The two important aspects of a camshaft, in terms of engine performance, are camshaft duration, or cam duration, and valve lift. Both cam duration and valve lift are determined by the camshaft lobe. Cam duration is the time that at least one valve of a cylinder remains open, i.e., off its valve seat, measured in degrees rotation of the crankshaft, while valve lift is the maximum distance the valve head travels from the valve seat.
Valve lift is somewhat related to intake valve head diameter. An engine with an intake valve head diameter of 1.400in to 1.500in will generally perform best with a valve lift of 0.395in to 0.475in; an engine with a larger intake valve head diameter of 1.750in to 1.875in will generally perform best with a valve lift of 0.425in to 0.550in; and an engine with a large intake valve head diameter of 2.000in to 2.250in will generally perform best with a valve lift of 0.475in to 0.650in. But these are just rough guidelines; ultimately you will need to take some gas flow readings on a flow bench to determine the best valve lift for your particular engine.
A number of factors influence valve lift. The most important being the gap between the intake and exhaust valves, the piston to valve clearance and the intake charge pressure. These factors also influence cam duration. Another factor influencing valve lift is valve spring compression. Obviously, once the valve springs are fully compressed, it cannot give any more and the valve cannot be pushed further down into the combustion chamber.
As I've mentioned earlier, cam duration is measured in degrees rotation of the crankshaft, rather than the camshaft, and the crankshaft completes two full rotations for every rotation of the camshaft. In other words, with a 310 degree camshaft, the valves are open for only 155 degrees of actual camshaft rotation.
A performance camshaft for a naturally aspirated engine will have a duration in the range of 270 degrees to 310 degrees or more, with a 270 degree camshaft described as a 'mild' camshaft and a 310 or more degree camshaft being described as a 'wild' race camshaft. A stock camshaft usually has a duration of around 270 degrees but what differentiates a 270 degree performance camshaft from a stock camshaft is increased valve lift and a much faster rate of valve lift. With a faster valve lift rate, the valve reaches full lift quicker and remains at full lift for longer. This increases Volumetric Efficiency (VE) as more air flow in and out of the engine is possible.
A determining factor, when choosing camshaft duration is the purpose of the vehicle. The longer the duration of the camshaft, the further up the rev range the power band shifts, and the rougher the idle. Obviously, as the power band moves higher up the rev range, bottom end power is lost. Also, as cam duration and valve overlap increases, torque is lost. Fuel efficiency also decreases and exhaust emissions increase as valve overlap increases.
High performance camshafts start at 280 degrees of duration. These camshafts have increased valve overlap but not too much so emissions and fuel economy are not severely affected. These are generally good camshafts for modified street cars and produce good power from 2,500 RPM up to 7,000 RPM but they do not have a smooth idle because of the increased valve overlap.
A 290 degree camshaft requires more cylinder head work in terms of cylinder head porting and gas flowing as they work better when the engine's Volumetric Efficiency (VE) is improved. As you'd expect, these camshafts produce a fairly rough idle. These camshafts are generally good for rally cars and produce power from 3,000 RPM up to 7,500 RPM. A 300 degree camshaft requires even higher levels of VE, reaching the physical gas flowing limitations of a two valve cylinder head with a single camshaft. These camshafts are good for modified race cars and produce good power from 4,000 RPM up to 8,000 RPM. However, they have a very rough idle.
A camshaft with a duration of more than 300 degrees is an out and out race camshaft with a power band in the 4,500 RPM to 9,000 RPM rev range. To make effective use of a 300 degree camshaft, you need to ensure that the engine has a very high VE. You also need to ensure that the engine can rev beyond the red line of most stock engines.
The limit for opening the exhaust valve is approximately 80° before bottom dead center (BBDC). Opening the exhaust valve any sooner tends not to increase power production but will shift the power band higher up the rev range and will reduce low end torque as downward pressure on the piston during the power stroke is released. The same applies to closing the intake valve where 80° after bottom dead center (ABDC) is the limit for increased power production.