Home Video 101: How to Find the Right Video Camera

Becky Worley explains the newest trends in video camera technology.

Sept. 19, 2009 — -- In the past, video lived exclusively in the realm of filmmakers and professional news organizations. But now, anyone can shoot, edit, and share video with a relatively small investment of time and money.

But choosing the right camera is not simple. The most expensive gear may not be right for your lifestyle, let alone your budget.

So here's a guide to the types of video cameras on the market.

Digital Camcorders

The Flip Cam and the Kodak Zi8 are small; you can throw them in your pocket or purse and have access to a camera anytime you want. They are incredibly easy to use: You turn the camera on and hit the record button. No settings, no focusing, no white balance. Because the interface is so simple, anyone can pick up this camera and use it without intimidation -- and that means more moments actually get recorded.

Sharing video with these cameras is dead simple: You use the built-in USB jack on the camera and plug it into the computer. It looks like a hard drive to your computer, so you just drag the files off the camera and open them in QuickTime or Windows Media Player. You can edit videos on the computer or just upload them to the Web. The Flip Mino HD is $169, the Kodak Zi8 is $179.

High Definition: Is It worth It?

The HD video is sharper and the colors more vibrant. Comparing the Kodak HD and the Flip HD is interesting. To my eye, the video quality of the Flip was slightly better than the Kodak. Also, the Flip has a built-in hard drive that stores all your video. With the Kodak, you have to buy an extra memory card, but the upside is you can buy a really big memory card and store four times the amount of video than on the Flip -- but it'll cost you extra.

The best thing about the Kodak is that it has a microphone jack. If you want to record people telling stories, you really should use an external stick microphone or lavaliere microphone.

The limitations of these cameras come down to audio, zoom and the video quality in certain situations. If you are the videographer for a sport where zooming into action is important and you need the ability to process intense motion, you need a more expensive camera.

If you aspire to create serious video (a college student who wants to get into documentaries), or you want to record the stories in your family or you want to get good sound bites from people in a noisy crowd, you should invest in a more expensive camera, primarily for its ability to handle more sophisticated audio.

Two for One

A great upside of today's technology is the inclusion of video cameras in cell phones and now music players. Apple has built a camera into its new Nano and kept the price of the device at $149. The Nano video camera is not HD and it's a first-generation product for the iPod company, so it's a little quirky (the lens is located in a spot that is really awkward; I have a ton of videos with my finger in the shot), but it's great to have video capability on the go, and it has to be the thinnest video camera on the shoot-and-share market.

The two-for-one benefits are true for cell phones too: So many phones now let you record video. We tried Motorola's Adventure V750 to see how good the video was and how easy it was to share it. The video quality is not as good as the Flip cam or Kodak camera, but you always have your cell phone with you, so it's great for capturing on-the-spot moments.

Sharing is easy: With Verizon, you get a link to a Web site where you can view the video. With the new iPhone 3GS, you can e-mail the video to yourself or use SMS to send it to other phones (There are also apps to upload directly to Facebook and YouTube). With the T-Mobile MyTouch, we could e-mail, message or upload video to the Web directly through the phone.

Prosumer Cameras

Video cameras from the likes of Sony and Canon cost a lot, but they deliver big. I tested a Canon Vixia hard drive-based HFS10 and the Sony HDR-HC9 Mini-DV camera. These types of camcorders are priced at $750 and up, and while they are heftier than the Flip or the Kodak, they are still just a little bigger than a soda can. They have flip-out LCD screens, a microphone input, and they take still pictures. These cameras have a big advantage over the shoot-and-share cameras like the Flip: They have 10X optical zoom.

Prosumer camcorders have very sophisticated lenses that can physically magnify images. If you shoot sports or nature scenes, this is important. The shoot-and-share cameras don't have this kind of zoom.

The image sensors in prosumer cameras also handle motion much better than the shoot-and-share cameras. Prosumer cameras pan smoothly and you don't see motion blur in action shots. While the Kodak Zi8 does have a microphone input, most low-end cameras don't. If you care about recording comments from people at noisy events (weddings, parties, restaurants) or doing serious storytelling with interview subjects, you will want to invest in an external microphone. People underestimate the importance of good sound, but it is one of the most important elements of making your videos meaningful.

The downside of these powerful cameras is their complexity. Only the owner of the camera will feel comfortable picking up the device to record a moment, so less video is captured. Getting videos onto your computer is easier than it used to be with these types of cameras, but it's still much more complicated than if you were just dragging and dropping files from a Flip cam.

I am the mom of two toddlers and I've been in the TV business for 16 years, so I know my way around cameras. I have a $2,000 camera here at the house and I have a few Flip cams. Ninety-five percent of the time, I record the kids with the Flip cam. When I create videos for ABCNews.com or need to capture home video for "GMA," I use my prosumer camera.

When I've wanted to do interviews with family members to preserve our stories and history, the clear choice is the prosumer camera. I'm a jock, and when I've been asked to record games for analysis, I always use the prosumer camera. When I've been out on the road and seen the kids do something cute, I record it with my phone.

Bottom line: Most people only need to invest in a shoot-and-share Flip Cam or Kodak Zi8, and if more sophisticated video needs arise, only then consider the $1,000 plus investment in a prosumer camera.