Metafocus: How to Make a Mobile 360 Video Studio

Written By

Matt Sparks

June 28, 2018

If you've ever considered using 360 cameras to make training or educational videos (or just for fun) but were intimidated by the cost and apparent complexity of the gear, fear not. A 360 video studio can be affordable, easy-to-use, and, surprisingly compact. While you certainly can spend a fortune on cameras, mics, and other gear, you don't need an extraordinary budget to make extraordinary 360 videos.

My girlfriend and I just spent three weeks in Cuba shooting a documentary using 360 cameras on a shoestring budget. Here's a pic of our entire mobile 360 studio.

Below, I'll explain each piece of gear in more detail. We often didn't bring it all with us on our daily shoots for various reasons, but that didn't matter. We just used the gear we had. For example, our Vuze VR camera is fantastic, but the Ricoh Theta S fits in my pocket. As a result, sometimes we only had the Theta with us, and I still got a lot of great impromptu shots with it. When higher-quality audio was important (i.e., for interviews, recording live music, etc.), we'd whip out our pocket-sized Zoom H1n recorders and an inexpensive lav mic or two.

Our mobile 360 documentary studio

Vuze VR Camera

The Vuze VR 360 camera has eight fisheye lenses and four microphones along the perimeter of its flat body. It looks a little like a UFO (see pic below) and, thus, tends to attract attention from passersby. It's affordable and compact but still shoots great video and 360 audio (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Vuze VR 360 camera

Ricoh Theta S

The Ricoh Theta S 360 camera has two fisheye lenses and one mic. Its roughly the size and shape of a slim remote control, so it easily fits in your pocket. It's even more affordable and a lot smaller than the Vuze VR, though the video and audio aren't quite as good. Note that Ricoh recently came out with the Ricoh Theta V, which we haven’t tried yet.

Here’s the Vuze VR (background) and Ricoh Theta S (foreground) in action in the mountains near Viñales, Cuba (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Vuze VR (background) and Ricoh Theta S (foreground) 

Zoom H1n Handy Recorder

The Zoom H1n Handy Recorder records audio with two built-in mics, or it accepts audio input from an outside mic (but not both options at the same time). It's small enough to fit in your pocket, and the charge from two AA batteries lasts approximately 10 hours or more of recording time with the highest sound quality settings. We needed two of these to record audio from our two lav mics.

Aputure A.lav lavalier microphones

The Aputure A.lav mics clip to shirt collars and capture much better audio than the mics built into the Vuze VR and Ricoh Theta S, albeit on a single channel. We went with corded mics because they don't need their own batteries and are significantly less expensive than wireless mics. When making our videos, we still use the Vuze VR or Ricoh Theta S audio for ambient background audio in 360, but turned down to, say, 30 percent of full volume. We then add the single channel from the lav mic at 100 percent volume for clearer voices without the unwanted background noise.

MeFOTO BackPacker Air Tripod

The MeFOTO BackPacker Air Tripod weighs only two pounds, extends to 59.5 inches, and folds up to 10.4 inches (small enough to fit in a daypack), making it perfect for travel.

Insignia 6” Flexible Tripod

My Insignia 6” Flexible Tripod works well for the Ricoh Theta S for tabletop shots. It also makes a perfect handle for filming while walking around, reducing thumb visibility at the bottom of the video field of view.

Western Digital My Passport external hard drives

360 video files are large. We filled up our laptops quickly. Uploading files to cloud storage every day wasn't realistic in Cuba, given our limited access to very slow internet. We were also worried about theft and breakage. Thus, we brought four 4TB Western Digital My Passport external hard drives. One or two would have sufficed, but we wanted backups for our backups.

Poweradd Pilot X7 20,000mAh Power Bank

Our Poweradd Pilot X7 20,000mAh Power Banks allowed us to repeatedly recharge our many devices in the field. There were some days when we had no access to outlets, and our Poweradd Pilot X7s were lifesavers.

Razer Blade Stealth laptop

The Razer Blade Stealth laptop is light and slim enough that it travels well, and yet is powerful enough to easily view and edit 360 videos if needed. It also allowed us to quickly download the massive Vuze VR 360 video files.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

The tiny, Windows OS Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet/laptop works well for transferring audio, 2D videos, and other file types to storage. Having two computers meant less time emptying SD cards each evening and more time sleeping.

Insignia USB SD card reader

We brought two Insignia USB SD card readers. We wouldn't have been able to download the Vuze VR and Zoom H1n files to our computers without them, and they expedited downloading from our handheld video and point-and-shoot cameras too.

Canon Vixia HF R800

The Canon Vixia HF R800 is a compact handheld 2D camcorder. We shot a few videos with it so that we wouldn't be limited to 360 videos. Plus, its long battery life and smaller file sizes mean we could shoot much longer videos than we could with the 360 cameras. It saved us on a couple longer shoots, though we could have gotten along fine without it.

Sony Cyber-shot G and Canon Powershot A4000IS point and shoot cameras

We'll include 2D photos within our 360 videos to illustrate points, scenes, etc. more vividly. The Sony slightly outperformed the Canon in terms of image quality and speed of photos, though in fairness, it is a newer camera.

Foval Power Step Down 220V to 110V Voltage Converter

The Foval Power Step Down converts Cuba's many 220 volt outlets to 110 volts, which our American gadgets require. It doubles as a surge protector, which is necessary in the developing world. In addition to two standard three-prong electrical plug ports, it includes four USB ports. We used them all, as we had a lot of gadgets to recharge every night.

Multiple SD and Micro-SD cards, camera cases, and USB cords, as well as one extension cord

Studio on the go

All of this gear filled about half of a single small daypack-sized backpack. Over three weeks in Cuba, we shot about 30 hours of 360 video and 3,000 photos. Much of it turned out great, even though we're both still new to 360 photography. I'd post some clips, but we've still got a lot of editing left to do, as we've only been home a few days.

Here’s the backpack we carried it all in. I’m holding the Vuze VR camera on a tripod. That’s the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the background (Figure 3).

Figure 3: All our gear is in that backpack, except for the Vuze VR camera I’m holding on a tripod. Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the background. 

We filmed sunset on the Malecón in Havana with the Ricoh Theta S (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Filming sunset on the Malecón in Havana with the Ricoh Theta S

We're excited to create still more projects. We've got our mobile 360 video studio ready to go on a moment’s notice. If we can pull it off in Cuba—a lovely country, but one with severely limited access to modern technology and internet—we can make it work anywhere.

Now it's your turn. Get a 360 camera and a mic, put them in your pocket or backpack, and go film something great.

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