Flying with film, X-rays, TSA and other fun stuff, Part 2.

Written By Zeb Andrews

An image from a trip to Rome several years back. This roll was x-rayed four different times.

An image from a trip to Rome several years back. This roll was x-rayed four different times.

Welcome back.  The last time we were here we discussed some of the finer points of flying with film: specifically navigating the x-rays of airport security without risking damage to your film.  This week I want to talk about two ways to circumvent airport security (legally of course) altogether: processing out of country and/or shipping film via courier.

Processing abroadpros and cons

X-rays only pose a risk to undeveloped film.  As mentioned in the previous post, x-ray exposure follows the same characteristics as exposure to light.  Just as developed film is no longer sensitive to light, it is also no longer sensitive to x-ray exposure.  It makes a certain amount of sense to have your film processed abroad and carry the negatives back through airport security on the return trip, right?

Processing your film in a foreign lab has its advantages, but I still don’t recommend it.  This strategy introduces you to a whole new set of risks, the greatest being the quality of the lab that you find to process your film.  The chemistry used for processing film is a tricky business.  It isn’t that hard to do it right, but it can be even easier to do it wrong, and sometimes the effects of poor processing can take years to show up.  I have an acquaintance who made a trip to India several years back and had all his black and white film processed while over there.  Four or so years after his return he was forced to start scanning all his negatives because they had begun to fade due to poor fixing in the development process.

In addition, once developed you are left to carry around negatives which are moderately more vulnerable to physical damage than when the undeveloped film was still wound inside the can or wrapped upon its spool.  You trade the risks of x-ray exposure for the risk of scratching, folding, or tearing your negatives.  One alternative to carrying around vulnerable negatives is to ship your film back home (or to a trusted hometown lab (wink wink)) after it is developed.

Despite the risks, avoiding x-rays is only one of the reasons to process film in a foreign lab.  If you are on an especially long trip, or traveling with camera new to you, or your camera has suddenly developed a strange new sound, it can be a good idea to have a couple rolls developed here or there to confirm that both you and your equipment are functioning as you would like them to be.  Better to find out about a mistake you are making or a failure of your camera halfway through that three week trip to Italy rather than after you return home.

If you are going in search for a lab while in a foreign country the best advice I can offer is to ask local photographers.  These days, thanks to sites such as Flickr or 500px, it is quite easy to link up with photographers living in countries you plan on visiting.  Send a couple of them e-mails and find out where they have their film processed.  A few quick e-mails could prove to be negative savers.  Additionally, look for a lab that has a more “serious” dedication to photography, as opposed to quick, one-hour labs attached to grocery stores, post offices, tourist attractions, etc.  The former cater more to the permanent photographer population in their area, the latter to the transient tourist crowd.  One is going to care much more about the quality of their work than the other.

So how about just shipping film?

Ah, USPS, UPS, FEDEX, DHL.  A photographer’s litany against airport x-rays.  But courier services can be as sticky a wicket as having your film processed by a foreign lab.  If you are staying in the US, and want to explore shipping methods, then USPS’ priority service as well as UPS or FedEx ground will probably be pretty safe and reliable.  Do make sure to take out insurance, particularly with USPS.  If you don’t and your package gets lost… you will be up a creek as they say.  Best to just trust me on that one.  Typically ground services are not x-rayed, though FedEx and others do state that they reserve the right to x-ray packages when necessary.  Putting a sticker that marks your package as “Film” will likely help, though it is far from a guarantee.  Blue Moon Camera ships and receives film via USPS most every day, and the only damage we ever see almost always results from improper packaging (think a roll of film in a normal letter envelope ripping open mid-transit).   FedEx and UPS have been similarly safe when it comes to domestic shipping.  But x-rays and poor handling should not be your only concern; ever seen those non-air-conditioned UPS trucks on a hot summer day?  They get pretty toasty, just ask the driver.  Heat and film are almost as poor a mix as x-rays and film.

The picture gets much murkier once you start shipping internationally because then you are introducing not only customs but local shipping procedures as well.  Some countries like Thailand (and perhaps Egypt currently) will x-ray every package going out in an effort to curb smuggling.  Also bear in mind while shipping from a foreign country that the English language warning labels you apply to your packages may not be understandable to everyone that ends up handling your film, and therefore the caution stickers may not be heeded at all.  X-rays aside, what kind of conditions is your box of film being held in while it is out of your presence?   There are just too many questions in this case.  X-ray exposure at the airports doesn’t pose enough of a risk and can be minimized such that I always feel much more comfortable with my film in my possession the whole trip.  At least then I know what is happening to my film, the ambient temperature it is being kept in, and where it is at all times.  I would resort to courier services only within the U.S.A. and even then only if I have exposed so much film, I could not possibly carry it back on the plane with me.

In summary

Despite the length and depth of these last two posts, I don’t want to heighten your concerns about x-rays.  The risk is real, but if you handle your film correctly, the risk is also quite slight.  In the event that you suspect your film has been x-ray fogged, then make sure your exposures are nice and healthy.  Even in film that has been damaged by x-rays, the fogging is usually pretty well masked by a healthy exposure.  It usually takes the combination of x-ray fogging and underexposure to really make the damage evident.

Flying with film is not difficult; it is not even all that dangerous.  Armed with good information, knowing how to ask for a hand-check and what to avoid – and flying with cameras and film is quite easy.  Simply avoid checked luggage, ask for hand-checks when possible, carry a changing bag if you have large format film, and don’t sweat an x-ray or two (just keep it to a minimum).  Don’t forget, if you get really antsy, you can always ship your film back straight to us.  We’ll  care for all those latent memories-to-be until you can return home.

So, until next time, safe travels and happy photographing.