After spending over a decade looking at photography and video gear, it can become easy to get a bit jaded. A constant parade of new cameras, with slight improvements from the previous version, seems to be the standard. A truly unique camera is something we rarely see these days, yet the original Ricoh Theta is certainly qualified. It looked like a Lik-M-Aid stick with googly eyes, but it was my introduction to spherical photography.
The fascinating thing about the Theta series is the twin attached lenses’ ability to record everything around, above and below the device in a single image. No need for a series of stitched images to create the effect, so with the Theta you can shoot 360-degree images with moving subjects in the shot. After the shot is captured, you can pan and zoom around the shot on your smartphone, tablet or computer to see the entire scene around the camera.
The original Theta was a very innovative camera, and I spent hours playing with the files to create interesting images. However, even though it was certainly novel, the stills weren’t great quality—they were similar to images shot on a phone—and the video was such low resolution that it was only usable as a proof of concept. You can see a video I made about the original Theta here.
Now Ricoh has launched the new Theta S, a camera that looks every bit as bizarre as its precursor, but now with hugely improved image quality. Not only are the images from the Theta S much sharper than the original, but there has also been a big increase in dynamic range (important when the sky will be captured in every image you take outdoors). The increase in quality is even more important in a spherical image than in a traditional photo, as the ability to zoom into small details in the scene is a huge part of the appeal. While image quality is certainly not in the league of a DSLR or mirrorless camera, it looks great on the smartphones and tablets it will usually be shown on. The video quality is also greatly improved, playing at a proper 30 frames per second and looking much sharper.
One question many people have when first confronted with the Theta is how to preview their images. There’s no LCD screen on the camera, so a connection to a smart phone or tablet is necessary to get the most out of the device. On the original Theta, there was no way to even look at the image until after you had shot and transferred an image! With the Theta S, we finally have the ability to preview our shot. Be warned, however, that tethered shooting with the Theta S will quickly kill your smartphone’s battery. I found it best to shoot blind and then review the images later. Composition isn’t as important with a Theta; you just need to think about proximity to your different subjects.
I was very intrigued by the initial Ricoh Theta, but I feel like the concept has come of age with the new Theta S. The dramatic improvements to image quality make the images more exciting to explore, and the live view via smartphone was a necessary upgrade. I’ve spent hours messing with images from the Theta S, and I strongly suspect you’ll be hooked after doing the same! Check out the Ricoh’s Theta gallery (https://theta360.com/en/gallery/) to get some ideas of the possibilities of spherical photography, and check out the Theta S at thecamerastore.com and ricoh-imaging.ca.