Save those videotaped memories—cheap

Sunday, June 18, 2017
Esquire culture editor Tyler Coates has filed an eloquent elegy for the last surviving records of his late father’s voice: Videotapes “sitting in a pile at my mom’s house … probably too old to transfer to a digital medium.”
(Photo: Toby Hudson.)
I’m here to say otherwise and to encourage you to save those memories while you can—for your sake, and for the sake of those who follow you.

It begins with two simple commands.
  1. Do not throw away any working VCR or video camera. (Meyerson’s Law of Aging Recording and Playback Electronics: If it works, don’t throw it away. Corollary: If it doesn’t work, keep it anyway because maybe it can be fixed or the parts will be useful.) Or pick up a few at estate or garage sales; they tend to break at this vintage, so having a backup or two is a good idea. (The cameras, especially, get pricey on eBay.)
  2. Until you’ve digitized tapes with irreplaceable memories, take care in your storage of them.
Yes, you can ship your tapes off to commercial services to have them digitized, but that quickly gets expensive.

And, yes, maybe your tapes have become fragile, but unless they’ve been submerged or baking in the sun, odds are good they have another few plays left. Assuming you have a working playback machine, you can do the job much more cheaply yourself.

Since I went through this whole process late last year, here’s a broad overview for how to save those recordings to digital computer files for generations to come. (And, yes, you can get a DVD recorder, but they cost a lot, too.)
  1. Make sure you have plenty of computer storage space. Video files are big, especially at VHS-tape length. If your computer’s hard drive doesn’t have much free space, get an external drive.
  2. Gather your tapes, ideally in chronological order. (If they’re not labeled, don’t worry about ordering them until after they’ve been digitized. The older the tapes, the less likely they are to hold up under repeated playback, so don’t watch them just to determine a date.)
  3. Connect your playback device—VCR or camera—to a computer. You’ll find lots of relatively cheap ways to do that.
  4. Devise a naming scheme that you’ll follow for each tape. My recommendation is to begin each file name with a consistent word or title, followed by a year, month and (optional) date—in that order—like “Meyerson 1993-05 to 07-31,” so that when all your files are collected in a folder, they can be arranged chronologically or reverse-chronologically simply by clicking on the file name header.
  5. Choose your recording software. For importing later-generation miniDV tapes to a Macintosh, I had good luck with—and responsive tech support from—LifeFlix software. You can find many other options for older VHS (and VHS-C and Betamax and Video8 and other analog format tapes; basically, anything with those red-white-yellow output jacks). The details will vary depending on your software, but the basic routine is then pretty much the same:
  6. Press Record on the computer, then press Play on the camera or VCR. (Some software will let you set a timer to stop recording; if not, you’ll want to trim the excess blank recording at the end to keep file sizes down.)
  7. Walk away (or sit there, if you prefer, slackjawed in amazement at how stupid hairstyles used to be).
  8. Return and repeat.
When you’re done, dump ’em all on a backup hard drive like these—or these for Macs—maybe many drives, as a gift for each relative.

If you’re willing to sacrifice image quality and don’t mind letting your computer take forever—days, if you start with dozens of two-hour tapes, as I did—to upload huge video files, Google Photos offers unlimited storage of reduced- (“high”-)quality images and videos for free. (Google automatically downgrades the quality during upload.)

From there, your archival videos are easily searchable and sharable via any computer or smartphone you’re logged in to.

Like this. (Caution: Much boring family footage follows. Viewer discretion is advised.)

Video8 tape recorded in 1993 digitized using EyeTV software, saved at “high-quality” resolution through Google Photos.

Questions? Happy to help. Comment below, or email

1 comment:

mikejaz said...

Sage advice, Charlie.

As someone who (a) works as a professional in media (as a "video" editor), and (b) ANGSTS over preserving the hundreds of hours of video, and thousands of photos, slides and ephemera of older generationbs, I found your piece encouraging. And especially, your suggestion to create a naming convention becomes paramount as you build your collection...nothing's worse than getting folders full of "UntitledVideo_0001" and "IMG000x" files. It's the digital equivalent of an envelope of old black and white snapshots with no names on the back.

If any of your readers have questions about how to begin the process, I'm here to help. Let me know.