Flying with Film in the 21st Century



Going on a trip?  If you’re shooting on film, don’t forget that you need to get it safely through an x-ray scan at each airport that you move through!

How to deal with photographic film when flying used to be fairly common knowledge prior to the widespread use of digital cameras.  Nowadays this information is sparse among photographers and even airport security.

Sicily, Italy by Joey Pasco | Hasselblad 500 C/M | Zeiss 80mm 2.8 CT | Kodak Portra 400 | FINDlab

First thing to understand is the reason why film is problematic when x-rayed.  In short;

We say that film is light sensitive but more broadly, film is sensitive to radiation.

Light is a form of radiation.

X-rays are another form of radiation.

Therefore film is sensitive to x-rays.

It should be noted, we are talking about UNDEVELOPED photographic film.  You can pass developed film negatives through x-ray scanners all you want,  just as you can expose developed film to light all you want.

As photographers, we control how we expose our film to light by selecting an appropriate ISO and controlling the amount of light that strikes it with our aperture and for how long this amount of light strikes the film with our shutter.

Same goes with x-rays.  The higher the ISO of the film, the more significant the effect of x-rays on the image.  Also, the stronger or more direct exposure to the x-rays and the longer or more times film is exposed to x-rays, the more significant the effect.

So the least effect that x-rays will have on film will come from exposing 25 ISO film to just one x-ray scan.  While the greatest effect will come from exposing 3200 ISO film to, say, 10 x-ray scans.  So the 3200 ISO film will show more effect than 25 ISO if scanned once and even the 25 ISO film can show effect if scanned an excessive number of times.

X-rays affect film by fogging it, similar to if you open your camera midroll.  Kodak says “high-dose scanners affect the whole negative, causing the entire image to appear overexposed and grainy. Dark or black images might appear green.”

So what is a film photographer to do?  Go digital?  NO!

Tuscany, Italy by Joey Pasco | Hasselblad 500 C/M | Zeiss 80mm 2.8 CT | Kodak Portra 400 | FINDlab

Let’s see what TSA tells us:

“you should only transport [film] in your carry-on baggage; the equipment used to screen checked baggage may damage undeveloped film.”

“If you are transporting high speed (800 ISO and higher) or specialty film, you may request to have it physically inspected when presented at the screening checkpoint instead of undergoing x-ray screening.”

“You may also request that all of your undeveloped film be physically inspected instead of undergoing x-ray, particularly if your film has or may be screened by x-ray more than five times.”

“To facilitate physical inspection, remove your undeveloped film from the canister and pack it in a clear plastic bag. We recommend leaving your film in the unopened manufacturer’s packaging.”

Recall that we just established that film is sensitive to x-rays in the same way that it is sensitive to light?  The problem with our “x-ray exposure triangle” is that while we know our ISO and perhaps the number of times our film could potentially be scanned, we do not know how powerful the x-rays are.  There is also the off chance, that for any of numerous reasons, our film will have to be scanned more times than expected before it is developed.  So as far as I and all serious/professional photographers are concerned, we vigorously exercise our right to prevent our film from ever passing through x-rays at all, no matter the ISO or number of potential scans.

That being said, in most cases, your images will be just fine even if your film gets scanned once, or twice.  Remember that.  Don’t panic!

Personally, I fly on commercial airlines only about once year and mostly within the continental U.S.  I could share my limited experience or I could provide some expert testimony, so I’ve chosen the later!  Recently, I interviewed travel photographer Joey Pasco about his recommendations and experiences when flying with film.

Northeast Iceland by Joey Pasco | Hasselblad 500 C/M | Zeiss 80mm 2.8 CT | Kodak Portra 400 | Indie Film Lab

JM: How long have you been shooting film?

JP: I had a short stint in college and just after, but got back into shooting film for the majority of my work in April 2012. (so that’s about 5 years of flying with film successfully)

JM: How often do you travel?  Where to?

JP: Usually once or twice a year. We tend to do a trip out of the country in the springtime, usually to Western Europe (our most recent trip was to Iceland; before that, Italy), and then in the autumn we like to do a road trip in the Northeast U.S. and occasionally further north into Canada. There are other trips that will come up sporadically, outside of this pattern (such as an impromptu trip to Universal Studios Florida, or a friend’s wedding in Punta Cana).

Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic by Joey Pasco | Nikon FE | Nikkor 50mm 1.8 AI | Kodak Portra 160 | FINDlab

JM: Can you provide your tips for preparing and packing film and film equipment for flight?

JP: I’ve done a few different things over the years, with varying degrees of success. Typically I take all the film out of its outer packaging (for 35mm I bring only the roll itself; for 120 I keep it sealed in the individual wrapper). I pack all the film in a ziplock back in my carry-on, with a sticker or label on the bag that says “hand check, please” in both English and in the language of the country I’m traveling to. Cameras and lenses are also packed in my carry-on luggage.

JM: Can you share any interesting experiences with security you’ve had?  Are security usually friendly?  Are they knowledgeable of how to handle film? 

JP: When I get to security, I take out the bag of film and try to catch the eye of security personnel. In as friendly a manner as possible, I politely ask them for a hand check. Sometimes this is all it takes, and sometimes they will ask the ISO of the film. If you can’t show them it’s higher than ISO 800, they will often try to persuade you to put it through the X-rays, asserting that “it’s safe.” I once tried to explain that I was carrying a mix of ISOs, some of which was higher than 800, and they told me to separate the high ISO film from the lower ISO film that could “safely” go through the X-ray. I was pretty shocked at this. If they are hand-checking some of it, why not all of it? It was really frustrating.

On my latest trip, I tried using one of those shielded bags that supposedly shield film from X-rays (I used the Domke Film Guard Bag). I packed it all just as above, but inside the shielded bag, and I skipped the request for a hand check at security. I just got the scans back, and I haven’t noticed any ill effects. So either the bag worked, or the X-rays really are safe for lower ISO film (it was a mix of Portra 160 and 400).
Iceland by Joey Pasco | Hasselblad 500 CM | Zeiss 80mm 2.8 CT | Kodak Portra 400 | Indie Film Lab

JM: Has any of your film been scanned and if so, what type of film, how many times was it scanned and what were the results?

JP: Several times, even without the shielded bag. I’ve had rolls that had been scanned as many as 3 times. I’ve never noticed any issues. Still, I would rather be safe than sorry. Always pack film in your carry-on, and always ask for a hand check or use a shielded bag.
JM: Some will tell you that flying with film is one more reason to shoot digital.  What do you think of this sentiment?
JP: Admittedly, this has occurred to me in moments of frustration at airports after agents have insisted on scanning my film. I can’t deny the appeal of going through security with no worries on my mind about my film being scanned and affected by X-rays. That said, I continue to travel with film as my primary medium, so clearly it’s not appealing enough to make me switch!


JM: Anything else you’d like to mention?

JP: A note about the shielded bag: As I mentioned, my latest trip was my first attempt at using one of these. It could just be coincidence, but my latest trip was also the first time I was “randomly” selected for an additional security screening. This occurred after I passed through security (where I used the lead bag), as I was making my way to my gate for a flight from Reykjavik into the U.S. I’m not sure whether it was truly random or if they flagged me because I used the lead bag. Either way, it was no real hassle, but I do wonder if it was actually coincidence.

JM: Thanks for sharing your real-world experiences, Joey!  Here’s some of my own.

My advice and experience is similar to Joey’s.  I usually bring Portra 160, 400, Kodak Tri-X and Ilford Delta 3200.  I usually push the Tri-X to 1600 and Delta to 6400.  I have heard bad stories about using the lead bags; that new ones aren’t as thickly lined as older ones and therefore not as effective and that TSA will just see the lead bag and turn up the power of the x-rays to penetrate it anyway.  To me, I’d rather not buy something that may or may not actually work.  So I do gallon size Ziploc bags and politely request hand checks at every gate, allotting some extra time for longer checks.

Miami International Airport by Johnny Martyr | Leica M6 TTL .85 | Voigtlander 15mm 4.5 Heliar Super Wide II | Kodak Tri-X 400 @ 1600 | First Look Photo

Two airports I’ve had issues at with hand check requests were Punta Cana and Dulles.  I also hear Heathrow is annoying.  Each time I’ve been through Punta Cana, they refuse me a hand check.  But each time, I was transporting high-speed film that was scanned both into and out of the airport without any damage to my images.  At Dulles, two years ago, the TSA agents performing my hand check were very young and seemed uncomfortable with the procedure.  They isolated about 12 of my 30 rolls of 35mm as having failed the hand check and needing to be scanned.   I have heard from several film shooters that TSA pretty much never concede to hand checks at Heathrow.  Japan Camera Hunter offers a tip for this.  Every other airport I’ve passed through in the U.S. has been great though.  TSA are friendly and happy to take a break from patting people down to check my film and talk to me about my work.  BWI is always good to me.  No problems in Detroit.  No problems at O’Hare.  No problems at Dallas/Fort Worth.  No problems with Logan.  No problems with Miami-Dade.

La Basillica de Higuey, the Domincan Republic by Johnny Martyr | Leica M6 TTL .85 | Voigtlander 15mm 4.5 Heliar Super Wide II | Kodak Portra 160 | First Look Photo

For more technical details and examples of x-ray fogged film check out the wise words of the Gold God, Kodak themselves!

Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great journey!

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