NYC-based professional 360-degree photographer Sam Rohn has been honing his virtual reality photography skills since 1998, having captured iconic scenes from New York to Tokyo. We sat down with him to learn how he shoots, edits, and creates virtual tours using THETA cameras, including some important lessons he’s learned along the way during his 20+ year photography career.
360 degree photography learnings from virtual tours
What are some 360-degree photography learnings you can share with novices from your experience shooting virtual tours?
A few takeaways I’ve learned from shooting over the years:
“Learn the basics.” The basics of 360-degree photography are the same as other types of photography. Learning the basics about exposure, composition, etc., will help you get the best results from any type of camera.
“Shoot in raw.” Always shoot raw DNG files. JPG is fine for previews, but the best result will always come from raw files carefully developed in Adobe Lightroom or a similar app.
“Avoid damaging your camera by using a stable support with a wide base.” A narrow tripod base — even with weights — can be less stable than a tripod with a wider base like RICOH THETA’s TD-2 Stand, which can also be weighted if needed. Ricoh makes a great weight, the TT-1, that provides 1.5lbs of additional weight support to the base of a stand. Using a stable support will reduce the chance of falling over and damaging delicate fisheye lenses.
“Avoid lens flares.” One thing I often notice in many beginner images is dust or smears on the lens, which cause flares. So, it’s important to always protect your camera in a good case. For my THETA Z1, I use the TS-2 Semi-Hard Case because it’s protective, compact, the interior does not mar the lenses, and the smooth exterior easily slides inside larger bags or cases. Also, be sure to keep your lenses clean with a soft lens cloth. Avoid liquid lens cleaners unless needed and be very careful to avoid creating scratches when cleaning dirt or mud from the lens.
Do you have any camera tricks that have helped you in the past?
I like to underexpose a bit to be sure I don’t overexpose details in windows or the sky. You can normally pull more detail from darker shadow areas than you can from brighter areas.
When using the THETA app live preview, I try to be sure that brightest areas like sky or windows are not overexposed, as you cannot recover any detail from blown out highlights, but with DNG files at low ISO, you can typically recover 2 or 3 stops of detail from shadows in Adobe Lightroom before local noise reduction is needed in those recovered areas. It takes a bit of practice to understand what works best in which situations here.
< After editing >
Mixed daylight and artificial lights can be challenging to get good matching white balance in post editing. I find that using a grey card or color chart can ensure accurate colors when it matters. For those unfamiliar, a grey card is used to set proper white balance and a color chart ensures super accurate colors in the final image, which is critical in some areas of commercial photography. I use this one from Amazon. I tend to use this with my DSLR because it needs to be photographed under a specific light source, and RAW image is used for calibration to set color temperature and generate a camera color calibration profile, if desired. Under mixed lighting and with 360/fisheye, this can be more challenging than with normal cameras and lenses.
Weather and location
Are there any significant differences in the way you shoot based on the weather and location?
I try to avoid shooting commercial tours on gloomy days, as it may not be ideally photogenic. Windy days can also be problematic as it can make trees blurry and inconsistent light due to moving clouds. However, rainy and cloudy days can be very photogenic in the right location.
<Rainy Photo example>
*THETA is not a water-proof device, so please be careful when you shoot in the rain.
Shooting in the rain can be challenging to keep water droplets off of the lens. I normally protect it with a hat or umbrella, shoot fast, and carefully dry the lens with a lens cloth. I also shoot the scene a few times for the best chance at a clear shot.
In some situations, if it’s appropriate, I may clean up the location a bit — hide unsightly garbage cans, organize stray cables and wires, and stage objects on tables for best visibility, etc.
Best practices and favorite locations
What are your best practices when shooting virtual tours with a RICOH THETA camera specifically?
The THETA Z1 is very easy to use. The main thing to be mindful of is the position of the stitch line, which can be a bit softer than the center of the lens, and objects along the seam need to match properly. It’s best to try to place the seam along a blank wall area or with less important details if possible.
What has been your favorite shooting location for a professional job?
I’ve been lucky to shoot many wonderful locations over the years. The United Nations in New York City is one of my favorite recent locations for work.
United Nations General Assembly Room
Wow! This would be an interesting virtual experience for everyone, since it is hard for regular people to visit physically. What’s your favorite scene that you shot for fun?
Tokyo at night in the rain — alleys and izakaya — is one of my favorite personal topics for photography.
Here is a video when Sam visited Tokyo last year. Have a look to learn his workflow!
What are your dream photography destinations that you have yet to experience?
I would like to shoot in rural Japan — so far I have only experienced big cities like Tokyo, which I love. I would also love to visit Iran someday — there’s very beautiful architecture there. I’m hoping to revisit Bali, Indonesia and Venice, Italy where I haven’t been in many years.
Thank you for sharing your amazing 360 degree images and useful tricks and tips! We look forward to seeing more work from you in the future.
Interested in more? Here is another interview with Sam in which he shares tips and tricks for shooting 360 degree photos in RAW mode and with the Dual Fisheye (DFE) Plugin.
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