For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been playing with the new YI 360 VR camera. I’ve wanted to get my hands on one of these since they were announced in April. So, needless to say, I was quite excited when it showed up at my door.
Since it arrived, I’ve used it quite a bit. I’ve taken it out while doing things with friends, shot video behind the scenes on photo shoots, and even live streamed to Facebook and YouTube. So, here’s what I think. In this post, I’m tackling these topics largely in the order I faced them when using the camera.
360° stills and video has fascinated me for a long time. I got my first in-person 360° camera experience about 18 months ago when a friend brought his Ricoh Theta S to The Photography Show. I loved the whole idea of 360° stills and video, but at only 1080p, I felt it just wasn’t there for me yet when it came to resolution and quality.
My stop-gap solution was half a dozen YI HD action cameras in a 3D printed rig. This works fairly well, providing 4K 360° stitched footage, although there are still issues. The cameras don’t perfectly sync with each other in time, and there are often exposure mismatches between different cameras. So, I never got results I was truly happy with without a whole lot of work in post.
I debated back and forth for months on whether to take the plunge and just get an actual 4K 360° camera. I think my procrastination paid off, though. While being indecisive, YI Technology announced the YI 360 VR. A 360° camera that shoots 5.7K resolution video, and can even live stream to YouTube and Facebook at 2.5K.
Originally scheduled for release in June, the YI 360 VR has faced a few delays. YI Technology told me at the time that it wasn’t quite as perfect as they would like, and that they want to make some tweaks to the camera before release. The most notable of those tweaks is that the 2.5K live streaming sees a 4K upgrade.
In the box
But let’s get into the camera, which we’ll begin by seeing what’s included in the box. On removing the top cover, everything is well packaged inside with protective foam. Everything fits snugly and survived International shipping very well.
- The YI 360 VR Camera
- 1400mAh Lithium Ion battery
- Type-C USB cable
- Mini tripod
- Storage pouch
- Lens cleaning cloth
There’s also the usual warranty card, manual, and associated bits of paper.
First impressions & Setup
Taking the unit out of the box and holding in in my hand, the first thing I notice is how substantial it feels. It’s heavy enough that you feel like you’re holding something solid and well built, but light enough that it’s not going to bother you while carrying it around in a pocket. It actually seems to weigh a little less than my iPhone SE in its battery pack case.
After putting the battery in and turning it on, I was confronted with a very simple setup questionnaire, which involved only 2 questions. In which country do I reside, and am I using 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz Wi-Fi?
Installing the app to my phone was just like installing any other mobile app. Go to the app store (it’s also in the Play Store for Android), and simply install. Charging was also quick and easy, I just plugged one end of the supplied Type-C USB cable into the camera, and the other into the USB charger on my desk and left it to it.
The mini tripod
The inclusion of a mini tripod was something of a surprise. And although it’s a minor thing, as with the camera itself, I was immediately struck by how solid it felt.
I had originally planned to use one of my Manfrotto Pixi tripods with this camera because I didn’t know that it comes with one of its own. The supplied tripod does rather well, though.
It has a 1/4-20″ screw thread on top which goes straight into the bottom of the camera. And the legs move rather firmly, they’re not going to be flopping around on you when you pick it up. The only problem with it, though, is that the top stays parallel to whatever surface it’s resting on. So, if the surface you’re on isn’t perfectly level, you’ll want to add a small ball head.
Yes, in theory, with a 360° camera, it shouldn’t matter whether or not the camera’s level. But, it does. Not having to re-level it after the fact will save a lot of time in post. And if you’re live streaming, then you don’t even have that option.
Or, of course, your other choice is to just go ahead and get that Manfrotto Pixi, which was my original thought and the option I eventually went back to. It’s just too quick and easy to adjust.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t read the manual before firing up the camera for the first time. It wasn’t really needed, to be fair. After plugging it in to let it charge up, I turned it on and everything was rather intuitive. The minimalist 3 button layout means that there aren’t really many things to confuse the user. The menu navigation on the OLED residing on top of the camera was also easy to follow.
The difficult bit for me was figuring out exactly which microSD card to use. The maximum bitrate in the camera for shooting 5.7K video is 120mbps. So, I settled on a 64GB SanDisk Ultra. I did try to record 5.7K footage at 120MB/sec, but it crapped out because it couldn’t write fast enough. So, I kept it below, around 60-90MB/sec, depending on the resolution of the footage.
Without much more of a thought, I headed out that evening with a friend to see what we could find. We stumbled across a skate park, with a few people practising some new tricks.
The floodlight in the park wasn’t nearly as bright as the video suggests. The direction of the floodlight means that light isn’t going to spread too far toward the sides, so I knew some areas would fade to blackness.
Despite this, the YI 360 VR seemed to handle things quite well. You do see some flaring from the lens pointed toward the floodlight, but I think this is to be expected, really. The noise level, though, is definitely much lower than I expected.
It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, but it was. I don’t know how much life I was expecting to get out of a single charge, but it ended up being about an hour of recording time. This isn’t actually that bad if you consider that I’m mostly shooting clips of 2-3 minutes at a time. This can be extended if you shoot at a lower resolution, or disable the Wi-Fi. Live streaming will, obviously, use up the battery a little faster.
Battery life is an easy solution, though. The YI 360 VR allows you to use the camera while it’s charging. So, just throw a USB battery in the bag along with a Type-C USB cable, and you drastically extend the life.
Side note: You can actually remove the battery completely and power the YI 360 VR exclusively via the USB socket. So, if you’re setting this up in a permanent location for 360° streaming 24 hours a day, you can keep going forever.
One thing I haven’t really mentioned so far, which is absolutely invaluable in all this is the mobile app. It’s available for both iOS and Android, and it works on phones as well as tablets. I’ve used it with my iPhone, an old Moto G, and my Nexus 7 tablet. The timing of the camera’s arrival worked out rather well, as the YI 360 app appeared on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store only the day before. Knowing that the camera was on its way, I installed and familiarised myself a little with the app’s basic workings.
The app isn’t essential for much of the standard photo & video functionality, although it does make life a whole lot easier. Being able to stream the camera’s view to a screen in your hand lets you ensure that the camera’s level and exposure is where you want it. It is required, though, if you wish to live stream to Facebook or YouTube as it needs to authenticate with your respective accounts.
The app lets you change various exposure settings including ISO, shutter speed and white balance. It also offers some degree of exposure compensation for automatic metering. These images show the full range from -2.0 to +2.0 on the exposure compensation.
The app lets you shoot stills, start and stop video, shoot timelapse or stream live to Facebook or YouTube. For the latter, you can set a custom description and you get control over the stream’s privacy. For YouTube, you can upload Private, Unlisted or Public. On Facebook, you get Private, Friends and Public.
The live streaming works rather well, although if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you’ll need a good 4G connection to upload smoothly. Oddly, I saw better upstream speeds with my TP-Link 4G hotspot than with my Wi-Fi broadband connection at home.
It would be nice to see a SIM slot built into in the camera. Then it could connect directly to the Internet by itself. But, I would imagine that would add a lot of extra headaches for development, and substantially increase the cost of the camera. Using a 4G hotspot out in the field is pretty straightforward, though.
Just as with the menu on the camera’s built-in LCD, you can also adjust all of the settings for the camera from within the app, too. Change resolution, turn stitching on and off, set the white balance, environment type, and everything else. While having the control built into the camera itself is handy, it’s a lot easier to deal with from a phone or tablet.
Stitching stills and video
I’m splitting this bit up into two sections, just to make things a little easier.
Auto-stitching in the camera is possible for still photographs at all resolutions. When it comes to video, however, the only resolution at which auto-stitching is available is 4K (3840×1920). For all other resolutions, you need to stitch it yourself. Don’t panic, though. It’s very easy to do – although it can be a slow process if you have a lot of footage.
The auto-stitching in the camera is rather good when you set it up properly. The camera offers an option to set the distance at which your scene exists from the camera. You can set it to “selfie”, “indoor” or “outdoor”, and the seams on most scenes are virtually impossible to spot when set appropriately.
I did find, though, that even in many outdoor locations, the “indoor” setting gave me the best stitching result in the camera.
This really is very simple. First, you download the YI 360 Studio app from the YI website, install it, and load it up. Then it’s just a case of dragging your unstitched footage into the application. You pick a couple of options from dropdown menus to choose resolution and quality, then tell it to render out the files.
This is the route you have to take if you shoot 5.7K video footage – which you will because that’s the whole point of getting a 5.7K camera. The most frustrating part of this process, though, is that it’s so slow.
In the video at the top of this review, you see me drag a file into the YI 360 Studio application and tell it to render. That 37 second clip took around 20 minutes to complete. And that’s on an 8 core AMD8350 running at 4.33Ghz. So, at this rate, I would expect it to be about 30 minutes of render time per 1 minute of actual video on this CPU.
If it’s any consolation, at least you only have to do it once for each clip, and when it’s done, it’s done.
With my clips on the computer and stitched where necessary, editing is the next step. I use Premiere Pro CS6. Yes, it’s a little long in the tooth now, but it does all I need, so I’ve never felt the need to lock myself into a subscription. CS6 doesn’t natively support 360 degree video, though. But, that’s not really a problem. You can still go ahead and edit the 2D footage just fine.
You can easily add 360 degree support while editing to Premiere Pro CS6 using the GoPro VR plugin for Premiere Pro. It’s designed for Premiere Pro CC, but it works just fine in CS6, too. This also means that you can preview footage using the Oculus (and presumably Vive) while editing, too.
After rendering out, though, YouTube and Facebook won’t recognise your footage as 360° video. So you’ll want to inject some metadata into the file. Google does have a recommended application to inject 360 metadata into your videos. The app is available for both Windows and Mac. Once injected, upload it to Facebook or YouTube as you would any other video.
Incidentally, the two links above should work for any 360 degree video from any camera, or manually stitched. I even use them to create and preview 360 degree 3D video clips rendered out in Blender 3D.
Dynamic range, colour, contrast and chromatic aberration
One thing you might be able to spot from the exposure compensation example in the tunnel a few images ago is that chromatic aberration can be a bit of an issue. Ok, perhaps more than a bit of an issue, it’s pretty obvious in such high contrast situations. Much higher than one might expect. But, how often are you going to be shooting inside the end of a blocked off tunnel with bright daylight outside?
The seam is rather noticeable in that example, too, due to the drastically different exposure inside the tunnel and lens flaring from outside. But, again, this is a very extreme example in which to test the dynamic range and contrast limits of the camera.
Here’s an example of a more typical outdoor setting. At least, typical in the UK. Bright white cloudy sky, and soft light on the ground.
As you can see, the chromatic aberration is still slightly visible, although nowhere near as bad as the previous example. For stills, at least, Adobe Camera Raw makes light work of the CA colour fringing. For video, it will depend on the editing application you use and may take a little work to correct.
The dynamic range in bright daylight is fairly impressive. There’s a couple of blown out areas of pale subjects lit directly by sunlight. But there’s plenty enough detail in the shadows to give them a little lift in post if needed.
One of the options in the YI 360 VR is a “flat” colour profile, although, to be honest, it doesn’t really seem all that flat. It looks like it essentially just underexposed the shot a little bit to try to retain a little more of the highlight detail. It would be nice to see a true flat profile in a future firmware update.
The colour isn’t perfect, with or without the “flat” profile, but it’s close enough that it’s easy to tweak. Straight out of the camera, though, it’s not terrible and easily holds up for live streaming.
The sharpness is about as well as one might hope for from a camera of this resolution and budget. That is to say, it wipes the floor with 1080p 360° camera footage, although it’s still not amazing. But this is just the nature of 360 degree cameras in their current state. Personally, I don’t feel that 360° video will really start to shine until 8K becomes the standard. The image just gets stretched too much when covering a 360° field of view. And I’m picky.
Compared to its peers which offer 4K or similar resolutions, it’s very good for its price. With the YI 360 VR at 5.7K resolution, though, that seemingly slight bump makes a noticeable difference. You’d be hard pushed to find a similar level of quality in another camera unless you wanted to spend about twice as much.
4K Sample 360° Footage
The YI 360 VR is quite a nice little camera. It’s small enough to fit into your pocket and is of sufficient quality by today’s standards for uploading to streaming to the web. If you want to go serious high end 360° production, then this may not be the camera for you. You’re still likely going to need to spend thousands to get what you’re after. But, if you want decent 360° stills and footage for casual use, then there aren’t really any better options at this price point.
- Pretty decent battery life
- Chargeable in the field with a USB battery while recording
- Can be powered from USB without an internal battery
- 5.7K resolution is very nice to have
- 4K live streaming (see my note below)
- Manual stitching on the computer is slooooow
- Flat image profile is nowhere near flat enough
- No 24fps frame rate
Note: While I’ve listed 4K live streaming in the pros, there’s also a little bit of a con, too. While the YI 360 VR does support 4K live streaming, Facebook does not. This is more a con against Facebook, though, and not the fault of YI or the camera. 4K streaming to YouTube works great.
While I don’t use it as much for personal activities as I could, the YI 360 VR has already found a permanent place in my camera bag. It will be going out with me on every shoot from this day forward. Either it will be capturing behind the scenes footage for me to edit together at a later time, or it will be live streaming behind the scenes during the shoot itself.
Originally scheduled for release in June, the YI 360 VR is still available to pre-order for $399. Units are expected to ship some time next month.