I’m a very avid VR photographer who started by taking 360° spherical photos with iPhone apps, then moved to an iPhone-controlled Ricoh Theta S camera a few years ago. The photos and videos I have taken are quite popular; as a Google Street View photographer I have 10.8 million views! But as a photographer I always strive to improve my imagery, and the Theta S had two issues — first, images always seemed to be low resolution and grainy, and second, in bright sunlight there’s always a bright purple-red lens flare. The quest for better 360° photos led me to the new GoPro Fusion (US$699.99).
About 360° VR Photography
To start with, let me explain what I mean when I’m talking about 360° VR photography. VR cameras can take photos one of two ways; by using a single camera with a normal lens to take a large number of overlapping photos and then stitching them together in software, or by using two or more cameras with fisheye (180°) lenses to take photos or video in real time and then stitch them together.
The result is a photo that can be viewed on a computer, tablet, smartphone or VR headset and panned around to view everything that was around the camera. The effect is especially profound with VR headsets, where you can look up, down and around to see a stunning virtual image or video. Likewise, viewing VR video or photos on an iPhone is fun, since as you move the iPhone around you get a “window” into the photo that’s “around you”.
If this is still confusing, I have some example photos and videos later on in this review for you to take a look at. (All images and video seen here are Copyright © 2017 - 2018, Steven Sande. All rights reserved).
Like most consumer-grade VR cameras, the GoPro Fusion has two fisheye lenses, one on either side of the camera body. That camera body is a small and sturdily built box about 3 x 3 x 1 inches (7.62 x 7.62 x 2.54 cm), weighing 7.9 ounces (223.96 grams).
GoPro has a reputation for designing cameras that can take a lot of abuse, and the design of the Fusion appears to be no different. The Fusion is waterproof up to 5 meters (16 feet), although underwater video will show stitch lines. That waterproof design also means you can be standing in a rainstorm capturing video with no worries about wrecking the camera.
Both sides of the Fusion have a camera lens and a status LED. The bottom of the device features the standard GoPro mount — the Fusion comes with both flat and curved mounts, and other mounts can be purchased for things like bicycle handlebars, helmets, and so on.
The Fusion also comes with what’s called the Fusion Grip, a handy handheld grip that works as a very portable tripod and “selfie stick”. A case that protects the device in transit is included, and there’s also a short USB-A to USB-C cable for data transfer and charging.
There are two “doors” on the device. The largest one opens to reveal the rechargeable (and replaceable) battery pack, and that’s also where the dual micro-SD cards are placed. Each camera records to its own micro-SD card of up to 64GB capacity. The smaller door hides a USB-C connector that’s used for charging and transferring data to your Mac or PC.
There’s also a small LCD backlit display on the Fusion that works with the power and shutter buttons to let you set up the camera mode, wireless, and so on.
Speaking of wireless, the Fusion connects to your iPhone or iPad using either 2.4GHz or 5GHz Wi-Fi. Each device has its own network named after the device serial number. To remotely control the camera, you use the GoPro iOS app or — and I love this — you can trigger the camera to start filming or take a photo with an Apple Watch.
Video and Photo Modes
The Fusion takes video in two resolutions; 5.2K (5228 by 2624 pixels) at 30 frames per second or 3K (3000 by 1504 pixels) at 60 frames per second. The 5.2K video resolution is best for situations where you’re capturing natural scenes, while the 3K high frame rate video is perfect for action sports where you’d like to also get slow motion in edited video.
GoPro now also provides a functionality called OverCapture that creates a “regular” 1080p (or 720p at 60 fps) video from any part of the spherical video. That means that you can be capturing everything around you with the camera, then edit a standard video from the most important part of the image or even pull still shots from the
Fusion video and photos are rendered on a Mac or PC using Fusion Studio, an app created by GoPro for the express purpose of doing the processing. Fusion Studio also has free VR plugins for Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects. Since photos are rendered as standard JPEG images, I was able to post-process them in Adobe Lightroom, Macphun’s Luminar, and Photolemur easily.
Video is stabilized in software without the use of a gimbal, and it’s quite good! As an example, take a look at the video below and pan around. The video is amazingly smooth, and you can see how I spent Christmas morning...
Still photos are also captured in one resolution: 18 megapixels. While that seems rather boring, there are a lot of still photo modes to select from. First, there’s the standard “single shot” mode in normal format, RAW format, or what’s called Protune (PT) mode. Protune enables manual control of ISO and exposure value (EV) compensation for advanced control of the camera.
Next, there’s Night mode, which captures photos in dim to dark light. Want to take amazing VR photos of the night sky or fireworks? That’s where Night mode comes in. This mode allows for auto shutter speed or fixed exposures at 2, 5, 10, 20 or 30 seconds.
Burst mode takes a cluster of up to 30 photos in one second, which can be used for some rather amazing effects.
Next, there are various time lapse modes. Time Lapse Video creates a video from VR frames captured at specific intervals. Think of a video of a full day with images of a 360° spherical view taken at one minute intervals… There’s also a Time Lapse Photo mode that takes individual photos at specific intervals. This is primarily used when you want to capture an activity and then choose the best possible photo later. Finally, there’s a Night Lapse Photo mode that’s like the Time Lapse Photo mode, but it keeps the shutter open longer for taking night or dark photos.
While I haven’t been able to do a lot of VR photography in the short time I’ve had the Fusion, my experiences with it have proven interesting.
I found that charging the device took much longer than I expected. I finally got to the point that I just reset the device, put the battery back in, and tried again. That seemed to allow me to get to the fully topped-off goal I wanted to reach.
Battery charging seems to be an issue, so I’m hoping that a firmware update is on the way. Sometimes when I plug in the Fusion the red LED flashes to indicate that it’s charging; sometimes it doesn’t. Even plugging in the Fusion with the device on — which shows that it has a USB connection and is charging — doesn’t seem to always charge it. The reset workaround seems to be the only way to accomplish a full charge at this time.
The location of the shutter/selection button on the front of the device is perfect if you want to just squeeze off a quick shot. The Fusion will wake itself up, take a photo or start shooting video, then shut off when you’re done just by pushing that button. However, it also has a tendency to be right where your thumb will go if you’re grabbing it, so I find that it ends up taking a lot of unwanted video!
The small (postage stamp-sized) display is perfect for on-the-go shots, and it’s easy to use the power and shutter/selection buttons to navigate. One odd thing is that I’ve had the camera turn off the Wi-Fi connection by itself, meaning that I had to go in and turn it back on. I’m assuming that GoPro wants the device to be in non-Wi-Fi mode by default, as that will save battery life.
While I’ve been successful in taking photos and video with the GoPro app and using its live preview mode, I was not able to get the iOS app to let me view the videos and photos that were stored on the device. That’s supposedly a feature — my guess is that in this early part of the Fusion’s life the software is going to be a little buggy and I expect it to get better.
On the other hand, I had no issues grabbing both video and photos from the Fusion using the Mac-based Fusion Studio app. The process brings over all of the files in their original format, at which point you select those that you wish to render as VR files. I’d like to see GoPro make the rendering process a bit faster, since rendering even a short (15-second) sample video took several minutes on a 4GHz iMac! By comparison, the Ricoh Theta S actually renders the files on the device, making for a much more streamlined workflow.
On the plus side, the images and video taken with the GoPro Fusion are superior to that from the Ricoh Theta S. As mentioned, the Theta family (including the Theta S, SC and the new V) cameras all have an annoying tendency to show a reddish lens flare on any image done in direct sunlight. That doesn’t happen with the Fusion. Details that are normally fuzzy in images taken with the Theta S are sharp in Fusion images.
Below, you can take a look at two 360° images I've taken with the Fusion. Now if you’re looking straight on, the image is sharp and undistorted — that’s typical for any VR image seen in a 2D browser. Things that are to the edges will be distorted and that’s just the nature of VR photography in a browser window. If you use a VR headset or even something as mundane as a Google Cardboard viewer and iPhone, the image is always undistorted as you’re always looking straight ahead and turning your body (or head) to see other areas.
These images have been uploaded to VeeR, which is a leading repository of 360° VR video and photos. If you have a VR headset, click on the "Google Cardboard" logo to view the image with your headset.
Even more images are stored in a collection on VeeR so you can get a feel for the world's largest cruise ship and how 360° VR photos work. Note that none of these photos have been retouched in any way.
Fusion captures “surround sound stereo” that is surprisingly realistic, particularly when watching video while using a VR headset that includes earphones.
The GoPro Fusion also has ears! It can listen to you while powered on, and take actions based on your voice commands. “GoPro take a photo” takes a single photo, “GoPro start recording” begins video while “GoPro stop recording” stops it, and “GoPro turn off” will even power down the camera. These commands would be great while pursuing an action sport or while wearing gloves in the snow! There are 14 different voice commands, and more may be added in the future.
The Bottom Line
For virtual reality photography or videography, GoPro's Fusion provides a solid and high-quality way to capture media. The biggest concern at this time is the software, which seems to be unoptimized for the demands of VR videography, and the somewhat buggy firmware. Other than that, the Fusion does a very good job of handling VR. If GoPro can resolve the software and firmware issues, the Fusion is worthy of a full five star rating.