by Steven K. Roberts
Friday Harbor, Washington
March, 2020

Film digitizing lab aboard Datawake

Film digitizing service

I inherited a library of 8mm movies taken by my father from 1936 through the mid-1970s, and some of it has considerable historical value. While researching conversion services, I realized that the collection was large enough to justify buying my own system… so after obsessive research into professional tools, I acquired the RetroScan Universal (then upgraded it with a 2K camera to allow maximum-quality scanning).

Some of the 150 or so reels of film left by my father

I continued refining the system, and in 2018 decided to set it up as a business. In addition to the machine itself and the 8mm/Super8 gate for my own projects (see examples in my film showcase), I picked up a 16mm gate… so I can handle just about any home movie format. As the film flows smoothly through the machine (handled only by its edges), every frame is digitized down to the grain at 2K resolution by a high-speed camera, then the huge image sequence is exported to a suitable output format depending on quality of the source material. In other words, I have the tools to scan every detail of your old home movies and convert them into digital form, ready for editing or sharing… and since every frame is captured, there is no shortage of still images for Facebook, blog posts, book projects, and so on.

I occasionally do a little post-production to stabilize old camera jitter and restore color balance; here is a moment from our family vacation to Colorado in 1961 (when I was 8):

Rio Grande 5534 in Royal Gorge – 1961 from Steven K Roberts on Vimeo.

One of my favorite parts of working with old film is those stills… each reel is a time capsule of micro-expressions that are far more interesting than the frozen “say-cheese” snapshots of the era (when photos were expensive and getting the camera out was an event). I am collecting quite a library of moments… here are four frames from one of my father’s 1941 reels (regular 8 film):

Uncle George (Quaker) at Civilian Public Service Camp during WW2, Star-sailing with friends, filming out the airplane window, and folks from the Swarthmore College class of 1876/86 during the 1941 reunion.

My original intent was to offer this service only to folks here in the San Juan Islands, though I also accept projects by mail. Please get in touch if you have old movies fading in storage and would like to preserve them for posterity. Turn-around time is typically 3-4 weeks, depending on the scope of the job… and delivery can be via thumb drive, external hard drive (including a loaner if you’re local to Friday Harbor), or cloud (for small projects).


How much does it cost to have your movies converted into digital form? The most common home movies are 8mm (either Regular or Super 8) which we scan in 2K resolution and then export standards video files that can be edited or shared). But there are LOTS of variables, including huge “numbered image sequences” that give you a separate file for every frame of the film. We’ll work with you to see what makes the most sense, and can deliver in different file formats if you prefer… including optimization for YouTube.

We are occasionally asked about transferring to DVD, and can do so… but that is a compromise I don’t recommend. Your files will be hard to extract later… and the 480p video quality is not nearly as high as the files that play directly on your computer and come free with the service. That optical disc medium is dying, with drives less common as the years pass, and most smart TVs have USB ports anyway. There is little rationale for DVD.

Digitizing my parents’ 1946 Bermuda honeymoon

The cost for digitizing is based on film length, which correlates with the time required to do the job including setup, cleaning if needed, and fine-tuning color/focus/contrast/tilt/exposure/framing/backlight while the film is running… plus export and building the delivered filesystem. The nominal price is $.30/foot, which works out to about $15 for a typical 3-inch reel. There are occasionally discounts, if a significant part of your order is on large reels that require less handling.

Still frames in the Olden Days (8mm reel insert circa 1951)

Included at no charge are occasional still frames that catch my eye… this is fun for all concerned, and these time capsules of ancient film contain treasures in the form of micro-expressions or captured moments. If you would like to take that to the next level and guarantee at least four optimized stills per 3″ reel, then we raise the per-foot charge to 35 cents. These images will be edited and then sent via email or Facebook as the scanning process is underway, giving you lots of teasers to share with friends while awaiting your video files. They will also be included in a folder on your thumb drive. Some of them are marvelous… with rich tonal range and subjects that could never have been captured while posing stiffly for the still cameras of yesteryear.

Recent client project… a 64GB thumb drive full of video memories from the sixties

The output will be delivered on whatever media is needed to hold the file size (usually a thumb drive, or external hard disk for huge jobs)… and I pass along the Amazon cost or use media that you provide. (This is cheap; in 2019 the SanDisk USB3 64GB drives we’ve been using for most projects have been $15 each, holding over fifty 3-inch 8mm reels exported at 4:3 centercut 1080p from the original 2K scan.)

I will save your original files until we are sure that you have them safely backed up or shared with family (and usually for many months thereafter, just for added security). This makes it easy to export additional still frames from the original scans as you discover them.

Sailing in 1941 – Edward H. Roberts – frame from 8mm film

For most jobs, that’s it — per-foot charge plus media cost (and shipping if you’re not local), with a small copying fee if you want me to make additional thumb drives for family members. There are a few other options:

Numbered image sequences (huge) – $15 per export-hour + media
Editing, heroic film recovery, YouTube, embedding, etc. – $65/hour
VHS, 8mm/Hi8, or miniDV tape digitizing – $25/reel unless short
16mm films (silent), slides, and others – contact for pricing

In addition to movies and video tape conversion, we work with old images including transparencies (35mm or 2-1/4), negatives, prints, and audio cassettes. Sometimes the image quality of old photos is astounding, and we use a variety of tools to remove noise, adjust exposure, retouch, fix colors, and so on. Here is a recent scan of a 1970 slide, showing my father in his GE office:

Edward H. Roberts in office at GE, 1970
Edward H. Roberts at General Electric, 1970

We can do bulk-digitizing of slides at 2K resolution cheaply, providing a “level-one filter” to help you determine which ones justify the extra time for a high-resolution (3600/4800 DPI) scan… in the process yielding a numbered archive of your entire collection suitable for historical image databases, online posting, and historical research.

In addition to our primary focus on movies, we can handle most analog consumer video formats that have been in common use over the past 40 years: VHS, S-VHS, Hi8, Digital 8, and DVD. These tools occupy one end of the console, with the iMac at the far end taking care of video digitizing after audio is separately routed to allow EQ and other tweaks. We also do miniDV tape with a direct digital feed to Thunderbolt, entirely eliminating analog conversion losses.

The analog video department at Harbor Digitizing, showing signal routing and local monitoring as well as the vintage transports.

Please get in touch via the Contact form if you have questions or would like to have some digitizing done, and we will advise the best way to proceed. If you include your mailing address, I’ll send a quaint hardcopy brochure… almost as retro as old movie film! I am working on setting up an online storefront to make this all simple, and it will have an associated blog with featured stills and videos, tech tips, storage advice, human-interest stories, and so on.

We add capabilities as the need arises, and the latest (Feb 2020) is an audio cassette deck. This allows either direct-to-thumb MP3 digitizing or high-end options via Logic and Audacity on the Mac (routed through the MOTU audio network). If you have old audio tapes to recover, we can handle them just like we do film and video… and we are currently researching which reel-to-reel relic to add to the system.

Underwater Video with ROV

One of my other favorite tools aboard is the OpenROV Trident, described in my article about the underwater toolkit aboard Datawake. Most of my use of this has been general exploration and getting to know the local marine biology, but I have also been doing dives for pragmatic reasons… like examining props fouled by lines to determine whether it is safe to proceed before hiring a diver, checking zincs and the status of thru-hulls, looking for critters, pre-screening dive sites, taking video of a trap, peering through a bow-thruster tunnel to make sure it’s clear, scanning cables for corrosion or high-stress points, and checking the condition of underwater structures like moorings and dock pilings.

While this is limited to applications that benefit from inspection-only (unlike the additional capabilities of a diver), one benefit is that you get to keep the video of the dive for future reference, or publishing on social media. If you just need to LOOK at something, please give me a call… the price is low, and I can refer you to an excellent diver here in Friday Harbor when you need more hands-on help than I can provide. I can set up periodic checks of your boat bottom so you know when to call for help, inspect your anchor set, do a few transects of an mooring field or anchorage to assess fouling issues, get “beauty shots” of the seabed, or just go exploring. I can also affix a GoPro to the submarine for timed still photos in addition to the video feed, and we have excellent underwater lighting if the object of interest is so far down that it doesn’t see much daylight. Maximum depth is limited by the 100-meter tether, but in practice I try to stay above half that or so.

My Trident, named BEN (Benthic Exploration Node) – click photo for info

Here is a short video I took of a friend’s running gear after an oopsie while backing down on the anchor slurped the dinghy towing bridle into one of the props, followed by another a few days later that was the result of a shrimp-pot line getting fouled on another friend’s boat. In both cases, Kurt the diver was called to quickly remove the lines, but the first one gave us enough information to make the choice to tiptoe back to port instead of calling for a very expensive remote service call to a distant anchorage!

Fouled prop from a dinghy towline on a 62-footer in Stuart Harbor
Fouled crab-pot line in Friday Harbor


A favorite imaging tool aboard Datawake is a FLIR thermal camera, which allows me to visualize heat loss, hot spots in cabling, refrigeration issues, engine anomalies, losses in hydronic heating systems, looming issues with power supplies, poor insulation, inflammation sites on human bodies, and many other things. Like other ways of expanding our sensorium, the ability to see in the thermal domain adds powerful diagnostic capabilities… so I have decided to add this to my little menu of services for local boaters, homeowners, and businesses. If you want to identify heat losses in your house or predict future issues in a dense breaker panel, this is just the ticket.

Thermal image of the 3D printer making a holder for the Amazon Echo Dot

Pricing on this is based on time… tell me what you are trying to discover that would benefit from a thermographic analysis, and I’ll show up, gather images fine-tuned to the application, and send them to you along with commentary and numerical data including spot measurements (FLIR and Fluke) of interesting points. I have other image, electronic, RF, and acoustical analysis tools as well, but that’s too much to go into here.

360° Photography

I run a Facebook page called San Juan Islands 360, a showcase for 360° images that I take around the islands, in businesses, aboard boats, and so on. This is amazing technology, with two back-to-back cameras that each capture hemispheres that are then seamlessly stitched into a sphere that lets you look around… through a moving window in the case of a smartphone, via mouse-dragging on a desktop computer, or by simply looking if you have a virtual reality system. This is a superb way to show the interior of a business, do a walkthrough of a home for sale, publish images of your boat or workspace, or capture an outdoor scene.

The images can be used in the Oculus Rift and other VR environments to let the viewer look around naturally… embedded in a WordPress page… or posted on Facebook. This image format is now a standard, so the tools are well-evolved and free.

Samsung Gear 360 camera

As an example, if you own a store in Friday Harbor, I will show up, take a few shots while optimizing lighting, then head back to my lab and fine-tune the colors, tweak roll angle (usually about a 3° correction), choose the best ones, then either park them on Facebook or send you the files directly. Barring complications or long travel times, it costs about $50 to produce one excellent shot that will let online visitors take a look around your store. A more complex task, like a full tour through a house for sale or other multi-site project, would be correspondingly more… and we can take that to yet another level with clickable hotspots that let the viewer navigate through a tour seamlessly. I’d be happy to quote on your job.

There are lots of examples of basic 360° images on that Facebook page if you want to visualize how this might work for your application. Here (using the Facebook viewer, so will only work if you have an account) is a 360 selfie aboard my little trimaran, a view from the south side of Mount Constitution, and my favorite aisle at Ace Hardware.

Nautical and Other Geekery

Datawake is a floating lab filled with gizmological delights, and I’ve been doing this for most of my life. I built an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran, traveled the US on a computerized recumbent bicycle, and way back in the Olden Days did custom industrial control system design. I published an electrical engineering textbook along with five others, and have authored hundreds of technical articles over the years. Current work involves Raspberry Pi computers, networking, navigation systems, power management tools, laboratory integration, exotic amateur radio modes, marine electronics, and technical archiving; occasionally I take on consulting or short fabrication projects as long as they don’t distract too much from my own work.

The lab console aboard Datawake

Examples include pre-purchase analysis of ship systems, assistance with console integration, help with embedded tools, setting up your boat net connection, getting you started with NMEA2000, choosing communication gear, and so on. There aren’t many folks here on the islands doing this sort of thing, so if you’re stuck on a geeky boat project and need some help, please get in touch. I have a pretty full plate with my seventh book in progress and a few boat projects, so tend to be careful about over-committing… but am always willing to at least consider work with interesting clients and blinky toys. If I don’t have the clock cycles to dive in directly, I have a huge network of tech-savvy contacts and may be able to set you up with people who can get the job done.

Writing and Editing

My career since the early 1970s has always had publishing at its core, including consulting writing for corporate clients… marketing copy, readable documentation translated from engineering-speak, ghost-written articles, product naming, web presence, and so on. I’ve also written six books and tons of articles (as well as online narratives of geeky adventure), and have a penchant for wordplay. This all translates into another class of services for clients; if you have a written communications challenge in print or online media and could use a bit of help, let me know.

Reaching Escape Velocity
I can also help get your book published and on Amazon via CreateSpace, which is how I did this little one a few years ago (click for more info).

I don’t really offer web-design services; that rabbit-hole already keeps me adequately busy with my own never-finished site. But one thing in that department I can do is help set up a workflow for creating an archive of historical documents using the WordPress timeline, scanning and OCR via searchable PDF, image management, and so on. I have been doing this for my own history, and the procedures are well-established. If you are looking at a mountain of documents that need to somehow “get put online,” than I can help define the process so you only have to handle each item once.

Writing and similar services are generally billed hourly.

Steve with Isabelle atop Datawake in the Port of Friday Harbor