161127 Theta - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Every couple of years, like clockwork, I feel the allure of a fisheye lens. This dates back for more than a decade, to the first and only time when I was out with a photographer who made good photos with one, but the truth is that they don't fit how I see. I'm happiest with lenses on the short side of long, around 50-85mm equivalents, where I can compose precisely and simply with straight lines and right angles. But nonetheless her creativity and capability stuck with me, so every couple of years I flirt with the idea before setting it aside, once again, as impractical and needlessly expensive.

But after all that I didn't actually fall to my cyclical fisheye lens fascination – instead I went even weirder, and picked up a Ricoh Theta S. That's something else I've been intrigued by for years. It's a camera that has twin fisheye lenses on opposing sides of its body, which is about the size and shape of a chocolate bar. The coverage from the lenses overlaps and is seamlessly merged by the camera, creating a fully spherical image when seen in a specialized viewer, such as the ones provided by Rioch or Google Maps. I don't have anything public on Ricoh's site, but have been having fun with Google's service.

The alternative to the 360 photo sphere is a flat image with a 2:1 aspect ratio and some interesting distortion. These images have all been cropped and edited, so they're not representative of the straight-out-of-camera jpegs, but haven't had any distortion correction applied. To try to visualize what these scenes look like in real life you'll have to imagine the photo above and below as having their left and right sides touching, or nearly so. The lead image has had more of its width cropped away, but the continuous curb that runs in a "U" shape around the bottom of the frame shows that we're seeing more than what's in front of the camera. 

Ricoh supports both mobile and desktop software, and both have their shortcomings. The mobile app can do all kinds of modifications and different projections, incredible tricks and alternations, but only with reduced half-resolution files.

The computer application can handle full-resolution files, but does almost nothing. Here its only use is to correct the vertical orientation of the images. This lack of function means that the camera still has a 'front' and 'back', with a primary lens that will face the centre of the image, and the reverse lens that will put its image to the sides. Other people do make more sophisticated software, but it's designed to create these images from the ground up for professional users, and is priced accordingly.

Spherical photos don't exaggerate distance quite as much as flat Theta photos do – this image is very popular on Google Maps right now, but it's almost unrecognizably different in that medium. Unless empty space is the point of the photos, such as with stadiums and cathedrals, I wouldn't try to compose a photo as distant as this for flat viewing. But in the right circumstance the Theta can do creative work, and for the rest of the time I'm having a lot of fun with it for documentary and amusitory purposes. And while I'm not showing them here, one of the standout uses for the Theta is activity shots when I'm out doing things with my favourite person.

This was a go-to scene for me when I was doing a daily photo project, because in the early evening there would almost always be a Parking Enforcement car parked illegally. I once took a photo that caught three of them all parked illegally just a short distance up the road from here – there must have been a convention. But that's still not as good as being able to put this one on Google Maps, even though it's only earned 35 views to date. And it's worth knowing that in the spherical view the 'No Parking' sign is much more prominent, and zoomable. The camera was really only a metre or so away from the car's bumper.

Placing the camera is interesting with the Theta. The camera is self-aware, and will edit itself out of its photos. This can cause a few artifacts as it removes its width from the surface it's resting on, but with care it's minor in spherical photos, and can be cropped away in a flat image. But a tripod or anything wide will remain, so tall skinny supports are important. Here the camera is on a 30" pole supported by a Manfrotto 209 tabletop tripod base, and you can see its distorted presence at the base of this photo above, which I have left full-height. In the spherical view it's possible to look straight down, which makes it much more obvious. 

My support system includes tabletop triopds, light stands, flex arms, and yes, even selfie sticks. Anything that gets the camera up and away is useful. This photo above, like the parked car and the empty subway station, were taken with the 30" stick on the Manfrotto base. The subway seat and the long monochrome hallway were taken with the Theta sitting directly on the ground. And the two Honest Ed's photos were taken with a magnetic Joby Gorillapod, with the lead photo attached to a metal conduit on a lamp post, and the second sitting on top of a fire hydrant.

One final quirk of a 360 degree panoramic camera: I'm in every single photo. This photo above, of a temporary art installation at Bathurst subway station, is the only one where I'm actually visible – I'm the one at the phone booth – but I'm hiding somewhere in all of them.

Now that I have a better idea of what the camera can see, and how to compose with it for flat images, I'm finally going to start pre-visualizing the photos that I want. Held out in front of me – yes, on a selfie stick, but with the 'front' facing away – I can reduce the amount that I need to crop to take myself out of the photo. This means better proximity to my subject while keeping an expansive view to the sides. My early results have already been promising, 

Just for fun, here's where I'm hiding in each image:

The lead photo has be behind the lamp post that the camera is supported by; I've cropped it out in this version, but you can find the sphere on Google Maps

Behind the lamp post on the right side of the frame, at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor.

In a doorway access alcove in the construction hoarding, right side.

On the other side of the subway seats – not actually hiding, but the camera's placed where it can't see me.

Behind the pillar next to the newspaper box, left side.

Behind the pillar in the centre of the frame.

Behind the yellow concrete block, using the low perspective of the camera to make up for its short coverage.

Directly behind the signs in the centre of the image.

At the phone booth, as already mentioned, but there are other times when I've 'hidden' in the image by walking past as if I'm a bystander.

And finally, behind the lamp that bookends the vast emptiness of the Etobicoke pick-up depot for Puro "One Attempt" Later.

While the Theta does have a self timer, all of these were taken using the iOS app and wifi to trigger the camera. I've learned to use the full-screen view and point it at my hiding spot to make sure that I'm out of sight, but this adds the limited wifi range to the list of factors that I have to consider when I'm choosing a composition.

That and if anyone is likely to walk off with the camera while I'm trying to take the photo. It could happen, I suppose.


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