The Obsidian R is a professional 360-degree camera made by Kandao Technology that can capture 8K stereoscopic video and stills. It launched last fall for $6,999 alongside Kandao’s Obsidian S camera, which can capture 4K stereoscopic 360 video at 120fps (also $6,999).
I was interested in testing out the Obsidian R because we had a number of jobs and opportunities that called for either 8K Stereo 30p or 4K Stereo 60p. We had not had the chance to explore the camera really after seeing them on the show floor at NAB 2017, however we were impressed with what we saw and had heard from peers.
At Supersphere, we’re generally interested in higher resolutions and pushing as far forward as we can knowing that we’ll need to be there eventually anyway, in the flat world we’ve been shooting 4K since 2008 and in the past two years 8K S35 and 8K VV/Large Format, we’re big fans of the benefits of oversampling and future-proofing our work. We’re also fairly camera agnostic and so we’ve used everything from Jaunts, Ozo’s, S1 Pro, Custom builds and so on. Although image quality does of course depend on more than just resolution, we like to capture 8K for 6K or 4K delivery. By oversampling 8K to 4K, you’re reducing each pixel to ¼ of its original size which in turn tightens up the image as well as any noise or artifacting.
Prior to the Obsidian, for us, the main production 8K stereoscopic camera was the Jaunt, which is priced at around $95,000 to buy, so a $7,000 camera that can do 8K stereo seemed worth looking into. I had the camera for a little more than two weeks and used it on a couple of jobs. We also used both the Obsidian R and S on another job in Austria alongside fellow VR DoP Cristian Dominguez Rein-Loring, so in total, I’ve spent probably around 10 production days with the camera. Here’s a few of my thoughts:
Unboxing the Obsidian R
The Obsidian R packaging looks sharp, inside and out. The camera and its accessories are laid out pretty nicely in the hardshell travel case, with quick access to the camera and power supply in solid custom cut foam. When you take the camera out of the box, it’s almost ready to go with the included accessories. It comes with a couple of different top center caps, one of which has a cold shoe for the included level attachment, mic offset, or any other accessory you might want to use.
The camera itself has a nice simple design. Instead of looking like a big hockey puck or a sphere, it’s in a flower petal design, with recesses between the six lenses that make it much easier to grab and keeps it light at only 2.6 pounds (1.2 kg). The metal body feels durable and really well-made and it fits easily in your palm which is handy for mounting and grip accessories.
Unlike most cameras, the batteries in the Obsidian are accessed from the top of the camera, which makes battery swapping a bit easier, typically we’re changing batteries or power from the bottom or side of the camera where cables are connected and where we’re mounting the camera to the monopod or grip kit so swapping batteries once you’ve gotten started can be annoying. However, the top of the camera is usually clear because that’s where the lenses are so being able to access the batteries there was a nice, well-thought-out feature.
Another benefit of the Obsidian R is that if you’re charging the camera with DC power, it’ll recharge your batteries, too. That’s a really handy feature because, if you’re running DC power and your power cuts off for any reason, your backup power is fully charged and in the camera, ready to go. It can also be powered via Ethernet cable over PoE which also allows you to connect to a laptop for camera setting control, and also transfer files and live stream. However, when charging over Ethernet, the batteries are only recharged when the camera is turned off.
The bottom of the camera also has a mini-jack audio input which can synchronize with a Zoom H2N recorder.
One thing I’d love to see–and this goes for pretty much all 360° cameras–is locking Lemo power connectors. They’re more expensive, but they’re so much more reliable than the standard 12V barrel connectors. Just pushing the barrel into the hole doesn’t give me much confidence that it’s fully seated and I’ll be getting full power, whereas a locking Lemo connector gives me total confidence.
Setting up the Obsidian R
The camera powers on with the push of a button located on the recess between the number 1 and 6 Lenses. There’s a Power Button, Video Button and Time Lapse / Photo Button as well as 6 working light indicators, one for each camera. There is also a Micro SD Card Slot to the right of each camera module.
The camera can be connected to Android and Apple smartphones and tablets over Bluetooth but it doesn’t have built-in WiFi. Down the road, Kandao plans to add a desktop version of the remote camera controller.
We added a small WiFi router to push the image out to the app for more range and stitched image preview. The app is of course, easy to download and simple to use with fairly standard, intuitive controls. It offers both realtime preview and remote control over the camera and from the app, you can adjust all the standard stuff: ISO, aperture, white balance, exposure, etc…
One issue with the app is it didn’t offer a very accurate representation of what the camera’s actually capturing with a Histogram or anything, however, to be honest, none of the 360° cameras’ companion apps these days have any sort of Histogram or Scopes to judge exposure. So we have to eyeball it using the compressed h264 image on our iPhone, iPad, what have you. We’re relying on a compressed image on a small screen with no histogram so we are sort of slightly guessing based on the app’s image, when we don’t have the ability to test shoot or scout a location or setup of course. The compressed image will of course lose highlight and shadow detail much faster than a properly displayed image, which we have to end up using to our advantage because if it looks “in” on the app then chances are we’re within limits on the proper file being recorded.
Note: Since the time of this review, Kandao has added a number of new features to its app, including a histogram, white balance presets for different conditions, the ability to format SD cards, support for DNG format/CBR video shooting, and stitched previews.
Another big benefit are the included built-in IMU sensors for stabilization in their software. That’s a big deal when you’re stitching and don’t want to make your viewer throw up from bad axis orientation. Flexible bitrate is great as well, although we always try to shoot at max bitrate for the best image quality we can get, and built in Ambisonic audio recording also keeps the kit small for setups where you can’t add external recorders.
Shooting with the Kandao Obsidian R
The piece below was shot mostly with the Obsidian S, the Obsidian R’s high-framerate counterpart. The RYOT film, “Take Every Wave: Laird in VR,” just won the Lumiere Award for Best Sports VR Experience.
Our first shoot with the Obsidian R was in Cleveland, where we actually used it to take 8K Stereo 360° still images as well as video. The ability to do stills in a dedicated mode in addition to video on one camera without having to extract stills from the video was a nice addition and certainly helped our schedule.
The Obsidian R also let us do bracketed HDR stills, which is exactly what we needed. It captures photos in JPG or DNG format (videos in log or video space). There’s also a timelapse feature, though we didn’t put it to the test.
On our second shoot with an Obsidian, we used it in Austria for an Olympics shoot with fellow VR DoP Cristian Dominguez Rein-Loring and I was also the “Flat” DoP on my RED Monstro VV. We used all kinds of cameras on that project, from the Obsidians to the Jaunt, Omni and the Garmin Virb 360°. We actually put the Obsidian on a rover that followed inside the action during an Ice Hockey game and a down Luge track. We also put it on a drone, but unfortunately the batteries died incredibly fast because we were on a Glacier that was well below freezing temps and any consumer and often pro battery goes down fairly fast in those conditions.
Overall, we were pretty impressed with the footage we captured. Shooting on a glacier with bright sunlight and white snow can be difficult to expose, as well as a scene on a hazy day with green turf at a Ski Jump. Despite that, we were able to get good dynamic range and capture detail in the sky as well as managing the contrast ratios. The image quality was clean, clear and sharp and was pretty impressive given what the camera is doing.
Kandao’s post-production workflow
The biggest snag we hit using the Obsidian wasn’t until after shooting. When we shot longer takes of 15-20 minutes per shot on another project, the process of concatenating the footage was a bit clunky and should have be unnecessary. I wish that the Kandao software did the concatenating for you on offload, you have to concatenate the footage yourself, which took us a fair bit of time based on what we shot, and you end up with the originals, which we want to keep, and the concatenated footage so that’s twice the footage to store.
According to Kandao, you can combine these files as one longer video during the stitching process by choosing the files from lens 01 and exporting them into Kandao’s own stitching software, Kandao Studio. Files from lenses 2-5 will automatically be added, but that isn’t a feature we experimented with and we often want to use outside stitching apps other than the camera manufacturers..
When we tried to offload using Kandao’s app over WiFi, it’s pretty slow. We didn’t have the chance to offload via Ethernet because we were shooting constantly and swapping cards/mags.
Kandao suggests using Ethernet offloading when possible for convenience. Its forthcoming 2.8 version of Kandao Studio (available in March) should improve offload speeds.
Although Kandao Studio can be used to stitch footage, we stitched our footage in SGO Mistika because we were in a time crunch and that’s part of our pipeline but, Kandao has worked closely with Mistika so you can start a project in Kandao Studio, save it and then open that file in Mistika and use it as a template. That workflow is great because Mistika, in my opinion, has the best optical flow around, among many other benefits.
Obsidian R: the takeaway
Within a year, Kandao was able to put out one of the go-to professional grade 8K 360° Stereo VR cameras that balances quality and price which is no small feat. Since we used the camera, Kandao has made a number of updates. They now support live streaming, for an additional fee, and can generate depth maps, which are great for compositing. Like a lot of the current 360° camera companies, Kandao continues to improve the software, so it seems like they’re committed to squeezing every last bit of power out of this model camera.
Overall, the camera was a solid choice for us. It’s fairly reliable and the image quality is good and the camera/software does what it says it can do. The workflow could be better, but those issues are easily fixable when Kandao checks them off what has to be a long list of things they want to do to make this camera stick around in the marketplace.
If you’ve got the cash and want a relatively affordable camera you can blow up on some crazy project, the Obsidian is a great choice. If you’ve got steady work coming in and need the features the Obsidian cameras provide, it’s a camera that you can make money on very fast.