Capture MiniDV tapes via Firewire

Until some years ago I was using a Canon MiniDV camcorder to record home videos, but since then I had switched to one using SD cards. I have about 40 tapes left which I wanted to capture for “posterity”, but it turned out that it was not as easy as I thought…

My first try was to do it on my (somewhat elderly) MacBook Pro. It still has a Firewire (IEEE 1394) port, and I quickly found out on the Internet that I should be able to grab video from the camera using iMovie. Well, that was indeed pretty straight-forward, apart from that I had strange issues with some tapes. For some tapes, iMovie would simply report “No data from device”, even though the tapes played well on the camcorder. I would write a large number of very small files to the Mac, instead of relatively few large ones that I expected according to the source material.

So I searched for alternatives.

I quickly came across a tool called WinDV which I had actually used 10 years ago already. 🙂 Turned out that the tool still works under Windows 10, which I found pretty amazing, and that it could capture some tapes I couldn’t capture using iMovie. Still, there were some tapes that not even WinDV could capture…

I resumed my search for a suitable tool, and then came across DVgrab, which runs under Linux (Ubuntu in my case). Apart from installing it, there was nothing to do, no device nodes to create, no permissions to be modified, etc.

To make a long story short, DVgrab seems to be the perfect tool for me. Completely non-interactive, which is a big pro in my eyes because it eliminates human error (to make sure settings are the same all the time), and it finally could capture the tapes the other tools couldn’t capture. I have no clue why they failed, as the tapes seemed to contain all the required info (actual, correct timecode).

Just for reference, this is the command-line I used:

dvgrab --autosplit --timestamp --size 0 --rewind Florida-

These parameters make sure the input is split automatically into separate files (starting with “Florida-“) if a discontinuity in the timecode is detected, the tool includes the timestamps from the timecode in the filenames, it creates files of unlimited size (otherwise it would split output in 1 GB chunks), and it will rewind the tape prior to capturing it. Output files will be named like  follows:

-rw-r--r-- 1 rabe rabe 149M Jan 26 21:32 Florida-2009.05.06_13-55-15.dv
-rw-r--r-- 1 rabe rabe  69M Jan 26 21:32 Florida-2009.05.06_14-25-25.dv

It can be that simple!

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Please leave a message  if it was in any way helpful.

18 thoughts on “Capture MiniDV tapes via Firewire”

  1. Thanks for this article. On my daily driver with OS ubuntu mate 16.04 i’ve installed a pinnacle excaliber 4.1 card.
    After installing dvgrab and connecting a old sony handycam i’ve succesfully extracted dv files from the tape from the command line. Super.

  2. Thanks to you I am now able to get all my miniDV videos from my old Panasonic camcorder which were around 10 years old on to Windows 10 platform so I could keep our memories safe in a digital format. Thanks for the invaluable post and details.

  3. Thank you also. I can now save my Sony Digital8 footage. I’m always amazed how easy Linux can make a task

  4. Thank you, I was about to send my tapes away ($$$$) but using dvgrab was so much easier! I used a USB bootable Ubuntu, installed dvgrab (had to enable universe apt), and ran dvgrab. It failed the first time because I was writing the output to the USB (which I think had a file size limit), but I just mounted the local hard drive and reran the process and it worked flawlessly.

  5. Yes very simple, but I don’t understand very well how I can manipulate the instruction “autosplit”. I would like to have some file just of 50Mbyte and not more or I could have file where I can change the frames as every file of 5 minutes or frames 7500. But I do believe that the corrects way is autosplit with frames chunks, right?

    1. Ciao Paolo.

      I’m sorry, but I’m not sure what exactly you are asking.

      Moreover, it’s quite a while ago since I last used the tool, so I’m not very familiar with it anymore (actually I’ve never been “very familiar”, it was just sufficient to grab my MiniDV material)…

      Please have a look at the documentation/man page again. I hope that you find there the answer to your question.

      Best of luck!

  6. This is the exact info I wanted to hear! I pulled out my old MacBook but ran in to the same thing you did. I also didn’t like the lack of settings available in iMovie. I’ve just ordered a Firewire adaptor for my PC… Once I do have the files, I’m assuming I can just play them back with VLC. Do you have any notes about editing or playback? Thanks again!

    1. Hi Ben.

      Indeed, you can use VLC to play the files back. Also, you can do basic trimming with VLC as well.

      To be honest I haven’t had the time to edit the recordings yet, but doing it in iMovie should work…

      Good luck with capturing your tapes. Let me know how it went…

      Kind regards,


  7. Thanks for the article. I did this a year ago, and had forgotten the command syntax. Reading your article made me realize I should have used the autosplit feature on the previous 9 tapes! Thanks for posting this.

  8. Ralf – so simple, so powerful.
    Thank you and congratulation for this article.
    This is exactly what I was looking for.

  9. Hello Ralf,

    I am very grateful to find your article! Our initial conditions are almost identical: 40-50+ Mini DV tapes recorded on Canon DV camcorder, first try with Mac iMovie and Firewire connection, problems with “No data from device” and writing a large number of very small files to the Mac, etc. So I will be happy to try Linux. But what kind of input port are you using on the Linux machine? USB-3? Or did you install a Firewire card?

    I cannot seem to find a way to go from the Firewire High Speed DV connector on the Canon camcorder to a USB-3 connection, which is what I have on my Linux laptop. And I cannot find an outboard converter that will change Firewire to USB.

    So maybe I need to build a system with Firewire card? Uuugh…

    I would like to find an easier way.

    Thank you for any further help you can offer!


    1. Hi Jay.

      Sorry for the late response.

      Unfortunately grabbing MiniDV material absolutely needs Firewire. It’s a built-in feature of the protocol, AFAIR, and definitely doesn’t work via USB. I still have several machines with Firewire ports built into them, or adapters (like for one of my Macs, where I can convert from Thunderbolt to Firewire).

      There is no converter from USB to Firewire, again to the best of my knowledge. Do you have a PC Card slot in your laptop? Then it should be easy to get a Firewire card. Otherwise you might want to buy a cheap Firewire card for a PC, they only cost like $10 or $20.

      Maybe any of the above helps?

      Good luck.



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