Caution: Traveling with Film

“Smoke Break” – London, England

I am finally back from jolly old England, and I wanted to post some sage advice for any of you that travel and like to shoot film. I traveled to England this year with my M6 and 50 (yes, you read that right: fifty) rolls of film–a combination of Kodak 400TX and Ilford Delta 3200–and brought along my Fuji X100 as a backup camera. I packed my film into a clear Ziploc bag, without the annoying plastic canisters (does anyone actually know why film still comes in those plastic cases?), and had the friendly people at TSA hand-check my film for me.

The TSA website advises the following on photographic film:

“Undeveloped camera film is not prohibited, but you should only transport it 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.

Even if an item is generally permitted, it may be subject to additional screening or not allowed through the checkpoint if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses other security concerns. The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items on the plane.”

Interesting that TSA recommends anything above ISO 800 should be hand-checked. Generally, film under ISO 1600 won’t be damaged by the X-ray machines used at airports, though I always carry it on the plane as I have read that the machines used for checked luggage are more powerful and could be more harmful. Given that I had ~30 rolls of ISO 3200 film, I had them hand-check all of it to avoid having it sent through the X-ray machine at all. At the airport in Minneapolis, this was not an issue; it took a few minutes as the nice man swabbed each individual roll of film with a little cotton ball, but other than that it was a non-issue.

For the next 10 days, I happily snapped away in England. Upon returning, I used the same packing procedures for my film, and asked the people at Heathrow Airport in London to please hand-check my film. I was passed off to a supervisor who made it plain that under no circumstances would I be allowed to have my film hand-checked. She insisted that everything must pass through the X-ray machines, and that “professional photographers pass through all the time” without a single incident. I argued, and as I became increasingly irritated, my dad (who I was traveling with) helped me cool off and defuse the situation.

Needless to say, we were talking about the potential safety of all of my images, so I was pretty pissed off.

Perhaps I was at fault for not having done the research prior to flying. Then again, I’ve flown through Heathrow (London), Charles de Gaulle (Paris), and Skipol (Amsterdam) in the past year alone without any issue; no airport in the continental USA has ever given me a problem about film.

The Heathrow Airport website has the following to say about it:

“Specialist film (ISO 800 and above) under exceptional circumstances, when passed more than eight times through the hand-luggage security scanning machines, can be affected. However, the nature of the change occurring is barely noticeable to the naked eye and indeed does not become clearly visible until film is exposed around 32 times.

We therefore continue to recommend that airline passengers carry all normal, undeveloped film in their hand-luggage, not in their hold (checked-in) luggage.

We also advise that special arrangements can be made for photographers carrying professional film (ISO 800 and above) by prior arrangement with their airline or airport.

Hand search requests for professional film will normally be accommodated, but the final decision in all individual cases will always rest with the on-duty security supervisor.”

(You can read the full post on the policies at Heathrow here.)

When I get my film back I will post again to update you all with what happened in the end, and what, if any, was damaged from the scanning. I’m hoping nothing, but I’m not holding my breath.

Finally, as an aside, the image above was taken with my new Samsung phone, and I have to say the camera hasn’t impressed me as much as my old iPhone 4 that I just replaced. The files from the iPhone seemed to have a lot more life to them; noise is much more prevalent on the Samsung that I have now, and dynamic range and sharpness have also suffered.

3 Comments

  1. […] I know, I know. You’re thinking to yourself: dude, it’s the winter in England. Of course it rained every day. And I hear that, I really do. But over the past 4 years it has hardly rained at all that I can remember, and the weather ahead of the trip was optimistic that there might be some rain, but not much. Well, the forecast kept changing and not only did it rain each day, but it was really dark and gloomy too. Despite bringing ISO 3200 film along with ISO 400 film, the rain kept us inside a lot, and the film camera didn’t get near as much use as I’d hoped (as it turns out, that may have been strangely fortunate). […]

    Reply

  2. I’d be optimistic that no damage was done. On RFF there were some discussions about the x-ray topic and most people never had problems with high iso film and x-rays.

    Reply

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