following tips expound on this principle.
Shoot at average head height
In general, when shooting either a 360 photo or video, the goal is to make it feel as though the viewer is there in the space. Therefore, the camera is essentially acting as the viewer’s head, the lenses, the viewer’s eyes. That’s why, most of the time, it will make the most sense to have the camera at the height of the average person — somewhere between 64 and 69 inches. Higher, and the viewer will feel like they are floating above the scene. Lower, and they will feel like they are in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Are there times when making an exception to this rule makes sense? Yes. For example, many of WABC’s 360 videos in New York City were shot with the camera much higher than head level. For some of these pieces — like the one of the Lunar New Year Parade in Chinatown, it makes sense, because there is a large crowd gathered and if the camera were at average head level, all the viewer would be able to see is the backs of other heads.
Anything a meter or closer to the camera will look odd
This may sound obvious, but 360 means you’re capturing everything in the space. It makes very little sense to place your camera up against a wall. When the person watching that piece turns around, all they will see is a wall in their face. If you’re thinking “but I need to capture as much of the space as possible so I have to back the camera into this corner,” you’re not thinking 360. To get out of this mindset — a natural one to have if coming from behind a normal camera — stand wherever you’re thinking of placing the camera and turn around in a circle. Is what you’re seeing from every angle of the circle interesting? Are you staring into a wall at one point?
That’s a good start. Now, remember that anything a meter or closer to the camera will be kind of warped and is more likely to have stitch lines. This is because of the nature of most 360 camera lenses, which are wide angle, and because a 360 image is actually two or more images stitched together. Plan accordingly. Don’t have your subject positioned closer than a meter away from the camera.
A short piece I shot on the Insta360 Pro.
Use time lapse sparingly
There is a lot going on in a 360 video. It’s a lot for the viewer to take in. Part of the fun is getting to explore and take in your surroundings in greater detail. Certain film conventions really don’t work well, generally, with 360 video. In a time lapse video, things are darting around, people may pop in and out of the video in just a few frames. This can be disorienting and chaotic in 360 video, where this is happening all around the viewer and they are unable to take it all in.
Think about which makes more sense for the piece: 360 photo or 360 video
In many instances, local newsrooms had used a 360 video when a 360 photo not only would have sufficed — it would have been better. 360 videos can load pretty slowly on Facebook, one of the primary places that newsrooms were posting their 360 content. They also have an audio component to worry about. For example, WRDW wanted to use 360 video to show the user the dangerously low water levels at Clarks Hill Lake. The 12-second 360 video is a stationary shot of the lake. The viewer only has 12 seconds to look around before the video ends and has to reload. There is little action in the video and because the camera position isn’t great and the video quality is pretty low, it’s difficult to know what the viewer is meant to be looking for to show her that the water levels at the lake are low. Also, if the viewer looks down, she sees a mangled version of the camera operator’s head and hand. Using a 360 photo in this instance, where there’s no action in the scene, would have allowed for a higher quality shot, would have removed the camera operator from the scene as well as a time-element from the piece, allowing the viewer to look around as long as she would like and not get distracted by an awkwardly stitched camera operator in the scene.
Similarly, think about whether 360 makes sense for the piece at all
The worst 360 videos are those that would have made much more sense and been much better if they had been just a regular video. In the same way that 360 photo can be a better choice for a piece than 360 video, not all stories make sense for 360, and could be better told with regular video or photography. The key here is to know your tools and how to use them.
If at all possible, use a tripod
Use a tripod. Use a tripod. Use a tripod. If a viewer has actually gone through the effort of putting on a headset to view your 360 content to its best advantage, the last thing you want to do is make them sick. Like all rules, there are exceptions to this one, but most of the time, use a tripod. Not only does it give you a steadier shot, which is important in 360 video, it also means that the camera operator can be completely out of the scene or, conversely, can be a more active, intentional part of the scene, pointing things out and narrating.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Don’t worry about it. You’re not alone. No one opened up the box of a brand new 360 camera and started making the most brilliant 360 videos ever. But don’t give up! Take a lot of test footage. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Hone your editing skills or find someone in the newsroom that has a real knack for it. Of the news stations that were reviewed, there were a few that had one, maybe two, 360 photos or videos posted a year or so again, and then no more. How disappointing! Persevere. 360 photos and videos are powerful tools to have in media toolkit and worth taking a little time and effort to learn how to use.