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Close up… portrait… landscape… panoramic… You know where this is heading, right? Straight into head-spinning, which-end-is-up virtual reality (VR) photography. For photographers who want to expand their repertoire, this is a great time to try shooting in VR. Consumer-friendly high-definition VR-capable cameras are hitting the market, equipped with built-in software that makes taking a 360-degree photo, editing it and sharing it as simple as popping a camera on a tripod and pushing a button.

The best way to break into the field, according to Marcelle Hopkins, the deputy editor of video and codirector of VR at the New York Times, is to simply “start doing it.” “Don’t worry about the quality,” she says. “Start practicing. Go make a 360-degree video about your neighborhood. Learn the storytelling part. The more you do it, the more you’ll learn. Eventually, you’ll have something you are proud of and want to share.”

Thomas Hayden of 360 Labs positions a Z CAM S1 Pro camera during the filming of a 360-degree video for Go Coast Guard. Produced entirely in one long day of filming as part of a series, the video captures a live training exercise with members of the US Coast Guard’s Maritime Security Response Team. © Matt Rowell

Hopkins is just one of many leading the new medium. From traditional news media to purpose-built VR photography studios to film and advertising production studios working at the highest level of craft, there is a new generation of practitioners inventing what is possible in VR every time they pick up a camera.

In 2004, Thomas Hayden saw a video playing on a laptop. He wasn’t impressed—until the guy showing it to him said, “Move the cursor.” It was a 360-degree video—the first one Hayden had ever seen. The effect was so astounding that the next day, Hayden quit his job to work for the company that had made the video. That company, Immersive Media, went on to help launch Google Street View. 

In 2012, Hayden was one of the first photographers tapped by Google to join its program of panoramic photographers who would shoot local businesses. As Hayden recalls, “For six months, I was the only Google Trusted Photographer in Portland, Oregon. Then the competition arrived.” Seeing the writing on the wall, Hayden reached out to two other photographers; together, the three of them started 360 Labs in 2014, offering 360-degree photo virtual tours and 360-degree video.

Today, 360 Labs shoots VR films for outdoor outfitters, regional tourism agencies and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Another client, the US Coast Guard, once tasked 360 Labs with enabling people to “picture themselves in the Coast Guard, as part of a helicopter rescue crew.” The project involved serious planning and “a lot of gaffer’s tape,” Hayden remembers. “We built our own GoPro camera rig. We cracked the lenses off, put on fisheye lenses, waterproofed it, stuck it in the ocean with the surfer we were rescuing, and hoped the silicone held.” The VR experience has become such an effective recruiting device that it is now standard issue in Coast Guard recruiting offices around the country.

Marriott’s VR Postcards were shot in Chile (top), China (middle) and Rwanda (bottom). “Each image shows the final composite of the footage that was shot in three ‘slices’ at each location,” says director David Mellor.

When David Mellor, creative director at the Chicago office of visual effects company Framestore, hears that his clients want to make a VR film, the first thing he asks is, “Why?”

“Live-action VR should be more than a gimmick. VR offers the potential to gain the full experience all around you,” he says.

Mellor should know. Four years ago, he helped make the iconic Ascend the Wall VR experience to transport viewers to the world of Game of Thrones. Mellor also worked on “you-are-there” VR Postcards for Marriott Hotels & Resorts. When the Postcards launched in 2015, they invited travelers at select Marriott properties to explore an ice cream shop in Rwanda, a mountaintop in Chile or a street scene in Beijing—right from their hotel room.

The New York Times’ article “Augmented Reality:
Four of the Best Olympians, as You’ve Never Seen
Them” offers a view of figure skater Nathan Chen
mid–quadruple jump.


To complete the project, Mellor and his Framestore team traveled more than 20,000 miles in thirteen days. On day one, they would scout the locations and prep the cameras. On day two, they would meet the talent and shoot. The next day, they would pack up and get on a plane. If the schedule wasn’t demanding enough, working with live talent in a 360-degree shoot added another degree of difficulty.

“You can’t cut in these situations,” Mellor says. “We needed a continuous one-and-a-half to two-minute take. Because you have persistence of view, you can’t edit their performance.”

Because audiences are free to look around in VR, Mellor was careful to build in focal points that captured his audience’s interest. “The key thing is to anticipate where to place those points of interest,” Mellor says. “In Beijing, we decided to have three focal points: the primary one would be the person looking straight into the lens and talking to you. Second, we framed a wide view of the street so you could see all the activity of the market: people walking back and forth and a cook hammering away on a chopping block. Finally, directly behind our setup was a dumpling shop. So if you chose to look 180 degrees behind, you could see people making dumplings in their stand.”

On November 5, 2015, the
New York Times didn’t deliver the news—it made it. The bastion of traditional print media launched a VR app, and that weekend, it distributed more than a million Google Cardboard VR viewers for free to home-delivery subscribers. As part of a multimedia documentary project, the Times also debuted its first VR film, “The Displaced.” The eleven-minute VR story took readers on a journey to the places where three refugee children were living. 

According to Hopkins, who is helping direct the Times’ efforts in 360-degree video, VR, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), “The Displaced” was a great example of what journalistic VR can accomplish. “When the medium emerged, we recognized the potential for journalism to transport our audience to places that they couldn’t or wouldn’t go,” Hopkins says. “And we have the potential to give our audience an experience that’s different than just reading an article.” “The Displaced” checked the box for both objectives. The result won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions in 2016, and according to jury president Jae Goodman, catapulted the company “100 years forward.”

Recent groundbreaking projects Hopkins mentions include a four-part VR film series that takes viewers above and below the Antarctic ice, a 360-degree video of luge riders rocketing down a track, and an AR piece featuring figure skater Nathan Chen that “places him in your living room, so you could walk around him and observe his technique from all angles while he’s leaping 20 inches off the floor and spinning at 400 revolutions a minute.”

Asked to speculate on what’s coming next in the alphabet soup of AR, VR and MR, Hopkins doesn’t hesitate. “We’re getting to the point where mixed reality will be built into reading glasses instead of a giant headset. Instead of a laptop screen or phone, the information we interact with will be in the world around us. The future is screenless,” she says.

A behind-the-scenes look at the making of Look But With Love, a VR documentary series directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, produced by Here Be Dragons and SOC Films, and presented by Within. Launched in 2017, the series follows remarkable people in Pakistan. © Faizan Ali

When Kate Wurzbacher isn’t wrangling gear for VR shoots with production company Here Be Dragons, she’s helping directors of photography transition from filming in the realm of flat screens to shooting in 360 degrees. As head of camera at Dragons, one of the first things Wurzbacher has to figure out is, “Who is the camera?”

Wurzbacher explains: “In traditional film, the audience is passive. In VR, you are either a bodiless onlooker or you are a character.” In documentary VR, the audience is typically cast in the role of onlooker. In narrative VR, a character can look directly into the camera and address “you.”

Deciding who the camera is, is step one. Step two is all about shot composition. Wurzbacher explains that in VR, “You can’t traditionally lens a shot. It will always be a fisheye lens or a 360-degree lens. So you have to learn how to direct the viewer’s eye.” For that, she has a bag full of tricks, like framing techniques, movement and sound cues.

As the medium matures, Wurzbacher sees an explosion of creativity, especially in narrative VR. “In a documentary VR, you set up a camera with an interesting composition, then jump out of the way.” By contrast, she says, “In narrative VR, you can block the scene and place characters in the scene to draw your eye.” Camera moves now come into play, including push-ins, dollies and shots that play with eyeline. “Eye contact equals empathy in VR,” she says.

The vocabulary of VR is expanding—along with the sophistication of production equipment. In the early days of VR, Wurzbacher screwed together modified GoPros in stereo pairs until they formed a rough circle. Software was equally rudimentary. “We would manually stitch everything together, bring it into a program like Autopano and sew it into a seamless panoramic.”

Those days are long gone. Today, consumers have a choice of sensor size, software and affordable self-stitching cameras. As Wurzbacher says, “We’ve waited for this day.” ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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