I have owned a video camera since the early 1970’s. Back then, it was a black and white camera and a reel to reel video recorder connected by a two meter long cable. I have since owned a VHS camcorder, an SVHS camcorder (high definition VHS), two mini DV camcorder and now I own an SD Card camcorder. As a result I have video footage from the early years of my children and have bits of video from almost all our holidays over the years on tape spread all through the house. Thankfully, a few years ago, I transferred most of the very old footage to digital format before I got rid of the reel to reel tape recorder. I have now transferred most of the old VHS and SVHS material as well. The mini DV tapes are yet to be completed but I’ll have to get my camera back to do that!
So the first step in producing a home video that makes sense is to get the files into your computer. Lets begin then, with a few tips on transferring the footage to digital format…
1. Use a VHS / DVD recorder.
You can purchase a DVD recorder that will convert from VHS to DVD. However the last manufacturer of VHS mechanisms announced they will no longer produce these items so to buy a new one you will have to act quickly. You can always look on eBay if you can’t find a new one. These units have the advantage of simplicity. Provided you are not trying to copy commercial material you simply put the VHS tape in one side, a blank DVD in the other, select transfer and press the go button. If you have tapes you can play in a video camera that have RCA video cable connection (those red, yellow and white plugs), then you could cable them into the DVD recorder, select play on the camera and record on the DVD recorder.
Getting it onto a DVD is however, not the end of the story. You need to see “5” below for how to use a DVD and to convert it to a computer file.
2. Use a USB Video Converter.
The second option is to purchase a plug in unit that converts the video and sound directly to a USB port and hence into a computer file. On eBay there are many of these but do make sure they will run on your computer. Mac software wont run on Windows and vice versa. So even though they plug into the USB port, you may not be able to record the video on your computer. I have purchased a couple of these over the years but I’m not sure either will work now mostly because the cheap ones use interface software of dubious origin and if you have problems, you may need to buy the latest version of the software to make it work – so it may not be as cheap as it seems. The software doesn’t have to be great but it does have to work! In addition, some of these units have the software on a mini CD which will disappear into your Mac and never be seen again. So unless you can download the software, buy one that costs more than $20!
To use these units you also need something that plays the tape. I purchased an SVHS video recorder a few years ago when I could see they were becoming rare and so I use that for my VHS or SVHS tapes. I have got a compact VHS converter for my old compact camera tapes too so I use that where it’s needed. You can also play the tapes on the camcorder if you still have it and if it still works! I’ve never seen a player for mini DV tapes so I doubt there is any other way to play mini DV tapes except on the camera.
To use these units, you simply plug the camera video cable into the yellow plug, the audio cables into the remaining red and white plugs, put the other end into a USB slot on your computer, and run the software to record the files on your computer.
3. Use a Personal Video Recorder.
A third way is to use a PVR – a unit that records television signals to a hard drive. However this is tricky because you have to find one that allows you to use a video input – not only the broadcast TV signals. Then, it has to be able to copy the hard drive recordings to a USB drive so you can transfer the recording to your computer. I have an LG recorder but it does not have a video in so I cannot play my camera and record the video using that PVR.
I also have an Avedia PVR I bought on eBay a few years ago. It has video and sound inputs and enables me to transfer a file I recorded on the hard drive to USB. It however, has problems with files bigger than 4Gb. So a long TV recording must be recorded and transferred in two or more pieces. I have managed to transfer a 6Gb file via Wifi but the last file took about 12 hours to transfer and it was very difficult to set up.
4. Use Your TV (maybe).
It may also be possible to use some modern TV sets for the same thing. Some TV sets have an ability to record to an external USB drive but my LG TV is complicated to use and will not let me record to the USB port from either a HDMI input or video input. In addition, it reformats the USB drive which must be bigger than 40Gb, to some proprietary format that can’t be read on a PC or a Mac. So unless your TV set is better than mine, it’s a dead end street.
5. Use your computer
There were some camcorders that recorded to DVD directly so you may already have a DVD with your video on it. Of course some commercial operators also will copy camera tapes to DVD as well. So if you have a DVD that you want to convert to a computer file you can insert the DVD into the computer DVD drive. The DVD material may not be easily available to your computer for editing because DVD recorders use a special format that requires some software on your computer to extract it. There are free software extractors and paid ones, and since DVD’s have been around for years the extraction software is readily available. I use Ripit by the Little App Factory and though it takes an hour or so to rip and then compress a DVD it is a great program for Mac OSX. I also have MDRP, Handbrake and Toast all of which can extract the video and sound files from a DVD and turn them into an editable file for my computer. Handbrake is available for Windows and it’s free – it may be a bit tricky to use but at the price you can’t complain too much. Another piece of Windows software that seemed to be quite good at the time of writing is “Free DVD Converter”. It also allows you to do basic trimming and editing.
- Software Installation
All software is constantly changing and can have features or add on functionality that you don’t want, so read reviews on the software (as an example on CNET) before making a choice. Some software has sponsorship credits in the output and may prompt you to upgrade at times. Some have browser home page redirection. Always read and unselect any software options that you don’t want installed when trying software. Every Mac comes with iMovie available for free. Using it you can import, then edit the movies and it allows you to add titles, photos and a soundtrack or two.
- Software Setting
There are quite a number of settings available when creating digital videos so you may need to set the quality, size, bitrate or other items to get the quality of video you are after. Do some test samples of the digital video produced and adjust the settings until you are happy with the result. You do not usually want to end up with a digital copy that has less quality than the original. Be aware that if you select maximum quality and bitrates the digital video will be a very large file. It is a compromise.
There are also commercial copying services available that may be able to convert a camera tape or even a DVD to a computer file, but with a little bit of fiddling, you can make something happen yourself and if you are retired, what a great way to use some time trying out things you have never done before!