Illustration of photos coming out of a VHS tape
Photo-Illustration: Doug Chayka

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. 

Vintage Film Rolls: 16 mm, 8 mm, and Super 8

Although Kodak released 16 mm Kodachrome film in 1935, then 8 mm (aka Regular 8) film a year later, home movies didn’t really take off until the 1960s, when Kodak released Super 8.

If you have old reels of film in the attic packed in iconic yellow Kodak boxes, they’re probably Regular 8 or Super 8 film. “Regular 8 film is about as wide as a pencil on a small reel about 3 inches in diameter,” says Howard Besser, professor of cinema studies at New York University and founding director of the NYU Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program.

Super 8 film will be a similar size. Each 3-inch reel contains about 50 feet of film, good for only a few minutes of action.

If the film strip is roughly two pencils wide—and on a reel that looks like the kind you might see in a documentary about the Golden Age of Hollywood—it’s probably 16 mm.

Once you’ve identified the kind of film you have, you can turn it into a digital format—but it’s going to take some time and money. The good news: “Film is a pretty sturdy medium,” says Ashley Blewer, an archivist, developer, and moving-image specialist, “so old home movies on 8 mm, 16 mm, or Super 8 reels are likely to be in decent shape.”

Do it yourself. There are two DIY methods. First, you can buy a film-to-video converter, which looks like a compact version of an old-fashioned reel-to-reel projector. These machines can be expensive—the Wolverine Data Film2Digital Moviemaker Pro, for example, costs about $400, though you might find other models for closer to $100.

As the film runs, the new files are recorded to a small SDHC memory card, just like the one you find inside digital cameras. This is an analog process: If you have 5 hours of film, the conversion will take 5 hours.

“There is another way, but it’s a bit of a project,” says Elias Arias, Consumer Reports’ project leader for audio/video testing. You’ll need a film-reel projector, a digital video camera, and a clean white wall or a projector screen.

In a dark room, set the projector and video camera up next to each other. Project the film evenly onto the wall or screen, then adjust the viewfinder in your digital camera so that the image being projected fills the whole view. Then press Play on the projector and Record on the camera to capture your footage.

“The problem with this method is that you need to work with a very clean white sheet or wall,” Arias says, “and even with a pristine projection surface, you could end up with lower contrast than the original, color shifts, or a softer image. The final quality of the recording will also be limited by your video camera’s capability.”

Hire a service. Though film conversion services aren’t cheap, they're a lot easier than the DIY methods described above. In addition to local film specialists, major retailers such as Costco and Walgreens have conversion services for 16 mm, 8mm, and Super 8 film formats. You’ll need to take your media to a store.

Expect to pay a base price, plus a fee for additional feet—which can add up quickly. For example, a single 5-inch reel of Super 8 or 8 mm, which contains about 12 to 14 minutes of action on 200 feet of film, would cost about $27 at Costco. And you'll need to be patient: The process takes roughly three weeks. In the end, you’ll get back your original materials, two DVDs of content (Walgreens charges an extra fee for these), and online access to the digital files.

Shoeboxes of Photos: Prints and Negatives

If you or a family member was a prolific photographer back in the day, you may have a number—okay, scores—of photo albums or shoeboxes full of loose prints stuffed into closets. Sadly, these start to feel like unwieldy clutter and can’t be easily shared with relatives, copied, or organized the way digital photos can be.

Do it yourself. All you’ll need is a scanner—a feature built into many home printers these days. (In the market for a new printer? One good choice is the Epson WorkForce Pro WF-4630, $280, which produces excellent-quality scans.) If your family photographer also took the time to add names, dates, or notes to the back of photos, consider purchasing a two-sided scanning printer. Bear in mind that it does take time and patience to scan one photo at a time.

Hire a service. Costco, Walgreens, and local photo shops have services for converting photo prints—and, in some cases, negatives—to digital. Costco, for example, charges $20 for the first 62 images, then 32 cents per image. The cost includes two DVDs and online access to digital files. Additional DVDs cost $7.

Videocassette Tapes: VHS, Hi8, DV, and Betamax

In 1983 Sony released a consumer camcorder, called Betamovie, that used a small Betamax cassette tape and gave consumers instant access to their recordings—no processing fees required. As tape formats proliferated through the ’80s and ’90s, consumers had myriad video formats to choose from, including VHS tapes; smaller, higher-quality Hi8 tapes; and digital video (DV) tapes made for handheld camcorders. The rest is home-video history.

“Tape is considered ‘at-risk media’ because it’s vulnerable to deterioration, and the technology you can view it on is starting to disappear,” says Besser, the NYU professor. So converting your old tapes to a digital format is a more pressing task than converting old film. And there are a few options for transferring your old home videotapes to digital.

Do it yourself. This may be one of the easiest conversions to do yourself if you have the time and the right equipment. If you have a DV camcorder, your “tapes” are probably already digital files, but you’ll need a FireWire cable (and a computer with a FireWire port) to transfer them from the camcorder to your computer.

If you have analog tapes, such as Betamax, Hi8, and VHS, you’ll need a VCR that plays the type of tapes you have. If you don’t have a VCR, try sites such as Craigslist, eBay, and Freecycle to find a low-cost one.

You’ll also need to acquire an analog video-capture dongle. These have a USB connector on one end and audio and video inputs on the other, and they start around $13. Check the manufacturer’s specifications to make sure the dongle is compatible with your computer. Some, such as the Elgato Video Capture, also come with recording and editing software.

Before you start converting, check your tape player to see whether it needs to be cleaned. Connect it to your TV and insert a professionally recorded video, such as an old Disney movie, to see whether the picture appears snowy. If it does, clean it using a kit, about $10 online; YouTube how-to videos can help.

It’s a good idea to clean your old tapes, too. Simply dust any exposed tape and manually twirl the spokes to loosen them up before trying to play a tape.

Next, connect your computer to the tape player via the dongle, which will prompt you to install the video-recording software. The program will walk you through the process. When you’re ready, hit Record within the program and Play on your tape player. Just as with film, this is an analog process: An hour of video will take an hour to transfer.

Hire a service. This is the more costly option, but you’re paying for convenience. Costco and Walgreens offer transfer services for a number of video formats, including VHS, VHS-C, and the long-departed Betamax.

At Costco you’ll pay $20 for up to 2 hours of VHS content. At Walgreens the cost is $35 for one tape-to-DVD conversion. (Blu-rays are more expensive.) You can start your order online, then take your tapes to a local store. The process takes about three weeks, and you get your original tapes back as well as the files on DVD. Digital files are included at Costco, but Walgreens charges an extra fee for them.

Future-Proofing Digital Images and Videos

Since the Lumière brothers showed what is believed to be the first motion picture, in 1895, film technology has evolved rapidly. And it’s likely that the media formats of today—advanced as they may seem now—will become the digital dust collectors of tomorrow. Make any future conversions 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 a cloud storage service, such as Dropbox, iCloud, or OneDrive. Or do 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.”