This review was due two months ago. I was just having too much fun with the Ricoh Theta to get around to writing it. The absolute last thing I want to do is post it off to whichever lucky reader wins our giveaway.
Astute readers will notice we actually reviewed the Theta before, two and a half years ago. We thought it was worth taking another look at now that YouTube has implemented 360 degree video support, and the VR revolution is coming – you’re going to see a big resurgence in the popularity of these type of devices in the coming months.
The Ricoh Theta is one of the first widely available, consumer 360 degree cameras. It costs around $230 on Amazon. Using two fish eye lenses, it is able to capture a spherical panorama that covers the full 360 degrees around the camera.
As well as images, the Ricoh Theta is also capable of capturing full HD video at 15 frames per second. While not quite fast enough for traditional videography, it’s more than enough for the sort of things you’re capturing in 360 degrees.
At the end of this review, we’re giving our test unit away to one lucky reader!
How the 360 Degree Pictures Look
360 degree photos and videos are different to regular photos and videos. Our eyes have an approximately 180 degree field of view. However, the quality of that vision changes dramatically throughout; the outer edges of our vision can really only see movement and colour. There’s just no way for us to view a full 360 degree video without some tricks.
The Ricoh Theta provides three main ways for you to view the 360 degree material. First, you can leave the photo or video as is. This gives you an incredibly distorted image and, depending on how the camera was held, a subject that’s been cut in half.
Second, you can view the whole 360 degree panorama using whatever device you’re looking through as a viewport. You’ll only see a small section of the image at once but you’re able to pan and scroll around to see the whole thing. This is the only way to minimise the distortion you get from the fisheye lenses. While very few apps support viewing 360 degree pictures or videos like this, one of the few that does is YouTube and Facebook. This means you can share your 360 degree footage to the world’s most popular social networks and your friends can view them.
The final option is to map the whole 360 degree panorama to a regular image. This throws any pretence at realism out the window but the distortions that happen to the image are a lot nicer than those in the unedited image. The Ricoh Theta+ apps (more on them later) give you four possible projections: Mirror Ball, Little Planet, Equirectangular, and Rectilinear. Both photos and videos have the same options. This is the best way to share an image so that everyone can view it.
While the resolution of the 360 degree panoramas is relatively low, when they’re mapped to a regular image they’re more than usable. Even when you’re viewing the full 360 degree panorama, the novelty far outweighs any image quality concerns.
Using the Ricoh Theta
The Ricoh Theta is an absolute pleasure to use. Rather than try to cram all the features onto the camera, Ricoh take the same approach as GoPro and let your smartphone do most of the heavy lifting. The Theta has three buttons: the shutter button, the power button, and the Wi-Fi button. By default, the Theta takes photos; to put it into video mode you just hold down the Wi-Fi button as you turn it on. It’s completely minimalist but it works perfectly.
The Theta is surprisingly small at just under 13 centimetres tall. It weighs just 95 grams. As with the controls, it feels like the perfect balance. The Theta is big enough that when you take a picture it’s of more than just your hand while not being too big to be carried around. There’s no need for it to be larger, but by the same token, usability would suffer if it was much smaller. Ricoh has nailed the balance.
All the photos and video the Theta captures are saved on its internal 4GB hard drive. While that’s not much, it’s still able to hold around 1200 photos or an hour of video. I found when I was using it that there was enough storage for a week of pretty heavy usage. It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever need to worry about running out of space unless you forget to delete anything from it for a long time.
Getting the photos and footage from the Theta is simple. You just connect your smartphone to the Theta’s Wi-Fi network and open the Ricoh Theta app. You can then transfer anything you want to your phone or computer and manage the Theta’s storage.
For some reason, the Ricoh Theta requires three apps to get the most from. The Ricoh Theta app which you use to transfer files from the Theta or to control it from your smartphone, the Ricoh Theta+ app which you use to edit photos, and the Ricoh Theta+ Video app which edits videos.
While needing three apps is odd, it does work and keeps each app lean and focussed. With so few options in each one, it’s hard to go wrong. All the features you need are there in each one. The editing tools for pictures and video are fairly standard with a range of different filters as well as all the dedicated 360 degree features. If you want to get more advanced editing options you’ll need to pull the photos or videos into other, more powerful apps such as Photoshop or Premiere Pro.
The Ultimate Travel Camera?
Where the Theta really comes into its own is when you’re doing something fun or cool. Yes, you could take 360 degree photos of your everyday life but they’d likely be a bit mundane. When you’re travelling or in an interesting location is the perfect time to use the Theta. Selfies on top of the Eiffel Tower are a dime a dozen, but 360 degree shots? Rarely seen. You get both you and the environment in a single image. The Little World photos are especially good. If you mount the Theta on a selfie stick you can even expand the field of view hugely.
The Theta is also arguably the best action camera around. Yes, a GoPro will get you higher quality footage but it’ll be far more boring. Unless you’re an exceptionally talented athlete, most GoPro videos look very similar. With a Theta your footage will always be original and interesting. If you don’t believe me, just check out this short skiing video.
What’s Not to Like?
Short answer? Very very little. The Ricoh Theta is such a joy to use, the results so different and fun that any criticism feels a bit petty. The Theta is not setting out to replace your DSLR or mirrorless. It’s not even really trying to replace your smartphone camera (though it may end up doing that). It’s an extra to what you already have and so it doesn’t need to compete on features. If you want to take a stunning landscape or powerful portrait photo, it’s not the right tool for the job. If you want to take a fun, different photo of a trip or party, then it is.
The one thing I felt the Theta was lacking was a wrist strap. The camera is small and light so should survive a few small drops but even still, some way to keep it secure would be nice. There’s a tripod mount on the bottom so you could attach one to that but that’s not an ideal solution.
If you need a 360 degree camera that offers faster frame rates, higher resolution images, and more manual control, the new Ricoh Theta S is a slightly more advanced version of the regular Theta. It costs a little over a $100 dollars more. For most people the regular Theta is sufficient, but if you’re a professional or just have the extra money to spend on gear, it might be worth looking at the S model.
Otherwise the Ricoh Theta is exceptional. For what should still be an early concept product, it’s near perfect. It’s unbelievable that Ricoh managed to deliver such a great first edition. My friend Will, who appears in many of the images that accompany the article, and I, have both ordered our own. That is the highest praise I can pay it.
I’ve bought one myself. One of the best cameras ever. If you want to play with 360 degree images, buy now.
Send your products to be reviewed. Contact James Bruce for further details.