How to fly with film

In this section of our three-part series on traveling with film, we’ll talk about the most perilous mode of travel for film photographers: airplanes. In pre-digital times, flying with film was a no-brainer; you can pack up your camera gear and buy all the film you need at your destination (and maybe have it developed there, too). Today, film is harder to find and airport security is tighter (and potentially more harmful to film), so in-flight analog photographers have to do a little more planning.

(Note that the information in this article is specific to air travel within the United States. Other countries may—and likely will have—different regulations and procedures.)

The main problem facing moviegoers who fly

Here’s the big problem for in-flight film photographers: Scanners and X-ray machines used for baggage screening produce light energy to which the film is sensitive. These machines can potentially “fog” your film, causing dark spots or waves on negatives (or light spots on slides) as if the film had been exposed to light. So the in-flight challenge is to minimize or avoid situations that could potentially damage your film.

Note that only undeveloped films are susceptible to damage. Developed negatives, slides and prints are no longer sensitive to light and cannot be damaged by airport security equipment.

Can you completely avoid x-rays?

Depending on your destination, it may be possible to skip the film through the airport altogether. If you are traveling to a major city, you may be able to purchase your film locally. If you’re staying at an upscale hotel with a concierge, they can even buy you movies (but beware of high prices and fees). You can also order a film by mail and have it sent directly to your accommodation; Check with the establishment first to see if they can receive packages (and bring a few rolls in case your shipment is lost or delayed). Likewise, if you use mail-order film processing, consider sending the film for development from your destination before returning home.

Never put film in a “checked” bag

Do not put unexposed or undeveloped film in checked baggage, never. Scanners used for checked baggage are more powerful than those used in carry-on baggage and will most likely scramble your film. Films and loaded cameras should always be carried in hand luggage.

Always have your film on board with you. To avoid a potentially destructive zap from the X-ray or CT scanner, (preferably) store the unopened film in a clear plastic bag and request a “manual inspection” from security. Dan Bracaglia

Related: Go back to the cinema? Here’s what changed

A related note: When booking your plane tickets, beware of “Basic Economy” tickets, which don’t always allow carry-on baggage beyond a small personal item. Buyers of these tickets often board last, when carry-on baggage storage is full, and will sometimes be required to check in their bags (at a steep fee), where they could be subject to harmful layover scanning. . If you’re traveling with film, make sure your plane ticket allows you to bring carry-on baggage, and pack your film (and cameras) in a bag small enough to join you in the cabin.

Film in hand luggage: ask for a “manual inspection”

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says the x-ray machines it uses for carry-on luggage are safe for photographic film up to ISO 800*. We have scanned slower films with no ill effects, but we also understand that the effects are cumulative and that multiple scans can cause fogging. (We asked the TSA if we could perform test scans at our local airport; they politely declined our request, citing security concerns.)

Luckily, there’s a good way to make sure your film won’t be damaged: ask for your film to be “hand inspected” regardless of speed.

*Note that at some airports, the TSA introduces CT scanners for hand luggage, which can damage even films at slower speeds.

the PopPhoto guide to manual inspections

First: we recommend that you be patient and polite with TSA agents. Remember that their primary responsibility is safety, not customer service, and they are also subject to many frustrations voiced by harassed passengers. It is not necessary to show fidelity; simple politeness and civility will take you far.

Film photography is popular enough that most TSA agents are familiar with manual scanning requests, but it slows down their workflow. When we travel with a movie, we always allow an extra ten to fifteen minutes to get through security (a margin we rarely need).

We recommend that you carry your film in a clear, zippered plastic bag, which the TSA is familiar with. Leave your rolls in their plastic boxes and/or sealed wrappers whenever possible. We try to keep our cameras unloaded so they can pass through the x-ray machine, but loaded cameras can also be scanned by hand. Anything you want to inspect by hand should be kept somewhere easily accessible. a backpack is preferable to a suitcase that needs to be unpacked.

Before we put our bags on the conveyor belt, we pull out our film and loaded cameras, get the attention of the nearest TSA agent, and say, “I have some film (and cameras) that I would like to have it manually inspected, please. “If they ask if the film is below ISO 800, we either say no or (to avoid lying) tell them it’s going to be pushed and shot at a higher speed. (They may not know what that means, but they will usually accept it.)

Someone is loading a film camera
It’s best not to load your cameras with film until you’ve reached your destination. Getty Images

After going through the scanners, we try to stand in a prominent place without blocking the flow of passengers. The film is usually checked by the same officers who inspect bags that have been removed for secondary inspection, so there may be a wait. Inspection usually involves swabbing the individual rolls and then placing the swab through a machine that checks for explosive residue. We’ve had occasional requests to open boxes and always say yes (as long as they don’t pull your film from the cartridge or unwind your 120 rolls, it’ll be fine). Once the machine gives the agent the green light, you’ll likely be sent on your way.

Return home: have all films inspected by hand

Once your film has been shot, it is still sensitive to light and can still be damaged by scanners, so be sure to have all of your film, shot or not, inspected by hand. We must reiterate: Do not put undeveloped film in checked baggage.

If you had your film developed while on vacation, there’s nothing to worry about, as we mentioned earlier, developed films, negatives, prints and slides are not light sensitive. You can safely pass them through scanners or in your checked baggage.

What about sealed film bags?

Several manufacturers offer lead-lined film bags that claim to protect the film from X-rays. (We don’t know if these bags protect against CT scanners.) We haven’t tried one in recent years, but if the bags block x-rays, they will likely appear as a large dark spot on the security scan, which is likely to trigger a secondary inspection. We find it easier to just request a manual inspection and avoid the inconvenience of asking the TSA to unpack our bags.

Advice for other countries

Although we’ve never had a manual scan request turned down in the US, we’ve been turned down in Europe, and we don’t know if this was due to security procedures or a language barrier. For this reason, if you’re traveling with analog cameras overseas, consider packing slower speed film, which is most likely to survive digitization without ill effects. That said, we understand that some European countries are also introducing CT scanners for hand luggage, which is much more likely to cloud the film.

Ultimately, it’s best to check the official website of the security agency of the country you’re traveling to. If they don’t have a clear film policy, you might want to consider traveling with a digital camera or arranging to send your film home before you leave.

About Debra D. Johnson

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