Virtual Reality: Photography’s Next Frontier?

During the past two years, virtual reality has advanced from being seen as an untouchable future technology to an accessible marketing tool. Virtual reality enthusiasts and creative thought leaders have hailed this new platform as a major upcoming trend and market disruptor, similar to how social media dropped onto the scene in the 2000s.

For those who have experienced virtual reality, it’s easy to see why so many people have fallen in love with this new technology: It offers a truly immersive experience that’s miles past where the technology was in the ‘90s, when virtual reality lived only in arcades and gaming dominated discussions.

Today, virtual reality can be used for more than just gaming. The core concept of virtual reality is to immerse viewers in an experience, so it’s a natural match with photography. And because virtual reality is just now gaining traction with content creators and consumers, now is a perfect time for savvy photographers to learn how to create virtual reality content.

What Is Virtual Reality Content?

It might come as a surprise, but to create virtual reality content, you’ll need to master a well-known, if overlooked, photography technique—panoramic stitching, and in this case full spherical 360s. Sphericals are the complete picture, they’re a full 360 degrees of horizontal viewing and 180 degrees of vertical. Nothing is left out of view in any direction.

For a long time photographers didn’t know what to do with these panoramic images. Instead of a necessary tool in a photographer’s toolbox, they existed as an interesting technique with limited real-life uses. This began to change with the arrival of companies that wanted to provide consumers with realistic and immersive 3D visual information, such as Google’s Street View.

Virtual reality has made knowing how to create panoramas even more useful.

Virtual reality headsets, such as best-known models Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, let users view multiple forms of media, including panoramas and video. However, viewing panoramas in virtual reality isn’t like viewing them on a computer screen. Instead, viewers can physically “look around” the image, creating an immersive experience that effectively simulates being there in person. If you’re interested in producing virtual reality content, panoramas are where you should start.

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What Makes a Compelling Panoramas?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of tutorials on how to create panoramas. But let’s focus on what makes compelling panoramas, especially ones that will be viewed through a virtual reality headset. In the past several years, we’ve created thousands of panoramas for a variety of industries, including higher education, hotels and resorts, and travel. More recently, we’ve focused on creating content specially geared for virtual reality. Our tips come from these experiences.

1. Find the Right Environment
The most important thing to know about panoramas is when and why they should be used. If you are going to fully immerse someone into a virtual experience, you should aim to make that experience as compelling as possible—so start with a compelling environment. With traditional photography you can frame a shot to exclude most of the surrounding environment, but with virtual reality content you have to take everything in every direction you look into consideration.

To be more specific, your shot doesn’t have to be busy and packed full of things to look at it, but it does need to be balanced. For example, a ground-level panorama of a building that’s across the street from a construction site does more to detract from the image of the building than enhance it. From our experience, a compelling panorama has content that is worth looking at in more than half your field view.

2. Consider Your Subject Matter
Just because you’re shooting a panorama—even one that’s going to be seen in virtual reality—you still need to answer the question at the root of most photography—“why?” Why was this scene captured in 360-degrees as opposed to standard photo or video? Did the ability to look around add real substance to the content, or was it an unnecessary flourish. Viewers should be stimulated when they immerse themselves into the scene you’re presenting.

Good subject matter is not just about how something looks or sounds; it’s about the overall effectiveness of your scene to evoke an emotional response from your viewer. The response can be positive or negative, compassionate or repulsive, as long as the subject matter grabs your viewer and creates some emotional attachment. That empathy, compassion, disgust or awe will ultimately define your viewer’s experience. While you should certainly be mindful of the technical guidelines addressed earlier, if your subject matter or scene is not compelling and doesn’t affect your viewer in an intrinsically emotional way, the experience won’t generate the powerful results that deeply immersive content should.

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3. Quality Matters

As always, quality matters. Blurry, shaky, low-res content—the equivalent of a vertical cell phone video—won’t deliver the feeling of actually being at the location you captured. In fact, given that your content will be viewed through a headset, poor quality content can give viewers a negative visceral reaction.

Lighting is one basic component, among all others, that will dramatically affect your virtual reality footage. When handled effectively it will help make your shots look good in the simplest sense of the word. Some tips: Try to bring in the natural light from outside, bring up your ambient or house lights, take advantage of other light sources (such as desk lamps, computer monitors, or candles), and find creative ways to reflect light or direct it at the subjects and places of interest in your composed scene.

These are just a few tips on how to get started creating engaging virtual reality content. We’re certain that as you experiment with creating panoramas and viewing them in virtual reality, you’ll compile your own list of tips and tricks. With your new found skillset, and the world’s increased interested in virtual reality, you’ll find yourself more marketable.

PJ Morreale and Calder Wilson lead YouVisit’s photography team, and have over 15 years of shared experience as professional photographers. YouVisit is a multimedia technology company and the global leader in virtual tours and virtual reality. Learn more at www.youvisit.com.

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