Question: What is a photosphere?
Answer: The photosphere subject to our area of interest is about photography, not about the stars. We're not talking about the luminous envelope of a star.
A photo-sphere, aka spherical photo, aka panorama, aka panoramic photo is a bigger photo made by stitching smaller photos to each other, which gives the watcher the feeling that he's standing where the photo is taken. In other words, photo-sphere is a 360X180 degree panorama.
Question: Can I use my smartphone camera or my digital camera to take photos for a photosphere?
Answer: Yes, in theory any photo is usable for photospheres as long as
- there are enough photos to cover the sphere
- each photo has enough overlapping field (minimum 30º) with the other two coming to its sides for stitching-matching
- the photos are taken from a properly centered spot.
Question: What are photospheres for?
Answer: You may wish to create a photosphere of your renewed front yard or kitchen to show to your friends living in other cities. Or you may wish to prepare a photosphere based, fully visual presentation to your potential customers of the warehouse you're selling.
Best major sample for this would be Google Street View so please look at it if you haven't seen it yet. Google Street View is made of photospheres, which are placed on a map based on their location content. (Of course, Google uses a faster way for taking its photospheres for Street View; namely vehicles with sophisticated camera systems on their top and trekkers with panoramic cameras fitted into their backpacks. But we, individuals, also can take photospheres with our affordable DSLR cameras.)
Independent from any system such as Google Street View, you can create your own photospheres for fun or for business.
Question: What is the easiest way of taking photospheres?
Answer: The easiest way of taking photospheres today is using your smartphone's camera application in photosphere mode. Both Android phones and iPhones can take photospheres. But the result may disappoint you due to parallax errors.
Also, there are panoramic photography cameras such as Ricoh Theta 360. This way is parallax-error free and very fast and practical. But in order to have a higher resolution, more customizable photospheres, you shall use a DSLR camera.
So please read "taking source photos" section of my site for properly taking photos for a photosphere.
Question: Do I need a computer for creating a proper, nice looking and presentable photosphere?
Answer: Yes, if you want a perfect photosphere, you sure need to do post-processing on the photos you take. Please read "stitching source photos" section for my suggestions.
Question: How do I display photospheres?
Answer: You can choose to upload your photospheres to Google Street View or other panoramic photography websites. Also, I will be happy to publish your photospheres as long as content is acceptable. This way, you can share your work with the world. For viewing the photospheres on your computer, you can download a free viewer from the internet. There are free photosphere viewers in the market for both Mac and Windows. I may suggest PTViewer.
1. Camera and lens
Spherical photos are larger photos made by stitching smaller photos to each other.
The result of this stitching is a new file in JPEG or BMP or TIFF format.
So it is, like any image file, a 2D image file.
Later, the stitched image is being stretched onto a virtual globe by a software for obtaining a globe feeling.
In theory, any camera is good to take photos for a larger spherical image.
The lens is the item in question here.
In some cases, with normal lenses, taking photos for a single spherical image requires over 90 shots, while with a wide-angle lens, the amount of required photos reduce dramatically, like to half or even less.
So more lens angle (area coverage), means less photos for spherical image.
Why is the amount of taken photos so important?
Simply because you'll need quite a lot of time to take 90 or more still and good quality photos...
Trust me, it may get very time consuming and boring...
And more shots mean more room for probable stitching errors.
So, as less as possible amount of images is what you would need.
Least amount of photos is possible with 8mm fisheye lenses.
I take only 4 shots with my fisheye lens and that's all...
8mm fisheye lenses have the most coverage (more or less 180°) in DSLR world; at least in the affordable range of DSLR lenses.
So if you want to become a spherical photographer, I'd suggest you to get yourself a DSLR camera and an 8mm fisheye lens.
Here's my last tip for your camera and lens choice:
I know... Output quality of a DSLR is very important.
But output quality is not the only thing you shall consider while buying a DSLR.
I have two sets; one Nikon DSLR with Sigma 8mm fisheye lens and one Canon DSLR with Sigma 4.5mm fisheye lens.
My Nikon takes much better photos comparing to my Canon.
But I use the Canon most of the time because the Canon I have is quite lighter than my Nikon.
Always remember; carrying a heavy camera becomes difficult in long days.
I recommend you to get yourself a light DSLR.
A mid-quality DSLR should cost around $700. The most affordable fish eye lens I know costs around $300 - $400.
2. Tripod head
In order to take stitchable photos, you need to keep your camera still and in position starting from the first shot to the last.
You cannot do this with your hands.
That's why spherical photos taken by smartphones are always full of stitching errors.
Those errors you see in your smartphone-taken spherical photos are so called "parallax errors".
Parallax errors occur due to being unable to hold the camera as required while taking the photos.
The required way of taking these photos is, rotating the camera around its lens' NPP.
What is NPP?
NPP stands for "No-Parallax Point".
An NPP is the center of your lens. Not dimensions wise center but the center of the lens' inner glass.
This center is also called "nodal point".
This point is usually indicated on the lenses with a colored circle outside where you can easily see.
The gold color circles on Sigma lenses for example, are indicating the lenses' nodal point.
And if I'm not wrong, same points in Canon EF lenses are indicated with red circles.
In order to take correct photos for a spherical image, you must center the NPP and rotate your camera around it.
You can imagine this action as looking at the surroundings from a keyhole, which never moves.
The idea is rotating the camera around this point.
Remember, you are using fisheye lens so you don't need to worry about ups and downs while taking photos.
Your lens sees an area of 180°, which covers ups and downs.
What can help you to take these photos correctly then?
I can suggest what I use, of course.
A tripod head manufactured by Nodal Ninja so called "Google Trusted Photographer Ultimate R10 Package".
This is an easy to setup tripod head and it's quite light for carrying around.
Google Trusted Photographer Ultimate R10 Package nowadays costs more or less $280.
Lastly, in terms of hardware, you better get yourself a light, probably a carbon-fiber tripod.
You may already know, you can trust Manfrotto, Slik, Sirui, MeFOTO and Oben for their reliable, light, long life and portable products.
But I'm sure there are a lot of other brands in your area, in the local market fit for purpose.
I'd suggest you to search for the following specs while buying a tripod:
- minimum 140cm height in fully open/extended position
- lighter than 1kg in weight
- flip type leg locks
- capable of carrying 2kg weight (camera+lens approx.)
You can buy a suitable tripod for a price like $70.
I strongly suggest you to watch the associated part of Panorama Tutorial Series of Florian Knorn.
1. Improving the quality of your photos with Adobe Lightroom
Unsurprisingly, I'm going to suggest you what I use or what I have.
In order to make my photos look sharper and to get rid of the chromatic aberration and to correct the light issues, I use Adobe Lightroom.
Improving the photos and synchronising their light levels before intending to stitch them helps stitching software a lot.
So I'd suggest you to pre-process the photos before stitching.
Adobe Lightroom license costs $150 at the moment but you may get it as part of monthly subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, which costs like $10 per month.
2. Stitching Software
There are many photo stitching softwares in the market but I'm going to suggest PTGui.
Simply because I use it and I'm quite happy with its skills and its manufacturer support.
It doesn't make much sense to give user instructions for an off-the-shelf product, you can simply read the manufacturer's documents and as I've mentioned before, you can watch Florian's Knorn's Panorama Tutorial Series on YouTube.
PTGui personal license costs EUR 79 and PTGui Pro Personal license costs EUR 149.
3. Tripod removal from the spherial image
In the spherical image you have just generated, the top of your tripod may look like a black square and the legs of your tripod may also be visible in the spot where your locate them; in the center of your spherical image.
Removing them from your beautiful image may require some additional job with different software.
As indicated earlier, there may be tons of software in the market for this purpose but I'm going to suggest the one I use; Pano2vr.
Pano2vr extracts the part of your spherical image, the part where you need to perform correction.
You simply shall load the spherical image and show Pano2vr where the bad spot is and it extracts that part of the image as a JPEG or TIFF file.
Later, you perform the necessary correction in the extracted image with another software such as Adobe Photoshop, and then patch it back to your spherical image with Pano2vr.
Pano2VR license costs EUR 69.
I strongly suggest you to watch the associated parts of Panorama Tutorial Series of Florian Knorn.