I have a stack of MiniDV and HDV tapes languishing in a box. When that was still a current format, ingesting into a computer was simply a matter of connecting the camera to the computer via FireWire. But in 2020, FireWire is equally defunct as DV/HDV, and most computers do not have the interface.
From best to worst:
1. FireWire: this will give you the best quality since it is digital and what you ingest will be an exact copy of what is on tape. Your computer will need a FireWire interface (see below).
2. Component video: this is the best quality analogue format and has three cables for video (YPbPr). The connectors are usually RCA phono plugs for consumer gear. Professional gear might use BNC connectors. You will need an analogue to digital video converter that supports component video (see below).
3. S-video: this is the next step down in analogue quality and uses a mini-DIN connector. You will need an analogue to digital video converter that supports S-video (see below).
4. Composite video: this is the lowest quality analogue connection and uses a single RCA phono plug. You will need an analogue to digital video converter that supports composite video (see below).
Note that all the analogue connection options will use two RCA-terminated cables for audio (stereo left and right). Also the analogue capture will work for other video gear besides MiniDV. If you have VHS or Hi8 tapes and suitable playback devices, analogue capture will work for them.
FireWire interfaces are also known as IEEE 1394 (or just 1394) and Sony i.Link. The physical connector is usually a tiny 4-pin plug or a larger semi-rectangular 6-pin plug. There are also FireWire 400 and 800 9-pin connectors, which might exist on your motherboard or PCI card, but not on the video device. These are all electrically compatible, so you just need to get the appropriately terminated cable or adapter.
You need a PC desktop and your motherboard does not have a Firewire interface, you’ll need to get one on a PCI card like this one from Vantec. This card seems to require a power connection, but I was able to use it without one for video transfer.
The last Macs to have any kind of Firewire interface was in 2012. EveryMac has a great resource that shows which Macs have what connectivity. Apple has a Firewire 800 to Thunderbolt 2 dongle. If your Mac has Thunderbolt 2, all you need is this dongle and the Firewire 800 to 4-pin or 6-pin plug depending on your camera. The last Mac with Thunderbolt 2 was the 2017 MacBook Air. This Apple Support article tells you more.
All current Macs have Thunderbolt 3 (which is the same physical connector as USB-C but is not the protocol), you will also need Apple’s Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 dongle. Then connect the Firewire 800 to Thunderbolt 2 dongle into this one.
FireWire and Software Compatibility
A lot of current software has poor FireWire support and some gotchas even when there is.
If you’re on a recent Mac, I would recommend either Final Cut Pro X (FCPX) if you use it, or iMovie for ingestion.
As of macOS 10.15 (Catalina), Premiere Pro 14.0 no longer supports DV or HDV capture. Older versions of Premiere on older versions of macOS do, but downgrading the OS is a pain.
DaVinci does not support DV/HDV capture at all.
While FCPX and iMovie do support DV and HDV capture, there are some gotchas. So far, I’ve found:
- At the end of a tape, the import window likes to display “Processing” and hang. The solution to this is to unplug the FireWire device from the dongle.
- Some DV tapes appear to not have audio during import. The solution is to start playback from the video camera/deck, then open the import window, then press play on the device again and press the capture button in the import window. This weirdness may be limited to certain Canon cameras.
Some FireWire cards do not work properly with Windows 10 and this seems to due to 1394 drivers no longer being shipped with Windows. See this post for fixes.
Once your FireWire card is working, Adobe Premiere Pro, Vegas Video as well as software like the no-longer maintained but now free ScenalyzerLive will work.
FireWire Hardware Observations
DV worked pretty consistently but HDV is a different story. I shot some HDV footage using a Canon XL-H1 and this had a 24p and 30p mode. When I started my ingestion project, I borrowed a friend’s Sony HVR-M15U VTR. It did fine with DV and HDV tapes that were shot at 60i. HDV tapes that used the Canon 24p and 30p modes played back with drop outs or no picture at all.
I ended up finding a used and abused Canon XH-A1S on eBay and that plays the tapes fine. The moral is that you should not get rid of your old HDV camcorder!
If you’re dealing with component, S-video or composite video, you need a capture interface. The easiest is a USB-based one and I’ve used the Elgato Video Capture device (works with Mac and PC). It comes with its own capture software and just plugs into a USB port, making it suitable for desktops and laptops. Unfortunately, it does not support component video. For that, you’ll need a Roxio Game Capture HD Pro (I’ve never used it) or a Blackmagic Design Intensity Pro PCI card.