(Editor’s note: Want to set yourself apart? Consider adding new skills for in-demand services. In this post, Tatianne Lugo from ICE Portal  describes the techniques behind high-quality 360-degree virtual tours .)
For some industries, 360-degree panoramic images have gone from novelty to virtual necessity. Travel websites can increase hotel bookings, and real estate listings can increase traffic, just by featuring 360 tours.
But beyond hotels and houses, panoramic photos can be used in a wide range of applications — from online editorial features to highlighting corporate facilities. Local healthcare facilities, sports fields and parks can promote their sites with virtual tours. Even wedding photographers are starting to offer 360 photos of the ceremony and reception venues.
There are several ways to create 360s, from simple right-out-of-the-box, one-shot solutions to more laborious and higher-quality production and post-production techniques. For those serious about 360 imaging, let’s explore some of the practices that create higher-quality results.
A 360-degree image essentially is a full-circle view of a location that allows the viewer to virtually turn left and right as well as “look” all around (in a cylindrical image) and even up and down (in spherical image). A realistic 360-degree image gives users a more encompassing and immersive view of a location. And the production process can be completed in 10 minutes.
Let’s start with the hardware. What do you need?
• A wide-angle lens (preferably 17mm or wider)
• A rotating head. I recommend the Nodal Ninja, as it’s lightweight and easy to maintain.
• A sturdy tripod
• A leveling head/hot shoe camera level
• A shutter remote. This will help avoid camera movement when the shutter is released.
Shooting a High-Quality 360
Now to the production: First, place your camera in an interesting spot, and remember that it does not have to be in the center. You are not framing a still shot; you have to think three dimensionally. Stand in a position and rotate in place to give yourself an idea of every angle. Frame every angle as if it were a still. It is good to have some foreground elements to help the show depth.
Make sure your camera is leveled. This is where your leveling head comes in handy. If you don’t level your tripod and camera correctly, you will end up with a crooked horizon and may also have issues stitching images together.
I highly recommend bracketing. Since it would be time consuming and challenging to properly light all 360 degrees around, shoot multiple exposures to capture the varying light levels. One bracket of three with a plus-2 exposure value and a minus-2 exposure value should give you good color and light values in an indoor/outdoor space with even lighting. If you have multiple light sources, such as a window in a room, remember to bracket for each light source.
Overlap your images. For a successful stitching, you need to overlap at least 20 percent to 30 percent on each image depending on your lens focal length. If you don’t have enough overlap, you may see seams or even missing fragments in the image when in post-production. I shoot with an overlap of 30 percent on each side with a Nikon 10.5 mm lens, which allows me to take six angles at 60 degrees each for a full 360-degree turn.
How 360s Are Put Together
Part of creating a good-quality image is bracketing. But to acquire all the ranges of light and shadow, you need software that helps blend the images together. Photomatix Pro has done it for me for years; their interface is easy to understand and helps manage all the options. There is also “Merge to HDR” in Photoshop. Use the software you have available. The result you are looking for is an image that is evenly exposed all around.
Once you have all images blended, it’s time to stitch them together. There are several types of software that allow stitching of images. The one I have used for the past eight years, PTGui, has a great interface, produces the best results as far as seams and such, and a batch stitcher that makes life a little easier on big jobs. Find the option that fits your budget and needs. It’s better to have your images stitch to an equirectangular image as a TIF or PSD. This way you can Photoshop your image to perfection and then deliver it to the client as is.
Presenting a 360-Degree Image
If your client doesn’t have a player (and most do not), it’s up to you to deliver. There are several options, such as those from Java, Flash and QuickTime, as well as HTML5.
The Java player is still used by many sites and is usually the only format they will display. Flash Player allows you to do some interesting things implementing some flash interactivity, but sadly, it does not play on the iOS devices that are growing in popularity. The QuickTime player is used less than in the early days, and at ICE Portal, we have never had a client request we display in QuickTime. HTML5 offers a solution if you want to a broader reach (i.e. mobile devices including iOS and Android and most desktop browsers). I suspect this will become more of ubiquitous in the future as more developers create “Flash-like” features and functionality.