Digital Video 101

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A play-by-play guide to making movies you'll actually want to watch when you get home.

CHOOSE IT
Five foolproof, USB-enabled video cameras for $200 or less.

TOP VALUE
Not only is the 2 ½-inch LCD screen on the Kodak Zi8 20 percent larger than that of comparable cameras, the smartphone-size unit comes packed with crowd-pleasing features like face detection for filming in a group and razor-sharp HD—at a price significantly less than its competition. kodak.com, $180.

SMALL WONDER
Slightly larger than a tube of ChapStick (and almost as light), the Easy Shot Clip is the minimalist's preferred device. Attach it to a belt buckle or a bike helmet, and you'll have hands-free coverage of any adventure. The trade-off? A gadget this tiny has no room for a screen. concordkeystone.com, $70.

WORTHY UPGRADE
At four inches tall and less than two inches thick, Sony's Bloggie MHS-CM5 is one of the smallest cameras at this price to feature a hinged screen—easier to use and normally reserved for cams twice the cost—and a 5x optical zoom, which makes zeroing in on those once-in-a-lifetime clips a breeze. sonystyle.com, $200.

THE ORIGINAL
Flip Video basically invented the under-$200 video camera, and of the five versions now offered, the original Ultra is still our favorite, thanks to its low price, intuitive controls, and easy uploading. theflip.com, from $150.

THE PROFESSIONAL
Creative made its name in stereo speakers, so it's no surprise that the company's Vado HD (3rd Gen) records crystal-clear audio. Add to that low-light sensitivity, crisp HD, and four gigs of internal memory, and you've got a power-packed machine—just about the size of a deck of cards. us.store.creative.com, $180.

Keep It Short Of the most popular YouTube videos, 52 percent are between 3 and 5 minutes long, while the top eight viral videos highlighted on advice site webvideovirtuoso.com averaged 3 minutes and 55 seconds.

SHOOT IT
Expert tips to keep you aiming straight.

TELL A STORY
Every video should have a narrative arc, says Eric Lange, a director of photography for Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. For example, if you're taking a road trip, record your packing and prep, hijinks on the road, and, finally, a recap of the journey.

TIME IT RIGHT
According to Kevin Flay, a wildlife cameraman for BBC's Life series, prime filming times are right after sunrise and two hours before sunset. The light is perfect, the animals are out, and your kids are probably raring to go, anyway.

CONDUCT INTERVIEWS
A golden rule: Cameramen should not be narrators. Instead, recruit your travel companions to be video personalities, says Lange. Let them talk you through the sundae bar on your Caribbean cruise or the taxi ride through Times Square.

USE ZOOM
Boring footage is often a problem of perspective. Instead of remaining at a fixed focal length, Lange recommends that you practice zooming in from a wide angle to a close-up, or zooming out from a detail shot to the full scene.

ACT AS A TRIPOD
No matter how great the footage, camera shake is a deal breaker. To reduce wobble, keep your knees loose and your feet—and camera angle—wide. If you're filming one-handed, Lange suggests bracing your other arm across your chest for stability.

BE PATIENT!
Great shots take time. Flay spent two weeks observing Komodo dragons in the wild before capturing the animal attacking its prey; you can wait two minutes to line up a stunning clip of your Costa Rican jungle trek.

Ride the Wave According to a recent study, the best time to upload on YouTube is between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. midweek—so your videos can be ready and waiting when lunchtime traffic hits its peak.

CUT IT
Have hours of footage? Time to get ruthless.

GET WITH THE (RIGHT) PROGRAM
Editing software has never been more user-friendly, but two programs rise above the rest: iMovie '09 for Macs (apple.com, free as part of iLife '09, $79 separately) and Avid's Pinnacle Studio HD for PCs (shop.avid.com, $50). Both make cutting segments simple, and they also have one-click features, including an image stabilizer that gives you the steady hand you wish you'd had.

ADDRESS THE AUDIO
Every movie needs a soundtrack, and both Studio HD and iMovie excel in this department. Studio HD comes with a tool kit of sound effects (animal noises, car horns), while iMovie lets you insert songs from your iTunes library. And both programs allow you to record a DIY voice-over.

JAZZ IT UP EVEN MORE
DreamWorks doesn't have a monopoly on special effects. With both iMovie and Studio HD, you can tweak colors (add sepia!), insert graphics like route maps, or tack on credits that roll out at the end.

SHARE IT
The only video-hosting sites worth your time (other than ours!).

VIMEO
Best for: Show-and-tell with family and friends
This 6-year-old site, a granddaddy among its peers, is a favorite with serious videographers because of its HD capabilities and processing speed. It's also the best option for folks with more modest goals: for example, proving the fish you caught really was THAT BIG. The layout is cleaner than most, extra features optimize videos for viewing on pretty much all devices (cell phones, large-screen monitors, iPads), and privacy options block any unwanted eyeballs. Basic service is free but only allows one HD upload a week. Unlimited HD uploading costs $10 a month. vimeo.com.

TRIPFILMS
Best for: Contributing to a global video guidebook
The more than 7,500 user-generated clips on Tripfilms detail everything from kayaking expeditions in Kailua Bay to street food in Seoul—and adding your experiences to the mix couldn't be easier. The straightforward interface lets you upload videos, write captions, and e-mail your finished pieces to friends, all in one step. There's no limit to how many posts you can make, and if the site's editors like your work, they may single you out for "TripVlogger" assignments to various spots—with Tripfilms picking up a portion of travel costs. tripfilms.com.

ZOOM AND GO
Best for: Giving your two cents on the places you've been
Imagine a mashup between TripAdvisor and YouTube. On Zoom And Go, users have already contributed more than 14,000 hotel and destination video reviews—all vetted by the staff—and your three-minute clip could be among them. Users ("zoomers," as they are called on the site) can set up Facebook-style personal-profile pages to show off their videos, photos, and travel stories; meet other zoomers; and generate new friends in the process. zoomandgo.com.

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