Flying With Film: Everything You Need To Know About Airport X-Rays

How to combine traveling and analog photography? In this article I will be introducing the tips you should know when flying with film.

There are many instances I’ve felt like I need to properly wrap my film in foil cases or other protective material in order to be able to preserve the film when walking through an x-ray scanning. I’m now talking about those TSA X-rays and the new TSA CT Scanners – what effect can they have on your film?

We all know by now that going through x-rays can be harmful for the film, but to what extent?

The TSA has commented on scanning your films:

“We recommend that you put undeveloped film and cameras containing undeveloped film in your carry-on bags or take undeveloped film with you to the checkpoint and ask for a hand inspection.”

flying with film

The Film and CT Scans / X-Rays

1.TSA CT Scanners

Kodak Alaris has warned that TSA CT Scanners will damage unprocessed film. These scanners have been in use in the US and in other countries too and just one scan through these devices could destroy your film.

This can be easily avoided if you request a hand-check when you arrive to the security check-in and let the personnel know you have photographic equipment and film with you.

I use these tips when travelling to keep my film and photo equipment organized:

  • Remove your film from all containers and wrappers
  • Put it into a transparent bag
  • Don’t keep film in any luggage or baggage that will be checked. This includes cameras that still have film in them.
  • If you can, consider shipping your film back or develop them prior to your flights.

flying with film
You might experience fogging on your images
2.TSA X-Ray Scanners

At security checkpoints it’s indicated that film below 800 ISO will not be affected by the x-rays. In my experience this appears to be accurate.

When the hand-check was not possible, we had to send the films through x-rays. The machines didn’t have noticeable effect on the film rolls. But I repeat; processed film will not be affected by x-rays.

What is the ideal way get my film safely through security?

Do not keep your film on checked luggage. Always hand-check them.

The bigger baggage you check-in on your flight will often go through equipment with higher energy X rays, but X-ray equipment used to inspect carry-on baggage uses a very low level of x-radiation that will not cause noticeable damage to most films.

If you do want to check film in your luggage, you can try specialized film bags for X-ray scanners. This way you can at least somehow protect your film if you cannot go around the x-ray scan.

But lead bags that used to be a photographer’s answer to the dangers posed by x-rays are not as safe anymore. With heightened scrutiny during security screening, one of two things will happen if you put a lead bag through x-rays. 

flying with film
“Waves” on negatives due to X-ray damage.

Either the screeners will back the bag up and zap it with x-rays again until it is penetrated and the contents can be seen (and your film zapped) or they will pull your bag and inspect it by hand (in which case you should have just asked for a hand-check to begin with).  In short, lead bags are not terribly useful these days.

One scan may not hurt medium-sensitivity film, especially when protected by a lead bag. But when that film undergoes higher levels of X-ray radiation blasts multiple times over several months, all of that goes out the window.

X-ray is just a higher-energy form of light outside the visual spectrum. And as such, its effects on film are cumulative, just as are the effects of longer exposures.

Finally, if everything goes wrong and you run into a security worker who absolutely insists that your film be x-rayed even after you’ve expressed your concerns, you need to give up your films and just trust they will come back unharmed. There’s nothing you can do at that point except get yourself into a world of trouble.

Unless it’s one of the few airports using the new CT machines, in all likelihood, your film won’t be damaged by a single scan anyway. This is why I rarely fly with film faster than ISO 400. If my film gets scanned once or twice, it’s unlikely to be catastrophic. And one hopes that screening staff trained on the new CT equipment will have a new appreciation for the damage that it can inflict on film.

flying with film

Image: Fstoppers

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