TL:DR – Insta360 One X in their purpose built dive housing is a great option for consumer underwater 360. Yes the housing base is hugely visible in the nadir, but even so I’d consider it the best consumer grade offering on the market at the time of writing.
Generally speaking I’m not the biggest ‘early adopter’. This may seem counterintuitive given my penchant for 360 video. What I mean by this is that most of the time I love letting others find the buggies first and then buy the latest greatest thing 6-8 months down the road when consumerism strikes again, newness wears off, something greater hits the airwaves and it becomes available on ebay.
Except where underwater 360 is concerned. In that case I’ve been known to throw caution to the wind and as long as we’re talking reasonable prices, I’ll go for it. Ever the optimist, this means i have a lot of splash housings that don’t work underwater.
What does “work” underwater mean? First off I’ll break this down into three categories. “Consumer” “Prosumer” and “pro” so that we are clear. (There will always be overlap, and of course there are special use cases)
Crisp clear focus underwater
4k minimum resolution
In camera stitching
Housing base often visible in Nadir
Stitch is moderately clean, some Picasso-ing or magic fish on the stitch line
you can pull the individual images for stitching in professional stitching software
Some kind of in camera stabilization (although Fusion’s stabilization can make sync look wonky)
5k or above
Can be cleanly stitched in camera, app or easily with proprietary software on PC
Some manual image controls
Preview on phone/pad (while topside)
Generally back to back
Readily patchable Nadir (and Zenith). (Meaning only small distortion/pinching or only a tiny part of housing visible)
Enough overlap for good stitch
Clean nadir and zenith
Good overlap for clean stitch
Good dynamic range
Option for Log mode (so far I have not been impressed by most LOG modes but i can dream)
More image controls
Better dynamic range and low light
Multiple cameras (either in an array or unibody design)
Sync-able (either via sync generator or camera design)
Wishful dreaming would be camera controls at every level.
By all accounts, there are not many true Professional grade underwater 360 cameras, if you add in the ability to monitor, you are limiting it to maybe 3 or 4 options (almost always custom made or limited production and VERY VERY Expensive) and then only if you exclude the need for clean zenith and nadir.
OK, now that we have that out of the way lets take a look at the latest CONSUMER underwater 360 camera option to hit the market.
The Insta360 One X
I’ve been a fan of the Insta360 cameras for a while, mostly because they’ve been forward thinking with things like live streaming to Periscope, early attempts with solid in-camera stabilization, fun tropes like bullet time, hyperlapse and general overall ease of use. The image quality in their consumer range has often left something to be desired, and their algorithm makes for some somewhat painfully over-sharpened image quality at times, but overall they’ve continued to improve and bring better and better consumer grade 360 ‘action cams’ to the market. (Not discussing their Pro line here)
Their attempts at an underwater case, like so many others before them, were not pleasing. I’ve utilized Insta360 cameras underwater but was only able to attain good results in my own DIY double dome housing or in the severely depth limited but commercially available 360bubble.
I did get the little ‘waterproof’ case for the Insta360 One. I really wanted something that I could mount in a POV position (which means i wanted a small consumer camera) for the transition between surface and underwater. Results? Boo. It’s a splash housing at best, it interfered with the stitch AND it had painfully soft focus, turning fish and kelp into blobs. I guess that is one way to deal with an imperfect stitch?
I also got the commercially available housing for the GoPro Fusion (did i mention being ever the optimist?) Results as expected were equally blurry and unstichable.
So when Insta360 released news of a new purpose built consumer grade dive housing for the Insta360 One X, as usual my interest was piqued. The topside image quality coming from the camera looked to be vastly improved over the Insta360 One, less magenta fringing, the in-camera stabilization appeared to be giving GoPro Fusion a run for its money (meaning a camera ~1/2 the weight of the fusion for flying on the Mavic Pro) But what would that mean for their newest underwater offering? Did they bring someone to the table with Underwater experience? Did they read Eric Cheng’s post on how cameras focus on dome ports underwater?
Upon seeing images of their design, complete with real ‘mini-domes’ curiosity got the better of me and I ordered camera and housing from the Insta360 Online store. Delivery time was quite prompt, I placed my order on a Thursday and everything arrived on my doorstep by Monday.
First impressions of the housing were decent. Noting the design I was skeptical of the nadir but the mini-domes looked good. It’s super straight forward to insert the camera into the housing. At first i was worried about the backs of the buttons scratching the lens but so far that fear seems to be unwarranted.
I generally don’t use moisture munchers or absorbent pads in my housings. If I put my system together and seal it up before I get to the dive I tend to have minimal fogging issues. I find that especially with these small consumer housings that if placed wrong they can distort the plastic just enough to allow flooding OR if you are not super careful a corner can get caught in the sealing o-ring. If you are the type who used them regularly, never fear, Insta360 has you covered and the housing comes with a handful of them.
First in water test results:
Utilizing the iOS app with the “correct for dive housing” toggle, the underwater stitch is impressive, its the best I’ve seen out of a consumer grade housing by far. IOS exports are limited to 4k maximum. Unfortunately the desktop app is still in beta and severely limiting and at the time of writing does not have the correction option so if you want full 5.7k footage you will suffer stitch line errors.
The footage itself looks beautiful. Super clean, super crisp, solid low light performance, nicely done!
The housing is tiny comparatively, I was able to tuck it into an octopus den that would have been otherwise impossible to shoot in 360. The housing is slightly positively buoyant in salt water (which is how i like them) and trims out perfectly with mounting hardware.
Before you get too excited though….
What could have been a solid contender for prosumer and b-roll professionally usable monoscopic underwater 360 was totally blown by the massive patch needed to cover the base of the camera visible in the nadir. I tried it a few different orientations and although usable and totally fun for consumer grade footage for your diving home movie, the only way it can be readily used as prosumer camera is probably in a static placement with enough care in positioning that you’ll be able to patch the base out of the shot or for swimming if you make sure to keep the diver above and behind in the water column so they can be cleanly patched out in post.
For static single subject shot (like the octopus) I’ll still make sure to face one camera ‘eye’ directly at the point of interest. For more dynamic footage such as swimming or scootering fun, running it parallel to the pole and with the stitch line vertical (as bisecting the horizon) or if you want a slight angle then you’d run the stitch line in line with the horizon (these recommendations are based on the size of the housing base visible in the nadir). The corrected stitch is good enough for either of these options.
Now, to address the multitude of comments from the forums basically saying “WTH Insta360, you should make a purpose built camera that has a sub $100 housing that stitches perfectly and has perfect nadir/zenith.
This camera does not suck. This housing does not suck. I don’t think you are going to find what you want (Champaign on a seltzer water budget) in this price range. $488 gets you a crisp focusing underwater 360 camera system. This is not a ‘pro’ system, nor was it ever meant to be.
Look at the other housing options that offer mostly clean stitch and crisp focus.
The Ricoh Theta S housing has visible base
The 360bubble has visible base
Both of these options are more expensive, but i don’t see the same blast of negativity. I feel a bit like folks need to check some entitlement at the door. Underwater housings for 360 cameras are challenging, underwater housings that focus, don’t leak when you take your camera to 130’, and have CAMERA CONTROL, well… 10 fold challenge.
So, in conclusion, this is a great little camera and housing. If you are looking for a professional grade system you will likely be very disenchanted by the nadir patch needed. If you are looking for a really fun way to capture your next diving vacation and don’t care about the housing base or will use free capture most of the time (never miss a shot!) for sharing a flat video from 360, I think you will be quite happy with the Insta360 One X in the Dive housing