RICOH THETA Z1 is the flagship model in the THETA series. One of its defining features is the high-definition still image quality produced by its 1 inch sensor and the ability to use RAW (DNG) format which allows versatile editing.

Simply put, you can edit THETA Z1 images in RAW (DNG) in Lightroom Classic to develop your vision.

On top of that, if you install DualFisheye plugin, which is a third party plugin, and shoot in “HDR-DNG” mode, you can capture up to 9 bracketed DNG shots with different exposures, and THETA Z1 automatically combines them into one image with a wider dynamic range.

The HDR-DNG mode in the DualFisheye Plugin (referred to as “DFE”) has become popular among photographers all around the world, especially panorama enthusiasts. It is particularly useful for the purpose of virtual tours, which have grown in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shot and edited with DFE in HDR-DNG mode

When starting out it can be tricky to edit RAW Z1 data and especially the HDR-DNG data produced by DFE.

Toyo Fujita, a panoramic photographer who has been using the DFE plugin from the very beginning in Japan, tells us about its appeal as well as some tips!

What’s good about the DualFisheye plugin: HDR-DNG mode

Toyo, what appeals to you about HDR-DNG mode?

In addition to the official plugins released by RICOH, third party plugins created by other developers can also be used with THETA. The DFE plugin was originally developed by a Japanese THETA user named Ichi Hirota.

DualFisheye Plugin on the Plugin Store  

The DFE plugin has 4 modes: Single, Bracket, Burst, and the most popular one, HDR-DNG. In this article, we focus on HDR-DNG mode. A lot of information about this plugin is frequently exchanged in the overseas 360-degree imaging community. It is not too much to say that when people mention DFE, they’re specifically talking about the HDR-DNG mode.

Shot and edited with DFE in HDR-DNG mode

When HDR-DNG mode was added to THETA Z1 in February 2020 I felt that a lot of photographers started to use it, and it was especially popular with panorama lovers in Western countries. International Facebook groups for photographers were flooded with posts about DFE every day.

What is so special about HDR-DNG mode?

The best feature is the ability to generate one HDR-DNG image directly in the THETA Z1. HDR rendering results in a less noisy image and much more dynamic range. In the past, professional photographers pursuing image quality have used a technique called bracketing in which they set the exposure manually on individual shots and shoot multiple DNG images. After that, they combine them into one HDR image with Lightroom Classic or other software.

Shot and edited with the DFE plugin in HDR-DNG mode

When creating a 360-degree HDR image using a normal DSLR camera, it requires bracketing multiple shots in each direction and combining them into a single 360-degree HDR image. This requires a lot of storage capacity as well as significant time spent editing. However, using DFE’s HDR-DNG mode, both shooting and editing efficiency can be greatly improved, and high-quality 360-degree HDR images can be created more easily.

Shooting in HDR-DNG mode using Android remote app

Wow. So how different is the HDR image created in HDR-DNG mode compared to one created in JPEG format?

Images taken in HDR-DNG mode need to be edited in Lightroom Classic. So, of course, it depends on the individual editing technique, but even beginners will be able to bring out the wide dynamic range.

Taken with Z1, JPEG HDR composite ↓

Composite made from 9 HDR-DNG shots taken and edited with THETA Z1 using the DFE plugin ↓

Do you notice a difference between images taken with the native RAW function in the Z1 vs the DNG-RAW mode in DFE?

The difference is very clear when you compare Single DNG (developed from one DNG image) and HDR-DNG in the two images below. In both cases the food on the bench is clear but look at the platform on the other side. In the DFE HDR-DNG image you can see a beautiful blue sky.

Taken and edited with Z1, Single DNG (RAW +) ↓

Taken and edited with Z1 using DFE and HDR-DNG (± 4EV) ↓

How to shoot in HDR-DNG mode

The international 360 imaging Facebook community features posts on a daily basis about how to use this plugin. You often reply to these questions, but please give us an overview of how to use it, along with common mistakes and basic tips.

First of all, a common question is about how to install the plugin. Many people mistakenly think that the mode is a default function of THETA Z1, but it’s actually a plugin and must be installed from the plugin store.

◆How to install the plugin

 1)Download the THETA basic app for PC and activate the app on your PC.

Click here to download

 2)Connect THETA Z1 to your PC with a USB cable

 3)Install “DualFisheye Plugin” from the plugin store.

 4)Add DFE as one of the three default modes accessed by the mode button on the side of the THETA Z1.

Click here for for more details on plugin installation

Shot and edited with the DFE plugin in HDR-DNG mode

◆How to shoot in HDR-DNG mode

There are two ways to shoot in HDR-DNG. One way is to use the buttons on the THETA Z1 body, and the other is to use a dedicated remote app.

◆How to shoot with THETA

 1) Press the Mode button to select ‘HDR-DNG’

 2) Press the Fn button and select ‘DNG mode’

 3) Lightly press the Wi-Fi button and select the number of shots (3, 5, 7, 9), each shot increments the exposure by 1EV

 4) Press and hold the Wi-Fi button to turn on the 10-second self-timer

 5) Start shooting with a shutter button on THETA Z1

Shooting with the controls on THETA Z1

◆How to shoot with the remote app

What’s possible with a remote app for Android?

Basic operations are also possible directly on your THETA Z1. However, the following functions can only be accessed via the Android remote app.

・Change aperture value (f-stop)

・Acquire GPS location information

・Toggle Motion Detect*

Click here to download DualFisheye Plugin Remote for Android

*Motion Detect: “ON” by default. When turned “OFF”, ‘pink artifacts’ may occur in which a subject with a lot of movement turns pink. These artifacts have been mitigated in the latest version of the DualFisheye Plugin (2021/3/17 version 2.12.0). However, if there is no moving subject, turning Motion Detect “OFF” may reduce noise.

Shooting setting screen of the remote app

The DFE remote app is only available for Android. An iOS version is not planned at this time. iOS users can only control DFE with the buttons on the side of THETA Z1, so only basic shooting settings are available. However the app allows for smoother shooting, and also allows setting the aperture value and acquiring location information. Some people buy Android devices just to use this app!

Note: If THETA and the remote app cannot connect, try updating both the DFE plugin and the remote app to the latest version.

Possible to operate DFE via a remote app from an Android device

How to edit HDR-DNG files

First, connect THETA Z1 to your PC with a cable and import images. Here are a few things to watch out for.

1. How do I import THETA images on a Mac?

On a Windows PC when you connect THETA via a USB cable, you can see the connection, and a “THETA Z1” folder is displayed in Explorer. On a Mac, however, nothing shows up on the display, so you need to search for the THETA Z1 folder in “iPhoto” or “Image Capture.”

On a Mac, you can import THETA images using Image Capture

We often see posts from Mac users in the Facebook community that the image data is not found. Some users may be confused whether they need the “Transfer App for Mac*” that can be found on the download page of the THETA website, but this app is not necessary.

* This application is required when transferring video files larger than 4GB with THETA V. Not required when transferring still images on the Z1.

2. HDR-DNG thumbnails turn pink!

The HDR-DNG images are saved with the DNG file of the same image. These two files must be saved in the same folder. What surprises people who shoot HDR-DNG for the first time is that the thumbnails are pink. Is it an error?

Please do not worry, it’s not an error. The characteristic of HDR-DNG files is that the thumbnails turn pink.

3. Can I edit in a program other than Lightroom Classic?

THETA Z1 DNG files can only be edited in Lightroom Classic, as only Lightroom Classic supports “RICOH THETA Stitcher,” the dedicated plugin for stitching 360-degree images after editing. Some people have their own technique for stitching 360-degree images, but it seems that HDR-DNG files may get strange colors when used with apps other than Lightroom Classic.

Click here to download RICOH THETA Stitcher

4. HDR-DNG data looks very dark when opening in Lightroom Classic!

This is also one of the common things that surprises everyone. Try increasing “Exposure” and “Shadows” and decreasing “Highlights” on the editing screen of Lightroom Classic. You’ll realize that you can edit images with a wide dynamic range even in places with high contrast which normally tend to cause over- or under-exposure.

Unedited original data in Lightroom Classic ↓

After editing in Lightroom Classic ↓

5. I can’t stitch 360-degree images well!

THETA’s DNG file is RAW data that looks like two fisheye images as pictured above. It needs to be stitched into a 360-degree image after editing, and to do that you need the Stitcher plugin for Lightroom Classic.

Click here to download RICOH THETA Stitcher (Stitching Plugin for Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® Classic CC)

Click here for details on how to use the Stitcher plugin.

6. A part of the edited image turns pink!

HDR-DNG mode was created for shooting static environments. Therefore, it works best when there are few moving subjects in the scene, such as indoor scenes for virtual tours, but when shooting moving subjects, pink artifacts may appear. Also, make sure THETA is securely positioned with a tripod or stand.

*These artifacts have been mitigated in the latest version of the DualFisheye Plugin (2021/3/17 version 2.12.0).

Pink artifacts occur when the subject moves too much

7. The stitch on the bottom is out of alignment!

When shooting, always disable “Camera Visibility Reduction” in the THETA app or THETA Stitcher. The stitch accuracy on the bottom of the camera will be improved at the cost of the tripod’s legs being in frame.

If the stitch near the camera moves a bit, in many cases it means this mode is set to ON. We recommend leaving it OFF.

*Even if you set “OFF” in the THETA app on your smartphone at the time of shooting, it may be turned ON when you import the images to RICOH THETA Stitcher.

8. THETA freezes when shooting!

If THETA freezes during shooting, you will have to do a hard power reset. Press and hold the Wi-Fi button and power button on your THETA Z1 at the same time. The red light will turn on and then THETA will shut down. After a few moments, reactivate THETA and try shooting again.

Market influence of the DFE plugin and HDR-DNG mode

The DFE plugin was released in February 2020. As it happens, it coincided with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic all over the world, and many countries experienced lockdowns. How do you think the release has affected the panoramic photography industry?

Particularly in Europe and the United States, the need for virtual tours of real estate has increased sharply, and it has led to the need for 360-degree cameras that are cheaper and easier to use than DSLR cameras. What’s more, by using this HDR-DNG mode on THETA Z1, you can create images with a wide dynamic range that is comparable to what can be produced by DSLRs. The app rapidly gained popularity via word of mouth on social media, YouTube, and so on.

I think people have deepened their understanding of how the THETA Z1 can be utilized for virtual tours with the advent of the DualFisheye plugin and HDR-DNG mode.

Shot and edited with DFE in HDR-DNG mode

What kind of scenes do you feel the mode is mainly used for?

As far as I can see, it is often used by companies that provide virtual tours, by real estate companies, and by dealers of second-hand cars or yachts. Of course, people use it for their hobbies or work as well.

Well, thank you so much for the interview, Toyo.

HDR-DNG images require about 1.2 times the amount of data as normal DNG images. If you often shoot RAW + (DNG) or HDR-DNG, we recommend RICOH THETA Z1 51GB, which has a significantly increased capacity from the 19GB version. Please enjoy the THETA Z1!

For more details, please visit the product page.

Interviewee:  Toyo Fujita