A man in a neat uniform approaches my cramped plane seat. “No electronics during landing and take off,” he reminds me of the rule. To which I smugly reply that the camera I’m holding has no electronics in it at all.*
Film uses chemical processes to create an image, while digital sensors use electronics and software. These are two vastly different ways to achieve the same effect which are especially noticeable if you’re about to step on a plane or pass any kind of security checkpoint with your film.
✱ — A short fiction.
I’ve had the privilege to travel extensively over the past decade, visiting over twenty countries by land and by air. So far, I was able to safely transport all of my film and cameras without much trouble. With some planning, your next flight should go just as well.
Your film and X-rays.
X-rays are high-energy light particles that are capable of passing through opaque objects. Wherever you place your bag on a conveyer belt while the agents screen your belongings on their computers, you’re sending your stuff through X-rays. This is also true for your checked-in baggage, which may be subject to more intense X-rays.
An X-ray machine has a special device consisting of a vacuum tube and an emitting cathode, i.e. a “lamp,” which generates high-energy light radiation. As its rays pass through objects and people, some photons flow through soft tissue and light material while others get trapped by dense structures like metal and batteries.
The scanned object is positioned between the “lamp” and a receiving digital sensor which reads the results and transmits them onto the agents’ computers.
Consumer film is made to respond to visible light. It isn’t generally sensitive to X-rays. However, as the rays pass through the packaging, they inadvertently leave a trace on the unexposed emulsion. That trace accumulates with every scan. While individual instances don’t typically leave a large enough imprint to be noticed, they can layer on top of each other and, eventually, cause visible degradation.
All film degrades over long periods of time as the various naturally occurring energy particles pass through it. The effect is called fogging; it’s typically undesirable as it adds colour noise, reducing the quality of your prints. X-rays produce a similar effect, only faster.
Higher-ISO films degrade faster over time and under X-rays.
⚠️ The new airport CT scanners.
The new CT scanners are reportedly much more detrimental to film than X-ray machines.
Not to be confused with MRI machines, which look similar, CT scanners are tubular contraptions that make hundreds of X-ray scans in seconds as the “lamp” and sensor rotate around the belongings inside. All of those scans are then combined to generate a three-dimensional model of your suitcase’s innards.
As a result, CT scanners are about 250 times more intense than a typical X-ray machine — this could spell a disaster for your film.
According to TSA (as of November 2019), these new devices are being rolled out at the following airports: ✈︎ ATL, ✈︎ BWI, ✈︎ ORD, ✈︎ CVG, ✈︎ DTW, ✈︎ HOU, ✈︎ IND, ✈︎ JFK, ✈︎ BOS, ✈︎ LAX, ✈︎ MIA, ✈︎ OAK, ✈︎ PHX, ✈︎ DCA, ✈︎ STL, ✈︎ TPA, ✈︎ IAD.
How to avoid getting your film damaged by X-rays.
Other than being polite to the people who have the power to detain you, here’s a list of tips to ensure that your film survives the trip:
1. Film camera always goes through the scanner. Unless it’s loaded with ISO 3200 film and expected to pass through half-a-dozen checkpoints or if it’s a CT scanner, there should be no issues. Sometimes you’ll be asked to unpack and show your camera to the agents — which is why I suggest you have it go through the scanner unpacked. If you don’t intend to keep any film in your camera, you can keep it with your checked-in baggage.
2. Never pack your film in your checked baggage. Those are the bags that would be going into the belly of the airplane. They will almost certainly be scanned with a large dose of X-rays.
3. Keep all roll film out of the packaging, in a clear ziplock bag, on your person. The security wants to know whether you are carrying illegal or dangerous goods. Clearing all possible visual obstructions makes that easier.
4. Do not use lead-lined bags. You will simply be asked to send all your film through X-rays again without the bag and the agents may be less responsive to your requests for hand-checking.
5. Arrive early at your airport. Hand-checks can take time and you may be asked to step outside the line for a few extra minutes.
6. Understand that while you aren’t likely to be denied a hand check, it may happen, and you must be OK with it. Most consumer film will not be affected by small amounts of X-ray exposure. Or, if you aren’t willing to take that risk, you can check your other options, below.
7. Anticipate a unique experience unless you’ve been through the airport with film before. I’ve had a great time flying within the USA, Canada, and most of the major East Asian airports. However, there are some accounts of Heathrow airport being the absolute worst and rumours of European attendants not being as understanding.
8. Ask for a hand check! Have your film out as you approach the checkpoint and ensure that you ask an agent for a hand check. They will typically take your film around and run bomb detection tests on it. They may ask you to open packaging but not so that it would ruin the film.
9. If you travel with sheet film or light-sensitive paper, you can ask for hand-checks as well. The agents don’t need to pick everything apart, they just want to swab a small sample of your packaging so that their machine can determine if there’s a residue of explosive particles.
10. Don’t forget to get your film back from the agents. This actually happened to me — I was once groggy, confused, and in a rush which lead to me forgetting the film at the airport. The lesson here is to always be vigilant until the film is back in your hands.
If you want to snap a picture inside the plane cabin or out of the window, you can take a loaded compact camera on your person through security. Most X-ray machines (other than CT scanners) will not damage new film. I’ve put ISO 3200 black and white film and ISO 800 colour instant film through X-rays and found nothing wrong with the images.
Keep in mind that your film may have to go through an X-Ray scanner even if you aren’t at the airport. Bus and railway stations, special event/secure building gates, and even commuter trains may have those machines set up.
In Beijing, for example, you have to scan your possessions before entering the subway. In situations like this, you should follow the same steps as you would at the airport but be ready for less knowledgeable staff and language barriers. Avoid carrying all of your film on your day trips if you know you’d be crossing those checkpoints.
As with anything else flashy and expensive, you are more likely to lose your possessions in transit than at any other time. You can read your consulate’s travel advisories; crimes directed at visitors aren’t necessarily dependent on how cheap or expensive your destination is.
Fragile equipment is also at a higher risk on the road. Vintage cameras aren’t weather-sealed and can cause some grief if scratched or banged up in transport.
In short: pack light, be smart about protecting your film from X-rays, especially CT scanners, have fun, and don’t take unnecessary risks.
Other options to keep your film safe from X-rays.
If you’re planning to fill a suitcase full of photographic materials or are unwilling to go through security with it, mailing film may be a viable option. As far as I can tell, and according to the accounts of other photographers and film labs, mail packages are not routinely X-rayed. Though it’s a good idea to mark them as “LIGHT SENSITIVE.” Going this route means that you will need to know your destination’s mailing address and be able to arrange a timely delivery.
Depending on where in the world you’re flying, you may also be able to buy and develop your film after the landing. The prices, quality, and speed of the labs will vary; I would typically do a quick search to find out ahead of time. In general, these kinds of services are expected to be available in most large North American cities, Europe, and Asia. I can’t speak for South America, but I’ve been told that it’s much tougher to find this stuff in Africa.
This article may get updated as the aviation and general security measures change. Have a safe trip!