3 min read

Capturing Digital Video With An Analog Camera

How to use an old analog video recorder to capture video straight to an SD card.

Ever since I inherited a Canon Prima Tele from the late 80s (Sure Shot Multi Tele in the US), I really got into film photography. Not just into the shooting part, but also the developing side of it.

I've since bought a developing kit and learned how to develop black and white film at home using coffee and washing soda. This really freed me from going to a professional lab, dropping the film off and waiting a few days for the results. Now I can just shoot a roll in the morning, develop at noon and have the results ready by the next morning.

It's not just the slower process of shooting film that I like about analog photography though, it's also the haptic and tactile experience which really differentiates it from digital photography.

Analog video, however, is a totally different beast. While I could go and find a way to develop a cartridge of Super8 film at home, that would be about 3 min of video for a much greater amount of my time. So, I looked for other ways of capturing the analog look and feel of video recorded on tape.

Gathering the Gear

One day I found a used Grundig VS-C46 online. The cassette slot was a bit jammed and the owner wasn't sure whether it would even work, but for 10€ I just went ahead, bought it and decided to worry about that later.

As it turned out, I couldn't salvage the cassette slot but other than that, the camera was in perfect condition. It records onto a VHS-C tape which you can normally digitize by recording your video onto said tape, playing it back in your camera or a tape deck which then needs to be connected to some kind of conversion device. However, recording onto tape wasn't an option for me, so I had to look for other ways.

My portable analog-to-digital video recorder

After some research I found the Renkforce RF-GR2 Video Grabber (no affiliate link) which takes an analog AV input and records it onto a micro SD card. With this device, all I had to do was connect the composite video part and one of the audio parts of an RCA cable to the RF-GR2 (the video recorder only has one audio output so all sound will be in mono) and put an SD card into it. As the video grabber also needs power, I attached a power bank to the bottom of the camera.

Gathering the Footage

This setup now records whatever signal comes from the video camera straight onto the SD card while it preservers whatever I do with its internal settings (white balance, zoom, focus etc.). It now also has even more haptic features because to record video with it I need to

  • power on the camera
  • pick the right settings for the scene I want to record
  • power on the power bank
  • press the red button on the video grabber which enables the recording mode
  • press the button again to end the recording
  • check out the results by plugging the SD card into a computer

The process doesn't stop here, though, because the RF-GR2 outputs its captured files in AVI which QuickTime somehow won't play. So I open them using the VLC media player and convert them to MP4. This process introduces some artifacts which I actually don't mind as they only add to the analog feel. If I have the time I might play around with other file formats or try ffmpeg for the conversion. For now, the results are good enough.

An extreme example of the artifacts introduced by conversion from AVI to MP4

Where to go from here

The setup above is quite bulky and carrying it around makes quick shots where I just want to record the moment rather hard to capture. I might try some other cheap used camcorders with the mobile conversion setup and see how they perform. Also need to do some testing regarding the power draw of the converter because that directly impacts the minimum size needed for the power bank.

The biggest issue I've come across so far is the original battery of the camcorder. Even with a full night's charge it empties out after about 20 minutes. Here, I'll probably have to go with new batteries that can still be connected to older cameras.

All in all, this was a really fun project which produces some presentable results and seems to be another way of keeping older tech alive without breaking the bank.