Imagine yourself in the middle of a visually interesting environment, wishing you could photograph the entire scene that surrounds you. That vision is possible online. By using some commercially available software and a few special tools, photographers can create unique 360-degree images that immerse viewers in the middle of any environment. When displayed online, a viewer can interactively pan across, up, down and even zoom into an image to explore the entire 360 degrees of a scene.
At the newspaper we've been documenting a few subjects with this type of imagery, known as virtual reality photography. To create one, I use a standard camera with a wide-angle lens. Shooting in the portrait or vertical format, we take a series of six overlapping images outward from a central point, in a complete circle. The images are then stitched together in a computer software program to blend the overlapping sections and create a composite panoramic image. At this point the image could be printed out as a flat photograph covering 360 degrees. But the fun part is taking the stitched images to create the 360-degree VR image. The result is a Quicktime movie file that will open on most popular computer platforms.
Tips and tools:
Using a tripod helps steady your shots for any long exposures and helps you keep a center point as you circle within your environment. Focus manually so it remains constant. I pick a prominent subject in the environment on which to set the focus. Set a manual exposure so lighting and exposure will not fluctuate as you take all your shots.
In addition to the camera and a wide-angle lens a VR panning head is useful. These are special brackets that mount on a tripod. You attach your camera and lens to the bracket and the bracket then swivels, keeping the rotation on the optical center of the lens. Some popular brands are Kaidan and Manfrotto. Popular VR software for both Apple and PC computers includes, PTGui, PhotoVista and Panoweaver.