with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Know Before You Go: Myth – Airport Security X-rays Won’t Hurt Film

film, photograph by Brent VanFossenWalk up to the airport security gate at the airport, take out your film and the dude in a wrinkled uniform tells you to put the film through the x-ray. You tell him you don’t want to, but he insists. “What speed is the film?” He informs you that x-rays won’t hurt film unless it is ISO 800 or higher. Well, I have some important news for you.

X-rays do hurt film. The truth is that exposure to x-rays is cumulative.

That’s right. One time through won’t hurt your unexposed film, no more than it hurts you to get a broken bone x-rayed. But you’ve seen the dental hygienist leave the room during the x-ray exposure, because the effect is cumulative. This cumulative effect does the same thing to film. For more information, check out this example of the visual effects of scanning on film from Kodak.

During a flight from Spain to the US, we walked through five scanning units, bringing with us unprocessed film brought from Israel that had already passed through at least four scanning units to get to Spain, not to mention the three or more scans we passed through bringing the film to Israel. Our film had been x-rayed at least 12 times before we discovered the truth because several rolls of film were processed to reveal strange ghosts and blurs of light. The inconsistency of the ghosts led us to discover it was the x-rays, not the cameras.

Kodak recommends limiting exposure of film to security x-rays to five scans, and then insisting upon hand inspection of film “to avoid the cumulative radiation from the x-ray fogging or damaging the film.”

The FAA agrees and recommends avoiding any x-ray machine that exceeds an exposure of one milliroentgen. In FAA Regulation 108.17 Section 5E and the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Subtitle B, Volume 7, Chapter XII, Subchapter C, Part 1544, Subpart C (abbreviated it is Code 49CFR1544.2xx), signs must be posted at the scanners and security inspectors must inform passengers of the five scan limit and grant hand inspection of film on domestic US flights. Code 49CFR1544.211(e)(4) states “If requested by individuals, their photography equipment and film packages must be inspected without exposure to an X-ray system.”

When was the last time you were informed? If you are not informed and don’t see signs, they are violating the rules. Turn them in. They won’t change the rules until we whine enough.

This warning is targeted specifically towards print film (negative film). Positive (transparency/slide) film is even more sensitive to x-rays.

When we travel, if inspectors refuse the hand inspection and insist that the scan won’t hurt the film, we advise them that we’ve already passed through four scanners and if they really insist, we remind them of the FAA Regulation. We carry at least two copies of the regulation as proof (links below). In the US, they must hand inspect film upon request, though it might not be as easy in foreign countries. Usually the FAA regulation convinces them. We put the film at the top of our carry-on luggage and pull it out for hand inspection before passing through the security checkpoint.

Keep Film in One Place and Visible
Film stored in a small fabric lunch boxWe use sturdy zip-lock bags to carry our film, but you can also make or purchase clear vinyl bags. Fuji film comes with clear containers, allowing easy viewing of the film cartridge, making the inspection visual, often done without opening the bags or the film. If your film container is opaque, check with local film processors to see if they have some clear containers awaiting recycling or in the trash from their customers.
Remove Film From Your Cameras
If you have film inside your camera, rewind it and remove it before you get to the airport. Make sure you mark it appropriately so you can use it again. The film left inside your camera can face greater damage from x-rays than film inside of its metal container.
Film in Luggage Will Be Damaged
Be warned, unexposed film traveling through your suitcase may be x-rayed at higher radiation levels than your carry-on luggage. Film can be damaged with a single x-ray. Lead film bags used to protect film, but many high-tech machines recognize lead bags and notch up their scan to an even higher levels to allow it to “see” through the lead, exposing your film even more. If they spot a lead bag, they could also require a hand inspection of your luggage, and another series of x-rays.
Lead Bags Won’t Help
If you choose to carry your film in lead bags, make sure they are top quality and put them in your carry-on, NOT in your luggage. At the worse, they will trigger a hand inspection of the film if you forget to remove the bag from your carry-on. In general, lead bags will trigger a response from the security agent handling the x-ray equipment and if they have the modern equipment, they may either up the x-ray scan’s power or remove the lead bag and require it to be transferred elsewhere for further inspection.
Heavy or Large Carry-on Bag Maybe Refused
If the airline refuses to allow you to take your carry-on onto the plane due to weight or size restrictions, remove the film and put it in your pockets or hand carry it to avoid further x-ray scans. After all, the point of going on these wonderful trips is to return home with great pictures, not to carry a bunch of junk on the plane. Make sure the pictures arrive home safe.
Security X-rays Will Not Affect Digital Equipment
Currently, X-rays will not affect digital cameras or digital storage mediums. Now, this is also a conditional answer to the issue. “Currently” they will not affect digital equipment, but in the future they might. Also, digital equipment, cameras, laptops, handheld computers, and storage medium may be damaged by the handling of the equipment as it passes through security. At Ben Guiron Airport in Tel Aviv and other locations, the luggage scanners which scan all luggage and carry-ons before you get to the ticket counter often use scanners that eject the bags out the back end. The slamming and banging inside of the scanners can do damage to fragile equipment. There is little you can do to avoid them, though you can request a hand inspection. They are not obliged to honor your request for such equipment.


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Myth: I don’t need much film when traveling because I can always buy more film.

While many are turning to digital photography, the majority of photographers are still using traditional films. Film found in unfamiliar countries might be of questionable quality, brand or age. Only buy film brands you are familiar with and only buy it from photography-oriented shops or large stores where the turnover in film is high. Check that the film canister inside matches the packaging on the outside. Check the expiration date. If the package looks damaged, old, damp, or sun bleached, don’t buy it. Better to bring plenty of film than to risk buying film out-of-town.

Suitcase filled with processed film traveled from Kansas to Israel on the airplaneWe are frequently asked for recommendations on how much film to take on a trip. Our answer is always “take more than you think you will need.” Film is cheap compared to the memories captured, so estimate approximately how many rolls of film you expose in a day (compare it to other trips and actual use) and then multiply that by the number of days you will be gone, then add at least three more days’ worth. When we travel, there are days we barely use a roll of film, and other days when we easily go through 10 or more rolls. It is common for us to bring 25 to 100 rolls of film depending upon the length of our stay. For those with digital cameras, make sure you have enough storage cards and/or a portable card reader with a lot of storage space to back your cards up to, if you are not carrying your laptop with you everywhere.

The TSA, Kodak, and other “experts” recommend having film processed locally before your return to protect the film from damaging exposure to x-ray scans. We don’t. We’re wiser through experience. This is a nice idea, if you have the time, money, and energy to track down a decent place that you can trust to handle your film. For quick prints of negative film, you are fairly safe almost everywhere, but few places will handle slide film, even E-6. So local processing is out of the question. Film processed outside the country is liable for duty fees upon your return.

You can have the exposed film mailed back to you, but that can take weeks or months to reach you, and many countries, including the US, are doing high intensity x-ray scans of mailed boxes, upon leaving and entering the country, as well as at points in-between. Who knows how many scans your film might undergo before it arrives in the mail. Waiting through hand inspections might be wiser than mailing.


2 Trackbacks

  • […] If you are still traveling with print or slide film, consider now as time to switch to digital or a chance to test-drive digital equipment. If you are, consider mailing it or buying new film upon arrival. If you insist or are particular about your film, call the specific airlines and airports you will be traveling through to check on what their current policy is on film. The current rule allows film as described in “Know Before You Go: Myth – Airport Security X-rays Won’t Hurt Film” and “Know Before You Go: Airport Security and Traveling Photographers”, but current events change things. […]

  • […] to check on what their current policy is on film. The current rule allows film as described in “Know Before You Go: Myth – Airport Security X-rays Won’t Hurt Film” and “Know Before You Go: Airport Security and Traveling Photographers”, but current […]

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