How to Preserve Your VHS Tapes for Posterity

VHS and the home movie revolution

When the VHS craze started in the 1980’s, it was the first time people could easily film a home video, pull out the recording format, and watch it immediately on a TV. This revolutionized home movie-making. Prior to this, filming home movies involved recording on a film reel and then having the entire thing developed. Playing the film was also a tedious process and called for a film projector at home. No surprise then that home movies weren’t for everyone, and for decades, it remained a niche hobby of people with the time and patience to deal with film. Then along came VHS, and suddenly anyone could be a home movie producer in a matter of minutes. The VHS cartridge made things so easy; it was a simple process of pop-in, record, pop-out and play. This model is the forerunner of many of the portable camera models and designs we use today, some 30 years later.

There are lots of tapes out there. The two big ones were BETA and VHS. BETA was actually a better designed format for the time, but VHS quickly took over the market and became the quick recording tape standard in the U.S.

Granted, we’ve moved ahead to digital tapes and jump drives with extraordinary amounts of data storage. But many folks still have boxes of VHS tapes gathering dust in their attics and basements. It’s increasingly difficult to find a decent VHS tape player that works with modern electronics, and so conversion is the best way to retrieve those memories. Every film and camera store has been hit up with some version of this question in recent years: “I don’t want to keep the tapes, but how do I get the movies off them into a disc or drive that I can play on my computer?”

For a while, the conversion process existed but it was extremely technical and hard to do at home. It involved transfer of a film format on magnetic tape to a modern digital drive format. On paper this sounds simple, but it was actually a complicated process to execute. Luckily, we have easier ways to do this now.

Doing it yourself: How to convert VHS to DVD

To begin, you will have to buy specific equipment designed to convert images from a VHS to digital recording format. Simple models are usually priced at around $100 with more advanced converters starting at about $400. The unit essentially plays the tape and records it digitally onto a memory card which needs to have the storage capacity for movie output. Generally, the recording happens in real time, i.e. it takes about an hour for each hour of tape.

If you happen to be a big electronics buff and are lucky enough to own a few different pieces of equipment, you may be able to use a VHS player connected to a DVD recorder, your TV, and your own entertainment network. In this model, the VHS player provides the feed that is then displayed on the TV. You can run an output from the VHS player to send the signal to the TV and then to the DVD, or directly to the DVD. The TV allows you to view the video as it is being recorded. The signal is then converted in the DVD player where the movie is recorded onto a writable DVD. If you don’t already own a DVD recorder/player, this method may prove expensive as quality units (and you will need a good quality recorder for this purpose) are not cheap.

It’s also important to make sure that your VHS player heads are clean and ready. If you are using an old machine, make sure you give it a good cleaning before you start the project. You will have to budget as much time as the length of the movie on your VHS tape. If you are converting multiple tapes, this can add up to a significant chunk of time.

If you working with a tight budget and can’t afford new DVD equipment, there is a quick but less ideal way to tackle this job. Using your existing VHS equipment, project the movie onto a screen or wall and then record it with a digital camera. The quality of the movie may not be the best, but it will still be complete and now available to you in a more accessible digital format. The key pieces of equipment involved here include a VHS player/projector (which you may be able to borrow), a large white surface like a wall, and a digital recording camera.

Getting the professionals to do it for you

Although using a service to convert your old VHS tapes is not the cheapest way to get the job done, it is likely to yield the best outcomes. An established service will have the technology and expertise to convert your tapes to their best possible digital versions. It is probably the best approach for those who don’t have time or personal equipment and are willing to pay for the convenience and superior results likely with a professional service. All you have to do is send your tapes to them and they will tackle the job for you. At the end, you will get your original tapes back along with a DVD or DVDs with the newly digitized movies recorded on them. Some services offer online access to the files for easy sharing with family or friends.

before and after conversion of vhs to dvd

Saving your movies for the future

Technology is changing rapidly around us and nowhere is this more apparent than with photo and film formats. While old film reels were around for a long time before being displaced, the digital formats of today are constantly being upgraded. So you will need to anticipate these changes when you set out to convert and preserve your VHS tape movies. The long-term viability of any format that you choose depends on whether you can find the right equipment to play it down the road. For example, imagine trying to track down a system to play old computer floppies today. This is so difficult that anything saved in this format is, in essence, locked and inaccessible. We are already seeing other portable digital formats such as DVDs being similarly edged out of mainstream use and flash drives may follow soon.

Saving your movie files online is one way to future proof them from such technology shifts. Luckily for us, many professional services now offer this option, allowing your priceless movie memories to be safe and secure even if the DVDs they are stored on are damaged or misplaced.