with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Can I Take My Film and Camera on the Airplane?

Camera with extension tubes for closeup macro photography, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenCan you take your camera on the airplane with today’s security checks? Yes.

Can you take your film on the airplane with today’s security checks? Yes.

Can you put your film in your luggage? NO!

We get these questions a lot, but I thought I would go into more detail for you so you understand the reasons behind the answers.

Can you take your camera on the airplane?

You can take any kind of camera, film or digital, on an airplane. While the FAA and TSA are banning things left and right, cameras are still allowed. Film is another matter.

This list of cameras includes:

  • Traditional Cameras
  • Digital Cameras
  • Disposable Cameras
  • Cell Phone Cameras
  • Video Cameras

Take care to make sure the camera is protected from falling and being crushed or banged during the move through the airport, on the plane, and out of the airport. To speed up the processing of passengers through security, make sure the camera is out of your pockets and securely stored within your carry-ons.

Make sure all film is out of your camera. If you have to rewind an unfinished roll of film, it is a small price to pay to having the scanners damage the film going through the scanners.

Unlike cell phones, digital cameras are okay to use during the flight. If there is a way on your camera cell phone to turn off the service and still use the camera, you may do so during the flight, but be prepared with an explanation if the flight attendant asks you to turn it off.

Can I take film on the airplane?

film, photograph by Brent VanFossenYes, you can take film on the airplane. We’ll get to film in your luggage in a moment.

You can take film and digital media onto the airplane in your carry-on.

All digital media will go through the scanners without damage, with the information we know today. This is still new technology and research on the accumulative effect of x-ray scans on digital media is still underway. For now, it doesn’t seem to harm Secure Digital Cards, CompactFlash Cards, Memory Sticks, Flash Disks, or other digital media storage.

Film is another matter. We have extensive information at our newsletter issue about Planning for Immediate Departure – Myths – X-ray and Film that discusses the issues of x-rays and film.

The TSA security guard will tell you that the x-rays will not hurt your film unless it is a very high light sensitive film like ISO 800 or ISO 1600. In fact, their first words are “What ISO is the film?

That is not true.

X-rays are cumulative. One x-ray won’t hurt, two won’t hurt, but more than five will probably hurt. Eight, nine, ten, or more – definitely will hurt.

We make a consistent effort to have all of our film hand-inspected since we can’t know which roll of film went through how many airports before this particular trip.

Hand Inspections

The TSA is required to hand-inspect your film upon request. If you are worried about holding up the line or having the process take too long, and you aren’t worried about the cumulative effect of the x-rays, then don’t bother. But the rest of us arrive with plenty of time to go through this process before boarding the plane.

Start by making the process easy for the inspectors. We put all our film into sturdy plastic zip-lock bags. The one gallon freezer type seem to be the most durable. We take the film out of the boxes and put them into the plastic bags.

Now, pay attention. Put the bags on top of the things in your carry-on. You will need to remember the film as you are going through the security check, and this helps, and it speeds things up because you don’t have to dig for the film. Check to see that it is on top before you leave the ticket counter after checking your luggage.

When you get to the security area, take the bags out of the top of the carry-on, take everything out of your pockets and put them into your carry-on and close it securely. If you are carrying laptops or computerized equipment, have that out or ready to pull out quickly as that has to be scanned in special padded containers or separately from the rest of your carry-on bags. You do not have to do anything special with digital or traditional film cameras except make sure that they are secure and well padded in the carry-on bag.

Put your carry-on, coat, and other items on the conveyor belt for the scanner. Keep the plastic bags of film in your hand.

Tell the security official that you are requesting a hand inspection of your film. Usually, they will comply, after they give you the “What ISO is it?” Explain that you are familiar with the rules and regulations and that you are still requesting a hand inspection, per the rules and regulations. Most will then comply. Ignore any sighs and rolling of the eyes. These are just people doing a tiresome job. You stay calm and polite.

Two things will happen next. Either you will be asked to hand over the film and pass through the body scans and search area, or they will take you to the side with the film to inspect it before you pass through the scanning area. Usually it is the former. Either way, keep your eye on the film. Move as quickly as you can through the body scanning area. If you have lost track of the person checking your film, ask. Move to where they are checking the film, if possible, or stand as close as possible to the checking area. Be ready to answer any questions they have, but do not “help”.

Because we use Fuji slide film, Fuji’s film canisters are semi-transparent so they can be held up to the light and visually checked. Unfortunately, few inspectors do so. Most take the lids off and manually inspect each roll of film. They will often randomly take three or more rolls over to the chemical detector, passing a specially treated cloth over the roll of film and in and around the film canister to detect any explosive chemicals. Some will check every roll, but usually this is randomly done.

The inspector may ask you to open the zip-lock bag, but they will usually take each roll of film out of the bag, open it, inspect it, and then put it back into the container and close it, and set it off to the side. DO NOT OFFER TO HELP THEM. Do not reach for the film canisters until all have been inspected, or there are so many, there is no more room on the counter. Ask first if you may put the film away.

Avoid chatting directly with the inspector, though we have found that talking to each other and acting nonchalantly makes the process go faster as we act like we’ve been through this before, which we have.

When the inspection is over, ask again to make sure it is alright to take the film, and then place it in the zip-lock bags, press the air out to make them smaller, and put them back in your carry-on luggage and proceed towards the plane.

One more tip: Count your carry-on pieces before going through security. Include the bags of film. Our count usually consists of 1) purse/fanny pack, 2) coat/sweater, 3) carry-on bag, 4) luggage carrier, 5) Three zip-lock bags of film. This adds up to seven items. Before leaving the security area, we do another count. If I have seven items, I’m good to go. If not, what is missing? With our carry-on items being scanned and checked separately from our bodies and the film, it’s easy to forget something. Count them and re-count them, then head towards the plane.

Can I put film in my suitcase?

The process that your luggage goes through on it’s way to, and possibly from, the airplane is different from the security check you go through to get onto the airplane. The x-ray machines are very different. Not all airports have the new sophisticated and strong x-ray machines, but if you put film in your luggage and happen to be at one of the airports which does feature high intensity baggage x-ray machines, it can and will destroy your unprocessed (unexposed/new) film.

DO NOT PUT UNUSED FILM IN YOUR SUITCASE!!!

Unlike the security x-ray scans of your carry-on bags, one trip through one of these scanners can permanently destroy your film. If you are making more than one plane change during your travel, your luggage can be scanned multiple times and any one of those, combined with the cumulative effect, can destroy your film.

Exposed and processed film shouldn’t be hurt by baggage x-ray machines or departure x-ray machines. So you can put your exposed film in the suitcase, but not any new rolls of film that haven’t been exposed.

14 Comments

  • Posted June 10, 2005 at 11:55 | Permalink

    In my flights through Europe in the past year, all of the airlines I flew prohibited me from viewing my pictures on my digital camera and pda. Note, I wasn’t taking any pictures, just trying to do some editing of what was on my memory card and show to other passengers next to me in our conversations during the boring 8 hour flight.

  • Posted June 10, 2005 at 20:45 | Permalink

    The use of digital equipment is still suspected by a lot of airlines. No research has yet proven, as far as I’ve been able to determine, that cell phones or digital equipment actually interfers with the airplane.

    My husband is working on a project to install WIFI Internet throughout many European and Aisan airlines, which will keep passengers with WIFI equipment linked to the Internet through onboard satellite tracking equipment and WIFI hubs linked throughout the airplane.

    And these folks were worried about your little equipment? Gees. Come on.

    Remember, between the fears of 9/11 and people still thinking behind the times, you will get responses like this.

    Unfortunately, in this case, resistance is futile. They are in charge of your life while you are on their plane and sometimes no explaining will help. You just have to try, and then put it away if they insist.

    Things are changing…slowly.

  • Jim Reddington
    Posted June 20, 2006 at 14:32 | Permalink

    I have a question about film that may have gone through a baggage scanner. On my recent trip to Ireland I was following the OLD rules to put film in checked bags to avoid the security checkpoint x-rays.

    Left from Newark and returned from Dublin airport. I wonder if either or both have the “strong” baggage x-rays.

    I’m not sure of the symptoms of exposure except for some examples on the Kodak web site. I wouldn’t describe my photos as “foggy” but the colors, especially blues, appear washed out on all 11 rolls of film. Clear blue skys or ones with fluffy white clouds do appear like it’s a hazy day so this may, in fact, be fogging. My film was ISO 200 so maybe this is why the fogging isn’t as dramatic as the Kodak examples.

    Is there any tweaking I can ask for in development that might punch out the colors to recover some or all of the quality of the image? I’ve been trying to “tweak” the colors of the CD digital versions but with no sucess in obtaining bright but natural colors.

  • Posted June 20, 2006 at 22:27 | Permalink

    Yep, you got xrayed. NEVER put your unprocessed film in your luggage. NEVER. You never know which scanner at which airport in which country or city will be the one, and xrays are cummulative. Youg got hit.

    The only tweak is digital. There are no fixing these any other way. It’s recolor, clone copy, and repaint in what you “think” was there before it got scanned. Welcome to a new world of learning how to mess with photographs on your computer. ;-)

    Sorry you had to learn this the hard and expensive way.

  • tricia e.
    Posted July 31, 2006 at 10:36 | Permalink

    Thank you for all this information–my photos from a recent trip to Paris were washed out, lacking color. I had put them in my carry on and they were scanned. Now, for a trip to Ireland, I will follow your advice. Thank you for clarifying this!

  • Joyce
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 8:59 | Permalink

    For those of us who like aerial shots out of windows– do you know the position of airplanes on digital cameras during take-off and landing?

  • kate
    Posted November 1, 2007 at 19:56 | Permalink

    So it’s safest to get it hand inspected?
    or is it really safe to put it in carry on?

  • Posted November 3, 2007 at 8:05 | Permalink

    I’m not sure what you are asking. About film or digital cameras?

    Film MUST be hand inspected and not put in the carry-on which goes through the xray machines. X-rays act cumulatively and after 5 or 10 trips through, or many even one or two, you can get white blobs, blurs, and ghosting, even ruin, traditional unprocessed film, in the camera and out. On one trip recently, my carry-on luggage went through three xrays on one airplane trip. Have it hand inspected.

    Digital media and cameras are not currently sensitive to x-rays, though that could change if they start using some new technology which uses magnets as part of the imaging process. So stay tuned on that travel technological development.

  • Liz H
    Posted May 8, 2008 at 8:37 | Permalink

    This may be a silly question… will they hand inspect a whole disposable camera by hand like they do a roll of film? I believe it should be treated the same as film, but wasnt sure if the packaging that makes up the actual camera would shield it from anything, or if they wouldnt want to inspect it since they cant see as much…

  • Posted May 10, 2008 at 16:58 | Permalink

    If it is analog film, disposable or otherwise, get inspected not because they should hand inspect it, but because you want to avoid putting it through the xrays. If you don’t care if it has been scanned 3-6 times and may have white smears and ghosts, then who cares. Not TSA. Not you.

    But if you care, have it inspected as no matter what the film is in, X-rays are cumulative and will ruin your pictures, especially slide film. Print film is less sensitive.

    If you care about your pictures, and you are using the analog, 35mm style film, then protect your images. Have them hand inspected.

    You do not have to have digital media/film/cameras/video hand inspected.

  • su
    Posted August 2, 2008 at 5:50 | Permalink

    im going abroad to egypt in 4 days time and im taking rolls of film. when you have taken the pictures, can the rolls of film go through the xrays on the way back?

  • Posted August 3, 2008 at 20:48 | Permalink

    @su:

    Traditional analog film (not digital) should not go through xrays at any time. Digital is not a problem. Good luck and I hope you have a great trip.

  • Colin
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 17:19 | Permalink

    Does this count for Super 8mm Cartridges too, i have plans to take exposed but unprocessed film into the United States. What tips would you have for that?

    • Posted April 19, 2014 at 9:46 | Permalink

      If the film has been developed, xrays will not impact it. If it hasn’t, xrays are cumulative. Once or twice shouldn’t hurt. Twenty-five times might. If worried, ask for hand inspection and advise them that this is undeveloped film.

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