How does one do videotape in 2011?
December 24, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

What's the cheapest way to record videos using videotapes in 2011? I'm interested in the potential low cost of buying a bunch of videotapes (not much demand) and an old video camera that uses them (not much demand). However, I don't know anything about this archaic technology.

Any suggestions of places to get large lots of videotapes cheap, and suggested brands would be appreciated. I'd also like to know any recommendations for GOOD video cameras that are now cheap because they use tape... That's really the main goal. Thanks so much in advance!
posted by ejfox to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If your goal is just to shoot video cheaply, in terms of cost per minute, then the modern low-cost solid state recorders are going to beat anything using tape. Record to a card, swap with another, and then dump one card to a hard drive while you record on the other. The marginal cost for each minute is hard drive space, which is even cheaper than MiniDV tape. Solid state digital video is absurdly cheap, the only hurdle being the initial equipment purchase, and that's not much anymore (if you're willing to tolerate consumer-grade equipment).

But to answer your question as-asked, with the tape requirement left intact, I'd go with an inexpensive MiniDV camcorder. But it's not such an old technology that it's dirt cheap or anything; they're not giving cameras and tapes away yet, like they are with VHS. You can get a used consumer unit for a bit over $100, maybe less if you search Craigslist and local sources.

You can sometimes get MiniDV tapes (60m) for about $1/per, but $2 is more typical for consumer in 10-packs, and the professional-grade ones are around $4. (Personally I only use the professional ones if I am going to bother to roll tape on something; I remember when the tapes cost $10/ea so it still strikes me as very inexpensive. YMMV. I use these almost exclusively.)

Of course if you really just want to get something on tape, in a recognizable form, as inexpensively as possible ... there's always VHS. You can get VHS camcorders, either full-size or VHS-C, for under $20 in some pawn shops. I've seen some given away on Freecycle and if you put out a wanted message you may have many people willing to unload them on you. The batteries will probably be dead and you'll have to be tethered to AC power, but it's hard to get cheaper than free.

And you can get VHS tapes for free, in basically limitless quantity if you're willing to tape over previously used ones. (Of course if you do this with really old tapes you're risking gumming up your equipment or getting unusable video due to dropouts.) I think you'd be silly to do this unless it's as some sort of self-flagellating performance art, but I guess you could. Virgin high-grade VHS tapes run about $1.75/$2 for T-120s.

I can't really countenance VHS anymore because the quality looks so crummy on modern displays, but if you looked hard you can probably find some old professional 3-CCD S-VHS equipment that might not be terrible if your eventual output is going to be SD-or-lower web video. But looking at eBay, people are still asking what I think are unrealistically high prices for decent stuff. But that's the cheapest route that would produce quality that I'd not be immediately embarrassed of in 2010. (Actually if you took a decent 3-CCD professional head and ran it in, via S-Video or component, to a good digitizer attached to a computer and then directly to hard disk, you'd get good video and very cheap per-minute cost. It wouldn't be very portable, though, and it wouldn't be tape.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:05 PM on December 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think it might help if you're more specific in your end goal. As in, what do you want to do with your videos and how much time do you want to invest in making/editing them? Potential cost vs actual cost is a big difference. Just because the technology isn't used anymore doesn't mean that the decent stuff is just being thrown away.

A "good" VHS camera will run you upwards of a couple of hundred dollars for the camera alone (as Kadin2048 mentioned, 3CCD S-VHS). I don't really consider that cheap, when you can do digital HD videos for $100. Even a "mediocre" VHS camera or MiniDV, along with media and equipment to play/edit/digitize (for VHS) will come in at a price that's competitive with digital, if not more expensive.

Finally, how much is your time worth? Editing HD on your computer is quick and easy, while transferring tape to digital is a pain.
posted by sub-culture at 1:03 PM on December 24, 2010

The end result would be for the web. It would be for personal documentation, so quality isn't really a big issue for me. Ideally I'd like a camera that is capable of shallow depth of field, but is relatively low-cost initially. One option for me is to buy a D90 body for ~$700, and even then the video is wonky with motion. I have a cheapo HD digital camera, but I'm interested in playing around with tape. Especially if I could get higher-end cameras meant for tape at the same price I could get a lower-end digital camera. Let me know if that is not possible though.

In terms of my time, I think that I'd probably just transfer the tapes to my computer and then edit it in final cut. The tapes could be transferred to my computer while I did other things around the house, right? I don't think that should be too big of an issue, especially if I can save a couple of hundred dollars for it.

Thanks everyone so far for the replies.
posted by ejfox at 1:37 PM on December 24, 2010

In terms of my time, I think that I'd probably just transfer the tapes to my computer and then edit it in final cut.

This implies that you will also be purchasing a good video ADC, like a Canopus, unless you get a digital camcorder. These aren't terribly expensive but aren't dirt cheap, either. You need to factor this into your purchase. I think this tilts the equation away from S-VHS.

The tapes could be transferred to my computer while I did other things around the house, right? I don't think that should be too big of an issue, especially if I can save a couple of hundred dollars for it.

Well ... yes and no. There is a good chance, depending on your equipment, that you won't get your clips broken up correctly if you do this. The "right" way to do capture -- whether from MiniDV or analog tape via a digitizer -- in Final Cut is to first "log" all the clips and then do a batch capture. This can be faster than real time but generally I always plan on it taking at least as much butt-in-seat time and then again as much machine-only time as the footage I'm working with. (E.g. if I have 30m worth of raw footage, I assume that it'll take 30m to log and then I get to walk away for another 30m while it actually digitizes. So 60m wall time total.)

Although there may be a way to make FCP behave like iMovie and automatically break the incoming DV stream out into clips when it detects a break, I've never used it that way and I don't think that's really how the workflow is designed. I think cutting corners here will mean you'll end up spending the time later in the process, although maybe that's a good tradeoff in some circumstances.

And if you are using an analog SVHS camera and a Canopus, there is (almost) no way it'll automatically detect any breaks. Another argument against going that route.

One option for me is to buy a D90 body for ~$700,

Okay, now you're giving us something to work with!

If your budget is ~$700, if I were in your shoes I'd probably pass on the old analog gear and look at a used Canon GL-1 or Panasonic DVX-100. They're both high quality 3-CCD MiniDV camcorders. They'll integrate easily into a FCP workflow, won't require any outboard digitizers, and are in some ways better suited to video than a DSLR. They won't be HD, though, but personally I'd take the SD from GL-1 in the hands of a good cameraman before I'd take HD from a $50 pencorder any day.

If you can go up to $1k, then many more options open up, including the Canon XL1, which has interchangeable lenses. Many great MiniDV cameras in this price range.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:51 PM on December 24, 2010

Digitizing analog tape is not trivial, cheap or automatic. Even with quality professional tape decks it would take attention and fussing. Then it would be in a proprietary disk format and after editing needs an export pass.
posted by sammyo at 2:53 PM on December 24, 2010

To answer your latest question: No, you will not get a higher-end tape camera at the same price a a lower-end digital camera. You will also not find a better shallow depth of field camera than the current DSLRs in that price range. Even a few years ago you were looking at upwards of $15,000 to achieve a similar look with HD cameras and lens adapters.

Basically you are looking at a dead and outdated technology, and costs actually go up at that point rather than go down. I used to record 50 VHS tapes each night for a live performance, and the costs have gone up for tape as the cost for digital has dropped dramatically - because no one uses it anymore. We now record 50 DVDs each night at such a small fraction of the cost of VHS.

If you can describe your intended look, and your specific project, we'd have a better chance of pointing you in the right direction. If you are dead set on using tape, MiniDV is the only thing I could even imagine using (and that would still be painful).
posted by shinynewnick at 2:55 PM on December 24, 2010

Ok, one caveat, if you get access to an older professional camera with an incredible lens, it could be worth the effort. But even then it might make more sense to record the signal direct to digital and keep tape out of the picture.
posted by sammyo at 3:27 PM on December 25, 2010

« Older [bookbinding/craft filter] Should I switch from...   |   Are emeralds really that much more expensive than... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.