[A]irports are sites where identity is confirmed or questioned; they are spaces of public display; they are contested zones where privacy and national security vie for priority; they are complex factories for the production of patriotism and the privilege of mobility. At the same time, airports can be considered as generic spaces, forgettable and often uncomfortable. They are designed to be passed through, and in rapid fashion…
Christopher Schaberg, The Textual Life of Airports
Travelling with film is not that difficult. However, if precautions are not taken, standard security screening, namely X-ray scanning, can irreversibly damage unprocessed film. This damage takes the form of “fogging” the film, a bit like opening the back of a camera half way through a roll. Film is sensitive to radiation, of which visible light and X-rays are but two wavelengths. Too much exposure to radiation, and the film can be seriously compromised.
Fortunately, there are a few sensible tips we can take to prevent the worst damage from occurring. Here are a few rules you can follow to make the airport experience run as smoothly as possible with film.
1: NEVER EVER PLACED UNPROCESSED FILM IN CHECKED LUGGAGE
Checked luggage is subject to very intense explosive detecting, space-time warping high-radiation screening that will SEVERELY DAMAGE YOUR UNPROCESSED FILM.
Never, ever pack unprocessed film in your checked luggage.
Processed film is safe from X-rays in checked luggage, however it is not safe from less-than-caring baggage handlers who may route your luggage to Melbourne, FL, instead of Melbourne, Australia. It is highly recommended you place all processed film (and camera gear) in your carry-on luggage.
2: ALWAYS place film in your hand luggage
Keep your film with you at all times in your hand luggage. No, this is not a canned security announcement, it’s for the sake your film and irreplaceable images. Although hand luggage is inevitably subjected to X-rays, the screening machines utilised employ a less intense form of X-rays. This means that your unprocessed film should be safe from fogging for at least a number of scans.
According to a 2003 Kodak technical publication, 400 ISO film will start to see some degradation after 6 X-ray scans, but it may depend on the film and the screening device. I’ve had film (up to 800 ISO) go through up to 8 scans and I’m yet to see any degradation.
That said, the faster the film, the more sensitive it is to all radiation, including X-rays. Try to avoid sending your Ilford Delta 3200 into the machine. If you’re concerned, you can request a hand inspection of your film in order to avoid the X-ray machine, but your mileage may vary (see below).
3: ALWAYS place your film in a clear and accessible container/bag
Keep your film accessible at all times. Better yet, don’t place it in your carry-on bag, keep it in your hand. A general rule every air traveller should follow is to be prepared for the processes of security before reaching the queue. Don’t hold the queue up by fiddling around with a dozen different rolls of film stuck somewhere between your copy of the Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Repetition by Eric Van Lustbader and your boarding passes. Keep your film together and place it separately on the X-ray conveyer.
Even after your film gets x-rayed, inquisitive security-types may wish to take a closer look, so keep it accessible. Carrying of analogue camera equipment may be a bit of a novelty/threat for security staff, so beware.
4: ASK for a hand inspection of your film, but be prepared to be rebuffed
At most screening points, you can ask for a hand inspection of you film. In theory. In practice, this may not occur. The security staff will usually state that the X-ray machine is “safe” up to 1600 ISO. Alas this doesn’t take into account any cumulative X-ray exposure your film may have incurred from prior screenings.
Be polite, you might get lucky, but will the staff will more likely counter that the machine is “safe” for film. Don’t get angry. That won’t be good for anyone. Some photographers recommend placing a “dummy” 3200 speed roll in their bag, just so they can justify a hand inspection. Again, not something I’ve ever done, but has been known to work.
Be aware that asking for a hand inspection of goods may single you out for further forms of “enhanced” screening, such as explosives testing and hand inspection of all your carry-on luggage.
5: UNLOAD your camera before screening
Although this isn’t always critical, it is best to travel without loaded cameras. It’s never happened to me, but have heard of security staff wishing to inspect the innards of cameras. Best case, you waste part of a roll by having to rewind it to open the camera. Worst case, some clumsy security fool opens your camera for you (rare, but it has reportedly occurred).
6: NEVER use “X-Ray Safe” lead-lined bags for film storage
These foil and lead-lined bags were popular items back in the day, however these days they’re, at best, useless. At worst, they will lead to the irreversible damage of your film. These bags theoretically render items contained within opaque to X-ray screeners. Great.
But think about it: if you were an X-ray operator, would you allow a giant grey blob of mystery through to the gate? Probably not. Best case, the operator asks you to open the bag and inspects the contents, worst case the operator increases the power of the X-ray radiation in order to penetrate the bag. Whoops. Film. Fogged. Pictures. Gone.
7: BE POLITE and do not rage against the (X-ray) machine
Getting angry with security staff will not get you anywhere. Whatever your personal opinions may be on the “security theatre” of the airport, it’s a shit job and the security staff are there for the protection of the air-travelling public.
Yes, it’s not hard to find evidence of over-zealous officials, but in Australia, the experience seems to be a fairly benign one, unless you’re not white, have arrived from China and have Channel 7 camera crews in your face. For everyone else, it is much better to grin and bear a few minutes of security screening than risk missing your flight.
Update July 2018
Firstly, this article gets shared around quite a few photography pages and posts online, so thanks for stopping by.
Secondly, in response to this post, Alan Logue — an Australian photo industry stalwart and 20+ year veteran of Kodak Australia — wrote:
“This is one of the best, and most sensible articles I’ve seen on this topic. Having worked at Kodak, and being involved in tests of x-ray units and film, it makes a ton of sense.”
But more than just inflating my ego, he also reinforced some helpful hints when travelling with film through airport security:
“What I would add is to take all film out of boxes and cans, and put the cassette(s) in a plain plastic zip lock bag, on the top of your hand luggage so when you get to the screening area, you are prepared, and the screener can see what you have. If you want to, drop in a couple of 3200ASA cassettes (get them from a lab) and tell them that there is high speed 3200 film in there — it just might make it easier to get a hand scan. As Richard said — smile at the security person, tell them what a great job they do, and schmooze them to make your check easier. If you upset them, they can make your life absolutely miserable.”
I couldn’t agree more and it’s great to have practical advice from an industry veteran. Thanks, Alan!
Fun fact: all the images on this post went through at least two X-ray security points. They turned out just fine.
I’ll have a lot more to write on airports at another time, thanks to the inspiration of The Textual Life of Airports. I’m sure you can’t wait.
Continued in Part III - Buying Film and Developing
‘Baggage X-ray Scanning Effects on Film’ 2003, Technical Information Bulletin, Eastman Kodak, Rochester NY
Schaberg, C 2013 The Textual Life of Airports, Bloomsbury