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Tips for Digitizing Your Film and Photos

Did you ever look at your pile of VHS tapes or mom’s old film reels and think, “One day I’ll set up the projector—if it works—and play this tape of us visiting the Grand Canyon when I was five.”  That day never comes and that pile of tapes gets dustier as the days go on. You don’t want to lose those memories forever, and you would like to see and enjoy them again.

Films – VHS, 8mm, Reels and More

Any type of image on tape is considered “at risk” media, because it’s vulnerable to deterioration; plus, the technology you view it on is starting to disappear. Converting your old tapes, whatever the format, to a digital medium is a big task, but you have a few options:

Do It Yourself.
Undoubtedly the cheapest way to convert your films to digital, this method will require lots of time. An hour of tape will take an hour of your time to transfer, so keep that in mind when weighing the cost benefit of doing this yourself.

DIY method of transferring 8MM tapes: If your camcorder still works, you probably already have a Firewire or similar cable to connect to your computer. All you have to do is play the tape to the computer and save the file. If you have other formats, like Betamax, Hi8, and VHS, you’ll need to get an analog video-capture device (sold at big box stores for $15-$40) which has a USB connector on one end and audio and video inputs on the other. Once you determine compatibility, connect your VHS or Betamax player to your computer, play your tape, and save the file to your computer.
Here are some helpful instructional videos:

How to Transfer Hi8/Video8 to a Mac or PC

Converting VHS to a Digital File

Pay a Pro.
Outsourcing your video transfer project is the more costly option, but it may be a good one for you if you’re unwilling to commit the time. Many retail stores and online sites offer transfer services for VHS, Betamax, 8mm and other film types. Retailers like Costco and Walmart have similar services. Online options include how to organize, label and edit your final DVD; customized menu and packaging; and access to online viewing, editing and sharing. Most services will limit size to two hours per transfer; extra time will come at a premium cost. Prices are structured either by the number of tapes or reels, or by number of film hours.

These services all basically work the same way: You start the process online and choose the final format and other options. Then, you either drop your films off at the store, or package and mail your videotapes via common carrier. If you pack up your tapes to ship, make sure you use a crush-proof box, waterproof bags, and shock resistant bubble cushions to ensure your precious memories aren’t damaged in transit. Some online vendors will send you a special shipping box for your films.

The entire process can take anywhere from two to four weeks, depending on the vendor. Your finished digitized products will either be shipped to your home, delivered to the retailer for pickup, uploaded to the cloud for online access (some charge a monthly fee), or any combination thereof. Most services are securely backed up for 60-90 days; some with complimentary access for a period of time. Whether in transit or being digitized, most firms track the status of your order through their in-house systems.

Check out some online stores like Legacy Box, iMemories and many more!

Photos, Negatives and Slides

Do it Yourself.
Like film transfers, the cheapest (but most time-consuming) way to convert your images is to do it yourself. You can use a flatbed scanner to digitize your slides, prints or negatives. There are, however, limitations in quality, lighting and resolution. But this can be improved through photo software to tweak the brightness, contrast and cropping.

A flatbed scanner will run you $75-$200, depending on the quality of the output. There are also scanners which scan stacks of photos very quickly—a great option if your photos are not fragile. Some older photos may require a little more care than a flatbed scanner offers.

Before you start, it’s best to organize your photos chronologically and be selective about the ones you will scan. How will you be using the photos? To make photo books? Prints? Videos? Thinking it through carefully will cut down on the time you spend.

You can also download an app to your smartphone that will scan your photos. The free Google PhotoScan app can be downloaded from their website. Again, quality is going to dictate whether this method is right for you.

Pay a Pro.
You can always have your photos scanned in bulk at a photo shop or big box store. There are several pricing factors to consider when scanning photos, video and film: the size and resolution of the digital files; the original format; and whether you need expert technicians to restore film.

Expect to pay 16 to 35 cents per photo; some services offer a bulk rate per box or per piece. Legacy Box allows you to purchase a special box online to send your photos in. Cost varies by size and ranges from $87 to $1000. Costco charges $19.99 for the first 62 pictures, 32 cents each thereafter. You can also print additional CDs, and make custom DVDs or Blu-Ray discs. Some services offer saving the images to Google Photos, where you can experiment with fun animations, slideshows and more.

Your scanned pictures are typically stored on a convenient thumb drive or CD, or provided online through a cloud service like Google Drive. You choose which way you’d like to receive your picture scans. Digital files are delivered as JPEGs that you can store, edit and share. Check out the top 10 photo scanning services reviewed here.

Whichever method you select to convert your photos and films, the key is to get started. It’s a big task, but one that promises to be rewarding in the end.

Resources: Consumer Reports, The Darkroom, Tech Advisor, Top Ten Reviews, Just8MM.com