Traveling with film – By Tobias Weisserth

Posted on by Bellamy

How to beat the dreaded X-ray
This is the first article by a contributor for Japancamerahunter and it is exactly what I was looking for.
This article is By Tobias Weisserth, who will hopefully contribute more in the future.

Traveling with film – Tobias Weisserth
As the photography world has gone mostly digital, there remain some veterans who continue to expose on film. Although their numbers are becoming smaller year by year, some younger generation photographers – like me – are rediscovering the old art of exposing on film as the necessary equipment has never been cheaper on Ebay and the likes. Luckily, companies like Kodak are now offering films better than any available ever before, so shooting on film should be more fun than ever, right? Well, it’s true unless you take into account the enormous hassle that photographers have to go through when they travel with film.

Film, especially after it has been exposed already, is a very sensitive medium. It’s easy to ruin film. All it takes is too much heat, too much radiation, a critical amount of moisture and so on. While handling and taking care of film is usually no problem within the comfort zone of your home town it becomes much more inconvenient when you enter public transportation with all its modern, post 9-11 security requirements. One of the most dangerous sources of radiation that can harm your film are X-rays as you will encounter it in numerous scanning devices at all airports and many train and bus stations in many countries of the world. Also, covering a lot of distance inflight at great height will expose your film to a some radiation unless you shield it properly.

To what extend do X-rays harm your film?

Well, X-rays can fog the film, rendering it virtually unusable. The effect depends on the total amount of radiation applied to a film and the speed of the film. Faster films (with higher ISO ratings) are more sensitive. Films already exposed but not processed are also more sensitive. Kodak has done tests with slow and medium-speed films (rated at up to ISO 200) and they were found to be able to handle up to 16 passes through the X-ray machines used to check hand luggage at modern Western airports. Faster films, starting at ISO 400 are much more sensitive to X-ray damage. They probably won’t handle more than four or five passes – less if you already exposed them. If you push film – for example exposing an ISO 400 film at ISO 800 within your camera – the problem will be more severe as well. The X-ray machines in remote regions of the world will most likely emit a much higher dose of radiation.

How can I protect my film while traveling?

Answering this question is fairly easy. Keep your film dry, keep it away from direct sunlight and don’t let it get X-rayed. Securing the first two items on that checklist is fairly easy. The biggest problem will be dealing with countless security workers at airports, train and bus stations and many public sites that require a security check. A few general rules of advice apply:

  • When flying, don’t put your film with your checked baggage. Checked baggage X-ray machines use a much higher dose of radiation.
  • Don’t put your film in a shielded container. Once inside an X-ray machine, the operator will just increase the radiation volume until he’s able to see what’s inside.
  • Put all your film in a transparent Ziplock bag and store that bag inside your carry-on luggage where it’s easy to reach and pull out. Nothing is more annoying than someone in line in front of you, digging for a piece of luggage deep down inside his bags. Don’t be that guy.
  • Mark the exposed rolls of film, so you can easily sort those out if needed. Also, mark rolls pushed beyond their ISO value. Having an organized system helps when dealing with airport security while they hand-check your film.
  • When traveling with film, plan for up to an hour of additional time in security. Yes, you can get that unlucky.
  • Don’t put film into your camera(s) when going through a security check. The camera will be scanned, there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re really unlucky, it will be hand-checked and maybe opened, ruining the film anyway. If you have an already half-exposed roll of film in your camera, consider the risk and decide if you want to rewind it and get it out. That’s your call.

Dealing with the airport security staff can be frustrating at times. In general, security workers will try to persuade you to just put your film through the X-ray machine. Always bear in mind, that you absolutely need to be friendly and respectful – or you will achieve the opposite of what you intended. Also, always be honest about what you say. If you don’t have exposed film in your luggage, don’t say so. I have encountered countless airport security workers at airports around the world and the discussion about checking film always boiled down to what I have formatted as a dialog guide with the security staff’s arguments and your possible answers:

Security: It’s safe to put the film into the machine. The X-ray machine has been designed for this (a “photo safe” sticker on the machine indicates this).

You: It may be safe once or twice, but I will be traveling through quite a few security checks and each one adds up to the total amount of radiation the film will be exposed to. Can you please hand-check the film?

Security: What do you have there? ISO 1600? Anything below ISO 1600 is safe, put it through the machine! (This version often comes with a sarcastic tone when they notice your ISO 100 rolls)

Security: You will expose the film to a higher dose of radiation anyway when you take it on the plane. Just put it through the machine. (Also, this one often comes with a sarcastic tone)

Security: It’s safe to put the film into the machine. I’m a photographer myself, I have tested the machine with my own film and I could not detect any negative effect on my film.

You: Kodak has tested the effects of modern X-ray scanners on unexposed film up to ISO 200 and test results have shown that this film can be rendered useless after 16 passes through the machine. As I will be traveling through a lot of security checks with this film, I cannot take the risk of the film being exposed to unnecessary radiation. Can you please hand-check my film?

You: I have film already exposed here too. Exposed but unprocessed film is more sensitive to radiation. I cannot risk damage to this film. Can you please hand-check it?

You: I have pushed some of the film beyond its ISO value (for example exposing ISO 400 film at ISO 800). The film is more sensitive now, can you please hand-check it?

When I expose on film I actually always have film rated at ISO 400 with me and a lot of times, I push ISO 400 to ISO 800. For the sake of being able to argue that way, it doesn’t even hurt to take one or two rolls of high ISO film with you. If you store everything in one transparent bag, it doesn’t make much sense to sort out the slow film, put it through the machine while the fast film is hand-checked, so everything will get hand-checked.

I experienced that it helps a lot if you’re able to speak the native language of the security staff. At Amsterdam/Schiphol (which is a horrible airport by the way), an additional security check with X-ray scanning is necessary before/while boarding the plane. The security staff was extremely uncooperative as there wasn’t much room or time to hand-check baggage items. As I switched to Dutch in our conversation, they became extremely helpful and hand-checked my film – while plain refusing it beforehand. I experienced the same on the return flights through Amsterdam/Schiphol.

I have never managed to get my films hand-checked in Heathrow. The security staff working in Heathrow is ruthless and they refuse to accept any of these arguments. When traveling through Heathrow, I never take any film.

Some countries have a weird attitude of high respect towards foreigners which might work to your advantage. In China for example, I just acted like it’s the most ordinary and usual thing that film gets hand-checked. While I put all my carry-on luggage through the machine, I just handed the security staff the bag with my film, asking them in a more or less “matter of fact” way to hand-check the film. I never had any problems. If you want to try this, just remember to stay polite and respectful. At most train and bus stations in rural mainland China, you also have to walk through a security check with a regular metal detector to walk through and an antiquated X-ray machine to check your carry-on luggage. I usually grabbed the bag of film – often showing it to the security guard next to the machine – while passing through the metal detector without subjecting the film to the X-ray scanner. Almost nobody in China wants to deal with a “foreign devil” it seemed, so this worked out neatly all the time.

In hindsight, I will probably avoid traveling with film in the future. While it’s still – or now even more than ever – a great medium for photographic exposure, it’s just a lot of hassle and worry when you’re passing through airport security. Ideally, if you really want to expose on film, you might plan your trip in a way that you’ll buy the film on location if that’s possible and get it processed on location as well. Unless you’re traveling to under- or non-developed countries, that might probably work out fine as long as you research a suitable local store beforehand. In fact, for trips to modern Western countries, passing through major cities, there shouldn’t be any problem with that approach.

For more information regarding this topic, check out Kodak’s pages about traveling with film. They even have a “do not X-ray” print-out label for your luggage to download. I don’t want to argue about how useful that really is. Maybe it’s useful to you.
For feedback, your comments will be most welcome.

19 Responses to Traveling with film – By Tobias Weisserth

Scott J January 11, 2012 at 10:38 am

To expedite hand-inspection, always pack a dummy roll of Delta 3200 with your other film.

For travel outside the USA, particularly in problem countries like the UK that will not do hand-inspection, I use a Sima FilmShield XPF20 bag. I recently had a security agent congratulate me on choosing a bag that was completely opaque to X-rays; he pointed out that they routinely “blast right through” the foil ones.

Unfortunately, the Sima XPF20, which is made of a heavy(!) lead-lined fabric similar to dental X-ray vests, is no longer available. That’s pretty typical of good film/darkroom accessories these days, isn’t it.

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Rizal Razak January 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm

I guess Asian countries airport securities are more accomodating. I have gone thru Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka, Hong Kong and Saigon the past 12 months…. they didn’t shoot down my request for a hand check, just put them in a clear plastic bag or fujifilm box, smile and ask politely.

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Luis Andrei January 12, 2012 at 1:54 am

Good article. I just wanted to share my experience from a recent flight, where due to trying to rush through security I forgot to take out my film bag (plastic). Soon after I realized that I left some Ilford Delta 3200 (exposed at 1600) and HP5 (pushed to 800 and 1600) in my carry-on bag. This was an U.S. airport (LAS). After kicking myself during return flight I developed the 3200 and after seeing that it turned out great y developed the rest. This was just one pass through the security checkpoint machine, by mistake, but luckily it turned out ok.

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Mark Olwick January 12, 2012 at 2:44 am

Some good tips here but your conclusion that you’ll avoid traveling with film in the future is sad and unnecessary! I travel constantly and internationally and have never had a problem, never even requested a hand inspection. I just put it through in my carry-on. To put things in perspective, I just had 19 flights in 6 weeks, all with film. Not a bit of fogging (my fastest film is 400) despite repeated runs though xray machines. If I were shooting faster, I definitely would but that’s just been my experience.

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Christopherr January 12, 2012 at 3:57 am

Very interesting article. Well done!

Ive been flying between Toronto and New York lately and have passed through the x-ray security twice in the past 2 months. It totally slipped my mind, but I have had several rolls of new unused and used unprocessed film pass (including my camera with film loaded) through the machines. Im hoping that they are not damaged after only 2 passes.

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Tobias W. January 12, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Mark, Christopher: thanks for your comments.

I fogged an ISO400 film with one pass through an X-Ray machine at an airport once. Since then, I try to avoid putting film through them at all costs.

As usual, it all depends. The operator of the X-Ray machine will expose your luggage to radiation longer if he needs to take a closer look at something he can’t identify immediately. Also, if you have only light material assets in your luggage such as clothes the power level of the radiation will be weaker compared to when you have a lot of high density objects in your luggage where the operator will simply increase the level of radiation until he can see through everything. For example, if I’d put my solid metal 1980 Minolta XD7 in the luggage, the luggage will be exposed to a much higher dose of radiation.

In Heathrow, where they simply refuse to hand-check my film, I convinced them to at least run the film through the machine by itself. The film containers are plastic so the operator doesn’t have to turn up the power too much. The film came out OK.

But remember, every pass through the machine adds to the film. The film IS exposed by a single pass and there IS a chemical reaction on the film. It’s just not visible after the first pass. Every pass adds to that. If you travel longer, the natural radiation at high altitudes and additional security checks at your destination will all increase the risk of you film being ruined.

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    kevin January 20, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    I must agree with Mark. I have travelled extensively for 20 years and passed hundreds of rolls of film through security xray and have never had even one film damaged. I think that people new to film should not worry about it. Lets face it, until digital came along everyone used film. That’s billions upon billions of rolls of film. I wonder if the fogged film you talk about could have happened another way.
    I am off to India net week and will be taking 50 rolls of film confident that all will be well.

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Bastian S. January 12, 2012 at 10:47 pm

You don’t have to be so scared of travelling with films. I don’t have a digital camera and therefore every travel I do, I do with film. Never has any kind of X-Ray machinery hurt one of my films. Even Tri-X pushed to 1600 had no problem with being x-rayed.
The only thing you have to do is carry your film in your carry-on luggage. It’s never wrong to ask politely for a hand-check of the films, but if that isn’t possible that wouldn’t be something to hinder me from travelling with film.

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David Walters January 15, 2012 at 12:06 am

I spent two months this summer traveling in India, shooting film the entire way. One thing to be aware of in Delhi is the presence of x-ray machines at subways, malls, and other public places of interest. The most rewarding part of the trip may have been my ability to get 10 rolls of film past a very armed military and three separate xray machines before bordering, at the LEH airport flying to Srinagar near the Pakistan border. Having film in clear plastic baggies, labeled, and the cameras you are shooting, with a business card, worked best for me, with the additional begging / pleading to the supervisor.

But as noted above, going through an x-ray machine once should not do much damage. As I unfortunately could not use my skills to forgo China’s security team! When in doubt, do your best to avoid it, but know it’s not 100% death to the film if x-rayed.

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Luca P. March 23, 2012 at 3:24 am

I went recently through 2 security checks in Kaunas (LT) and Gatwick (UK). In both of them I managed to convince the security personnel to hand check the 3 films I was carrying with me both ways, but I decided for the future to buy and develop film locally if I can.
There is in fact no point in ruining my trip with discussions with people who know everything better than you…

No point in risking to damage films either. I honestly wouldn’t bother to shoot a new roll that I know it passed through an X-ray machine. I’d rather buy a new one and being safe.

I have a question though. To an X-ray machine the rolls will look like rolls as they are in metal, so what is the point to pass them through anyway?

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Colin Corneau February 18, 2014 at 9:26 am

I can add my voice to the others that have taken film through numerous security checks with no adverse effects. However, this article is a great source of information as frankly, I think it’s mostly luck that I can say this.
I make my own luck by asking for hand inspection – and have yet to be turned down. I figure at the very least, I’ll cut down the X-rays somewhat and every bit counts.

Make it easy for security to say yes to you — be exceedingly polite.
Buy some ziploc bags at your supermarket. Keep your unexposed and exposed film there; they can see it in an instant. It also has the nice effect of keeping dust or sand out of your canisters.

When I travelled to Hong Kong some years ago, I had all my C-41 and E-6 exposed film developed there — so all I had to do was take back the finished product, with no worries about radiation exposure.

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Peter Stewart February 18, 2014 at 9:32 am

I remember once accidentally leaving a few rolls of exposed film in my checked luggage. Once I got home I had them developed, the C41 had these weird streaks all over the film. I also had a roll of T-Max 400 which just came out as a foggy mess.

Rookie mistake :(

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Rogério February 18, 2014 at 9:35 am

Great article. That’s all there. And that’s nothing else more to be done. I’ve never tried lead bags, but maybe they work.
I, unfortunately, agree with the closure. As I matter of fact, I’ve done it already. After moving back to film and shooting exclusively analog for more than an year now, I bought a second-hand digital camera that is practically the same thing as my analog rangefinder, if you don’t count the fact the it is digital. The reason was precisely the traveling hassle and a couple of ruined rolls.
Of course I still shoot film – but not when traveling anymore.
Cheers, R.

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Johnny February 18, 2014 at 11:21 am

I love the pretend conversation with TSA! However, the real world doesn’t work this way. Better solution: lie. Get yourself some Delta 3200 film boxes and put your film of whatever speed in them. Wave these in front of TSA in a plastic baggie and say “Could you please hand inspect my high-speed film?”. TSA doesn’t know f#ckall about film and they don’t f#cking care. All they know is 1600+ = hand inspection. I do this every time I fly and have never had a problem.

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Peter February 18, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Yes, yes, great advice. But you didn’t include anything about how to deal with an impatient wife who doesn’t want to be “embarrassed” at the security point. Even a bag full of camera gear being delayed in the scanner for more than one second is a source of domestic disharmony.

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Stan March 10, 2014 at 1:14 pm

17 rolls of Delta Ilford 400 ruined! I got home and started developing half of my rolls and they are all coming out fogged so far! I wish I read this article beforehand, rookie mistake I guess. I hope that I can at least print something off of them…

And next time I’ll just either get it developed before I return or perhaps ship it, but i’m not certain that they won’t X-ray it that way too! Argh!

If anyone wants to know, I went through at least 6 X-ray machines from Canada to Poland and back.

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Dai March 17, 2014 at 3:02 am

I remember about this. My mom bought a x-ray preventing bag designed for such a situation and I used to put all my films in there and after digital camera came on market I totally forgot about the bag and now I am shooting with film camera and reading above information, shall buy such a x-ray preventing bag once again if still someone selling.

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