How to Back Up Your Old Videos

Whether you have VHS, DV tapes, or even 8mm film, there’s a way to digitize your old home movies without losing quality. Tech Talker has the details.

Eric Escobar
5-minute read
Episode #24

In my last episode, I explained how to connect your TV to your computer to create an awesome home theater system. This sparked a ton of follow-up questions from Tech Talker fans.>

Listener Kyle wrote in asking how he could digitalize his home video collection. Of course, if you are using a new digital camera or a smartphone, that’s pretty easy because all you have to do is download the files to your computer via a cable or a memory card. This is how most all video and audio equipment works these days—and that makes it easy to back up, edit, and organize all your digital files.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been that easy. Film, tape, and other media are much harder to edit and store, let alone back up! This type of thing normally wouldn’t fall under my expertise, but it has fallen upon me in recent days to digitalize my own family’s extensive video collection which includes DV tapes, VHS, and even some old 8mm reels (no kidding!). If there was ever a time I bit off more than I could chew, it’s now! The hard thing with many of these conversions is quality loss and the time it takes to complete the process.

There are countless different ways to approach this problem, but thankfully, you won’t have to spend a ton of time researching because I’ve done it for you. Here are the best and easiest ways to convert, store, and back up your non-digital files:

How to Digitalize Your Old Videos

First, get all of the material you wish to digitalize in one place, and then figure out if it is all the same type (as in, all VHS or all DV) or if it’s varying levels of age. Next, assess the condition of each piece of media. This may sound pretty straightforward but trust me when I say that things can get out of hand very quickly, and with this much data on your hands, organization is a necessity. I recommend making a list with 3 columns: one for the name of the media, one for the type, and one for the condition.

Next, you will have to choose your conversion method. There are hundreds of ways to do this but I’ll highlight the popular ones:

  • You can send your media to one of a million companies out there that will charge you by length of the media, or per item. This is generally very expensive, running at about $20 an item. But if you have a small collection (or a lot of money) this is probably the easiest route because you’ll get a great product and have to expend little of your own time.

  • If you’re itching for a project and want to spend as little money as possible, you can purchase a piece of equipment and convert the files at home. If you plan on doing this sort of thing more than once or have a lot of items to convert, it might make sense to invest a little money into a piece of equipment that will convert your media to a digital form on your computer. A quick Google search will show you some possible options. While this may cost you around $100-$300, it might be worth it depending on the size of your collection and the time it can save you. This equipment will be unique to the type of media you wish to convert but as an example there are VHS to DVD converters, as well as VHS to computer converters that will convert and save all in one step. 

  • If you’re on a really tight budget, there are RCA to USB converters that will capture the video and audio from your device using the red, white, and yellow cables and save it as a file on your computer. These generally are much harder to work with but only cost about $20.

The size of you project and your budget will dictate which of these options is right for you.  

How Long Will Conversion Take?

The real pain that I found about this type of project is that most media can only be converted as fast as it can be played. This means that 1 hour of video takes 1 hour of your time! My suggestion if you use the do-it-yourself method is to start one item when you wake up, then another when you get home at night; this ensures that you will get two items done per day. And if you have more free time during waking hours, you can possibly knock out more. If you have a collection of all one type of media and less than 30 hours of footage, you can probably complete this project in a week during your off-work hours. It’s really not that bad when you make a habit out of it. Just make sure to check for quality every now and then so you don’t waste time creating subpar product.

If you have a big project on your hands, it may take you longer, but the steps of the process remain the same.

Lastly, I have to mention my old 8mm reels. I researched it thoroughly and could not find any feasible way to do this conversion, and no hardware cheaper than $3,000 that would do it for me. So I bit the bullet and had a company take care of my 5 reels for about $130. When it was all said and done, this is definitely the wiser and cheaper option for 8mm film.

A Few Words of Advice

It’s important to keep these things in mind when digitalizing old video files:

  • Back up your media to your computer and not only to DVDs. I say this because DVDs can go bad and get scratched and then you’re back to square one. On the other hand, if the files are on your computer, then you can back up, back up, and back up some more with no quality loss whatsoever!

  • The quality of your final product is obviously important, so before you start, I recommend sampling a few different techniques and settings until you find the right method for you.

  • It is oftentimes very helpful to keep an index of the contents of each individual file so that once you have your videos stored away, you can actually find the clip you’re looking for without having to go through 10 hours of footage to find your nephew’s 3rd birthday party!

I’m sure this episode has given you a lot to think about and will surely generate many more questions than I answered! If you have a unique media situation or want to know more about anything in this episode, go check out the Tech Talker Facebook wall and post you question!

Have a question about anything tech-related? Or a suggestion for a future podcast? Send me an email at techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on the Tech Talker Facebook wall.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.