Traveling with film: Heathrow update


by Bellamy /

3 min read
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Traveling with film: Heathrow update
So, I have just come back from a trip to the UK. Which was wonderful, thanks for asking. But there is usually one thing that fills me with dread when leaving the UK, and that is bloody Heathrow airport!. That place is a nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be. And here is how.

So, I was at Heathrow a couple of days back. I have had plenty of experience in the past with the jobsworth muppets there insisting on scanning my film with the X-ray despite my protestations. I have even been threatened with arrest if I didn’t comply with the commands of a po-faced git who couldn’t care less about my film (or swearing loudly at myself or my family).
This time I decided to try a different tack. I have a Star Alliance card which gives me a perk of being able to go through priority screening. I don’t always do this as I usually don’t need to, but I saw the queue and though ‘sod it, I have a test to perform’. So I went through the screening, which was completely empty and asked to have my film hand checked. They said “NO, not on your nelly, you cheeky bugger”. But I was insistent.
After an extremely polite exchange and many apologies I asked if I could speak to the supervisor and they agreed. But it wasn’t the supervisor that came over, it was the flipping head of security! And he was a throughly pleasant chap.

And here is the skinny.
The head of security at Heathrow told me it is standard policy to scan film. And hand checking is practically impossible because of the amount of foot traffic they get. He kindly offered to hand check my films this time as there was nobody about, but he explained that more often than not they will refuse you.
But there is a way around this he told me. X-ray bags. Yes, X-ray bags (just like these ones).
I thought they would not go through or cause them to rip through all of your gear piece by piece (kind of slamming the holding people up argument). But I was told there is a very simple way of doing this.

1. Put all of your crap in the trays as usual. And don’t forget those coins in your pocket!
2. Get that laptop out, as you know how dangerous those things can be.
3. Put your film in an X-ray bag.
4. Put that X-ray bag in a tray all on its own, with NOTHING else in the tray.
5. Profit?

Well, actually what happens is, the film goes through, cannot be scanned and is flagged for inspection. But as it is not with all of your other gear it will be the only thing inspected. Basically you are forcing a hand check on your film, but only your film. Which means you win, and your film stays safe.

Pretty much most of the airports I fly through are more than happy to hand check, but when you find a place like Heathrow you might find these simple steps handy.

Cheers and happy travels.

37 comments on “Traveling with film: Heathrow update”

    Dan Castelli September 8, 2015 at 11:34 pm / Reply

    Thank you for this timely article. If I may, a question:

    My wife & I are flying from the US to Florence via Paris. On the Boston end; no problem – they’ll hand inspect (sometimes relunctently). When we arrive in Paris, we’ve got a 2 hour layover. I don’t know if we’re exiting the security area, or we’ll remain. If the film needed to pass through a security check, I’d like to ask for hand inspection (without becoming an a/hole about it).

    What has been your (or your reader’s) experience with security & film checks in Paris/France? If the situation presents itself, will they perform a hand inspection?

    The film in question will be Ilford’s XP-2.

    Once in Florence, I’ll be processing my film before we fly out back to the US.

    Thank you for a unique, entertaining and informative site. I check you postings and the “In Your Bag” on a daily basis.

    Dan Castelli

    eric September 8, 2015 at 11:46 pm / Reply

    Well for these bags, at san-jose airport in california, they told me that in this case they’ll just pump up the volume, well put the scanner at the highest rating and see inside anyway with the result that your film get more exposure than they deserve. I’m really thinking about processing on site when traveling.. By the way if you knows someone in Peru who can lend me his or her darkroom for an evening in july 2016 i’ll be more than happy.

      Bellamy September 9, 2015 at 7:39 am /

      The Security chappie mentioned that even if they could ‘pump up the volume’ it is lead, so it still will only appear as a black lump. The X-ray will not penetrate the bag. which is why they then have to hand check.

    Daniel September 9, 2015 at 12:06 am / Reply

    Normal ISO film is unaffected by X-rays as long as you don’t put them through the checked in luggage x-ray (don’t do that). High sensitive film however (800 above) is not safe through any x-ray. These are my personal observations from (a lot) of traveling with film. Nowadays I do bring my x-ray bag anyways as security personnel can be a real hustle, especially in Europe!

    Dan Castelli September 9, 2015 at 12:12 am / Reply

    I remember reading a technical paper on film & x-rays.

    It stated that film can only take four x-ray ‘hits’ before becoming fogged.

    The damage is cumulative.

    I was under the impression that x-ray machines located @ walk-through security gates cannot have their scanning boosted to higher rates due to possible health problems that could affect the security workers.

    What is correct based on fact and not folklore.

    Scott W September 9, 2015 at 12:37 am / Reply

    Do they make an x-ray bag large enough to carry 20 boxes of Fuji FP-3000b?

    Antoine R.T. September 9, 2015 at 1:15 am / Reply

    @Dan Castelli: I fly out of Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle a lot, always with film. I tried once to ask for hand-checking, and they wouldn’t even discuss it. It is worth trying though, you never know, but I would advise to be extremely polite, and you might score major points by asking in French. I guess an OK phrase for that would be “Pourriez-vous s’il vous plaît contrôler mes pellicules photo séparément?”
    For what it’s worth, I’ve had film both exposed and unexposed that went through 4 X-Ray hits or more and I’ve never noticed a problem, even with Delta 3200 or Superia 1600.
    Best of luck !

    Dan Castelli September 9, 2015 at 3:42 am / Reply

    @ Antoine,
    Thank you! My high school French was last spoken almost 50 years ago…I’m afraid I’d cause an international incident if I attempted to speak your beautiful language!

    I’ll print the statement on a card and smile as I hand it to the security people.

    Martin September 9, 2015 at 7:44 am / Reply

    Xrays are cumulative. But if you have <= 400 film you are just not going to notice any effect, even after multiple scans. Try it and see, done it many a time and nothing, zip. The concern is unwarranted.

    Tom Higgins September 9, 2015 at 7:49 am / Reply

    Experienced both ends of the scanning problem on a trip from Florida to Reagan International in Washington. Took my Nikon F100 And 4 rolls of Velvia 100/36 slide film as I was attending Baptism of 2 Great Grandchildren in Virginia. Leaving Fort Meyers, I had all film plus several Tri-X in Zip Lock clear plastic bag. At security check point, as I placed camera bag on belt, I removed film in zip lock and handed it to security guard and asked if he could please hand check. “No Problem” he said, and walked around X- Ray waited for me to get there and handed it back to me. I thanked him and he said ” Have a Nice Day ” and that was it.
    Coming back from Reagan I tried the same thing and the TSA agent got really angry and threw my film into the X Ray scanner as though I was bothering him. When I developed the film, most showed signs of X Ray exposure. I guess it depends very much upon what airport you are using.

    Marian Tudor September 9, 2015 at 7:49 am / Reply

    If you fly from Romania (especially from Henry Coandă airport) they will hand check your films without question. Put them in a transparent bag and just ask. Is really that simple. Also the guys from airport security told me that there are European regulation regarding traveling with film and if you politely insist to hand-checking and also make a point from the fact that you are well aware of your rights, in any European airport they are forced to comply.
    I tested this in Sicily (Fontanarosa airport). At the beginning, the airport security did not wanted to hand-check my films, but after I remind them about my legal right, they agree and carefully proceed to hand-check. After they finished, they also start a corporal inspection on me. Probably for fun and because I wasted their time. Who knows…

    Janne September 9, 2015 at 9:08 am / Reply

    If you only have a few rolls – especially medium-format film – you can just put them in your pocket. You are going to get very low or no x-ray exposure (depending on if they use passenger x-ray machines or not), and at least medium-format rolls will not trigger any metal detector. I’m not completely sure about 35mm canisters though.

    Yannick Avila September 9, 2015 at 3:42 pm / Reply

    I live in Paris anda travel often so my experience my help answer your question! Never had my film scanned here at Charles De Gaulle and/or Orly! Twice the person came with that standard rule that film under given ISO (they never say the same thing) can go through without problems. I then explain that I’ll be taking several flights and the cumulative damage could be very important. After some kind but “sure and firm” insisting they usually allow the hand check. The funny thing is that it happened more than once to have a cool chap hand checking my film, sometimes even a photography fan or someone amazed that film is still used! So my advice is, just insist a little bit.
    I usually come through the metal detector holding the plastic bag with film inside and tell them what’s happening!
    Hope it helps you!

    Damien September 9, 2015 at 4:03 pm / Reply

    Thanks again Bellamy for sharing those informations.
    Living in London and flying a lot to the mainland I had various experience. Got my film handchecked without problem at Liverpool and Helsinki airport. Stanstead, Gatwick and Heathrow not a chance thanksfully I bought from you a precious lead xray bag which saved me. Handed up in endless argument in my last trip from stanstead and was told my the security supervisor that the machine is safe up 3200asa.. Tried to explain that I’ve never seen native film above that..

    I used to be able picking choosing a lane with an old dude behind the belt to pass all my films at Marseille airport but they change the loosy security company recently..

    Marian mentioned in the comments some regulations, could help us on that. I would love to print the directive or decision and carry it around airport checks..

    Keep up the work dude.

    Damien September 9, 2015 at 4:24 pm / Reply

    Apologies for typo.. Reckless android corrector. I wish I could edit the comment.

    Bettina September 9, 2015 at 5:26 pm / Reply

    Wow amazing tip Bellamy! I always fly through Heathrow and I asked for hand inspections for my film before. No dice.
    This is a great tip I will try in a few weeks. Thanks!!

    Adam September 9, 2015 at 6:49 pm / Reply

    I do this with the xray bag.

    Last month in Perth airport, the lady interrogating the xray screen said “is that film? Next time you better ask for a hand inspection instead “. I was pleasantly surprised :)

    Tom September 9, 2015 at 8:24 pm / Reply

    I’ve never had a problem with film and Xrays. Its a different spectrum of light to what most (note most) film is made to pick up. I regularly fly (every few months) across Aus from Perth, back through Melbourne to Canberra to visit my folks and I take all my film through.

    I mention there is film, occasionally I am asked if I would like it hand checked, but decline because i’ve never had an adverse effect on any film I carry, be it SFX, normal B&W, Colour or Slides

    Tobias Weisserth September 10, 2015 at 12:00 am / Reply

    Bellamy, I just flew into Salt Lake City this week, going through Denver on my way into the States. TSA always hand checks film when asked, no further questions asked. I have all my film in a Domke Film Guard bag. The bag went through the machine, the film was hand checked. The TSA guy told me that they can x-ray right through those bags. “You might think we can’t, but in fact we do. We just crank up the power of the machine and then we can see right through.” The amount of radiation hitting the film might actually be worse then sending the film through the machine without the bag. So I doubt this is a good idea…

      Bellamy September 10, 2015 at 7:43 am /

      I was told the direct opposite by the chap at Heathrow. He said they almost never crack up the power as it is essentially pointless to do so. Seems there is a lot of conflicting info out there.

    Nick September 10, 2015 at 12:27 am / Reply

    Great article!

    I fly regularly in the US (typically from Reagan National in DC to Boston Logan) with the occasional international flight from Dulles International to Europe. In my experience the TSA (the US security agency) will always hand inspect if you ask politely; it is their policy to hand inspect if you ask (just check their website and search “film”). I’ve also had it hand inspected at various European airports (Heathrow, Venice, Munich, Reykjavik, and probably others that I am forgetting) and in Canada (Quebec City and Toronto). However, my last flight out of Heathrow was a few years ago…

    Just be aware that whether it gets hand inspected is entirely dependent on the person you encounter. If traveling internationally, add any potential language barrier to your list of concerns. Are you prepared to have your film go through X-ray despite your best efforts? Because I usually travel with low-speed slide films (Velvia 100), I don’t care too much. But if I were doing a critical project or using large amounts of 400+ ISO film (pushed or otherwise), I would not trust my images to the whims of the security officers. Mail it to yourself or your favorite lab, save time at the airport, and save space in your luggage!

    Or just take the train/bus and avoid security altogether.

    Also handy: Kodak’s take on the matter

    Marian Tudor September 10, 2015 at 4:50 am / Reply

    Hi again,
    Apparently, everybody knows that there are EU regulations regarding traveling with films by air, but nobody knows exactly to point the finger to a particular law or regulation.
    I get lost searching through the legislation web site of EU and got nothing specific. If any of you has time to search, this is the link:
    I’m sorry i could’t be more helpful…..

    Zoran Milosavljevic September 10, 2015 at 9:23 am / Reply

    Excuse me for being blunt and or rude, but no s#it Sherlock, I’ve done this since the 80’s the British and the French have always been unreasonable about this. In the days when everyone shot film it might have been understandable, but now it’s just plane malicious and lazy!

    Mambo September 10, 2015 at 6:34 pm / Reply

    I’ve gone through xray machines with my films a couple of times. Always asa400 film and don’t seem to see any problems. Not sure about higher asa films.

    alex September 10, 2015 at 8:07 pm / Reply

    i’ve had dots appear on tri-x because the film was already in the camera (mamiya 645) and they had to crank up the xray to scan the body. never had problems with film outside.

    DOFFactory September 11, 2015 at 5:37 am / Reply

    I have been travelling in the last 4-5 years a lot with film. Mostly EU. I can second your experience at Heathrow, especially on Friday-Sunday flights the chance for hand inspection is equal to 0%. Moreover, I also experienced what Tobias mentions in his comment: TSA guys can indeed raise the power of the X-ray machine. Just check them out while you are packing your stuff, you will notice how the TSA person is twisting that specific knob when she is unsure about something on the screen. Once I was travelling with my TLR camera, and obviously the TSA person never saw anything like that. So she was doing X-raying it in front of me, while I was waiting for my bags. I saw on the screen how the X-ray went through the whole body of the camera just like nothing, seeing first the backplate, then the inside, and finally the lenses.

    So since then I developed a method:

    1. I usually travel with hand luggage. Never put your film into the checked-in luggage.
    2. When I arrive to the security, the first tray is loaded with my cabbin suitcase – my (metal) camera inside. This usually gets most of the X-ray power.
    3. Into 2nd tray goes my laptop, belt, watch, coins in the pocket. They do not need such power for these, so the TSA lowers the power.
    4. Finally into my 3rd tray goes my little hand-bag, where my film is. Usually I have in it a book, pen, and other minor things, the TSA do not need extra X-ray power to check.

    I do not put my film into the 1st tray because the luggage of the person in front of me may contain something that needs extra X-ray power. Although this may be true with the luggage of the person coming after you, the power of X-ray should stay low because the TSA person does not see yet the next bag.

    So far this works. I mostly shot 120 film, but even the canisters of 35mm film are coming out ok from X-ray inspection. My record was 8 X-ray checks of few rolls – all without fogging.

    Few times I left a film in my Mamiya M645. The X-ray destroyed it completely. France or UK, does not really make a difference.

    Hope this helps for somebody.

    Jason September 12, 2015 at 10:41 am / Reply

    I just want to know the best way to take about 10x 5pack boxes of Fujifilm 120 and a whole bunch of Natura from Tokyo back to Australia when I visit next year? It seems carrying it on the plane is the best bet? If I put it in those film bags and then into my carry on once I get through the security checkpoint, Is that the best option?

    Mike September 13, 2015 at 1:01 pm / Reply

    FWIW the security at Ben Gurion seemed very happy to not irradiate my exposed and unexposed films.

    Tobias Weisserth September 14, 2015 at 1:00 am / Reply

    Well, since they asked me to put the empty bag through the machine while they hand-checked the films, my guess is that their machines do in fact penetrate the leaded film safe bag if they want them to – why put the empty bag through the machines then when they wouldn’t be able to see through them and they already hand-check the film?

    I’d err on the side of caution with those film safe bags. While they probably perfectly protect the film from the higher radiation levels on the plane (according to some TSA agents I talked to, the normal amount of radiation a film suffers in the X-Ray machine is actually less than the radiation a film suffers when being on the plane itself at 33k feet for a 10 hour flight), I don’t believe the machines cannot penetrate those bags. Also, when they crank up the power on the machine, the amount of radiation the film gets inside the bag may well be much higher than if it just went through unprotected and they don’t crank up the power.

    Heathrow sucks. It’s the worst airport to fly through in Europe. I’ve always managed to get my film hand-checked in Germany (Frankfurt, Munich, Düsseldorf etc.). I’ve not had problems in Amsterdam either. My earlier advice that you published on your blog a while back still applies: just put a (dummy) ASA3600 (or higher) roll into your bag. Since no machine is film safe for that film sensitivity, your request to hand-check your film including the >3600 roll being denied means they outright know they’ll damage your stuff. “Film safe” on the machines means safe up to ASA800.

    The apartment I currently rent is owned by Hamburg’s chief of customs and border control. The guy runs airport security and customs at Hamburg airport. I will try and see if I can arrange an experiment with the guy and run several rolls of film through their system to test when exactly a standard roll of ASA400 is fogged and if their machines really can penetrate the Domke Film Guard bag.

    Jim Clinefelter September 14, 2015 at 2:33 pm / Reply

    I’ve never bothered having my film hand-inspected, and have never bothered with lead bags, either.
    Some years ago, I went through Portland, Narita, Beijing, Chinese State Railways (yes, they X-ray everything),
    Nanning, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles, all with the same rolls of Provia 100F and Superia 400. No problems at all. I’ve been to Japan 10 times, through three airports each way, and have had no problems with film on those trips, as well. The only trouble with film I’ve heard of in my family is my father’s day-trip to East Berlin. His rolls of Sanssouci were all completely black, thanks to East German security.

    Mark September 16, 2015 at 2:47 am / Reply

    Sydney and Melbourne always happy to hand inspect. Canberra one needs to be insistent but they will do it (not worth flying to CBR anyway). I have also had no problems with hand inspection in Bangkok or Chiang Mai but always have a charming local to translate.

    I carry hand loaded film with self-printed labels in JCH cases: pop the case tops and hand them over well before I get to the machines. I also make sure a few of my film cans have 6400 ISO labels even if they just have HP5: they were a clincher a few times.

    Tobias W. September 16, 2015 at 6:51 am / Reply

    The dummy 3600 roll is exactly what I recommend too. Even if you only shoot 100 and 400, have one out of bounds roll in the mix and they become much more inclined to hand check.

    Ray Rapkerg September 23, 2015 at 2:01 am / Reply

    Does anyone know if mail gets x-rayed? For example, I mail-order New55 large format ISO 100 film from the US to the UK. Sometimes I also order Rollei ISO400 film from Germany to the UK. Is my film getting dosed with x-rays before it even reaches me?

    Y.F. Chan October 9, 2015 at 2:59 am / Reply

    I once flew back from Japan to Finland connecting flight to the Netherlands. I had bought a lead bag in Japan but was dumb enough to forget about that thing. So when going through airport security in Finland (and not in Japan). I held my unprocessed film in my hand and asked if they would hand check it. but the security employee refused and said that film would stay unaffected when going through the scanner. Because I am one of those who doesn’t want to cause a traffic congestion and also because I am not that assertive I reluctantly put my film through the scanner. I only have let one or two rolls be developed and it seems (from a noob perspective) to be unaffected by the scanner.

    Alex Jackson-Smith August 8, 2016 at 12:35 am / Reply

    Whilst I don’t use film, my experience of German Airports (Munich mainly) is that if an object is “not clear”, they will remove it from the bag and take it back to the beginning of the machine to scan.

    They have done this in the past when I left the Notebook in its soft case with mouse and power cables, and only sometimes when the camera in the rucksack…

    German efficiency, damn!

    Rob August 14, 2016 at 3:42 pm / Reply

    I saw a sign at LAX recently saying if you prefer to have your film hand checked, please ask!

    I never take film through the airport. If I’m not in the position to have the film developed before I leave a country, I put it in a jiffy bag and post it back to the UK. I have done this from Austria and United States and the undeveloped film has arrived safely, no fogging. It’s the best way.

    Charles Herdy January 2, 2018 at 7:14 am / Reply

    This has been a very helpful discussion, thanks.

    Three points come to mind:

    (1) Irrespective of the protocol at Heathrow, a large proportion of security checkpoints are likely just to empty a lead-lined bag and rescan the contents again.

    (2) The lead-lined bag is still likely very helpful to shield the film against ionising cosmic radiation during long-haul international flights.

    (3) I wonder whether it would pay to ensure that roll film is scanned end-on, packing it so that the cross-sectional flux of X-ray energy across the film emulsion is minimised. That would seem to be a far more important physical factor than any other discussed here, and one over which the passenger has a good degree of control.

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