Traveling photographers always worry about what might happen to their film when it’s time to go through airport security. And with good reason. X-ray scanners can fog film and ruin your hard-won photos. But how real is the danger, and what can be done to minimize the potential for harm?
Right off the top, let’s deal with the idea of just tossing your film in your checked baggage along with your socks and underwear. In the often confusing and contradictory world of air travel and film, the single point of universal agreement is that this is a bad idea. So, in a word, don’t. Airport screening in the U.S. follows guidelines issued by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and even they say, “Never place undeveloped film in your checked baggage, our security equipment used for screening checked baggage will damage your undeveloped film.” What more is there to add?
So our only practical option is to bring the film with us through airport security, and this is where the situation gets a little vague. Here’s the TSA’s take on the subject:
The X-ray machine that screens your carry-on baggage at the passenger security checkpoint will not affect undeveloped film under ASA/ISO 800.
But they also note:
If the same roll of film is exposed to X-ray inspections more than 5 times before it is developed, it is possible that damage may occur.
Air Canada makes the same points:
The equipment used for carry-on baggage at pre-board screening areas will not damage film with an ISO/ASA under 800. However, damage may occur if the same roll of film is exposed multiple times to a pre-board x-ray inspection.
If we parse these statements carefully, a couple of red flags go up. First, presumably, films with ISO ratings of 800 and greater should not be scanned even once. Second, repeated scanning is potentially harmful. Why? Because the effects of x-ray exposure are cumulative. Clearly the situation not as cut and dried as simply saying that anything under 800 is fine, anything over isn’t. Reading between the lines a bit, if a single scan is unwise for ISO 800 film, then it follows that two passes through the equipment (double the exposure) would be unsafe for ISO 400 film. Similarly, ISO 200 film should not go through more than four times and 100 speed film is in danger with eight scans. It’s almost impossible to avoid passing through security multiple times on a given journey, so clearly this is a concern.
A second consideration is what constitutes an acceptable amount of fogging? It’s not as if ISO 800 film is fogged into oblivion by one pass through the scanner, and ISO 400 is utterly unaffected — it’s a continuum. It all comes down to how much fogging are you prepared to accept in your photos? An amount that the TSA deems okay? Perhaps the TSA and other security operations have arrived at the ISO 800 number based on exhaustive testing and in-depth consultation with film manufacturers. But I doubt it. So what to do?
The safest course of action is to avoid having your film scanned at all, or at least, as few times as possible. Here are a few suggestions to help you accomplish that goal. First, keep your film in a clear plastic baggie that you can get at easily while in the security line up — just like you do with your liquids and gels. Screeners tend to be much more helpful if you make an effort to keep things moving along smoothly and don’t hold up your fellow passengers. Remember — they’re under intense pressure to get everyone through the system as quickly as possible. Anything you can do to help them achieve that goal will only help engender cooperation.
Second, be polite and prepared. I wait until it’s my turn to walk through the scanning arch, then, when I have the attention of the screener, I hold up my baggie of film and request a “hand check.” Those seem to be the magic words that security personal recognize and know how to respond to. “Please” and “thank you” are the other magic words, but then you knew that already, right?
Occasionally you’ll run into a screener who will rigidly apply the “under 800” guideline. That’s why I always include an expired, old roll of fast film in my baggie, so when they ask what kind of film I have, I can truthfully say “it’s a mix of different ISOs, including some fast film.”
What about special protective film bags? Don’t bother. Kodak succinctly describes the pitfalls: “The once popular lead-lined carry bags aren’t practical today because if an inspector can’t see through the bag, he will increase the intensity of the x-ray until he can. Therefore, film may receive more harmful radiation than it would otherwise if it were normally inspected.” Alternatively, the screener will probably just take your film out of the bag and run it through the machine anyway, but this time, in a slightly annoyed state because of the extra time and trouble it’s taking to process your carry-on stuff. See my previous note about making their lives easier.
Finally, if everything goes wrong and you run into a security worker who absolutely insists that your film be x-rayed even after you’ve expressed your concerns (politely, of course), don’t fight it. There’s nothing you can do at that point except get yourself into a world of trouble. If gentle persuasion didn’t work, angry insistence certainly won’t. In all likelihood, your film won’t be damaged by a single pass through the machine anyway. This is why I rarely fly with film faster than ISO 400. If my film gets scanned once or twice, it’s unlikely to be catastrophic.
Having said all of the above, I should add that I’ve traveled with film through dozens of airports both internationally and in the U.S. and Canada, and have never returned home with fogged film. The security staff I’ve encountered have, for the most part, been friendly and cooperative. Once in a while I even run into a screener who is also a fellow film user and is eager to chat. In my experience, such encounters are far more common than those wtih uncooperative security workers.
Unfortunately, every time I put a link in for the TSA’s guidelines, it dies. Their information on the subject seems to be something of a moving target. Your best bet is to go to their web site and perform a search for “camera film.”
Here’s what they are currently saying:
Undeveloped camera film is not prohibited, but you should only transport it in your carry-on baggage; the equipment used to screen checked baggage may damage undeveloped film.
If you are transporting high speed (800 ISO and higher) or specialty film, you may request to have it physically inspected when presented at the screening checkpoint instead of undergoing x-ray screening. You may also request that all of your undeveloped film be physically inspected instead of undergoing x-ray, particularly if your film has or may be screened by x-ray more than five times. To facilitate physical inspection, remove your undeveloped film from the canister and pack it in a clear plastic bag. We recommend leaving your film in the unopened manufacturer’s packaging.
- Never put your film in a checked bag.
- Keep your film in a clear, plastic baggie and request a “hand check.”
- Avoid traveling with film faster than ISO 400.
- Include one roll of old, fast film in your supply.
- Be polite when dealing with security personnel.
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