A few years ago I heard about the Theta camera from Ricoh. Not much larger than two large fingers side by side, it offered two 360-degree cameras, one on each side, for one-button surround panorama photos. Damned cool, thought the three-years-younger me, shame it only works with iPhones. Lacking a screen of its own, tethering it to a smartphone was the only way to use many of its features.
Then they released an updated camera, and recently, another one, called the Theta S. Higher resolution, image quality, the usual incremental upgrades you’d expect after three years.
Shortly after arriving in Japan a few weeks ago I saw the new Samsung Galaxy 360 camera, which looks a little bit like a 3-legged baseball. I was reminded that these panorama cameras exist, and I had a sudden lust for one. I read a bunch of reviews. The LG didn’t stitch well, the Samsung required a hot new Galaxy phone (Galaxy Note 5, or S6, or S7 – my lowly, pathetic Note 4 was fucking worthless, fuck you very much) and the Theta S was older and more mature and smaller and worked with Android phones and so I bought one.
It’s cute! It’s small. It has 3 little buttons down one side: power, WiFi, and Mode (Photo or Video). It spits out panoramas at ~14 megapixels, which is low, and they’re not really the best quality pixels I’ve ever seen, but it’s a super fun gimmick and I love the shit out of it.
There are a few things you need to know.
Anyway, that sorted, the camera itself is very interesting.
It’s pretty clear that Ricoh expected the camera to be more of a toy than a professional tool. If you don’t set the Theta on a tripod, it’s going to be very low to any surface (table, ground) or you’ll have your thumb and forefinger at the bottom of every image. But if you use a tripod, you can’t get access to the USB or HDMI ports, because the camera’s so small these ports are blocked by any tripod platform. Thankfully Ricoh sells the TE-1, a beautiful gunmetal-coloured brass cylinder that acts like a tripod mount extension, but that adds $20 to your camera cost. As a toy it might not be necessary, because you’re just taking insane selfies anyway, but as a tool it’s going to get necessary pretty quick.
Also, there’s no way to add a strap to this thing. There’s no strap or lanyard loop, but don’t worry, Ricoh will sell you one for another $20. It screws into the tripod mount, and is nothing more than a swiveling strap loop. It doesn’t even come with a strap. It’s available in your choice of beautiful colours, and they’re very nice quality, but the price of your camera is going up again if you want to use it without dropping it. I mean, it’s covered in the lovely soft-touch rubber so it’s not slippery by any means, but still, it’s an expensive lesson when you drop it. Ask me how I know.
Remote controlling the camera is easy. It fires itself up as a WiFi access point and you connect your phone to it, and the Ricoh Theta app connects quickly. You can control the camera easily, changing modes and settings and it works as a remote trigger – up to a point. The range of the WiFi is about ten metres, after which it drops sharply and you’d better look for a hiding place up close, or you’ll be a big part of the image.
For this photo I went into the hallway, so the nude girl would get the attention she deserves.
WiFi is slow as fuck, when it’s transferring the taken image. Thirty seconds, easily, which means you’re gonna be there a while between shots. (Update: My Samsung phone takes thirty seconds, my HTC takes four. YMMV.) Recent versions of the firmware have introduced a timer mode, so you can click the button and run away giggling before it actually takes the shot, which can be used in a more rapid-fire fashion.
There’s a third accessory for the Theta, a USB wired remote trigger called the CA-3. If you want to use it, of course, you need the tripod extension, or you shoot handheld, and then why would you need a remote trigger haha. Silly. The CA-3 doesn’t come with the required USB cable, I guess Ricoh figured you’d use the 30cm one that came with the camera (oooh, 30cm, so long, so remote). You’ll probably want to use a longer one. The CA-3 has a standard USB connector, and the camera has a micro-USB connector, so the one you’ve got on your non-Apple phone will work fine.
The camera itself can’t easily be protected. It comes with a neoprene case which does the job well enough, but don’t get sand in it, because it’s pretty snug and I imagine any grit is going to shred those bubbly fisheye lenses.
There’s no way to protect those lenses when it’s out and being used. Any protection would be visible in every shot. Be very aware of what your camera’s doing if it’s not in the neoprene case, and if you’re not actively using it, put it back in the case. You can’t rest it flat, because the lens… If it falls, the lens… If you grab the wrong end, the lens… It’s a tricky business but the hard truth is that you can’t have a device like this without lenses everywhere. So be aware, and take care.
Did I mention the cost of repair is high?
I love the Theta S. It’s a brilliant toy that gives an unparalleled view of things. With a little bit of planning you can take some amazing images, and if you want to have the very awesomest selfies, this is the best thing you can buy.
I recommend it. You might consider the Samsung if you want to have a much larger softball in your pocket and you happen to own one of their flagship phones, but I don’t regret the Ricoh.
The second Ricoh, I mean. I regret the fuck out of the first, I had it mounted on standing monopod (a monopod with 3 tiny legs at the bottom) and a gust of wind knocked it onto the road, scratching one lens.
Oh, boy, do I regret that.
Some other things of note.
There’s an active developer community supported by Ricoh, and they’re up to some neat stuff sometimes.
Inside the Theta, where you can only access it by voiding your warranty, is a micro-SD card. You can increase the onboard (hah!) storage this way.