Still the best way to take 360-degree photos and videos but sharing options need to be improved
Sensor resolution: 12 megapixels, Sensor size: 1/2.3in, Viewfinder: None, LCD screen: None, Optical zoom (35mm-equivalent focal lengths): None, 35mm-equivalent aperture: 10.4, Weight: 125g, Dimensions (HxWxD): 130x44x23mm
The first Ricoh Theta wowed us back in 2013. The 360-degree camera broke the rules of photography then, but I find the concept as appealing now as I did when I first saw it. This is photography unleashed from all the usual rules, photography without the frame, and it’s amazing just how different that feels. The original Theta was updated with video support as the Theta m15, but this new Theta S model boosts the quality of both stills and video – plus it looks classier too.
The device has a reassuringly easy to grip rubberised finish, although it does pick up fingerprints easily. A single button takes a shot or starts a video, with a button on the side switching between modes. There are blue glowing inidcators for mode and Wi-Fi. One oversight is the lack of a self timer, letting you get yourself out of the shot before the Theta S takes an image – you can activate it remotely using the smartphone companion app, but this means getting out your phone and pairing it before shooting.
It may be updated, but the core appeal of the Theta remains the same. Many love the fuss of photography; all that framing, focusing, tweaking exposures and organising people into the right positions (see Sontag’s On Photography about taking your work ethic on holiday). However, if you find all that a chore, the Theta is for you: hold it up, press the big button and move on.
While you may not want the faff, you probably still want good-looking photos, and the Theta S is better equipped to take them. As before, the dual sensors (one on each side) use fisheye lenses to capture two 180-degree images, which are then stitched together to form the final 360-degree picture.
We never found out how big the original or m15’s sensor were, but they certainly had a small 3.2-megapixel resolution. The new Theta S has 1/2.3in CMOS sensors with 12 megapixels each, sat behind marginally brighter f/2.0 lenses. With the resolution stretched across such as a huge angle of view, it’s still not exactly pinsharp, but it’s a big step up from the last model we saw. What it loses in quality it makes up for in engagement.
We’ll let you judge quality for yourself: see this example and this one, or browse around the Theta site. It’s hardly going to wow anyone, but it’s fine for posting online. The new sensors and lenses mean you can take decent looking photos anywhere you’d expect a modern smartphone to cope – without its flash of course.
^ Without processing you get some very strange-looking flat photos
There’s no screen on the device, but it’s easy to link to your Android or iOS smartphone via Wi-Fi. Images can then be viewed on and transferred to your phone, then spun around and zoomed using the usual gestures. From here you can share your pics to either Facebook or Twitter. A still sample is taken from the full 360 image, which links through to the Theta website where you can see the whole thing. You can also upload geolocated photos directly to Google Maps, which is surprisingly straightforward compared to other methods of sharing them.
The app also allows you to take remote control of the Theta S, primarily so you can take pictures (or record video) without having your arm and face front-and-centre. From here you can also tweak the exposure with shutter priority, ISO priority and manual modes (aperture is fixed) and set the white balance. You can also set up timelapse photos, deciding on the interval between shots and total number of shots.
Video it all
This is the first time I’ve seen a Theta with video capability, and it’s pretty mind blowing. Place the Theta somewhere with a good all-round view of the proceedings, be that dinner with friends, opening the presents come Christmas, or a party on the beach, and set it running. The resulting footage is hugely engaging and my friends loved spotting themselves in the crowd. There’s 8GB of onboard storage, with the resulting clips taking up around 100MB a minute, so you could shoot quite a bit of video before you’ll need to pull it off onto your phone or PC. There’s a 25-minute limit to clips, but that should be plenty for most uses considering you can take time lapse stills as well.
So you’ve shot some great 360 degree video and you’ve shown it to your suitably impressed friends on your smartphone, but how do you go about getting it on the internet? YouTube recently added support for 360 video, making it the obvious destination, and the Theta S is compatible with the service – albeit with some fiddling and a couple of issues.
For starters, ignore the advice given by YouTube and the tool it provides: it doesn’t work. 360 degree video is begging for a standard way of doing things, especially with VR on the march. Google and Ricoh need to work together on this, as this is the most consumer friendly hardware we’ve seen to date.
You can’t currently upload 360-degree videos directly to YouTube from your smartphone. Instead you’ll have to download and install Ricoh’s own tool to add the necessary metadata to the video file first. It doesn’t take long, but it means you can’t upload videos directly from your phone, which is disappointing.
Videos look pretty good on Theta’s own site (in a window at least) but they take a serious quality drop when uploaded to YouTube. This is surprising, given that the site is happy to host 4K and 60fps content, and the file sizes aren’t huge. On YouTube you can’t zoom in and out of the video, either, or watch it running in a fisheye presentation. The advantage is that once on YouTube, you can then view the video using Google Cardboard for the full VR experience.
If you have a good reason to own a 360-degree video and stills camera, then the Ricoh Theta S is a must have. Estate agents, location scouts, VR enthusiasts and anyone who puts on live events will love it, plus it will appeal to regular travellers looking to capture their trips in a new way. It’s incredibly easy to use too, although at £300 you’d have to be pretty keen anyway.
The issue with video quality on YouTube is hopefully something that Google will fix in the near future, plus we can’t see why Ricoh can’t include the YouTube metadata in every video, via a firmware update, so you could then upload directly to the site from your phone. We’d also like to see support for 360-degree content in services such as Facebook, though that can’t be blamed on Ricoh.
With modern camera sensors the new Theta S is the Theta to buy. It’s just a matter of thinking up some ideas of how to fully utilise its unique capabilities. With VR booming that shouldn’t be too hard – it just needs to be better integrated with Google’s vision for 360-degree video before we can fully recommend it.
|Focal length multiplier
|Viewfinder magnification (35mm-equivalent), coverage
|Photo file formats
|Maximum photo resolution
|Photo aspect ratios
|Video compression format
|1080p at 30fps
|Slow motion video modes
|Maximum video clip length (at highest quality)
|Shutter priority, ISO priority, manual
|Shutter speed range
|ISO speed range
|100 to 1600
|Auto and 8 presets
|Single, time lapse
|Optical zoom (35mm-equivalent focal lengths)
|Maximum aperture (wide-tele)
|Closest macro focus (wide)
|Closest macro focus (tele)
|Mini HDMI, micro USB
|via smartphone app
|One year RTB
|Price including VAT