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Converting old videotapes to digital

Converting old videotapes to digital

What started as a very simple project, converting my old videotapes to digital, has extended to over a three-month project with no end in sight.

Anytime I work with any video, I always forget that it’s going to take much longer than I predict. Of course, when you’re talking about video from over 25 years featuring four kids, it translates into hundreds of tapes. There are so many holidays, birthday parties, school functions, soccer, softball and hockey games on these tapes it’s a bit overwhelming to think about transferring them to digital.

Normally, procrastination is a bad thing, but in this case, it ended up being a good thing for me because  technology has improved and the cost of storage has decreased.

The stars must’ve aligned because I decided to dig into the project. Over the years, I have used two different formats of videotape: VHS-C (compact VHS video cassette) and the smaller but much higher-quality DVC (digital video cassette).

VHS-C is an analog compact VHS video cassette introduced in 1982. The tape is the same size as conventional VHS and is playable with a cassette adapter which allows you to play it in a regular VHS player.

I couldn’t find my VHS-C Adapter, but I was lucky to find there were still some available on I bought two at $8.50.

My other format is DV which is an incredible jump up in quality compared with my previous analog VHS-C tapes, but my camera used the 4:3 size format so I still have the black edges along the side of the frames when you look at the footage on a new TV which is now a 16:9 HD format.

Converted video can be played using an Apple TV

While the quality doesn’t match up well to today’s standards, it’s still a lot of fun to watch the videos. On the plus side, these old-school videos have very small file sizes, so I am hoping to fit 100 videos onto a 64 GB single flash drive which will plug into my Roku player   with a USB port which is attached to my TV. Another option for me would be to play the video through iTunes and use an Apple TV. Most TVs you buy today have a USB slot for multimedia.

Because this project is so much work, I’m also backing the videos up on two other hard drives.

I needed to decide on a workflow for this project. My previous way of doing this was to play a tape on an old VHS player with my old Sony, firewire analog-to-digital converter connected to my computer. I used iMovie or Final Cut Express on my Mac computer. This method stopped working for me when I upgraded to Final Cut X recently. The new Final Cut X didn’t seem to see the firewire connection to the video. Also, with this workflow, I would need to import the movies into Final Cut X and then export them back out. This two-step system took more time than I liked.

In my research to find a more streamlined and faster system, I decided to buy the Blackmagic  Design  Video Recorder for $149 which is designed for Apple computers. It’s a little pricier than the others I looked at, but the hardware included the best software. Since I work with Apple (Mac) computers, it was a nice fit.

The Blackmagic Design recorder attaches into the USB port on my computer and the component plugs on the rear of my VHS player. Also available are S-Video and Composite plugs. I  captured the video into a H.264 video file on my desktop making it a one-step process.

You can also input video to your computer from most older video cameras and DVD players.

Included with the Blackmagic Video Recorder is software with a very intuitive interface, giving you a variety of choices for the output including: iPod Small, iPod Large, YouTube, iPhone, Apple TV and Full Res. The software also allows you to make some level adjustments for brightness, contrast, color and audio.

I chose full resolution. Next, I entered a file name, started the VHS player and then clicked on the red record button. To stop the recording, I just clicked on the red button again. A movie was left on my desktop. If I did a good job of starting or stopping on time, I was finished or I did a quick trim with Quicktime software and saved it. Next, was moving it to the proper folder for archiving and I was done. It’s really is a very simple workflow.

My main focus is to just get the tapes converted to digital. There were a few that needed to be edited in Final Cut X to edit out blank spots or to move the video along. It’s hard to believe, but some of my home videos were a little long.

Since I waited so long, some of the videos were unable to play or the tape stuck in the player. I was lucky since the problem tapes seemed to be the least important ones. I would recommend not putting it off any longer and get started now.

There are other options to explore if you don’t want to do the work yourself including: DVDYourMemories, which will convert your tapes with prices starting at  $29.95 (prices can vary depending on some options, it does not include the price of a flash or hard drive) to transfer most tapes to a hard drive. The price to transfer to DVD is $19.95. They also feature a repair service for $30 per tape.


The big-box stores also include analog to digital transfer service; Costco’s prices start at around $17.99 to transfer to DVD.

With any of these outsides service you might want to have one or two tapes converted to try them out to see how you like the quality and service.

My most important advice is to get started now, those tapes will deteriorate over time; also make sure you back up all your digital memories.

Other do-it-yourself options include:

Elgato Video Capture device

List priced at $99.95 for Mac and PC

Diamond VC500 One Touch Video Capture Device 

Priced at $29.99 for PC only


Easy VHS to DVD 3 Plus

Prices at $42.99 for PC – Windows only

Honestech VHS to DVD 7.0 Deluxe

Prices at $66.05 for PC -Windows


Photos (top to bottom): Apple TV which can play video from iTunes, vintage home movies, my New Year’s resolutions, and one tape that didn’t make it out of the VCR safely. Credit: Kevin Lachman, Robert Lachman  and Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times

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Read more reviews and photography tips by Robert Lachman

1 Comment

  1. June 26, 2014, 5:04 pm

    This can be a monumental task for anyone who has a child/children and has videotaped them over some twenty years. I applaud your effort and excellent article on "how to do it" today. I accomplished it, as well, over the past couple of years and transferred all the old VHS tapes onto DVD's, but it was a job. I hope our daughter will enjoy them some day!

    By: fastfil12

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