Memories have a lifespan. That’s why we do our best to capture the most precious moments, from births to graduations, through photo and video. In terms of aging, old photos are pretty easy to digitize. Scan, upload, and store on your computer, thumb drive, or the cloud. On the other hand, digitizing old video can be a bit more challenging, at least when it comes to footage captured on the all-but-dead medium called Video Home System, aka VHS.
The format was never intended to last forever and degrades over time. If your precious home videos managed to survive thus far, you may want to salvage the footage before time takes its toll. Converting well-worn videos will never be flawless — the slightest hiccup can interrupt the transfer signal — but it can be done on a modest budget with a few basic tools.
Below, we’ll show you how to save your moments digitally on multiple formats, including DVD, Blu-ray, or digital file. If you’re just too busy, we’ve also got a list of the various VHS conversion services, including pricing, to help you preserve that 20-year-old footage of you bailing on your first bike. If not for you, do it for posterity’s sake.
Disclaimer: It’s illegal to produce copies of commercial films and copyrighted content, but there are no restrictions on copying home videos. Plus, you can usually pick up a used copy of Top Gun or The Breakfast Club online for next to nothing.
Retail VHS-to-DVD conversion services
For those who’d rather forgo the technical hands-on process, many big-name retail corporations offer VHS-to-DVD (and in some cases VHS-to-digital) conversion services through their photo departments. Stores like Costco, CVS, Walmart, and Sam’s Club offer video conversion, and many of them use the same company for their conversion: YesVideo. If you head to the YesVideo website, you’ll find conversion services starting from $26 per tape for the first two hours, and then an additional $26 for every two additional hours of converting. But the price you pay at Walmart or Target could be lower. These prices have been trending upward in recent years, so if you’ve been waiting to get your tapes converted, you might want to get on it.
Available transfer formats include everything from VHS to Betamax, and most services will allow you to transfer up to two tapes to a single DVD before charging you extra. Alternatively, there are a couple of great websites that offer the same service for a more affordable price if you feel comfortable shipping the VHS tapes yourself.
Companies like Legacy Box offer similar services. Simply mail your VHS tapes in, and they’ll provide you with DVDs, downloadable digital files, or a thumb drive filled with all of your memories, plus the original tapes in return. Prices start at $59, which includes conversion of two tapes.
Using a VHS-DVD combo or separate VCR and DVD burner
If you’ve got a ton of videos to transfer, you may want to take on the job yourself to save some green. The best way to convert on your own is with a VHS-DVD combination player/recorder. Today, these are outdated and can be hard to find. You can find dinosaur models online if you look hard enough — try searching “combo deck” or “VHS DVD recorder” on sites like Amazon or eBay, or even Craigslist — but these will typically run you $100 or more (and take forever to ship), so it’ll only be worth it if you’ve got a sizable tape collection.
You can also buy the items you’ll need piecemeal. If you don’t already have a VCR, you might be able to find one online for around $70 to 100, but again, it’s not the easiest task. You can try looking on Amazon (most options there will be secondhand), but you may need to resort to eBay or even your local Craigslist, though we recommend caution if you go those routes — always make sure your eBay seller has high review scores before proceeding. Then you’ll need a stand-alone DVD recorder, which can also be a challenge to find these days. Securing one will likely require the same methods outlined above.
Once you’ve got the goods, you can hook up the DVD player to the VCR by plugging an
RCA audio/video cable
from the VCR’s RCA output to the DVD player’s RCA input. On some models, you might need an
to connect the two. This is essentially the same process you’ll need to use with an older video camera that uses tapes — simply connect the camera’s output to the DVD recorder via the RCA cable or, if necessary, the RCA-to-HDMI converter we just mentioned. With a combo player, of course, the process is simpler.
Next is the transfer process. Pop a tape into the VCR and a blank
(some units only accept one of these formats, so double-check that) into the DVD player, then begin the transfer process. The method differs between models, but it should be relatively straightforward. You may need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but most manuals can be found through a Google search if your components didn’t come with them.
Pro tip: It’s always smart to clean your equipment and the tapes you’ll be transferring. The efficacy of different cleaning methods is a point of contention, but the simplest way is to open the cassette encasing and carefully remove any visible dust or dirt using a soft cloth or cotton swab. You might also consider cleaning your VCR’s heads by using a
VHS head cleaner
Transferring to DVD, Blu-ray, or digital file on Windows and Mac
This process is more involved and requires a few additional materials, but it has its benefits. Specifically, you’ll be able to transfer your tapes directly from a VCR into digital files as opposed to another physical format, allowing you to preserve them on a hard drive or even in the cloud. You can then copy and save the files wherever you’d like, and transfer them to DVDs or Blu-rays.
Assuming you’ve already got a VCR, the first step is to buy a digital-to-analog converter if you don’t have access to one. There are many models out there, but models such as the UCEC USB 2.0 Video Audio Capture Card are made specifically with VHS transferring in mind.
Once you’ve got one, connect the digital-to-analog adapter to your computer and your VCR or camera. Most adapters come with software that walks you through the entire transfer process, including importing the resulting footage into a more comprehensive video editor or burning straight to DVD. Refer to the installation disc, instruction manual, or manufacturer’s website for more information on installing the software and downloading the necessary drivers.
As with the previous method, we suggest giving your tape and VCR a look over to make sure each is clean. Particles on the tape can cause blemishes in the video during the transfer, while dirty heads can ruin the entire project.
Now for the main event. Insert the tape into your VCR, and a blank DVD or Blu-ray into your computer (or external player/burner). The exact steps for conversion vary depending on which device and what software you’re using for video capture. Recording and digitizing will happen in real time, meaning you’ll have to painstakingly sit through the entire length of footage (or go do something else for a while) before you can finish up the project. Once it’s done, however, the contents will be forever preserved in digital format.
At this point, if all you wanted was the digital file, you’re done; you can edit, move, and name the file as you want. If you’re planning on burning the file to a DVD or Blu-ray, of course, you’ve got another step to go. Most conversion software will have an option for burning a DVD or Blu-ray upon completion of transferring the footage. If not, locate the resulting file on your computer and open it in iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, VLC, or a similar program that can burn your footage to DVD. (You can also use these programs to edit the length of your videos.) The burning process will vary depending on what software you choose, so consult instructions for further clarification.
Alternately, you can try using a
direct digital conversion tool
to easily copy VHS footage directly onto a microSD card for digital use. Be aware, though — you might need extra cables and a bigger SD card (try 64GB).
VHS to Blu-ray
As for a Blu-ray, you’ll need to be sure your computer is equipped with a Blu-ray writable drive (you can get
an external drive
if your rig doesn’t have one built-in), and you’ll likely also need some third-party software. For Windows users, we recommend the free program ImgBurn. It hasn’t seen an update in years, though, so you might want to check out paid options like Opencloner or BurnAware, too. Similarly, for Mac, Leawo Blu-ray Creator is a solid choice.
There’s little reason to convert VHS (or any other tape, for that matter) to Blu-ray format because the picture quality is already fairly poor. If you prefer the shiny blue surface, more power to you, but Blu-ray players and writers also usually work for DVDs, so we wouldn’t recommend wasting your money there.