When Nikon first announced they were entering the action cam market, it came as a surprise. Not so much because had decided to enter such a saturated market, but because of the camera they decided to do it with: a camera with a 360° field of view, waterproof to 100′, and shoot in 4K. It sounded impressive and built up a fair amount of hype, but when it was released in October, reviewers were pretty negative. As of today (Dec 26th ’16) it only has a 2.0 rating on Amazon, and 59% of reviewers gave it a 1 star review. Many people were so upset with the product that they forgot basic punctuation:
“I am an underwater Photographer and scuba diver and I am very disappointed at Nikon the picture quality is nowhere near 4k quality sure it is 4k size but quality is poor and underwater there you need to change the lens ports and use the flat port and on top of a crappy video you will have two huge bands in the middle of your recording this camera is just a prototype I don’t know how Nikon call this crap a final product no firmware update the phone App don’t work with the camera please don’t buy… wait for the upcoming Kodak 360 4k I bet a cheaper brand ca do better than that.”
Or even this reviewer who I can only assume felt the need to yell out his disappointment. Although kudos for using “soul crushing.” I don’t know the last time I saw that in a review.
“I CANNOT FULLY EXPRESS HOW SOULCRUSHING AND DISAPPOINTING THIS PRODUCT IS. NIKON SHOULD BE SO EMBARRASSED AND FIRE EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO WORKED ON THIS THING.”
You get the idea. I could list more, but you could easily find them yourself. Still, as I read through the reviews on Amazon and across various other sites, I started to realize that people were ignorant of several key facts. For instance, most professional 360 cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars because they’re made up of 6 to 15 cameras (some like the EYE by 360designs have as many as 42 cameras.) Even using 6 of the cheapest GoPro cameras would still cost over $1000, without memory cards, the mounting frame, or software to stitch the videos together. This raises the question: if Nikon, Ricoh, Samsung, and others can make 360° cameras with only two lenses, why do these other cameras have so many? It’s called “refraction.”
Light spreads or condenses as it moves through a lens and individual colors of light, being that each color has a unique wavelength, propagate slightly differently from one another. I’m not going to get too deep into optical physics here, but the more you bend light to direct it onto a sensor, the more distorted it becomes. At 180°, there’s a lot of distortion, usually appearing as a purple/green fringe. Having more lenses means needing to bend light less. This is even more pronounced underwater, since the water itself acts as a lens. Just stick a straw in a glass spot water to see what I mean. Every underwater camera uses a flat plate as the outermost lens, to include GoPro, to help limit this effect. That Nikon includes flat covers for the KeyMission 360 is great. Yes, there’ll be a black band, but that’s because of how lenses work, and any 2 element 360° camera will have that same issue. I would’ve expected an underwater photographer to know that.
Then there’s the 4K video. This might be a surprise to many but 4K is not a measure of image quality, it’s a measure of how many pixels are on the longest edge of an image. More pixels means that an image CAN contain more detail, not that it will. With 360° video, only a small part of the image is viewed at any time. Much like how this webpage extends past the top and bottom edges of your screen, 360° images extend past each edge of your viewer. When a company markets a 360° camera as 4K, they refer to the overall image, not the part that sits in your viewport. 4K means that you can have a larger viewport, but it won’t be the same as a GoPro or an 4K Blu-Ray.
That lays out my expectation going into this camera. I expect it to be distorted around the edges, yet sharp in the middle. I expect either mediocre footage underwater or to have a thick band around it. I expect a lot of information to be crammed into a 4K frame, which will produce something similar to a 720 image at best. I expect this to be 2 $250 action glued back to back sharing a single battery and memory card. And I expect this to be good enough for travel, gimmicks, and personal memories, not for Hollywood. With my expectations laid out, let’s see what’s in the box!
Unboxing and Hardware
I’ve bought Nikon products for years, ever since I picked up an N55 film camera for my high school photography class. Nikon’s always had simple packaging, usually a solid gold-colored box with the product name in a plain black font. But the KeyMission is not your standard Nikon product, and it’s box reflects the camera’s market: the action crowd. Opening the box however, reveals traditional Nikon-styled packaging. It’s simple and basic, with the books and warranty info placed on top of the cardboard dividers that separate the various components.
Taking each piece out of the package, we see that Nikon provided a very complete kit. In addition to the camera, there’s the battery, USB charging cable and wall outlet, soft rubber shell, a pair of adhesive mounts, and the flat underwater lenses.
Behind the locking water sealed door, is all of the camera’s sensitive parts and ports. There’s the standard slots for a battery and a micro SD card, along with the micro USB charging port. What surprised me was the inclusion of a (micro) HDMI out port. And, because the camera uses wi-fi and Bluetooth to connect to a smart phone for changing any settings, there’s a toggle for airplane mode, which will turn off the camera’s radios.
Unlike GoPro, the KeyMission uses a standard threaded hole, letting the camera be used on any tripod without needing to add a special adaptor. There’s even a little locking hole for use with their adhesive mount, keeping the camera in place. That’s one of those times where a small detail will have a large impact.
It’s a solid camera that feels well built, and I expect it to hold up to good amount of abuse. That you can replace the lens covers too is a plus, as I’m sure they’ll get scratched up during more extreme shooting conditions. Here’s a few more pictures of the camera, showing the buttons and even the slot for a wrist strap.
I had seen several reviews that commented about how bad the SnapBridge app was, and how hard it was to pair the camera with the phone. I’m not sure if there’s been a software update between then and now, or if I’m the only person who’s used a wi-fi camera with a phone before, but the KeyMission doesn’t seem any different from the offerings by Olympus or even EyeFi. Except for the fact that it needs both Bluetooth AND wi-fi. It seems a little excessive to me, and I probably would’ve only used one wireless technology. It would’ve saved on weight and battery too.
To pair the camera with the phone, or at least my iPhone 7+, these were the steps I followed.
- Made sure I wasn’t connected to any other Bluetooth devices
- Disconnected from my wi-fi network (most cameras use their own built-in networks, and pairing can fail if your phone is connected to something else)
- Held down the power button until the status lights flashed green alternating
- Opened up the SnapBridge 360 app (there is another SnapBridge app by Nikon, but it doesn’t work with the 360. Be sure you use the right app!)
- Followed the prompts.
My camera connected easily, but if you have problems with yours, be sure to forget the KeyMission under your Settings app before trying to pair again.
The app itself is divided into 4 sections: Connect, Gallery, Camera, and Other.
The Connect page shows general information about your camera.
The Gallery page lets you view the images and videos that are already on your device. It also lets you trim your videos and save a single frame as a 360 image. It’s important to note that if you want to upload a video to Facebook or YouTube, you’ll have to add the correct metadata. The app does this for you, but it’s not automatic and the app only makes reference to YouTube, even though the same button makes a video work on Facebook too. It took a long time for me to figure this all out, and it was buried deep on Nikon’s website. Also note that a YouTube video won’t immediately appear as a 360. There’s extra processing done on YouTube’s side that can take up to an hour to complete. It has nothing to do with the KeyMission, whose videos do work flawlessly with both sites.
The Camera page provides remote control of the camera, letting you adjust all of its settings, including the wi-fi name and password, recording quality, exposure compensation, white balance, etc. It also functions as a “Live View”, letting you compose your shot, since the camera has a second lens where the viewfinder display would be in a typical camera. And lastly, this page lets you download images to your device, though when a single image is 10.9MB and a 2 minute video clip is roughly 1GB, it’s probably best to use a computer with a dedicated card reader instead of wi-fi. It took me a little over 20 minutes to transfer just that 1 video file.
The Other page is just that. Here you’ll find the manuals and some legal stuff. There’s also an interesting option to add “photo credits”, which can be info about the image, a time stamp, a custom text string, or a watermark image. Unfortunately, the only images you can chose from is one of the SnapBridge logos. I wish there was a chance to add my own image as a watermark.
Shooting & Quality
Shooting with 360° camera is different from shooting with a standard camera. For instance, no matter what, you’re going to be in the shot. Also, there is no standard frame for you to compose footage in, especially since whoever views the image can choose to look at whatever they want. There’s a lot less creative freedom. But, that’s not to say the format is limiting, just that you have to reconsider a few things.
My family and I traveled to Virginia this year for Christmas, partly so my wife could spend time with her parents before we move overseas, and partly so we could show off our 9-month-old son. After receiving all manner of fun toys, he refused to go down for his naps so, like a good father, I placed him in his car seat and took him for a drive. I figured it’d be a good chance to try out my new toy as well.
There’s a small public park in Northern Virginia where people can jog and cycle along the Potomac, play soccer or football, and have picnics. But what makes this park special, is that it sits at the end of one of Reagan National Airport’s runways and, when the winds are right, airliners coming in to land pass over the park at less than 500 feet above the ground. It’s an experience that begs to be shared, but difficult to capture via normal means. A 360° camera, however, is far from normal.
Holding the Record button on top of the camera for about 3 seconds turns it on without recording a video. I checked the camera’s placement on the picnic table and when I was ready, I hit record from the app. A moment later, a plane flew over top of us and I shut off the camera, confident I had something exciting in the 360° footage. I grabbed my son’s car seat and headed back to the in-laws.
Along the way, I got stuck in the parking lot that is Interstate 95. I placed the camera on the dash, tapped the “photo” button, and instantly the camera turned itself on. I had previously used the app to make sure there was a 2 second self timer for photos, something that would let me remove my hand from the camera before the image was taken.
Neither this image nor the video before it are in the best lighting conditions, but the darks appear black without being terribly grainy, and there’s enough detail that I can tell where I am without much effort. There’s some sticking artifacts on the car’s A-pillar, but I don’t think it ruins the image. I’m very impressed with how it handled the wood grain of the picnic table. For two 180° lenses stuck back to back, I’m pleasantly pleased with the quality along their outer edges.
Several reviewers complained about the inability to adjust the camera’s aperture, instead having a high end camera manufacturer limit the user by having only exposure compensation values. My thoughts are: I don’t want an adjustable aperture on an action camera, as it’s just one more thing that could break. The exposure compensation does well, and is more than what is offered by GoPro, Replay, or any of the other action cam makers.
Plagued by rain and family events, there hasn’t been much time to shoot more. I’ll do a follow up in a few weeks after I’ve shot some more footage with this. For the record, I’ve using v1.0 of the camera’s firmware, although v1.2 is available at the time of this post. The SnapBridge 360 app was on v1.0.5, running on iOS 10.2.
I had clear expectations for this camera, and after using it for a short time, I feel it exceeds them. I like how it can take an image immediately when it’s turned on, and I like how I can make it not take an image. The SnapBridge app could be a little more intuitive, especially since it’s the only way to have full control over the camera, but it works. As for the camera itself, it’s a good first effort by Nikon, one that’s light years ahead of the first generation of digital video camera.
It’s not a bad purchase for $500, far better than the Amazon reviews would have you think. Just aware of what you’re buying. A 360 camera isn’t like normal video cameras in the same way that a Volkswagen Beetle isn’t the same as a Porsche. The KeyMission isn’t in the same league as the $10,000 360 cameras, but it’s still very capable. I have no regrets spending my own money on this, and I can’t wait to try it out in more situations.