Choosing Video Equipment for Family Services & Parenting Assessment


One of the most common questions we are asked is: What type of camera do I need to buy to record video for our parenting assessments?  Using video when working with families is increasingly common, especially valuable with hard-to-reach parents, and can be fun for families and service providers alike.  Video is one way to enhance family engagement and self-reflection, giving parents the opportunity to see their interactions with their children through a different lens.  You may want to film a birthday celebration, a graduation, a parent-child play group, a parenting assessment, a home visit, or a parent coaching session.  As we discussed in a previous blog, video is also a wonderful way to create a family journal.  Whatever the reason, the video will only be valuable for you and for sharing with the family if you can see and hear it clearly.  

With Special Thanks to 

Our Anonymous Video Guru

Shooting good video used to be expensive and difficult, but in recent years, that has changed dramatically.  Cameras now have high-definition quality and are amazingly inexpensive.  Transferring video onto a PC to edit and make copies has been simplified, and even tablets and smart phones can record decent video.  This isn’t to say that if you are using an older camera that you should toss it in the dumpster and go buy a new one.   In this post we’ll address what features to look for when choosing a camera to record parent-child interaction.

Camera “Must Haves”

Cameras are all loaded with a long list of features, like fading, adding titles, image effects, steady-shot, web-optimized video, etc… Some of these are useful, but in reality you won’t be using most of the “extras” when shooting a basic video.  Below are three features we feel any camera should have.

Built-in Microphone

Every device will have a built-in microphone, and most record in stereo and do it pretty well.  But the difference between a great video that you can hear and one that you cannot hear is extreme.  Most differences in microphones will be noticed when the subject you are shooting is farther than about 10-15 feet away from the camera.  Smartphones and tablets will have a harder time getting audio that is clear and not distant-sounding.  A traditional camcorder will do the best at recording in this situation.  Stay away from external microphones.  A professional videographer would use an external wireless clip-on microphone that the parent wears (like we did in recording the videos for our online training and the KIPS Library).  But for your recording sessions in informal settings, an external microphone may cause more problems than it solves.  Also, most consumer cameras do not have a microphone jack, cameras with an external microphone take more time to set up, and it can be intrusive to the parent or child.  Finally, if the microphone fails, your video without audio will be fairly meaningless.

When shopping in a store, try out the camera and microphone.  Or ask the salesperson if you can test the camera.  Have someone stand close to the camera and continue to talk to you as they back away until they are about 15 feet from you.  Make sure they are talking the entire time.  Then playback the video and listen to the audio.  The built-in speakers may not sound the best, but you should get an idea of the microphone sensitivity, and if it recorded the distant audio at all.  If possible, connect the camera to a TV in the store to hear the audio.

TIP: The best time to shop in a store for a camera is on a weekday, in the morning, about an hour after the store opens.  There will be fewer other shoppers and a salesperson will be fresh and not tired of dealing with people all day long.  They may be more able to let you test products and might even help you by letting you connect a camera to a TV to see and hear the playback quality.  Be knowledgeable about what you need in a camera and do not let them steer you to something you do not want.  Avoid evenings and any time on weekends when it tends to be crowded.

If shopping in a store isn’t possible, then use the Internet to search and get reviews.  In another post we will discuss How to Search for a Camera to Buy.

High Definition

This will often be listed as “Full HD” or “1080p” video.  The resolution is 1920 x 1080 pixels and will look great on a flat screen TV.   If you are using an older camera and it doesn’t have HD, that’s fine, it will work.  And if buying new, practically all new cameras today will have Full HD recording.  So why mention it?  There are now even higher qualities beyond Full HD.   Names like “Ultra HD” or “4K” video are now available and the quality is even higher.  But as of this writing it is an item that will increase the price and not offer something you need.  Avoid the up-sell from the salesperson and save some money.

Media Card Storage – Removable is the best

It would be very hard to find a new camera today that uses a tape format to record on, so we hardly want to even say it, but will anyway.  Do not use a tape format camera!  They will eventually jam and your recording will be lost.  In addition, making copies is time consuming and difficult.  This is one time we will say that you should consider upgrading to a new camera if you are still using a tape format camera.

Media storage can be internal storage inside the camera and not removable, or removable storage media.  In most cases the media will be an SD Card which is the format we recommend.  Standard SD cards are square, about the width of 2 fingers and flat.  You might see a camera specification for Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) or Secure Digital Extended Capacity (SDXC).  These are both SD cards, just different formats, so they can record several hours of content on one card.  You might see MicroSD cards as you are checking devices.  These are extremely small, mostly used in phones and should be avoided.

When buying a camera, check its capacity for recording time to record Full HD video.  Make sure the recording time is suitable for your needs.  The advantage of using a removable card is that you simply turn off the camera power and remove the SD card that has your recording.  This is great if you need to hand off the camera to someone else or just for convenience.  Then take only the SD Card to your computer, and by using an inexpensive SDHC reader (<$10), plug it into the USB port and transfer your video to your computer.

See Parenting Through a Different Lens with Video

That’s enough to get you started.  In this post we discussed the features you will want to look for when looking for a video recorder.  In the next post on this topic we will discuss different types of video equipment that are available.  After introducing video recording to family service providers for KIPS parenting assessments, many find that it both opens their eyes and the parents’ eyes to see new and unanticipated things in the parent-child interaction.  This opportunity to step outside of the interaction is what proves so very valuable in working with families.