By Robert S. Davis
From a viewer's perspective, there are few things more dramatic and immersive than a panoramic photograph. But for photographers, the production of such sweeping images can be an onerous task that at first required specialty cameras and film as well as time and expertise.
Digital photography facilitated production, allowing photographers to stitch together many photos in an image editor or via a camera's built-in software. And now app-laden smartphones that rival the image quality of point-and-shoot cameras make producing stunning panoramas easier than ever.
At 99 cents, Occipital's 360 Panorama app offers iOS and Android users a powerful tool to create not only standard panoramic photos, but truly immersive, 360-degree images with sweeping views from sky to shoes. Image quality is often excellent and the app offers several options for sharing photos.
The user interface is delightfully simple. Upon opening the app, you see an inverted spherical grid with one central tile displaying whatever the camera is seeing. Once you're ready, press the start button and begin rotating in a tight circle. As you pivot, you get the sensation of painting the scene as the grid begins to fill in. Once you return to your starting point, an audio cue signals that you're finished - but you can go for the full experience by tilting up or down and continuing to rotate and capture the sky and ground. Go slowly to avoid getting dizzy!
If you make a mistake, or if somebody walks through your picture (often creating an eerie ghostlike image), you can use the undo button to go back one step and and recapture the blemished frame.
Finished? Press "done" and wait while the program enhances the image. Then you can view your photo by dragging your finger on the screen to pan, or use an even cooler option that reads your device's gyroscopic data to pan the photo as you move. It's like being there all over again.
You have several options for sharing: You can save or e-mail a flattened version of the image, which looks like a rolled-out poster. To share the photo while preserving the responsive experience, upload the image to Occipital's website and send friends a link that launches the photo in a web browser, where they can click and drag to pan. (Or if they open it on a device with a gyroscopic sensors, such as an iPhone or iPad, they can enable the option to pan the image by simply moving the device.)
Using Occipital's website requires registering for a free account, but doing so lets you link your Facebook or Twitter account, and, if you allow the site to use the location data that is embedded in the photo, you can contribute to the site's "360verse," which sorts and displays the panoramas on a map. It's a cool way to explore an area, but it's clearly just getting started. (There are only a couple dozen images of Boston - and about half of them are mine!)
Using the app in Boston was at times a delight, other times frustrating. The determining factor is how active the scene is. Working near the Chinatown Gate or in Quincy Market was a challenge because the busy pedestrian traffic often meant repetition of faces or bodies cut off at the head or legs in the final image.
The fault lies not in the app - Occipital was smart to include an undo button - but in the general challenges of panoramic photography in the digital age.
The app admirably handles the distortions resulting from stitching together many photos taken from different angles, but don't expect perfection: the tops of buildings might not line up, or complex patterns such as brickwork might appear messy.
But with practice, you'll find you can squeeze out better images from this app. For instance, I got better results by being mindful of exposure, and focusing on something that was midway between the brightest and darkest image in the scene before beginning. The result: highlights that are not too bright nor shadows too dark. And by pivoting in a tight circle, I was able to reduce distortions.
The only instance in which images were poor was in low light. Unless you pause for each shot, your image is bound to have some visible shakiness. But this is probably more of a limitation of the device's camera, rather than the app - so as optics improve, the app will probably render better images.
The newest Apple mobile operating system, iOS 6, brings native panoramic photo support to the iPhone 5 and 4S. So should you buy something you might already have? If you take a lot of panoramic photos (or have an iPhone 4 like me), then emphatically yes. Native iOS 6 panoramic photos cover only 240 degrees - Panorama 360, as the name implies, covers the full range - and the playback options in the app, sharing capabilities, and Occipital's social functions on its website make this app a useful and fun tool.
And at 99 cents, it's one heck of a bargain, too.