Slim, compact design. 360-degree still and video capture. Manual exposure control. Easy operation. Stands up on its own. Tripod socket. Available in multiple colors.
Underwhelming video quality. Splintered smartphone app ecosystem. Slow video transfer to phone. No live streaming support.
- Bottom Line
The Ricoh Theta SC camera offers a stills-first approach to 360-degree capture, bucking the trend of competing devices geared more toward video.
By Jim Fisher
Ricoh is a pioneer in the 360-degree imaging space, releasing its first Theta camera in 2013. It has continued to develop the series, adding video along the way. But even though its latest entry, the Theta SC ($299.99), supports video, it's built around still image capture. If video is a priority, you're better off with a different camera—the Samsung Gear 360 and Nikon KeyMission 360 are solid choices. But if you're more interested in still capture, the Theta SC's ergonomics make it a better choice.
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The Theta SC features a candy bar design—slim, long, and easily held in the hand. It measures 5.1 by 1.8 by 0.9 inches (HWD) and weighs a mere 3.6 ounces. Lenses bulge out of each side, toward the top, and the in-camera microphone can be found there as well. You can buy the SC in beige, blue, pink, or white.
Lucy, with some editing in the Theta+ app #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
The shutter button, under one of the lenses, is large and easy to press. It sits in an indented area, which serves as a natural thumb rest. Power, Wi-Fi, and a Photo/Video toggle sit in a column on the narrow edge of the camera. Backlit indicators let you know if the Wi-Fi is active, and if the camera is set to record stills or video.
Memory is internal. There's 16GB, enough to store well more than 1,000 images. You can offload images via USB—a micro USB port is used for file transfers and for charging the internal battery. The tripod socket is also on the bottom, although you can simply set the SC on a flat surface and it will stand up on its own.
Remote Control App
You can certainly use the Theta as a handheld camera—the shutter button makes that easy. But doing so means you're going to be in every photo. If you want to shoot an image that isn't a selfie, you can reach for the Theta S app for Android or iOS. It's the same app you use with the Theta S—the SC features all of the same hardware, minus an HDMI output and support for live streaming.
The app shows you a live feed from the camera, in a view that you takes up most of the screen and lets you move around the frame by swiping your finger, or one that stretches the camera view into a panoramic strip. The latter gives you access to manual exposure controls. You can set ISO and shutter speed to your liking, or simply shoot in semi automatic mode and adjust EV compensation to brighten or darken a scene. Manual White Balance control is also an option. You can't change the f-stop—each lens has fixed aperture and focus. It also lets you transfer images and videos to your phone, but bear in mind that transfers, especially videos, are on the slow side.
To get the most out of the SC you'll need to install three apps on your phone—the normal Theta S app, as well as Theta+ for image editing and Theta+ Video for movies. It's a fragmented system—I'm not quite sure why all of the functionality isn't built into the main control app.
Theta+ has tools to adjust contrast, exposure, white balance, and the like, or apply Instagram-style filters. It can also take multiple images captured at intervals and combine them into a time-lapse video, and it can output photos in various projection formats, so you can share them on social media sites that don't support 360, like Instagram. The shot below is done in the popular Little Planet style.
All of the phone apps support sharing via a variety of social platforms when outputting an image without 360-degree navigation. You can use a third-party service to host images if you'd like (we often share 360 photos using Vizor), and upload videos to YouTube or Facebook. Ricoh offers a cloud storage service for Theta owners, which is what we used to embed the images in this review. Your photos end up there automatically when you share them via the app, but videos do not.
There are also desktop editing tools available for Mac and Windows systems. I tested the latest version on a MacBook Pro, which still had an older version of the software installed. The upgrade was painless, just a quick download and install, but if you're a first-time user you'll have to install Adobe Air to get it to work. That's not something most users have on their systems.
Jim's Steaks, West Philadelphia. (Edited in Theta+) #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
The desktop software is really only needed for video—it stitches the dual view into an equirectangular projection, ready for editing in Premiere Pro or similar application, or direct upload to YouTube. Images are ready to upload to a 360-degree hosting site without any need to run them through an app.
Image and Video Quality
The Theta SC puts images first, but expect photo quality that's on par with a good smartphone or a low-cost point-and-shoot. Images are 14.4MP in resolution and in brightly lit and outdoor situations, they're just as good as you get from a comparable camera. Dynamic range is a bit limited, a product of the small 1/2.3-inch image sensors that back each lens, but that's the same story with every 360-degree camera we've seen. There is some purple fringing at high-contrast areas, which can be distracting.
It does take a hit in dim light. Photos lose detail at higher ISO sensitivities. But again, this is something you experience with any camera with small image sensors. At ISO 800 the image quality is on par with a flagship smartphone.
At dinner after the Sony a9 launch. #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
You can get other cameras with more pixels—the Nikon KeyMission 360 shoots stills at 30MP, but its squarish form factor isn't as conducive to handheld use. And, while you get more pixels from the Nikon, its image output is on the soft side when viewed at full resolution—it's more of a video camera. For screen viewing, which is what you're going to likely use the Theta for, image quality is fine at lower ISOs.
Video quality is, well, not good. Shooting at 1080p and then stretching video to 1,920 by 960 pixels, projected in a sphere, takes the life out of moving images. This isn't a surprise. Even 360-degree cameras that shoot at 4K deliver footage with underwhelming sharpness. Quality is better than some of the smartphone add-on cameras we've seen that shoot at the same resolution, like the Giroptic iO, but if you want a video camera, go with Nikon or Samsung instead. Ricoh does have a 4K Theta on the horizon, but details, including the release date and price, aren't known.
If you're a stills-first photographer and want a 360-degree camera, the Theta SC is a solid option. It's easy to use, but offers manual exposure control if desired, and has established app support for Android, iOS, and desktop systems. It's small, so you can slide it in your pocket, and its form factor makes it very comfortable to hold and snap a quick photo. It can also be set down on a flat surface, or mounted on a tripod for remote operation. We think the Nikon KeyMission 360 and Samsung Gear 360 are better options for video, but the Theta series remains a good alternative for still imaging.
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By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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