Posts Tagged ‘digital’

Developing film in a digital age. Go local or online?

May 22nd, 2013 3 comments


Why film?
Today you may think everything is digital these days, and for the most part, you would be correct. Digital phones, digital TV, digital movies and music. However sometimes it’s fun to look back and do things “the old way”. Not for greater convenience or for a cheaper cost, but just for fun.

Recently my friend and I have gotten into using 35mm film cameras. Earlier this year on a trip to Europe I brought along a Sears KS Super II 35mm film camera. It had a manual focus ring so before every shot you had to stop, think, focus, and be steady before taking a photo. This required me to re-wire the photo-taking part of my brain. See, my current digital camera is a nice Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, it boasts a 35x zoom and the ability to record 1080p videos. But one of my favorite features of this camera, and my previous digital cameras, was the burst mode. I love holding down the shutter button and taking a continuous burst of photos. Why? Well sometimes I want to capture a moment and try not to miss something. Or I may be trying to capture something in motion very quickly.

But, on the digital camera I have a massive memory card where I can take an endless stream of photos. On my 35mm camera? I have just 24 exposures (photos) that I can use before I need to use up another roll of film. So I have to be more careful, more selective, it makes me more conscious of what I’m photographing. With an analog film camera I am much less prone to taking a photo just for the sake of taking a photo. So because of this, I have taken some interesting shots and have had a lot of fun so far.


So after all the fun of shooting photos now comes the slow part… the waiting game. Today less and less stores offer on-site 35mm film development. Most pharmacy stores will process film for you at a relatively cheap price. However, just in the past few months, two CVS Pharmacy locations have removed their photo machines. Their reasoning being, the chemicals used in developing photos usually ends up going to waste due to not a lot of customers using their machine. This of course is wasted money on their end.

It’s kind of a shame really. For months I’ve been going to two local CVS stores, one was a 24 hour location and one was not. However rarely were my film rolls actually developed within the quoted ’1 hour’ period. I would often wait a day or so for it to be processed. Thankfully the processing fee is standard, and you aren’t paying for a 1 hour rush service. Still, it seemed that whoever was working at the store at the time didn’t feel the need to rush. I turned to Walgreens to see if I could get a better photo experience, unfortunately my first roll of film was forgotten about and when I finally received my film the negative was scratched from improper handling and the photo CD was useless due to a bad job on part of the scanner.

The bright side?  This forced me to look into alternatives. CVS charged me about $6 and change to have one 35mm film roll developed and to have JPEG scans put on a CD. Not bad really. Walgreens was a bit more expensive at about $8 to have the same 1 roll and 1 CD service. There are tons of mail-in and online processing services today. Thankfully you have plenty of options. So far I have tried Mpix and Lomography.

Developing film with Mpix (

Mpix seems to offer a lot of photo products, meaning they will slap any photo on a mug, t-shirt, card, calendar, frame, etc. In fact, when visiting their site, you may be confused as to if they actually offer film developing. They do, but the ‘Film’ link is hidden on the bottom of their website under ‘Products’.

Mpix offers film processing and development by mail. To start, go to the Mpix website and create a free account with your email address. You can request free film mailers directly on your website. These are special pre-paid envelopes that will mailed out to you. You’ll receive a welcome envelope from Mpix in a few days, enclosed are the special film envelopes and some instructions. You can place up to 4 rolls of 35mm film inside each envelope. (They mail you 3 or 4 envelopes so you don’t have plenty to start with). The envelopes are pre-paid so when you drop in your film, simply seal the envelop and drop it off at the post office (or have it collected at your home). In a few days they will arrive at the Mpix offices and you’ll get an email notification once your photo thumbnails are ready to be reviewed and “unlocked”.

Unfortunately their film processing webpage is limited to one single page with not a lot of detailed pricing information on it. I wouldn’t call it misleading, but it’s a bit hard to figure out exactly how much you’re going to pay. Is it worth the price? Let’s see.

For example, under  film pricing it mentions that you are charged $0.19 per exposure (this would be $4.56 for a roll of 35mm film with 24 exposures), not bad, that’s fine. However under ‘Scanning’ it only lists the resolution and size of the scanned files. Afterwards it mentions that full resolution scans are available to purchase via an archive DVD. That’s fine, but it reads as if the lower-resolution (72dpi) scans are available at no charge or at a different rate. Here they also fail to mention that the DVD archive disc has a hefty shipping charge (it was $8 for me at the lowest rate), not including the $10 charge to house 50 photos on the DVD (a 100 photo DVD is $15).

So let’s add this up… If you had one roll of film mailed in that would be $4.56 for development of 24 exposures, $10 for a DVD disc for housing up to 50 photos, and $8 for shipping. That’s a whopping $22.56 to have one roll developed and have the negatives and DVD mailed back to you.

Now this isn’t as bad if you have multiple rolls processed at the same time, or if you saved up your good photos to put on a DVD later on. If you had four film rolls sent in that would be, $23 for a DVD with 96 photos (from the 4 rolls) isn’t too bad, but that’s not counting the processing (another $18.24). For a total just under $42.

Thankfully nobody is forcing you to buy the DVD. However Mpix currently doesn’t offer a digital download of your scanned in film either. To me it seems like they’re missing out on a market. While I wouldn’t gladly pay another $10 to download my scanned in photos, at least I would save on the $8 shipping charge, and if the download fee was reasonable, I’d probably go ahead and buy it. It would save me plenty of time and trouble scanning in the negatives myself at home.

Included in the development cost you can see a thumbnail preview of your processed photos and they will mail back your negatives to you at no additional cost. Since I’m located in New Jersey and Mpix is located in New York, I didn’t have to wait long for my negatives to be returned to me. The negatives were returned double-boxed, inside the 2nd box was a spiral of two rolls of film protected in plastic negative sleeves. The negatives weren’t cut, but they were clean and unwound.

The photos themselves came out great. They did a wonderful job on the processing of the photos. I enjoyed seeing the thumbnails on their website, and the negatives arrived in great shape. I then proceeded to scan in the negatives myself, since I did not purchase a DVD from their website.

However, it’s interesting to note that the Mpix website states that to avoid damage the DVD is mailed separately from the negatives. However I can easily fit in a plastic jewel case, with a DVD, inside the box I received. Now maybe they did tests and found out the DVD would arrive damaged, but to me (at least when only returning one roll and one DVD) it could have fit in just fine.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary: While their photo DVD price is a bit high and they don’t offer digital downloads of your photos, they do process the film nicely and affordably. They offer free mailer envelops to send your film rolls in, and they send the negatives back for free in a protective sleeve. Mpix could be a bit better, but at least their quality seems top-notch.

Developing film with Lomography (

If you’re into 35mm film you have probably heard of Lomography. They offer a large selection of not only film, but cameras, accessories and much more. They even offer fun services like a film subscription plan, including a random assortment if you’re feeing lucky. So right off the bat Lomography’s website differs from Mpix’s greatly. It’s clear that here at Lomography it’s all about analog film. ThLomography also has a set of shops around the globe. These Lomography Gallery Stores offer a place to buy cameras, film and accessories, some of the shops even offer film processing or film drop off centers.

The one thing I noticed right away was a bit confusing. Lomography has two websites, it’s main site, and it’s Store site. Each have a very similar navigation menu and setup, however it can be a bit confusing at first. is more of a community site where you can join in discussions or events and share photos. Lomography’s store site is where you can purchase cameras, film, or film processing. So to get things started you have to visit and click on ‘Services’ and then select ‘LomoLAB Development Service – USA’. Once you find your way there you’ll have a selection of services that Lomography offers. If you are using some of their special film or products they have you covered. However for me I simply chose the ‘Standard Photo Development’ and selected the ‘Create Bundle’ button.

On the next screen you are given quite a lot of options and information. This package includes development, prints and a CD of your photos. So right away it seems like you’re getting quite a good package. On this page simply select the Film Format and Development options. You should visit their website to look at their piecing, print sizes and other important features & details, but it’s pretty easy to understand. For example if I select 35mm as my film format I can then choose my development type. If you have special film or requirements (like Slide Film or Black & White processing) you can select the option here. There are additional charges, for example Slide Film is an extra $4 to process.

In my case however things were a bit strange. I found a roll of 110 film at my parents house that must have been used in 1998. So I was working with a 15 year old roll of film. Thankfully via the Standard Photo Development plan they support 35mm, 110 and 120 film formats. The latter two carrying a $1 additional fee. So for one roll of my special 110 film at standard color negative film processing my total was $13. It may seem expensive, however you get quite a lot, development, prints, and a CD of your photos.

When you continue through checkout you are brought to a page of shipping methods. Keep in mind, this is the return shipping cost. FedEx was the cheapest a a mere $3. You are responsible for shipping your film to Lomography separately on your own. In my experience this was another $5 via USPS online (I already had a mailing envelope handy).

So the total cost for sending in one roll of film (including processing, prints, a CD, and shipping both ways) comes to a grand total of: $21 (subtract $1 for plain 35mm film). You can not deselect prints and a CD to make the package cheaper however.

So I packaged up and mailed in my special 110 film. Then I waited… and waited… and waited. Due to USPS screwing up, my confirmation number said “Out for Delivery” and then “Unknown”. Basically USPS had no idea where my package was. Thankfully I called the Lomography Store in NY, and they confirmed that my film had arrived safe and sound, this was May 1st. Now the serious waiting began. The original estimate was that my film would be processed within 2-3 days. Maybe this was a mistake, because my film would not be ready until 2-3 weeks! I started to question if my film even arrived. I tried reaching out to Lomography via the phone, but unlike my previous attempts I would only end up leaving a message on voicemail. Nobody returned my call and I tried to reach out via Twitter as well, once again hearing no response.

Thankfully on May 20th I gave them another call and FINALLY got through! I was transferred to the lab to say they just received the film on May 16th. (My guess is that the NY Lomography store shipped them to the Lab? Or maybe there was just a huge amount of photos to process) I was then disconnected and I had to call back. They noted my film should be done in 2-3 days. Thankfully on the evening of the 21st I received an email from Lomography (note this was the FIRST email I ever received about my film processing). It said my photos were ready to view online.

So I logged in and there I saw my photos! What was left of them. For whatever reason there were only 13 photos online. I’m pretty sure the roll I sent in was for 24 exposures. However due to the age of the film there are numerous things that could have gone wrong. Or the remaining photos could have simply been too poor quality to process. Whatever the reason I may find out when my negatives are returned to me soon.

Anyway despite the hiccup of the long wait, Lomography’s online photo website is quite nice. Via email you are given a link to review your photos. You can click on each thumbnail for a large version. Since you already paid for everything, this is all free and you don’t have to “unlock” any thumbnails to view them. You even get a nice option to create one .Zip archive of your photos (they email you a link to download this).

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

Overall Lomography seemed pretty good. I was worried for a bit, and things took much longer than I expected. But the quality of the photos were nice. When I receive my prints and negatives in the mail I will review those as well (See below!) The only downside is if you don’t want prints and a CD you should look elsewhere, as you’re paying for them no matter what.

Update! So I received Lomography’s package not long ago. The package I received was a white bubble mailer envelope sent via USPS first class. Inside there was a standard photography envelope you may have seen if you went to pickup your photos in the mid-1990′s. I was pleased with the quality of prints, printed on Fujifilm photo paper, along with a handy index (thumbnail) sheet. I can only describe prints as semi-glossy (at best), but still good quality. The photos taken weren’t the best but that was the fault of the photographer (me at the age of 12 or so). Inside the negatives were cut well and were protected in a nice clear plastic sleeve. Since the negatives were cut, the sleeve was folded nicely, allowing you to take a quick look at the photos without unrolling a massive roll of film (unlike Mpix). I was satisfied with the overall quality of the product.

Note: I don’t see a CD in the package of photos I received, however I may have removed it and forgotten about it.

Developing film with The Dark Room (

I found the Dark Room through an internet search when I was looking up other film processing places. On their website I requested film mailers. However unlike Mpix, which gives you an envelope, The Dark Room gives you a printed mailer label. You must supply your own envelope. This isn’t a bad thing, they provide you the PDF files on their website so you can print your own mailer labels and save time. I must have missed that (or maybe it’s new) because I did it the old way.

The process is pretty simple. Have them mail you the form (or print it out) and select the options on the form. Let them know what type of film you are sending, how many rolls and what you’d like done with it. For me I chose their ‘Enhanced Scan’ development service. This includes a nice hi-res scan of your photos, a CD of your photos, a web upload, and your original negatives back. I opted for the better (enhanced) scan for $5 more than the standard scan. I figure the $5 per roll is worth it, I’ve scanned in my own negatives before and it’s very time consuming. They have samples and comparisons online of their standard, enhanced and super scan (professional grade) scans. For me, I liked the enhanced.

So after filling out the form with a pen and paper I’m good to go. They have an interesting payment option which I took advantage of. Since you need to mail your film in and fill out a form you can send a check or money order. However, you can pay via their website and print out the receipt. You enclose the receipt with your photo shipment, pretty simple.

The Dark Room is located in California and they boast that they are very close to the local post office and that they make multiple trips a day. I’m a bit impatient when it comes to my film, so this made me happy. I mailed my photos out on June 24th via First Class Mail though the U.S.P.S. To my surprise, at about 3:30 pm on the 26th I got an email saying they have received my order. They mention it could take another 1-3 days for them to start processing my order.

Even further to my surprise, on the 27th at around 12:30 pm I get another email from them with a login ID and password to access their website. It didn’t mention anything about my photos being ready… but since they setup my account I decided to login and look anyway. Surely enough as soon as I log in I see two photos. A few minutes later I refresh the page… 5 photos! It seems that slowly but surely they were being updated on the website. How exciting! It was very fun to be able to preview the photos as they were being upload live (again I’m impatient, so this was great).

While waiting I decided to poke around the website, the website is, the Dark Room uses their services to host photos. While the website has some nice features, it is a bit confusing to navigate. I ended up using the Live Chat feature for some help, as I couldn’t find out how to download the hi-res versions of my photos. It turns out the website is only fully functional on Internet Explorer (for Windows). As I’m on a Mac, this doesn’t help me. I vented my frustration to the poor Live Chat lady and she said she agreed, and that they are aware of the problem and hope to have a new version of their site later this year. Thankfully I could still get my photos, but only 1 photo at a time. While I was talking to her I asked if she knew if these photo downloads (simply labeled ‘small’ and ‘large’) were the Enhanced scan quality images I paid for. She didn’t know and pointed me to the Dark Room’s email address to ask them. Fair enough, but just another example of how outsourcing part of your service to another site can prove problematic or confusing for your customers.

Anyway I fired up a virtual machine of Windows XP, opened Internet Explorer and quickly downloaded all of  my photos. One annoying issue is that all of my photos (from my two film rolls) were dumped into one folder. As new photos were uploaded the photos also shifted around. I thought I was missing photos and having them disappear until I noticed the Page # and ‘Show All’ options on the bottom of the page.

Overall I am happy with the picture quality of my photos. I’m not 100% sure if these are the enhance scanned files I paid for. But they look pretty good. If they had sorted the photos into folders (by roll) and if there was a non-IE / Mac friendly option to download all the photos, I would be happier. But still, no huge problems, just inconveniences.

I expect to receive my photo negatives and CD in a few days. But I’m very happy to be able to login and view my photos instantly. That is a great feature that I wish the Mpix website would have.


And the winner is… everyone!

It’s pretty much a draw, each service offers some great features, but some aren’t as convenient as others. I am leaning towards The Dark Room, but until I receive my CD and negatives I can’t say for sure. Mpix, Lomography and The Dark Room do great processing. I had minor issues with each service. Mpix didn’t offer online downloads of your prints and only offered a pricey DVD option. While Lomography didn’t allow you to not choose prints and a CD and took much longer to process the film than I thought (however this may have been due to the special type of the film). The Dark Room seems pretty good, but their online photo website could use an upgrade (which apparently is coming this year). All are fine choices and depending on your needs, you should be happy with your results.

While CVS and Walgreens offer budget photo processing options, you get what you pay for. Sometimes you’ll get great results, and sometimes you’ll get back a disappointing product. Both pharmacies seem to touch-up their photos (when they put them on a CD), often auto-sharpening the photos instead of leaving them how they appear on the original negative. I’d say they’re good in a pinch, but unless you have a friend working at one of these stores, I’d wait the extra few days and get it professionally done. Yes it will cost more, but if your photos are important to you it may be worth it. So unless you have to have it by the next day (and can handle the risk of a non-photo person developing your film) I’d consider online film development.

Note: Currently I will update this when I receive my CD and negatives from The Dark Room.


Categories: General Tags: , , , , ,

iDVD is still broken in iLife ’11

October 21st, 2010 No comments

Apple recently announced their new version of their iLife suite. Now I love this series of programs. I use iMovie, iDVD and iPhoto very often. Recently I’ve been converting a bunch of home video VHS tapes from my family and my girlfriend’s family. They love being able to have their VHS home videos on DVD with chapters and nice menus.

The problem is that iDVD version 7.0.4 (the latest version from iLife ’09) is riddled with bugs. Things just don’t work. One frustrating example is that if you choose an older theme, such as the ‘Watercolor’ theme (which is nice for family DVDs) it is impossible to edit the text in the chapters menu! Or other places as well. You can select the button, you can right-click on it, but no matter what you do, you can not change the text. So after you’ve arranged the chapters, changed the frames, moved the boxes where you want them – you can’t edit the text. The only way for you to edit the text is to temporarily switch themes, edit the text, and switch back. Losing all of your custom placement, frames, and editing. This is beyond frustrating. The only thing you can edit is the name of the menu itself.

I hoped that since iLife ’11 included iDVD they would have updated it. This didn’t seem the case, however the Apple Store site mentions that iDVD is now version 7.1, instead of the current 7.0.4. I hoped they would have fixed these issues. Sadly they remain in version 7.1 – it seems 7.1 was just made to possibly be compatible with the new version of iMovie.

Yes the themes are older and Apple probably isn’t going to fix them, but why include them if they’re broken? It’s very frustrating, especially when working with a load of similar projects. I would also love the ability to use a previous project and replace just the main video. I would like a template of the chapter titles and visual button placement/theme to stay the same, and just edit the content. That is impossible as well.

Yes Apple may be running toward the notion of digital download videos, but making DVDs is still one of the easiest ways to share videos with your family. Especially for Grandma which doesn’t have a computer and already knows how to use a DVD player. Apple needs to fix iDVD, or create a whole new version like they did with iMovie.

Fading Memories: Problems of Aging VHS tapes

February 22nd, 2010 No comments

So as many of you have known, or guessed, I have been converting some VHS home videos taken by my parents onto DVDs. Despite the various specs of why VHS tapes are better than DVDs some people still wonder why you should do this? They don’t expect their VHS tapes to die one day – and they think they’ll just keep on working.

But they indeed can die. VHS tapes age also, they can fade, become more fragile, loose their video and  sound, or be eaten up by fussy VCRs. The only way to prevent this is to copy your tapes and keep them safe. You can’t risk losing your only copy of your home videos. In the past while transferring a VHS tape from 1982 there were a few drop-outs of video, where only the sound remained. The lifetime of the tape will be directly effected by the brand/quality of the tape. The times the tape has been watched and the quality mode that was set when recording the tape. One tape almost bit the dust during my transfer process, below is what happened to me and how I was able to avoid losing the tape.

Saturday evening I was about to start the transfer of another VHS tape to a DVD. This one was a Scotch Camcorder Pro (full-size) VHS tape. Labeled Disney World 1992 I have no doubt that the tape would be great to watch. So I insert the cassette into my VCR and press rewind to put the tape back into the begging. Unfortunately something was about to go very wrong. The VCR whirled up and rewound the tape to the beginning. I pressed play to see if there was any video on the screen – there was, but I had overshot the beginning. I rewound the tape less than a second to start it over as I held the DVD recorder remote in my hand, ready to press record.

But nothing appeared on the screen… just a blue screen. Curiously I paused and played the tape again, even rewinding it. Noticing the VCR was not making it’s normal noises I thought something was wrong – this was confirmed when the VCR refused to do anything with the tape and started ejecting it. Now I was concerned, is the tape damaged? Will I be able to recover this tape?? I took the tape out to examine it. The tape’s film-like track wasn’t crumbled or bent, the VCR didn’t eat the tape, so what’s the problem? Uh-oh, then I noticed it. The reel to the right side of the tape was missing – gone, it had snapped off the internal reel of the VHS cassette! I panicked and thought the tape was destroyed. Being home video tapes these are the only copies that exist, excluding some rare chances where we made another VHS copy for relatives, which were few and far between.

“So  what do I do now?” I thought – well I did what I always do when I need help, I use Google! One of the first results was a How-To article on the helpful site The article is titled “How to Repair a Broken VHS Video Tape” written by the user Jennifer Claerr. Skimming through the article I notice photos of a VHS tape that is taken apart. As I read the article I start to calm down, it doesn’t seem too difficult. I recall my father fixing an audio cassette for my brother when we were younger. So I got down to business – I placed the tape on the kitchen tablet and unscrewed five or six screws holding the tape together. I almost had the tape opened, but the side label was causing it to keep together, carefully cutting the label down the middle the tape was opened.
The problem was more clear then it had seemed before. The tape on the reel was no longer attached, meaning all the tape was on one side, it could not transfer to the other side, or be read by the VCR. I followed the instructions and took notice on exactly how the tape fed through the cassette. Each one can be a bit different, so take notice, I realized this the hard way. I carefully unwound the edge of the tape that had snapped off. Boy was I lucky – no tape was ripped off or damaged, it was just a clear plastic tab connected to the reel. But in the process of unwinding the spool the tape almost fell off the table – the plastic scratched against the fragile magnetic tape, skimming a hair or two off from either side of the tape. I was worried, but the damage didn’t seem too bad.
Now to repair it. I read about using tape, but I was concerned about having this break again, so I decided to use some packaging tape, which would be stronger then regular tape. I placed some tape on each side to where the clear plastic tape had separated from each end. Screwing the tape back together I hoped that no footage would be lost by this repair, I setup the VCR and DVD recorder to be ready to record things on the first try, I did not want to have to rewind the tape the beginning and risk damaging the tape again. The VCR whirled, the tape settled into position – and the video played! I didn’t notice any problems, the little damage I did to the tape was probably on the first few seconds of the “blue” screen and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The tape played fine until the end and the whole tape is now safely on a DVD disc that can easily be viewed and duplicated.

Categories: General Tags: , , , , , , ,

Analog to Digital Conversion: Resucing VHS Home Movies

February 3rd, 2010 No comments

Chances are when you were younger your Mom, Dad, or relative was often asking you to look into the video camera to smile and wave. Cheaper camcorders and the popularity of VHS tapes helped a lot of people from the late 80′s and on to start taking their own videos. There wasn’t any film to develop and you could easily watch what you have recorded after wards without messing with a projector. But who would think VHS tapes would go out of style? I fondly remember popping in my favorite movie into a VCR to watch a film. But, today you hardly see a VCR in someone’s home theater setup, you can thank DVDs for that. Mostly because the resolution and quality of DVDs are vastly superior to that of the old analog VHS tapes. DVDs are digital discs, so they do not degrade after each viewing as VHS tapes tend to do. They offer nice add-ons like chapters, slideshows and pretty menus. But anyone born in the last 20 years already knows that.

So what do you do with all your home videos recorded onto VHS tapes? You probably still have a VCR and all of your old tapes – but if you want to preserve them you have to do something more then let them collect dust. Remember, these tapes can, and will degrade over time. I have come across an old tape from 1982 that had a few issues, the sound cut out at some points and the precious images on the screen were often interrupted by a dull gray screen. Your mileage will vary depending on the age and quality of the tapes, but either way you want to keep these memories safe. So how do we do that? Well we digitize them! Digitizing is the process of transferring an analog source to a digital medium. For example we can transfer or convert the content on a VHS tape onto a DVD disc. Once these tapes are converted they will no longer be degraded with each playback and can easily be duplicated and shared.

If you did not have a VHS camcorder but a C-VHS (Compact VHS) or other recording media the principal is still the same. You just want to copy the content to a DVD disc or other digital format or preserve it and keep it from degrading.

VHS vs DVDs.

There really is no contest, DVDs are the better way to go obviously, I just wanted to point out the facts of each format.

VHS tapes are an analog medium. Low resolution picture quality. They can degrade after each viewing and require rewinding and fast forwarding to reach a certain point on a tape. In order to copy a VHS tape to another tape you must watch the whole length of the tape in real time. The quality of the video will degrade from transfer to transfer. Can be re-recorded over if desired.

DVD discs are a digital medium. High resolution picture quality (More dots on the screen provide a sharper picture). They do not degrade after each viewing. Chapters are created to enable quick access to any part of the video. They can be duplicated and shared easily, and most importantly quickly. You do not need to wait 2 hours to copy a 2 hour DVD. The quality of the video stays the same, even if copied 1,000 times! Only DVD-RW discs can be erase and re-used, standard DVD-R and DVD+R discs can only be used once.

Okay I’m sold. So how do I do this?

Well it’s actually simpler then you think! But there are basically two ways to go about this depending on your equipment. You can either A) Use a set-top DVD recorder to record your VHS tapes directly to DVD discs, or B) Import the video into your computer, edit the footage, and then burn your own DVD disc. This option should mostly be reserved for folks who are a bit more tech savvy, as a lot of issues may come up that you may not realize before starting the project. But in this post we’ll be talking about method A) using DVD recorders.

The only downside to both of these options is that since VHS tapes are analog, this means you have to watch the entire contents of the tape to transfer it. So if the tape is 2 hours, you have to wait 2 hours for the video to play and it be recorded on your DVD recorder or computer. There is no real way of getting around this unfortunately, but once these are on DVDs you can copy the entire disc in as little as 15 minutes.

To get started first you need to purchase a DVD Recorder, these are just like VCRs ,but instead of using analog VHS tapes to record video and audio to, they use blank DVD discs. This offers many advantages, firstly blank DVD discs are very inexpensive, you can pickup a 100-pack for about $30. Considering each disc holds at least 1-2 hrs of video that is an amazing value.  Second, DVDs take up a lot less physical space then a VHS tape. You can store about 3 DVD cases in the space of a VHS box, even more if you use slim DVD or CD cases. Making it easy to store an entire library of home videos without having to buy another cabinet.

Using a DVD recorder.

There are many types of DVD recorders you can purchase, most of them go for under $100. Most include one DVD drive that can play and burn/create DVDs, but some models in fact have a built-in VCR to make transferring videos very, very easy. These are called combination units, they combine a VCR with a DVD recorder. With these models usually you just have to put in a blank DVD disc, rewind the tape to the beginning and press a button to automatically transfer everything. In fact as of writing this, there is a refurbished Magnavox DVD-R/VCR combo set for $89 at Best Buy’s web site. That’s a pretty good deal. I would suggest going for one of these combo units, they offer a simple way to transfer tapes with no extra cables to hook up, and no worrying about if your old VCR still works.  Just read some reviews before you buy, not all DVD recorders are created equal. With most DVD recorders chapters and menus are automatically setup, while the menu presentation usually leaves something to be desired, the most important factor is that your precious home videos have been duplicated and are now on a digital DVD. Be sure to read the manual to learn about all of it’s features and capabilities.

Using your own VCR.

If you already have a DVD recorder, but it does not have a VCR built-in there is no need to worry. If you still have your old VCR you can use that. Just plug it into the input of your DVD recorder and you’re on your way. Now there are a few things to keep in mind when using old VCRs. It’s all about picture quality. You are transferring these movies so you don’t have to do this again. You want to get it right the first time. It may be wise to go out and purchase a new VCR, these aren’t expensive and may produce a better quality picture, just make sure it’s a stereo model. Most companies try to be cheap and produce a lot of Mono-only units. You can tell if your VCR is stereo if you see a Yellow, White and Red jack on it, sometimes also on the front. If you just see Yellow and White – missing the Red – these are Mono-only which will not replay the Stereo sound your tapes may have.

If you want to stick with your old VCR that is fine, you just need to do some cleaning. Use a VCR Head Cleaning tape to help reduce the noise and lines seen on the VCR during playback. You may have to use this frequently if you transfer a lot of tapes – even on new VCRs. You just want everything to look as best as it can before you make the big move. Also use high quality cables, you don’t need to spend a lot to get a good pair of cables. offers a large selection of cables very cheaply. Secondly, you want to use the best connection. If you are lucky you may have an S-VHS player, these use a connection called S-Video which provides a better picture quality over standard composite video cables (The yellow cable in the standard yellow, white, and red trio you see behind your TV set). Not all VCRs or even DVD Recorders support S-Video, but if you have it you should use it. Consult your manual to see if your player has S-Video, sometimes refereed to as S-VHS. I have a JVC S-VHS VCR that I picked up from a Goodwill thrift store for under $9, it was well worth it. The S-Video jack provides video only, you will still need to use your old audio cables for sound. I will talk about S-Video in more detail on my next post.

Recording Time.

DVD recorders, just like VCRs, have the option of different recording modes, this can extend the time each disc can hold, but will effect the quality. For example a DVD recorder may have three or more recording modes. 1 hour mode will produce the best quality, but give you less time on the disc. 2 hour mode will lower the quality, but double your recording time. 6 hour mode will significantly lower the quality of your recording, but allow you a lot of video time. Now like my old VHS home videos, yours may not be in the best condition. So why degrade them further? I would suggest sticking with the fairly high-quality mode. For my recordings I chose a 2 hour DVD mode. This gave me a good quality picture and allowed me to save 2 hours of video onto one disc. This worked great for me.

DVD Disc Formats and Basic Recording Information

Unlike VHS tapes where you can record over anything at anytime, most DVD discs can be used only once. DVD-R and DVD+R discs can only have content recorded to them once. So if you record a 30 minute video the disc, you can not go back and erase the video to start over and re-gain your space. DVD-RW or DVD+RW discs are re-writable, which is what the RW stands for. These are more expensive, but once properly erased can be used again – these are more expensive then basic DVD-R discs.

Also, DVD discs have a few different formats, DVD-R and DVD+R. Years ago the actual difference was due to compatibility of young DVD players playing back recorded content on these discs. Today the difference is less noticeable. DVD+R discs hold a tiny bit less then DVD-R discs, which is why I prefer not to use them. However read your DVD recorder manual to read which formats they support. Usually a variety of formats are supported so you can choose what suits your project best. These discs can all store around 4.7GB of information.

For increased recording time you may consider using DVD-DL discs. DL stands for Dual-Layer and is basically two DVD discs combined onto one disc – doubling your recording time. So if your maximum recording time was 2 hours on Good Quality mode you can record up to 4 hours. These can store closer to 7.8 GB of information. Most newer DVD recorders can use this format, but check your manual. Again these discs are much more expensive than standard DVD-R/+R discs.

The Final Step.

Once everything is setup and prepared it’s time to copy the tape. You will need to wait the entire playback time of your video in order to copy it. So if you want to copy a 30 minute segment it will take 30 minutes to copy, etc. Once your VHS tapes are transferred to DVDs you can now rest easily. You can now play back your home videos without worrying about degrading the tape. With the help of a computer you can duplicate your newly created DVD and mail them to family and friends. In fact I highly recommend backing up the disc you just made and duplicating it. Just in case one copy is scratched you have a backup, and it wouldn’t hurt to keep a copy on your hard drive if you have the room for it.

Advanced note about duplication with certain DVD Recorders.

Now there is only one problem that has happened to me with this when I tried to duplicate a finished disc. This may not happen to you and will depend entirely on what brand and model DVD recorder you are using. I was using a Samsung DVDR 120 unit and recorded an entire hour and a half of video onto a DVD disc from my VCR. This turned out fine, and the DVD played perfectly. But when it came time to duplicate the DVD disc my computer threw a fit! Why? Well not all DVD recorders record video in the same way. To achieve better quality or longer recording time most use different methods of saving information. Which may not sit well with your computer. So when I tried to simply drag and drop the contents of the DVD to my Mac, an error kept repeating saying that it could not read the file. Now my disc was not scratched, and it played back entirely fine – I just could not copy it. This problem only seemed to happen when I let the whole tape play to the DVD, I did not stop the DVD at any point – which is what I believe caused the issue. So if I simply stopped the tape and the DVD recorder and started again the problem would have never popped up.

The solution? Use a DVD ripping program. DVDShrink (for Windows) or MacTheRipper (For Macs) will rip the contents of a DVD in it’s raw format to the computer. Now since we’re using these programs to copy our own home-made DVD videos there is no legal issues to think of at all, so don’t let that get to you. Programs like HandBrake I have found will not work until you have ripped the DVD to your hard drive first using the method above. The program you are using may give you errors or messages about data not being copied or “bad sectors” however most of the time this is because the DVD program is not familiar with home-made DVD records and their specialized recording schemes. As long as you can skim through the final results you’ll be okay.

Stay tuned for my next post which will involve using a computer instead of a DVD recorder. This is a more tech savvy way of doing things, it allows more control and the ability to edit the video, but things can get complicated, and I’ll explain why.