In 2006 Peter Hilton unearthed a collection of homemade VHS tapes in his dad’s basement. There were hours of concert footage from 2000 to 2003, when Peter's high school band—Down in Flames—briefly gained a following and toured the country.

“I just knew that if I didn’t do something with those tapes in a few years, I’d lose them," Hilton says. "There might not be the technology to support them.” He didn't try to convert the VHS tapes to a digital format then, but the project earned a spot on his to-do list.

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Evolving technology has left many of us with our own videos in older formats. At B&H Photo Video in New York City, nearly a dozen people per day come in asking how to convert film or VHS home movies to digital formats they can watch on a computer or newer TV, says senior technologist Mark Steinberg. 

Like Hilton, people often "will find a stash of old home movies," Steinberg says. "They don’t want to hang onto boxes of films or VHS, but they want to save the memories on a digital format.”

After his dad passed away in 2015, Hilton decided it was finally time to do something with the tapes. He figured out how to get them into digital form, but the learning curve was steep.

To simplify things for everyone else, here's a guide for converting VHS to digital and getting your old media out of the attic and onto your computer.

As a bonus, we've included advice on how to make sure the video you're capturing today is still easy to read a few years—or decades—from now. 

8MM or Super 8 Film to Digital

Many services will take old film movies and transfer them for you, but it's not cheap.

At Costco, the price starts at $20 for the first 150 feet of film, and it increases by 13 cents per foot after that. It can add up, but that may be the easiest way for consumers to transfer film to digital, says Elias Arias, Consumer Reports' project leader for audio/video testing. 

Besides the expense, the only other drawback is that you’ll be sending irreplaceable films through a shipping service.

There's a do-it-yourself solution, but it can be pricey as well. Film-to-video converters come at a range of prices, from $150 to $1,800. As an example, Steinberg cites Wolverine Reels2Digital converters, which range from about $300 to $400. (The more expensive models let you record in HD.)

The device looks a lot like a compact version of an old-fashioned reel-to-reel projector. As the film runs, the new files are recorded to an SDHC card. Remember, this is an analog process: If you have 5 hours of film, the conversion will take 5 hours.

“Of course,” Steinberg says, “you can only convert what you have. A lot of home movies aren’t going to be high-quality in the first place, so you can’t expect the digital version to be better than the original.” 

Not keen on purchasing a converter? You could cobble together your own system as long as you have a film-reel projector, a digital video camera, and a clean white wall or projector screen.

Choose a dark room and set up the projector and video camera next to each other. Then simply project the film in a tight square and adjust the viewfinder in your camera so that the image fills the whole screen.

Press Play on the projector and Record on the camera to capture your footage. Does it work? Yes. Does it work well? That's a different question. Arias has tried this at home.

“It’s a bit of a project,” he says, “and the results were decent but not exceptional.”

VHS to Digital

Film shot decades ago can have uneven quality, but the problem can be even worse with old VHS tapes, as Hilton discovered. “My dad’s old camcorder definitely didn’t pick up the sound and images like I can now with just my phone,” he says.

VHS recordings were typically lower in quality than film, Arias says. So buying high-quality transfer equipment, which can cost hundreds of dollars, probably isn’t worthwhile for most people.

A number of service providers will transfer your old VHS to digital files, but the cost can add up. At Costco it costs $20 to transfer one VHS to DVD, and at Walgreens it’s $25. For both services, you’ll have to take your VHS tapes and a printed order form you create online to a store. It takes about three weeks to transfer VHS to DVD at both retailers.

Hilton elected to do it himself. The process isn't difficult, but you'll need a VCR. If you don’t have one, you can usually find one at a low price (or free) on sites like eBay, Craigslist, or Freecycle.

You’ll also need an analog video-capture dongle, with a USB at one end and audio and video inputs on the other.

Consumer Reports doesn't test these dongles but, as an example, the Elgato Systems USB Analog Video Capture Device and software package costs $65; it’s Mac & PC compatible. You can find similar devices for as little as $8, but buyer beware. Many online comments say that the accompanying software is often difficult to use and that the vendors might not offer good customer service. 

Next, it’s important to clean your VCR head and your VHS tapes. Many local repair shops will clean the VCR heads for a low price. If you feel confident doing it yourself, you can find cheap cleaning kits online and a host of YouTube how-to videos to help you.

To clean your VHS tapes, simply dust any exposed tape and manually twirl the spokes to loosen them up before playing. If your tapes are in particularly bad shape, consider having them professionally cleaned.

Connect your computer to the VCR via the dongle, and install the software. The program will walk you through the process of naming your file and ensuring that you can see the image onscreen. When you’re ready, hit Record within the program and Play on your VCR. Just as with film, this is an analog process: An hour of video will take an hour to transfer.

“It took a long time,” Hilton says about his VHS conversion project. “But once I had the equipment set up, it was pretty easy.” 

Future-Proofing Your Own Videos

Since the Lumière brothers showed the first motion picture in 1895, the technology has been evolving constantly. And it’s likely we’ll see the media formats of today become the digital dust collectors of tomorrow.

If you're already in this spot, with video footage on your computer that you can't play on your smartphone, Arias recommends the VLC media player, a free, open-source tool that plays most multimedia formats and is compatible across many platforms, including iOS, Windows, and Android.

Somewhere down the line, you or a loved one might want to dig through video files and convert them to work with the latest in technological advancements. Make it easier by saving your files in well-labeled, easy-to-find places on your computer now—and backing them up to an external hard drive or the cloud.

Steinberg recommends doing both. Use a physical external hard drive in case of data loss on the cloud, and save to the cloud in case your hard drive gets lost or damaged.

Arias says that sharing your movies can be another fail-safe. Do that, and if you lose files you may be able to get them back from friends and family.

“When it comes to music, I’m more of a looking-forward guy than a looking-back guy,” Hilton reflects. “But after I uploaded some of those files to YouTube, I reconnected with a lot of people from that time. We even got a little following. It was cool to remember that part of the journey.”