The BEST Pro Virtual Tours HDR Workflow: Theta Z1 from Zero to Hero 2020 Guide

Have you bought a Ricoh Theta Z1 but are having problems in shooting and editing High Dynamic Range (HDR) 360 photos for professional Virtual Tours? You are not alone! There are no up-to-date and straightforward tutorials, paid or free, out there about the Dual Fisheye plugin, Adobe Lightroom, and Photoshop editing workflow. So I am going to share my REAL professional workflow with you — you can become a TRUE real estate Virtual Tour professional in any shooting condition with Ricoh Theta Z1.

Ricoh Theta Z1 no BS review

Before I go into my rock-solid virtual tour photo editing workflow, I want to give you a no BS review of the Ricoh Theta Z1, after almost ONE year. If you have not already, please check out my comparison video right here, which I compared the Theta Z1 with Qoocam SuperHDR and Insta360 One R HDR.

After I showed Qoocam 8K SuperHDR and Ricoh Theta Z1 Dual fisheye HDR to all of my clients in VR headset, they like both.
BUT, they all think Qoocam 8K SuperHDR looks like a beautiful painting, and Z1 HDR looks more like what the house actually looks like in real life. AKA, less HDR artifacts. From a realtors’ perspective, they all want to show the potential buyers the actual house — so to save them times.
So there you have it, Theta Z1 is still better for professional Virtual Tour — simply because less HDR artifacts, less saturated and closer to reality look.
But Qoocam 8K is still a lot easier in photo editing, as I showed in my last tutorial. Well, it is not anymore. Let me show you.

How to Install Dual Fisheye Plugins

Before we start, please make sure you are on the latest firmware, downloading and installing the Dual Fisheye plugins for Ricoh Theta Z1.
Step one, after connecting your camera to your computer is to make sure you are on the latest firmware. Ricoh Theta continually improves their camera firmware. So it is very important to have the latest firmware before you go on a job. As you see here, I do need to update my camera. Now go on to theta360 plugin store and download the latest version of DualFisheye Plugin. The minimum version to make this work is 2.9 and above. Go ahead and hit install to install the plugin using the Ricoh Theta basic app. The app will open and go ahead hit okay. Now the plugin is successfully installed, click Plugin management, and make sure you select DualFisheye plugin as your Plugin 1, click OKAY, and you are done!

How to shoot with Dual Fisheye Plugins

The easiest way to switch from regular mode to dual fisheye plugins, after you turn the camera on, is by long-pressing the Mode button. Then in the plugin menu, press the big shutter button. Now you are on Dual Fisheye Plugin.
Another way is to use your Theta App in your phone after connecting to the camera. Go to Settings — Camera Settings — Plugin — Start plugin to start up the DualFisheye Plugin.
If you want the full control, I will suggest shooting in DNG Bracketed mode with 9 steps — as I already show you in this video. Assuming you want to balance between quality and quantity — I will show you the easiest workflow in this tutorial. Here, we are not going to use any third party paid plugin. So we are going to use the powerful Theta Z1 internal motion detection HDR merging feature to merge the 9 HDR photo internally within your camera. This is what is missing in all the tutorials out there.
Press FN button once to switch to DNG. Press Mode button 3 times to turn on HDR-DNG. And then press the wifi button 3 times to set the EV steps to 9. Long press the wifi button to turn on the timer to 10s for you to hide somewhere.
Now everything is set. Keep the camera on, press the shutter button and go hide. Now repeat it in all the location. In general, it should take you less than half an hour to do a full tour. Very fast and very easy.

Photo editing and post-production

You know this is my favorite part to talk about. 80% of the magic happens in photo editing — any Pros can tell you that.
Plug your Z1 into your computer, and you will see 2 folders — the regular RICOH folder and the Dual fisheye. Everything you did with the Dual fisheye plugin will be in this folder. In here, these folders are created when you use manual DNG bracket — which I will not recommand unless you are hardcore professional and know what you are doing. The rest are the merged HDR DNG fisheye. We only need the one with the HDR in the file name.
Open Adobe Lightroom Classic and import those HDR photos. Now go to Develop tap, and first, we are going to color grade ALL the fisheye files. You never just take 1 HDR photo for a professional virtual tour. So I am going to teach you the batch processing workflow. One thing about CreatorUp tutorials is that we are very hands-on. I am going to use a real client example — one of the oldest houses in Bel Air, California. Yes, the same Bel Air of Will Smith hit TV show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

I already explain how to edit 360 photos seamlessly in this tutorial:

So here I am going to go fast. Use Auto to help you out. In general, it is safe to max out the Highlights and Shadows like so in Theta Z1 HDR photo. Now you can raise the Exposure to taste. This is a 16-bit RAW photo so don’t worry about clipping your image. For Real Estate and commercial housing, I usually don’t touch HDR effects like Texture, Clarity or Dehaze. The idea here is not to express the artist inside you, but recreate what the location looks like in real life. I will add some contrast just to make the photo pop, and that’s it. Turn on remove chromatic aberration, and we are done. The Dual fisheye plugin did lots of optimization behind the scene so you don’t need to spend too much time on photo editing. It is a great thing, use it. Now do the same thing to all the rest of the photos.

Batch Processing

Now select all the HDR DNG, right-click and stitch them all in Theta Z1 stitcher. Please make sure your plugin is above version 2.1. The first time, you will not see this option. Just click the “use external plugin” option and select TIFF, 16-bit, uncompress as the output format and find the theta stitcher execution file as the external file to run. In PC, it is under ProgramFile/RICOH THETA Stitcher and pick the exe file. Next time you open Lightroom, you will see the option here. Choose Edit a Copy with Lightroom Adjustments and press Edit. If your camera is on a solid monopod and pretty level surface — Automatic setting is good enough. I rarely use Manual settings. I will also turn on the Camera Visibility Reduction to chip out the tripod leg. Most of the time, the clients don’t even want the tripod legs to be removed to save cost and time. So it is nice to have this new option here.
Now just press the batch processing button and let Theta do all the works for you.
The new stitched 360 photos will show up next to the fisheye. These are still RAW, 16-bit TIFF file. So you can open in photoshop for further editing.
But, render from my no seamline workflow tutorial right here, we want to edit the photo as a smart object so we will not get the seamline. So right-click on the photo, edit in, select open as smart object in photoshop.

3D Spherical Panorama

I use Photoshop here. But you can use other photo editing software — like affinity photo. In Photoshop, Save as into jpg format like so — import the jpg. Go to 3D — Spherical Panorama — New Panorama layer from selected Layers. Pan down to your tripod leg. Use the square selection tool to select just that portion of the photo to speed up the removal. Go ahead and use the clone stamp or healing brush to paint out the tripod like so. Merge the layer back down. Now you are done! Tripod is removed.

Now go back to 3D — Export Panorama and save it as a jpg for MLS, Facebook, and whatever Virtual Tour software you use. We are done!

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