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. šŸ™‚ 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 likeĀ  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 rabeĀ  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 messageĀ  if it was in any way helpful.

Update 2020-04-06: Karl suggested to add the -showstatus command-line option, which sounds like a good idea. This option makes it show the capture status during capture, updated for each frame.

30 thoughts on “Capture MiniDV tapes via Firewire”

  1. Thanks for this article. On my daily driver with OS ubuntu mate 16.04 iā€™ve installed a pinnacle excaliber 4.1 card.
    After installing dvgrab and connecting a old sony handycam iā€™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,

      Ralf

  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 ā€œNo data from deviceā€ 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!

    -J

    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.

      Kr,

      Ralf

  10. Hi,
    I got a biiig problem.
    so.
    I have a very old Sony DCR-HC17E and a Parasonic DV-GS14 from my Girlfriend.
    We two in total got about 50 miniDV tapes and probably a dozend we didĀ“n found jet.
    I tryed to install Ubuntu 16.04 LTS on an very old computer with a four pin firewire port. Took some time and I needet to whipe the drive (formating didnt work) to be able to install Linux (err: unable to create swap partition).
    The next step?
    DVgrab and kino
    Or better: sudo apt-get install dvgrab kino
    Bouth of them are unavailable. http://www.kinodv.org dosenĀ“t exist anymore.
    I was able to find another source but: error: missing libraw1394 …
    Some more time later, I found and installed libraw1394 but: error: missing libavc1394-devel …
    And im not able to find that anywere. I found and tryed many things accociated with that libary in the internet, but non worked. Still getting the same error.
    Any sugesstions?
    Any operating system btw, but I also wasnĀ“t able to find some windows 7 (win10 wounĀ“t run on the Firewire machine) programms for the job.
    I hope somebody can help me here, seeing that some postes are from 2019/12 not from 2010 like anywere else.
    So
    I hope u can help me. The last option would be to record the cinch from the camera but having read a lot … bad software, old software, bad sound, bad video, no video, 20$ … so naaaaah
    I want to go the fancy way XD, but yes … unable to get DVgrab to work šŸ™
    Yes IĀ“m bad at keeping things short, thanks u ever read šŸ˜‰

    1. Hi Erik.

      Thanks for reading my post. Let’s see whether I can help…

      I did this in January, 2017, so maybe your choice of an Ubuntu version of 16.04 was pretty close. Could be the one I was using back then, or maybe I used the later release of 16.10? Anyway, the quality of Ubuntu is usually pretty high, as it’s based on Debian, so I’m not sure why you are seeing this dependency problem with the missing package. I also can’t remember whether dvgrab was part of the standard Ubuntu sources, or whether it came from some partner site.

      You could try to install a later release of Ubuntu, like Bionic which is the latest LTS release (18.04). This does contain the dvgrab package: https://launchpad.net/ubuntu/bionic/+package/dvgrab

      Not sure why you had the formatting problem. I can only guess it was some issue with inappropriate partitioning of your drive, so you probably had to repartition it and then format. Installing another Ubuntu release should be painless now. Just make sure you do not try to upgrade, but install from scratch (not sure whether upgrading is even an option, I don’t know Ubuntu well, as I seldomly use Linux on a desktop, but I’m a server guy).

      Make sure to run sudo apt-get update before you try to install the package, to update the package sources. If you then run sudo apt-get install dvgrab it should pull in all dependencies automagically.

      If you have trouble installing Ubuntu or the packages, maybe you can ask a friend or neighbor for help?

      Good luck, I hope in the end you will succeed and save your precious video material.

      And stay safe and sound!

  11. I know you posted this like 3 years ago but was bored at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Purchased a FireWire (IEEE 1394) PCI card with the VIA Technologies, Inc. VT6306/7/8 chipset (it came with an included FireWire cable) from Amazon and I hooked it up to an old Sony DSR-11 DVCAM/MiniDV deck. Installed a fresh copy of Ubuntu 19.10 on the old computer and followed your instructions and within seconds I was imported my old videos. It worked so easily that I felt I should have done some additional configuration of some sort. I probably would have added the “-showstatus” to your command line to make sure those longer tapes were actually importing. Thanks for posting.

    1. Hi Karl.

      I’m really surprised how helpful this article seems to be. Many thanks for letting me know about your success.

      I’ll update the article with your suggestion, it sounds like a good idea.

      Enjoy saving your old material, and stay safe and sound.

      Best regards (to Sweden?),

      Ralf

  12. Only Ubuntu 10.04 recognized correctly my firewire card. I think that the is 19 years old. šŸ™‚ I had to edit repository source file for Ubuntu.
    Well at the final, it works! Thanks Ralf!

  13. Thank you for posting this! I’m also importing all of my old home movies during COVID and your post made this super easy. The tapes and my MiniDV camera are almost 20 years old and haven’t been touched in over a decade. Pulled it all out of a box and it’s working great, no tape degradation at all. I’m excited to have more permanent copies on my server. Thank you again.

    1. I’m glad to hear that this post is helping so many people. Really happy to hear you could import your old video footage… It seems MiniDV engineers really did a great job designing the system, if it’s still working well after such a long time… Enjoy!

  14. I gave away my Firewire PCIe card a while back and then realized I still wanted to read in the tapes I had. I ordered a cheap card & cable and plugged it in. /dev/fw0 showed up with zero fiddling. Everything Worked great with Fedora 32 … all I had to do was install dvgrab. I was restoring tapes within 10 minutes. The hardest part was finding where I had put the tapes Figuring out that dvgrab existed was the key for me. THANKS!

  15. Just want to say this is a great post and I am now using it for making a digital copy of my minidv’s as well. thank you very much!!

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