5 Tips for Shooting 360 Documentary

December 3, 2018

Special to TDL by Josh Davidsburg


We’ve all seen it. You’re scrolling through facebook, and a video catches your eye. You click to make it full screen and suddenly your phone becomes the camera. You move your phone to the left, the video on the screen pans with it. You sit down in a swivel-chair so you can spin around and see it in all directions.

We have found when we post a 360 documentary, it gets a lot more views than traditional video. Even better news, it’s not difficult to get started, especially if you’re already a filmmaker.  Of course, producing these immersive films are far from as simple as turning your camera on and shooting. It is unlike any other style of doc filmmaking you know.  So here are five tips to get your 360 documentary journey underway!


1.      Camera Equipment

Research what camera will work best for you

It seems like every time I open my web browser there’s a new 360 camera. GoPro, Nikon, Samsung, Kodak, Ricoh all make great 360 documentary cameras. We started shooting 360 videos on a mix of Kodak PixPros and the GoPro Omni. The Omni has six go pro cameras attached to a spherical rig. The workflow was a mess. We had to pull out all of the SD cards (the Omni came with tweezers) and it took 15 minutes to stitch one minute of video. It reminded me of the early days of non-linear editing. It’s come a long way since.

My favorite cameras are the Insta360. Insta360 makes complete line of 360 cameras from the inexpensive Insta360 nano ($239) to the professional Insta360 Pro2 ($5,000). If you’re new to 360, I’d suggest the Insta360 One X ($400) or Insta360 One ($300). If you decide you don’t like shooting 360 video, these cameras can produce some amazing stabilized “action-cam” style video. Insta360 lent my class the Pro; it produces some amazing video and will even do 3D 360. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to use.


2.      Blocking Interviews

There is nowhere to hide. The audience will be able to see everything in front of the camera and behind the camera, so there’s no “hiding behind the lens.” As the videographer, the first thing you want to do when you plan your shoot is think through blocking your interviews. In addition to where your interview is going to stand, you have to figure out where you’re going to stand, because you will be in the shot.

I’ve found it’s best to stand close to your interview, both of you in front of one lens (if you’re using a two lens 360 system). This lets your audience watch and feel like a part of a conversation. If you stand on one side of the camera and place the interview on the other, it will make the viewer feel like they are stuck in the middle of a two people talking over them. They will follow the interview’s eyes behind them, and have to turn their head or phone 180 degrees to see who the interview is talking to. It feels unnatural.

The best 360 documentary interviews have movement. They walk around the camera, using all 360 degrees, showing or demonstrating. You’ve got all of that space, use it.


Here’s a 360 documentary example my class did about Oyster Aquaculture:



3.      Recording interviews

Just like when you’re blocking an interview, there’s nowhere to hide. Any cables, wires and booms will be in the shot if you use them. I’ve found the easiest way to record audio for an interview is to use a lavaliere microphone and your smartphone. Just plug in your microphone, turn on your phone on airplane mode, press record, mic up your interview (hiding the wire) and drop your phone in their pocket. I recommend the Rode smartlav.


4. Lens Compression

What does lens compression have to do with 360 documentary video? Most of the less expensive 360 cameras shoot with two, very wide lenses. We used the Nikon Keymission 360 for a while. It has two lenses with a 8.2 mm focal length. It’s so wide, it has more than 180 degrees in it’s field of view on both lenses.

Consider lens compression when setting up shot

These lenses are really, really wide, and that means you’re going to have to get close to your subject to make your audience feel close. You’re probably going to have to get closer than what feels natural. Moving that close will make anything behind your subject feel far away.

I’ve found that most first-time 360 documentary shooters don’t get close enough to their subjects, and don’t think about how far the background will seem to the viewer (for more about lens compression, check out this article).

That’s why our Collapsing Colonies story about honey bees worked so well. We were able to put the 360 camera directly into the beehive, close to swarms of bees crawling across the walls on all sides.


5. Editing

Editing 360 documentary video takes a different mindset than editing traditional news or documentary video. With 360 video, we don’t edit sequences for our viewers, our viewers create the sequences by moving their phones or their headsets. We have to give the viewers time to look around, but not so much time that they get bored. We’re also not able to do quick montages. We have to strategically think about our cuts so it’s not jarring to the viewer.

I have found that about ten seconds per shot is a good place to start, but it depends on how compelling the visuals are. With VR, it’s especially important to export your piece, upload it, then test it out and tweak it before you publish it. Here’s our first 360 video we published, we put it together at the Republican National Convention. You can see which shots we held too long and which shots were too short:

As far as editing software goes, I teach Adobe Premiere, but I prefer to edit 360 on Final Cut X. I find the Adobe 360 controls built-in to Premiere to be buggy and difficult to manage. Final Cut and Motion have some great 360 controls built in, and the way Apple has integrated graphics is great.



Special to The Documentary Life by #doclifer, Josh Davidsburg, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker, and a full-time lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park, Philip Merrill College of Journalism. His current documentary is Queen of the Capital, a film that follows Muffy Blake Stephyns, a DC drag queen who campaigns for empress, dreaming of becoming the Queen of the Capital.

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