Flying with film, X-rays, TSA and other fun stuff.

Written by Zeb Andrews

Paris.  Rome.  Cairo.  Hong Kong.  So many places to see, so many photographs to be made, right?  Before you can start making photos of all these far off places, you have to get there.  And so does your film.

Ironically, with all the changes over the last several years in airport security, my biggest concern hasn’t been my privacy passing through the new full-body scanners at the airport, but how to safely get my film and cameras through.  The simpler days of just stuffing your film in lead-lined bags may be gone, but being a traveling photographer also doesn’t have to be overly complicated or troublesome.  This short series of articles will guide you through the process of covering the distance between here and there with all your film (and cameras) safe.

X-ray fogging.  Myth or reality?

The risk x-rays pose to film is a good place to start.  Rarely a month or two goes by that Blue Moon Camera doesn’t see film that has been fogged by x-rays.  Exposing film to x-rays is similar to exposing it to light.  A few things can be drawn from this fact.  First, the faster the film, (and the more sensitive it is to light) the more sensitive it will be to x-rays.  Airport security will generally tell you that it is safe to x-ray any film 800 ISO or slower.  This is a good recommendation to follow, though I have traveled on several occasions with 1600 and 3200 ISO film and had it pass safely through x-rays.  Nonetheless, the slower the film, the safer it will be to x-ray exposure.  Second, just as you can expose film to light multiple times to build up exposure, so to does multiple times through x-ray machines increase the risk of fogging.  Thankfully, most trips abroad won’t require more than three or four passes through security.  Five passes through x-ray machines is the recommended upper limit.  Third, not all x-rays are created equal – some are much more powerful than others and will fog film much more easily.  Generally speaking, the x-ray machines used for scanning your checked luggage are quite powerful and can damage any speed of film on a single pass.  The x-ray machines that you and your carry-on luggage pass through are much less powerful and moderately safe for film, as long as you keep the ISO under 800 and limit the number of exposures to five or fewer.

Photo courtesy of Kodak

Photo courtesy of Kodak

In the U.S., TSA regulations allow photographers to request a hand-check of film.  This is a great way of avoiding x-ray exposure, especially when you anticipate a long trip with several airports (and several x-ray machines) involved.  Before you leave home, remove all your film from their cardboard boxes.  I generally take my 35mm rolls out of their plastic cans too and put them all in a giant Ziploc bag.  My 120 film I usually leave sealed in their foil packages and put those in another large freezer bag.  If you plan on hand-checking, it is a good idea to arrive at the airport with extra time as the check can add 5-25 minutes to the security screening process.  Once you reach the x-rays, have your bags of film out and just ask for a hand-check of the film.  The bags will get passed around the x-ray machines and a TSA official will then proceed to inspect each roll individually, probably even swabbing them for chemical explosive residue.  The more film you have, the longer this can take.  Be prepared.

Sadly, once you are out of the U.S. don’t count on hand-checks.  In all my travels I have never succeeded in having film hand-checked internationally, nor have I met anyone else who has.  A co-worker risked getting arrested when he tried to push for a hand-check coming back from Paris.  Once you are abroad, it is best to accept that your film is going to be x-rayed, which is all the more reason to have hand-checks done in the U.S. to keep exposure to a minimum.

What about lead bags?

Lead bags used to be a photographer’s answer to the dangers posed by x-rays.  Unfortunately this is not really true anymore.  With heightened scrutiny during security screening, one of two things will happen if you put a lead bag through x-rays.  Either the screeners will back the bag up and zap it with x-rays again until it is penetrated and the contents can be seen (and your film zapped) or they will pull your bag and inspect it by hand (in which case you should have just asked for a hand-check to begin with).  In short, lead bags are not terribly useful these days.

I was hoping to do some infrared photography on vacation.  Is it more sensitive to x-rays?

Thankfully, no.  Your photographic life is tricky enough handling IR film as it is, and there is no need to make it more so.  Orthochromatic, infrared, slide, sheet film, redscale, cross-processed –  none of these make any difference going through x-rays.  Do keep in mind though that if you are planning to have your film hand-checked and are carrying infrared film, you better bring along a changing bag as IR film will be fogged by exposure to light even while it is in the can or rolled on its spool.  The one time I had IR film hand-checked, the screener had no problem using my changing bag to check that roll.

Of course, if you are flying with x-ray film it is not a very good idea to put it through x-ray machines, but I imagine you had that figured out already.  The same is true of motion picture film as well; it should never be x-rayed. We cannot tell you why, but our research turned up strong advice to never allow your motion picture film to pass through x-rays.

In summary for today, x-rays present a definite risk to film… under certain circumstances.  As long as you avoid putting film in with your checked luggage, carrying film faster than 800 ISO and passing through more than five x-rays your film faces very little risk.  My last two trips to Europe I skipped hand-checking completely and my film was unaffected.  This is a good point to pause for this now.  Tune back in next week and we shall continue this discussion with the advantages and disadvantages of processing film on foreign soil and shipping it via courier.