The pace at which some technologies are developing today is just amazing. One area that’s seen particularly rapid progress over the last few years is 360° cameras. But I’ve often felt that the technology still wasn’t quite there – at least when it came to the 360° cameras that fit in our pockets.
The YI 360 VR was close (at the time), but I always thought they could offer just a bit more. Now, I think all that’s changed with the Insta360 ONE X. I’ve been using one for the past few weeks, and it has absolutely blown me away.
I’ve been working with 360° photographs for years. Before I started taking more photography more seriously all by itself, I used to do a lot of 3D modelling. To create realistic lighting in those scenes, the best solution was 360° 2:1 ratio HDRI environment maps of real-world locations. This was one of the reasons I got into photography at all. It involved a lot of bracketing, carefully moving the camera between shots, resulting in possibly a couple of hundred photographs. These then all had to be tonemapped and stitched together in post to create the final result.
Since then, I’ve gone through 3D printed rigs which hold half a dozen action cameras, tried a few of those early pocket-sized 360° cameras, and finally, l started to see some real potential when I got to play with the YI 360 VR towards the end of 2017 – which was very good compared to what was available at the time, given its 5.7K resolution.
But now, the YI 360 VR isn’t the only 5.7K pocket 360° camera in town. Oh no. Now, we have the Insta360 ONE X, and to be blunt, it blows away every other compact 360° camera I’ve ever tried.
I received the Insta360 ONE X “Winter Box”. This package contains the Insta360 ONE X camera itself along with a spare battery, a 32GB SanDisk Extreme microSD card, Insta360’s “Invisible Selfie Stick” and several bags of GoPro action camera style mounts.
Unfortunately, despite having the Invisible Selfie Stick inside the box, the “Bullet Time Handle” wasn’t included in the Winter Box. I felt that this probably should’ve been included in a kit designed for more extreme winter activities. What was included, though, is a 1/4-20″ bolt on a piece of (very strong) string, so you can still swing it around your head if you’re feeling brave.
The array of action camera mounts might seem a little odd at first, but Insta360 isn’t marketing the ONE X like we might expect a 360° camera to be marketed. It’s being billed as an action camera. And I sort of think it qualifies. Mostly as a result of the Insta360 Studio for ONE X that we’ll get back to a little later.
The camera comes in a rather nice little neoprene pouch with a lanyard to hang it from your neck. Sizewise, it’s significantly slimmer than the YI 360 VR I have been using for the last year and a bit, which was nice. It fits more easily in your pocket, and the pouch is a very nice touch for those times when you need quick and easy access to the camera for regular shooting throughout the day.
The Insta360 ONE X feels solid and quite weighty, almost as heavy as the YI 360 VR. You can tell when you hold it that they’ve packed a lot of tech into that small case. But that weight is a bit of an illusion specifically due to that compact size. Putting it on the scales, with a battery and memory card, the Insta360 ONE X only weighs 114g, compared to 187g for the YI 360 VR.
The exterior of the unit is fairly sparse. On the front there are two buttons for power, sifting through menu options, taking a photo or starting and stopping video, and a small OLED display. There are also what appears to be a couple of small holes for microphones. Of course, there’s that big lens at the top. On the reverse, what looks like another small microphone hole, along with the other lens.
On one side, we have the cover for the battery compartment, with a micro USB socket on the opposite side for charging the battery inside the camera. On the top is an array of five little holes that could also be for a microphone. Finally, underneath there is a 1/4-20″ socket for attaching it to a tripod, or an action camera mount adapter and the microSD card slot.
My first thought after studying the exterior, though, was “ugh! micro USB!”
I was very surprised to see that it wasn’t a Type-C socket. It’s not that it needs the speed of Type-C, but it’s just a much more substantial and reliable socket where you’re regularly plugging in and pulling out cables – even if just for charging. I’m sure the micro USB socket itself is fine, but most cables are not and don’t last very long under such conditions – especially when they’re floating around in a backpack plugged into a battery to charge on the go.
Other than that, I love the clean minimalist interface and the feel of the unit. Despite being hard plastic, it has that nice soft feel that’s become somewhat popular of late. A bit like those matte laminated business cards.
When it comes to the accessories, the included range of action camera style mounts is wonderful for those who don’t already have a great big box full of them like I do. There’s a chest strap harness mount, handlebar mounts, various stick-on attachment mounts, and a rather nice machined aluminium extension bar to get the camera further out from the mount itself.
I think it’s quite thoughtful that many manufacturers include an array of such mounts, but having had more than a dozen action and 360° cameras over the last few years, they do tend to stockpile. It’s always handy to have spares, though.
Using the Insta360 ONE X
Putting in the battery was simple, and a cover locks it into place safe inside the camera. The microSD card slot underneath the camera was a concern at first. I was worried that it might just fall out, but being positioned so close to the 1/4-20″ socket underneath, if you’ve got it on a tripod mount or even the selfie stick, it’s physically impossible to remove the microSD card.
While this Insta360 ONE X came supplied with a 32GB SanDisk Extreme A1 microSD card, outside of my initial tests I ended up using 128GB SanDisk Extreme A2 and 64GB ProGrade Digital UHS-II microSD cards instead – I just didn’t want to risk running out of space. The ProGrade microSD card is UHS-II, and even though the ONE X doesn’t have a UHS-II card slot and offers no speed advantage for your footage, it can write to them just fine. Where UHS-II cards do offer the advantage, though is that it’s much quicker to unload that footage onto the computer – especially with high capacity cards.
Turning the camera on… When you’ve only got two buttons to control the whole camera, you know that the user experience is either going to be simple and straightforward or a major pain in the backside. There’s really no in between. Fortunately, the ONE X falls into the first category.
The smaller of the two buttons is a long press for powering on and off and a short press to go cycle through photo & video modes or change the settings. Once in a settings menu, the small button cycles through the different menu options. The larger button starts and stops recording video, shoots still pictures and acts as a kind of “ok” button for the settings menus.
For more advanced features, though, you really want to use the mobile app. This allows you to more easily configure the resolution, framerate and other settings than through the 2-button interface on the camera itself. The Insta360 ONE X app is available for both Android and IOS. It’s pretty intuitive and logs into the camera over WiFi, allowing you to stream what the camera sees and control it remotely.
The app allows you to change all the settings you are able to change through the camera’s built-in menu system but with the obvious advantage of a nice touch UI. You can change the framerate, resolution, ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, set a log profile, apply filters to your footage and a bunch of other options.
The “Invisible Selfie Stick” is both wonderful and a bit of a pain. It really is invisible in the footage, though. I’ve yet to have it show up at all. It has a twist-lock mechanism to extend and shorten it. Twist it anti-clockwise, and it can be extended and shortened. Twist it clockwise and it locks into place.
But the problem I have with it is that if it’s cold, or you’re wearing gloves, it can be difficult to grip onto and unlock, especially if you’ve accidentally twisted it a little too hard when locking it. But, other than that it works very well. And you can’t use the camera itself to twist it tun lock, because all you’re doing at that point is unscrewing the stick from the tripod socket in the bottom of the camera.
But why might you want to use a selfie stick with a 360 camera? Isn’t it going to be bobbing around all over the place and creating really jerky footage? You’d think so, right? That’s what happens with the YI 360 VR. But not with the ONE X.
It has a built in 6-axis gyro, recording the angle at which the camera is positioned constantly. This information is read by the Insta360 Studio ONE X software with its FlowState stabilisation and automatically compensates when you load the footage in, stabilising it perfectly.
And when I say “perfectly” I mean this thing looks like it was shot on a motorised gimbal. And it’s this feature of the Insta360 Studio software that seems to be prompting Insta360 to market this as an action camera. The lack of any real gimbal for use with the YI 360 VR was one of the reasons why I rarely used it for video unless it was sitting on a tripod – which is a pain to have to carry around with such a small camera.
HDR & DNG Raw Stills
One of the features added in a firmware update since the camera’s initial release was HDR capability. This feature shoots several images of your scene, and then blends them together to give you a final 8-bit tonemapped shot of your scene. These aren’t like the HDRI images I spoke of earlier for use in CG environments to create realistic lighting. Those are 32-bit per channel files, whereas these are 8-bit. But it will allow you to capture more detail in the shadows and highlights in scenes with a higher dynamic range.
It’s not something I’ve played with a lot yet, but it seems to work fairly well for an automated process. I think if you were serious about shooting 360° HDR stills, or if you want to create HDRI environment maps for use with CG, you’d be better off shooting separate bracketed images and then blending them together yourself on the desktop, with a little more interactive control.
And, while not HDR, the Insta360 ONE X is capable of outputting DNG raw files. This means you can process it in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, giving you all of the post-processing abilities you’ve come to expect from raw files from your regular cameras, including shadow & highlight adjustments, noise reduction, vibrance, clarity, and all the rest of it before converting it back to the standard equirectangular 360° file.
Although, that last bit’s a little easier said than done. Insta360 Studio ONE X would freeze when I attempted to load a DNG into it directly. The other option was to export out a JPG of the processed DNG file from Photoshop, but Insta360 Studio didn’t understand that it was a dual fisheye image, and so didn’t convert it to equirectantular – it would be nice if it could do this by default, or give us some kind of option to let the app know it’s a dual fisheye image and needs to convert it.
Insta360 Studio ONE X
The final version of Insta360 Studio ONE X was only released recently and was one of the main things that’s delayed me putting out this review much sooner. While the beta version I was using did offer stabilisation, 5.7K footage support, and allow me to export the 360° footage out for uploading to YouTube, etc. it didn’t support FreeCapture, which allows you to turn it into flat footage. There were clunky workarounds, but they meant having to reduce the footage to 4K, and having it go through several recompression cycles, massively reducing the quality.
But let’s start with the basics. Viewing 360° footage is as simple as double-clicking the file in Explorer and up it comes in the Insta360 Studio ONE X application. From here, you can stabilise, recalibrate, choose if your camera’s inside one of the various cases designed for the ONE X, and put in a custom nadir logo.
It might seem a little redundant to be able to import 360 footage and then just save it back out again, but the Insta360 ONE X uses a proprietary format to save its footage and photos. So, if you want to edit it in something like DaVinci Resolve, you’ll need to convert it to something like MP4 through the Insta360 Studio app. But this does have the advantage of stabilising everything in the process.
On the FreeCapture tab is where the magic happens, though. Here you can convert your 360 video into flat video footage. This is a lot of fun, and one of the main things I’ll be doing with the Insta360 footage I shoot.
FreeCapture allows you to set keyframes throughout your footage to change the camera settings. These settings include the different ways in which you can map the 360 footage (Tiny Planet, Crystal Ball, “Default”, or Natural). You can zoom in and out using the scroll wheel on your mouse, or dial in field of view numerically. You can also adjust the pan, tilt angle field of view and “distance” manually by entering specific numbers.
What makes this so powerful is that it allows you to essentially just shoot everything around the camera, and then choose your composition completely in post. You can even animate the camera from one composition to another, and you can choose the transition used to go between them.
Rendering out of here, by default, produces 1080p footage, although you can enter any resolution you like. How detailed your final output will be, though, will largely depend on the compositions you choose. The footage out of the camera might be 5.7K, but when it’s wrapped 180° vertically and 360° horizontally, it’s going to start degrading quite quickly if you really try to zoom into details. You can see here just in this screenshot that the trees at the top edges are starting to lose a little something.
Side note: This is how they make those fake-but-cool “Photograph while rolling down a hill” shots you see all over Facebook. No, it’s just a 360° camera shot run through a Tiny Planet feature.
It is a very cool effect, though, and has a certain Inception quality to it when using it with video footage.
The keyframing in Insta360 Studio is very nice, but there’s no real editing beyond this. There’s one timeline per clip and only one clip per timeline. So, if you want to do any real editing, or even colour correction & grading, you’ll still need to jump into something like Adobe Premiere or DaVinci Resolve. But you can chop clips down in Insta360 Studio to make your life a little easier.
When I shoot with 360° cameras, I typically tend to just leave them recording while I’m doing whatever I’m doing and then worry about it later. Insta360 Studio ONE X lets me do this easily.
Other than the frustrations with the Invisible Selfie Stick when wearing gloves that I mentioned earlier, I only had a couple of real frustrations, one of which now appears to be resolved (but I think it’s still worth mentioning in case you run into the issue and want to know how to solve it)
I use multiple mobile devices. I have an ASUS ZenFone 5, an ASUS ZenFone 4 and I borrowed an iPhone SE for testing with the Insta360 ONE X. There were some connection issues early on where the camera would still think that one of the phones was connected to it, even when it wasn’t, preventing me from ending a recording. The buttons on the camera simply didn’t work. None of the three phones was able to connect to the camera, and the only way to stop it recording was to pull the battery.
This did indeed stop it from recording, however, because the file wasn’t closed gracefully, it became corrupt. This led to losing several 20-minute recordings in some of Scotland’s most beautiful snow-covered wilderness.
As I mentioned, though, this does appear to be resolved now. So, if you happen to run into this issue with your Insta360 ONE X, just make sure you’re running the latest version of the mobile app for your platform and that your camera is running the latest firmware and it should solve itself.
My only other complaint about the camera is that there’s no microphone input. One of the things I did quite like about the YI 360 VR is that there’s an adapter cable for the Type-C USB socket that provides a microphone input. This means that no matter where I might be in relation to the camera, I can always get good quality sound recorded right into the file. It even works with my wireless lav mic.
With the Insta360 ONE X, there’s no such option and the internal mics, while ok, aren’t amazing, especially if you’re moving around the camera. So, you’ll either have to deal with no sound and just have it play as b-roll or set it to music, or record audio separately and sync it in post (which you’ll have to do in Premiere or Resolve or something because Insta360 Studio doesn’t support that).
The 5.7K resolution footage from this camera looks pretty amazing. Despite being the same resolution as the YI 360 VR, the quality difference is night and day, really. It’s got great detail where it counts, with much better dynamic range than I’m used to for such a small camera, and the stabilisation really is gimbal smooth.
Does it live up to the “Action Camera” designation? I’ve struggled with this one. In many ways, yes, it kind of does. But in other ways, it does lag a little behind what we expect from an action camera these days.
Compared to the GoPro Hero 7 Black, we’re not going to get that clean sharp flat 4K footage – 5.7K stretched to 360° just isn’t capable of holding that kind of detail when flattened. And GoPro’s been waterproof to some degree since the Hero 5, yet the Insta360 ONE X requires a separate waterproof housing. And if you’re a more extreme type of user, I don’t think that the Insta360 ONE X would live up to the kind of abuse that GoPro cameras are put through on a daily basis.
That being said, for the vast majority of action camera users, who might only need to produce 1080p flat content and aren’t using them in very extreme situations, I feel that it’s definitely a better option. At 114g, it’s actually 3g lighter than the Hero 7 Black, and you can get rock steady footage without the added weight and hassle of a gimbal. The dynamic range between the two seems quite comparable as well.
- 5.7K resolution – an absolute minimum in my opinion
- Gimbal-like stabilisation – and this really isn’t an exaggeration
- Great dynamic range – the best I’ve seen in a compact 360° camera
- RAW DNG stills capture – it’s not quite there yet, but I’m listing it as a pro as it has potential.
- HDR capability – although you still may want to bracket shots and blend manually on the desktop for maximum control
- LOG option for video footage
- Easy no-nonsense UI – there are 2 buttons. For everything. How much simpler could it get?
- Mobile apps for both Android and iOS – and both apps work very well
- The Invisible Selfie Stick works wonderfully and doesn’t appear in the shot at all
- micro USB socket – Type-C’s just so much more substantial as a charging port
- No external mic input – it would be nice to be able to use a wireless lav with this and not have to sync in post
- RAW DNG stills capture – it’s a pro, but it’s also still kind of a con until it gets more reliable software support to “unwrap” it
- The Invisible Selfie Stick can be a pain to open and close in colder weather or if wearing gloves
When I reviewed the YI 360 VR, I felt that it was just at that point where it was starting to hit my bare minimum requirements for a compact 360° camera, and at the time there wasn’t anything out there that I felt could best it. But that was 16 months ago. Now, the Insta360 ONE X absolutely hammers it into the ground.
So, if you’re looking for a good pocket-sized 360° camera, it doesn’t really get much better than this at the moment. And despite the cons mentioned above, I’d definitely recommend it. The only real potential competitor it has is the recently announced Insta360 EVO, which serves as both a 360° camera and stereo 3D 180° camera (I know, right!). As it’s from the same company, it will likely contain the exact same internals and features.