Not too long ago, I decided to go on a European sightseeing adventure—no biggie except, this time, I decided to go for a bit of analogue love and brought along nine rolls of film. If you love film like me, then what happened next is not for the faint hearted!
My film was securely packed in a Domke lead-lined carry bag and passed through the x-ray scanner at Amman Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan.
I knew my holiday was off to a good start when security stopped my bag at the conveyor belt and asked me to remove my film for a second scan. I explained to him the sensitivity of high ISO film and politely requested a hand search but he wasn’t having any of it, even with charm mode activated!
Where my film got x-ray scanned
With my film already probably destroyed by radiation, I decided to look at it as an opportunity to experiment with my film in a fun way. From this point on, I’d let the film get scanned by x-ray whenever I could! By the end of my trip, the film I carried was x-rayed 11 times in total.
|Airport X-ray||Additional scans outside of airport|
|Amman Queen Alia International Airport, Jordan||Moldova – Transnistria Border Checkpoint|
|Bucharest Henri Coandă International Airport, Romania||Moldova – Ukraine Border Checkpoint|
|London Heathrow Airport, United Kingdom||Security check at a museum in Moscow|
|Moscow Domodedovo International Airport, Russia (one extra scan at the entrance)|
|Odessa International Airport, Ukraine|
|Paris Orly International Airport, France|
|Poznań–Ławica Airport, Poland|
If you are not familiar with the potential damage that can be dealt to film by airport x-ray scanners, refer to Kodak’s explanation of how destructive x-ray can be for photographers.
TSA also clearly states the danger of potential x-ray damage to film from their scanners.
X-ray damage is cumulative, the fewer scans the better
1) Film can get fogged up by x-ray scans
2) Faster film and specialist film, e.g. ISO800 above and motion picture film, are more sensitive to x-ray damage (yes, that’s my case!)
3) Push processing on any x-ray damaged film would make the damage even more noticeable
You should only transport it in your carry-on baggage; the equipment used to screen checked baggage may damage undeveloped film.
Just remember, NEVER put films in checked baggage. Those CT scanners for checked baggage have a higher dosage of radiation!
The resulting photos (ISO ranging from 50 to 800):
TIL #1 – Different films really react differently to x-ray damage
Despite the fact that all nine of my rolls of film were placed in the same clear plastic bag, put through the same x-ray machines, stored at the same temperature and sent to the same lab for developing and scanning, the level of damage was not the same. Roughly 60% of my pictures were affected by the x-ray, mainly the ISO800 ones, while the ISO50 ones looked as fine grained as usual.
I did wonder if my camera had some lightleak issues, but the later films I shot with proved the camera works just fine.
So, any conclusion?
Carry-on baggage x-ray machine can damage film, but it’s very unlikely if your film is a low speed one, let’s say, ISO400 or below. There are many online reports from travellers who have had their films scanned by checked baggage x-ray scanners and have found no damage at all. But still, I’d rather not risk my film going through a checked baggage scanner.
TIL #2 – Different airports have their own rules to handle hand-search requests for film (IMHO, European ones are the harshest)
International airports are usually equipped with modern x-ray scanner models for carry-on baggage screening, which are considered film-safe. The machine may even come with a noticeable blue or yellow colour ‘Film Safe’ sticker on it. But for x-ray machines located in remote parts of the world, I’d always try my very best to ask for a hand search whenever possible.
If you mainly do domestic travel in the US, lucky you, because the TSA has issued clear guidelines informing passenger that they have the right to request hand searches for high-speed film.
How about Europe? I couldn’t find such a guideline from the European Aviation Safety Agency. It seems to really depend on individual countries/airports. From my past experience, most European international airports tend to reject hand-search requests, though some domestic ones are pretty cool with this.
Both London Gatwick and Stansted airports state hand-check requests can only be accommodated for specialist film (ISO 800 and above) but the final decision will rest with the on-duty security supervisor. If the on-duty supervisor rejects your hand search request, all you can do is to let them scan your film and hope for the best.
My experience in Asia is generally positive. Most major Asian airports seem to be well-prepared for hand-search requests from passengers, I’ve even seen them using logbooks to record such requests!
Note: Hong Kong International Airport even accommodates hand searches for film that has already been loaded into the camera! A puffer machine—basically a chemical sniffing wand thing that can detect explosives and illegal drugs—would be used in such a hand search.
TIL #3 – Try not to request a hand search for your films when there is a long queue behind you
Because the chance your request will be accommodated is very slim.
While I was asking the security inspector to hand search my films in Amman International Airport, all of a sudden a fellow passenger jumped the queue and stepped into our conversation:
“I’ve been shooting film for 20 years. These x-ray machines are safe for film. You should just let them scan.” —One random irate passenger.
That’s probably the last thing any film photographer would ever want to hear, especially when they already have the odds stacked against them!
On a serious note, try to request a hand search when the security check area is quiet and leave some extra time for this. Any last-minute excuses, e.g. screaming “My flight will depart in 15 minutes!” to the officers probably won’t grant you any favours.
Have you been travelling with film? Share your experience with us below!