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Storage and Care of Videotapes

Digital videotapes are small and cute, and they don’t take up a lot of room even when you have a pile of them sitting on your desk. Until you have collected many of them, a dedicated tape storage container is probably overkill (see Figure 4.5). If you purchase tapes in boxes of five, the best solution is to store your tapes in the empty cardboard box as you record them. I rip the top off the box and slide the tapes in.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 Although plenty of companies make fancy tape storage containers—and I’ve purchased my fair share—this down-home method still works well for me.

You can also see why it’s important to have a label on both the top and the side of each tape.

Tape care

What kills tapes?

  • Sun
  • Heat
  • Moisture and humidity
  • Dust, dirt, and gunk
  • Magnetic fields
  • Time

If you want to keep your tapes pristine for a decade or more, consider storing them in airtight containers away from the elements. Professional videotape facilities maintain “tape vaults” (not like a bank vault; more like a big closet) with temperature and humidity controls. But this is perhaps a bit extreme for our purposes.

Most important, make sure you keep your tapes in their plastic cases whenever they are not in your camera. These cases protect the tapes from direct trauma (like getting stepped on) as well as from most dust and dirt.

Ironically, you must not store your tapes near your desktop computer, television set, or any other equipment that has a CRT screen or audio speakers, because the magnetic fields they produce may cause data loss on the tapes.

Videotape rolls up neatly inside the tiny cassette when the tape’s tension is smooth and even. If the tension is off for any reason, there can be bits of slack here and there—especially when you shuttle forward, pause, reverse, play again, reverse again, and so on. All of this direction changing can lead to creases in the tape, and possibly to its permanent and inescapable ruin. Some professionals suggest that when you’re done using a tape, you should fast-forward to the end (without watching it) and then rewind it all the way to the beginning, to keep the tension even. I’ve heard others recommend that you do this once a year to prevent any stickiness from developing.

Rumor has it that, if possible, you should store tapes on end, on their short sides, not flat. That way, if there is any tiny mess-up in rolling the tape on the spool, the weight of the tape will not cause a crease. Yeah, I know it’s pretty unlikely. Still, people ask, and I’m here to answer.

When it comes to tape care, I do only three things:

  • I clean the heads on my camera once every few months.
  • I religiously keep my tapes in their plastic cases.
  • I rarely step on them.

Other than these things, I’m pretty cavalier about my tape care. I suppose it will take only one ruined tape to get me to do any more than this. A major tape disaster has never happened to me or anyone I know, although I do find the occasional timecode dropout on some of my oldest MiniDV tapes (after nine years), but no video loss or debilitating issues. Yet. But it does happen, so be aware and treat your tapes just as you would your photos or any other irreplaceable personal belongings.

Head-cleaning tapes

Every so often, you’ll put in a tape and press Play, but rather than a normal video picture, you see odd blocks or thick bands crisscrossing the screen or bouncing here and there. They look digital, but they are caused by unclean tape heads. Luckily, cleaning the heads is no problem (see Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 A typical head-cleaning tape “rubs” the internal parts of your camera when you press Play. The rubbing process takes only a few seconds, so don’t just insert the tape, press play, and walk away. Instead, press Play, count to five, then Stop. If you clean your camera’s tape heads once every few months, it should take you a decade to use the thing up. When the tape is at an end, don’t rewind it, just toss it.

Disable record (aka “locking” a tape)

After you’re finished recording on a tape, take a moment to protect your video.

There’s a little switch on the top of DV cassettes that, when flipped, “locks” the tape, making it impossible to record over existing material (see Figure 4.7). With this great feature and a little discipline, you can save yourself years of bitter self-recrimination. Whenever I shoot a tape and take it out of the camera, I make sure to lock it. I never used to do this until one memorable day when I accidentally recorded over a few seconds of one of my best videos; I had been showing the tape to some friends earlier and forgot that I had left it in the camera.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 The tape-protection lock switch on the top of a cassette is accessible once the tape is ejected, even without removing it from the camera. Get in the habit of locking your tapes as soon as you’ve finished shooting.

I wholeheartedly recommend locking your recorded tapes. If you do, the worst that can happen is that you may try to record, and the tape will tell you it’s locked—which means you’ll have to eject it, flip the lock switch, and reinsert it in the camera. All my tapes that are in storage and not slated for future use are locked. I say it’s worth it.

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