Old camcorder video tapes – storage and preservation

By | 7th February 2017

Box of old camcorder video tapes

In this article we will explain what to and what not to do when you find old camcorder video tapes including full size VHS and Betamax tapes which were used in some large camcorders but also used for viewing copies.

3M once ran a advertising campaign for their Scotch branded video tapes. The adverts featured an animated skeleton with the slogan ‘Re-record not fade away’. The idea was that their tapes would outlast us. While it’s true that video tapes stored in ideal conditions might last a very long time there will always be some degradation of the recordings – they won’t last forever. Tapes stored in lofts, cupboards or in a garage will degrade more quickly and at some point will become unplayable either through age or contamination.

  • Don’t mix up cassettes and cases/sleeves especially if they are labelled
  • Inspect for physical damage – broken parts or loose and damaged tape
  • Look inside the reel windows for mould, debris or any other contamination
  • If the tapes are dirty/dusty don’t use any wet-wipes or similar to clean them
  • Don’t hoover them!
  • If you have a player don’t try tapes in it unless you know for certain it’s fully working

What to look for if you find old video tapes

The number one problem for tapes stored in lofts, sheds, garages etc is mould. It shows up as either white or brown stains/marks on the tape reel surfaces. Here’s what a very mouldy VHS video tape looks like.

mouldy contaminated old video tapes

If you find a mouldy tape then separate it from other non-contaminated tapes to avoid cross contamination. Do not try to play the tape. Sometimes the damage looks a lot worse than it actually is. The tape in the picture above was cleaned and the recordings were recovered. In general the darker the spores, the worse they are.

Tapes that have been stored in dry conditions without major temperature or humidity changes are most likely to be in good playable condition. However, they will still have suffered degradation and at some point will fail to play.

Long term storage for old camcorder video tapes

If you intend storing your tapes long term then it’s a good idea to keep them in a sealed container with a silica gel pouch. Keep it in a dry place away from major temperature changes, sunlight and heat sources. The tapes will still degrade over time but with less risk of damage by environmental factors.

Conversion to digital for now and the future

The best way to preserve footage from old video tapes is to have them converted to a digital format. For a long time DVDs were a ‘safe bet’ and offered a convenient storage and playback option. At the time of writing in 2017 DVDs players are far less common than they once were and have been superseded by newer, digital playback options. Most new TVs have USB or network connections capable of playing digital video files. MP4 is currently the most common type of digital video file. MP4 files also work with smart phones, tablets, laptops and computers. Backup is easy and the files are small enough that many hours can for on an inexpensive USB stick.

There will be no further deterioration in quality once the tapes are digitised.. We recommend you make backup copies of your video files. It’s easy to make perfect 1-to-1 copies with no quality loss by simply copying and pasting the files from one place to another. You can even back them up to the Cloud with affordable services from Dropbox and Google Drive.

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