Air Travel With Photographic Film

Packing, Airport Security Checkpoints, and Other Trip Considerations

13 min read by Dmitri and Betty. Published in Film, Photography.

Depending on your means of transportation and destination, travelling with analogue photography gear may pose some risks. Its weight may turn a fun adventure into a laborious affair; your film and camera may get damaged, stolen, or confiscated.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively over the past decade, visiting close to 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.

Note: In preparation for this post, I’ve read a dozen articles, watched a few videos, and asked questions online. All types of equipment are listed here, but you should know that I am speaking out of my personal experience, limited to instant and 35mm film. Please also don’t treat anything written here as legal advice.

What gear to take.

My wife and I travelled with nothing but two backpacks for a year across East Asia. Inside our bags were all the things we owned, aside from two guitars and a sewing machine stashed at my mom’s house. We shared our bedrooms with strangers at various hostels, often leaving after one day of lodging.

I’ve gotten some great images during that time but, in retrospect, they are mementos of my adventures, rather than art. With me, I had a DSLR camera with three lenses: prime, zoom, and wide-angle; it occupied about 10% of my available space. Along with my digital kit, I brought my Diana Mini, and Betty had her Lomography La Sardinia.

For my week-long trip across Canada to visit my parents, I took my SX-70 with two packs of film, a flash bar, laptop, documents, underwear, shirts, socks, and headphones for my brother, which I brought as a gift. I bought more film once I arrived in Toronto.

I walked thousands of miles with more glass than needed, fiddling with my lenses while my travel group slowly faded into the fog. This experience changed how I think about photography. Most of the cameras I own today are relatively light, fixed prime rangefinders that can fit in a pocket.

What you take on your trip should be determined by the nature of your activities.

Should you embark on a long expedition with a backpack, whether in a city or out in the wilderness, where your objective is to cover a lot of ground — I suggest you take the lightest gear you own.

It may be helpful to consult with your travel companion, if you have one, on the upcoming activities. Should you plan to focus on photography, perhaps you can decide together which gear to take.

If you’re new to film, consider that your photosensitive medium is the most important factor in the end quality of your images. A 10,000$ Leica lens will render superior detail to your plastic toy camera, but the “sensor,” i.e. film, is the same. Your fancy camera body may help you reduce shake, meter the light better, and give a nicer feel in hand, but it can also cause you to be more careful with it than the trip conditions permit and add the risk of being stolen.

I suggest you pack light and don’t include precious gear.

How to pack your film camera.

Depending on its size and your packing list, your camera may be transported in your checked or carry-on luggage. You can also take it on your person if it fits in a pocket or on a strap. Though the more things are hanging off your shoulders, the harder it is to maneuver around crowds and in tight spaces.

It’s best to take the film out of your camera before going to the airport. While security agents are typically trained to handle film, they almost certainly going to make you put your camera through an X-ray machine. And that may fog your film after repeated exposure or, with the new CT scanners — instantly.

I took Fuji Neopan Acros loaded into Voigtländer Vitessa through the usual X-ray machine four times without any noticeable defects to any of the photographs.

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 the security. Most X-ray machines will not damage new film. I’ve put ISO 3200 black and white film and ISO 800 colour instant film though X-rays and found nothing wrong with the images.

Your packed cameras should be secured against drops with ample padding and a tight fit within. I had mine in their leather cases or boxes, surrounded by cotton T-shirts in a checked-in suitcase when I moved to Vancouver. The trunk’s shell provided sufficient protection against sharp objects, stairs, and concrete corners.

If you decide to take something large and expensive, you may be able to bring it with you to the cabin. I’ve carried a full-size guitar in a hard-shell case on-board, but I wasn’t always allowed to do so. If your gear can’t fit into a large backpack, you need to prep special transport case(s) and call ahead to verify the maximum allowed dimensions and weight.

Your film and X-rays.

X-rays are the high-energy light particles that are capable of passing through opaque objects.

“X-ray Photography” by Teresa Zgoda, source: Bēhance (CC).

A special device consisting of a vacuum tube and an emitting cathode, i.e. a “lamp,” is employed to generate 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 or a special X-ray film; photons that do make it through yield light areas in the resulting image. Dark regions represent the object’s components, which are dense enough to block radiation.

Consumer film is made to respond to visible light. It isn’t generally sensitive to X-rays. However, as they pass through the packaging, the rays 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 time as the various naturally-occurring energy particles pass through it. Over the years of subjection to background radiation, film inadvertently becomes gradually exposed. As if you were to crack a canister open in dim light and then put it back together. The effect is called fogging; it’s typically undesirable as it adds white noise to your shadows and random colour noise to your C-41 film.

Your unexposed film’s ability to bring out smooth colours and crisp blacks is continuously threatened by time multiplied by the strength of the surrounding radiation. Ideal conditions should keep it useable for a few decades, but unusual hazards like X-Ray scans, which are far stronger than background noise, speed up the ageing process.

Film that’s more sensitive, with a higher ISO rating, degrades faster over time and under X-rays. This is because high ISO film is more receptive to light/radiation. Thus, its damaging effects are amplified.

In my experience, most new film can be taken through traditional airport X-rays multiple times with no issues. But there’s a risk; this is why I always ask to have my canisters hand-checked.

Plastic lens’ soft focus, vignetting, dust/scratches, and imprecise exposure aside, this photograph shows little noticeable colour noise/fogging after having gone through a few X-ray machines and three years in hot a Southeast Asian climate.

The new CT scanners at the US airports.

Definitely ask for a hand check when you notice a big blue, glowing orbThe new CT scanners are reportedly much more detrimental to film than X-ray machines.

CT scanner’s US patent diagram (CC).

Not to be confused with MRI machines, which look similar, CT scanners are tubular contraptions that take hundreds of X-ray images 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.

For the TSA agents, this technology is to speed up the rate at which they can inspect your stuff. Their goal is to improve security and passenger experience. For film, this could mean about 250 times the usual X-ray exposure.

For perspective, according to the American Cancer Society, a typical X-ray scan emits 0.1 mSv (millisieverts) of radiation. A CT scan is 10 to 25 mSv — 100 to 250 times the amount.

🚨According to TSA, these new devices are being rolled out at the following airports:

✈︎ Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

✈︎ Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI)

✈︎ Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)

✈︎ Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG)

✈︎ Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW)

✈︎ Houston Hobby Airport (HOU)

✈︎ Indianapolis International Airport (IND)

✈︎ John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)

✈︎ Logan International Airport (BOS)

✈︎ Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

✈︎ Miami International Airport (MIA)

✈︎ Oakland International Airport (OAK)

✈︎ Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

✈︎ Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)

✈︎ St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL)

✈︎ Tampa International Airport (TPA)

✈︎ Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD)

How to safely pass through airport security with your film.

Travel security zones are the areas of topmost surveillance and policemanship. Worse than a bank.

The vast majority of travellers get to go through checkpoints with no issues, but some may get trapped for random searches, questioning, refused entry, and so forth. This is why, practically all advice found online states politeness as a requirement.

Perhaps, civility is a more sensible word. Considering the huge number of people the security personnel are responsible for, their priority is to do their job properly and swiftly. This is what I do to help them:

Don’t forget your travel documents!

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.

2. Do not leave film in your checked baggage. On the belt, it may get scanned with higher-powered machines.

3. 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 is very important.

I’ve carried film through over a dozen airports in North America and Asia without ever having been denied hand-inspection. USA, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, etc. — all good. The only airport that ignored my request was Singapore’s Changi, which, as they claimed on Twitter, was a misunderstanding.

4. Do not use lead-lined bags. Imagine being an officer and encountering an object on an X-ray belt you could not see through. Your job and the security of passengers depends on your ability to detect suspicious items. Would you just let it go?

No. If the staff isn’t able to see through your bags with the devices at hand, they will ask you to take your film out of your lead bag, take it through an X-ray machine and spend some extra time examining your contents.

5. Arrive early at your airport. It’s commonly recommended to be two hours early for international departures and one hour early for domestic departures at most airports. Some are busier than others — please do your own search for wherever you’re departing from. Then add another 30 minutes to be on a safe side.

During hand inspection, officers may look around your “exotic” camera, even after it’s been through X-rays. They’ll ask you to open it, and then they’ll swab it for explosive compound residue. You will then be responsible for helping them handle your gear and left on your own to put it all back together.

If you are to bring your film canisters unpacked, in a clear ziplock bag, they will be swabbed for explosives as well. In Asia and North America, airport security is usually well-versed in what film is and what X-rays can do to it. So far, I’ve only had one incident when my film went through the machine against my wishes, and it wasn’t a big deal.

6. Understand that while you aren’t likely to be denied hand inspection, it may happen, and you must be OK with it. Most consumer film will not be affected by small amounts of X-ray exposure.

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 major East Asian airports. However, there are some accounts of Heathrow airport being an absolute worst and rumours of European attendants not being as understanding.

If you travel with sheet film or light-sensitive paper, you can ask for hand-checks as well.

Other trip options and considerations.

If you’re planning to fill a suitcase full of photographic materials or just 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.

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. 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.

Kodak T-MAX P3200 that went through an X-ray scanner twice on the way to and from Toronto with no visible damage.

Have a safe trip!