Digitizing Home Video

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central LibraryShaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library

Digitizing Home Video

D.I.Y. at Home or at the Memory Lab

When I learned that DCPL was setting up a lab to transfer VHS videotapes to digital format, I had to try it. At home, we had not watched our home movies in years. I wanted to get my videos to a place where my family could watch and share them. I had started a digitizing project about a year ago and stalled. I needed a jump start and was curious to see how the library’s method compared to what I was doing at home.

At Home
I used Elgato Video Capture. It is a readily available product that includes the adapter and the software you need to convert analog videos to digital. (It can be found for around $80 on the Internet). Fortunately, I still had a working VCR. This is what my set up at home looked like:

Elgato Setup

After installing the Elgato software, connecting the hardware and capturing the video was straightforward. You can see your video on your computer monitor while the capture takes place in real time. Once each capture was complete, Elgato saved it to an .mp4 file in the Movies folder on my Mac.
At the Memory Lab
I booked a 3-hour session at Memory Lab. The lab was already set up for videotape transferring, with detailed step-by-step instructions on the computer monitor. It was slightly more complex, but not more difficult, than the process at home. At the Memory Lab, the digitizing takes place in two steps through two software programs: one to do the capture to create an .mov file and a second to do the encoding to an .mp4 file. So it takes a little longer, about 10 or 15 minutes per one hour of video. The Memory Lab has a video monitor, so that during the capture, you can see your video in the original analog format too.

 First the clips:

For quality, the results from the Memory Lab were definitely clearer and more stable. My original videos are almost 20 years old and not in the best condition, so there were many imperfections.  The Memory Lab was better at smoothing them out.
Both Elgato and the Memory Lab allow you to make various adjustments such as brightness and contrast. The Elgato clip above has been adjusted for brightness. Originally it was much darker than the Memory Lab one.
Elgato created files that were about 700 MB in size per hour of video. The Memory Lab files were about three times bigger, at 2 GB per hour. If file size isn’t a concern, you can adjust the encoding software at the Memory Lab to get even better quality.
For the Memories 
My goal was to get my videos to a place where I could easily share them with my family. For this, the Elgato capture at home was good enough. Watching the digitized versions brought back warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feelings. My older daughter, now 24, was riveted by the video versions of her 7-year old self. And she immediately went on to share them in her own way: recording them from my Mac screen with her smart Phone to post on her Instagram.
​Elgato at Home     ​Memory Lab Session
​Video Quality ​Good ​Better color and picture and fewer imperfections
​Ease of Use ​Easy to Use ​Slightly more complicated but clear and simple instructions are provided
​Time ​ Same as the length of the original videotape to capture and encode ​Same as the length of the original videotape to capture plus about 20% more to encode (and more to enter archival metadata if desired)
​File Size ​~ 700 MB per hour of video ​2 GB per hour of video
​Advanced Use ​Adjustments for Brightness, Contrast, Saturation and Hue ​Adjustments for Color, Contrast, Brightness and Tint
Adjustment for Quality by manipulating the RF (Rate Factor)
Cost $80 to 100 None
Tips for Better Results
  • Clean the VCR heads before you start.
  • Wipe dust off the videotape before putting it in the VCR.
  • Shuttle the tape by Fast Forwarding to the end and then Rewinding to the start.
  • If you are going to digitize at the Memory Lab, preview your tapes to make the best use of your time there.