Ricoh Theta S review: Photography in the round

Price when reviewed

The first Ricoh Theta appeared back in 2013. The 360-degree camera broke the rules of photography then, but I find the concept as appealing now as I did when I saw the first iteration. This is photography unleashed from all the usual rules, photography without the frame, and it’s amazing how different that feels. Since launch, it’s been updated with the Theta m15 version, which added much-needed video support, while this new Theta S model boosts the quality of both stills and video.

Ricoh Theta S review: Shoot now, frame later

The core appeal of the Theta remains the same. Many love the fuss of photography, all that framing, focusing, tweaking of exposures and organising people into the right positions. However, if you find all that a chore then the Theta is for you – hold it up, press the big button and move on.

While you may not want the faff, you probably still want good-looking photos and the Theta S is better equipped to capture these than the original. As before, the dual sensors, one on each side, use fisheye lenses to capture a 180-degree image, with the two images being stitched together to form the final 360-degree picture.

I wasn’t able to discover how big the sensor in the original Theta was, but the resolution wasn’t all that impressive, at a measly 3.2 megapixels. The new Theta S has a pair of 1/2.3in CMOS sensors at 12 megapixels each, each sat behind a marginally brighter f2 lens. With the resolution stretched across such a huge angle of view, it still isn’t pin-sharp, but what it lacks in quality it makes up for in engagement.

I’ll let you judge quality for yourself, but it’s more than sufficient to get a feel for your surroundings. The new sensors and lenses mean you can take decent-looking photos anywhere you’d expect a modern smartphone to cope, except perhaps in low light. There’s no flash here to help out.

There’s also no screen on the device, but it’s easy to link it via Wi-Fi to your smartphone (iOS or Android) and transfer photos. These can then be viewed on your phone, spun around and zoomed using the usual gestures. From here, you can share your pics to either Facebook or Twitter. You get a still sample from the full 360 image, and clicking on it takes you through to the Theta website where you can see the whole thing. You can also upload geolocated photos directly to Google Maps.

The app allows you to take remote control of the Theta S, primarily so you can take pictures or record video without having your arm and face front-and-centre. From here you can tweak the exposure with shutter priority, ISO priority and manual modes (the aperture is fixed) and set the white balance. You can also set up timelapse photos, deciding on the interval between frames and the total number of shots.

Ricoh Theta S review: Video quality

This is the first time I’ve seen a Theta with video capability and it’s mind-blowing. Place the Theta somewhere with a good all-round view of the proceedings – be that dinner with friends, opening the presents at Christmas or a party on the beach – and set it running. The resulting footage is hugely engaging and my friends loved spotting themselves in the crowd.

So you’ve shot some great 360-degree video and you’ve shown it to your suitably impressed friends on your smartphone. How do you go about getting it on the internet? YouTube’s recently added support for 360 video is the obvious destination and the Theta S is compatible with the service, with some fiddling and a couple of issues.

For starters, ignore the advice given by YouTube and the tool it provides – it doesn’t work. The 360-degree video is begging for a standard way of doing things, especially with VR on the march. Google and Ricoh need to work together on this, as this is the most consumer-friendly hardware we’ve seen to date.

You can’t currently upload 360-degree videos directly to YouTube from your smartphone, either. Instead, you’ll have to download and install Ricoh’s own tool to add the necessary metadata to the video file first.  It doesn’t take long, but it means you can’t upload videos directly from your phone, which is disappointing.

Videos look pretty good on Theta’s own website (in a window at least), but they take a serious quality drop when uploaded to YouTube. This is surprising given that the site is happy to host 4K and 60fps content and the file sizes aren’t huge. The advantage, though, is that, once on YouTube, you can then view the video using Google Cardboard or any other VR headset for the full VR experience.

Ricoh Theta S review: Verdict

If you have a good reason to own a 360-degree video and stills camera, the Ricoh Theta S is a must have. Estate agents, location scouts, VR enthusiasts and anyone who puts on live events will love it, and it will also appeal to regular travellers looking to capture their trips in a new way. It’s incredibly easy to use, too.

“If you have a good reason to own a 360-degree video and stills camera, the Ricoh Theta S is a must have.”

The issue with video quality in YouTube is hopefully something Google will fix in the near future, and I can’t see why Ricoh can’t include the YouTube metadata in every video, via a firmware update, so you could then upload directly to the site from your phone. I’d also like to see support for 360-degree content in services such as Facebook, although that can’t be blamed on Ricoh.

With its modern camera sensor, the new Theta S is the Theta to buy. It’s simply a matter of thinking up some ideas of how to make the most of its unique capabilities. With VR booming, that shouldn’t be too hard – it simply needs to be better integrated with Google’s vision for 360-degree video before it can be fully recommended.

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