View Full Version : Latest nightmares at the airport -- and a solution

chris jordan
18-Oct-2004, 14:09
Hi guys, here's a quick check-in on the LF film airport security issue.

In the last couple of months I have made three photographing trips from Seattle to the east coast with my 8x10 gear, and all three times I carried boxes of undeveloped 8x10 film going in both directions. And the result is: Security is becomming tighter all the time and the whole "hand inspection" thing is getting pretty dicey. Leaving Seattle on the first trip, the security people said that if I wanted to get on the plane, I had to open the film boxes. I got the top supervisor involved, and he insisted--told me that something had happened (that he couldn't tell me about) in the last couple of weeks that required increased security, and so if I didn't want the boxes X-rayed, they had to be opened.

So we all went to a separate room, turned out the lights, and I opened the boxes and let them feel the unopened plastic envelopes of film. The security people flexed the envelopes, presumably checking for stiff stuff like a knife, and then handed them back to me and I went on my way. I was concerned about what would happen when I had the exposed film in the box for the return trip (and what would happen if the airport didn't have a dark room available), and so when I loaded the film into the holders the next day, I made sure to carefully cut open the plastic film envelopes so I could use them on the return trip as well. And sure enough, coming back through Atlanta, and Orlando the following week (but not NY strangely enough), they did the same thing--swabbed the boxes, and then also made me open them. I had carefully taped the plastic envelopes shut with double-folded ends so that no light could get in, and we opened the boxes in broad daylight under my dark cloth on a table. I figured that since the film was also in a cardboard sleeve inside the plastic envelopes, it wouldn't be damaged if a tiny amount of light made it through the sleeve.

So far no film has been harmed during this process, so this will be my new practice: Be prepared to open the film boxes, with the film in cardboard sleeves and those sleeves in the plastic envelopes carefully taped shut. Far as I can tell, this is still a preferrable method to passing the film through the X-ray, because there is no knowing whether the film will be harmed if the security people stop the conveyor belt and give the film an extended dose of X-rays (which they do with my camera bag every time).

okay that's all for now.




Tom Westbrook
18-Oct-2004, 14:32
One solution to the dwelling X-ray problem might be to carry the film in a separate bag that's less apt to arouse the lingering attention of the inspectors, like the bag/case you carry your in-flight lunch or reading material in.

X-raying would seem to be lower risk than fogging given your scanario. It might be better to load the inner film envelopes in opaque bags before leaving for the airport, if all the inspectors want is to be able to feel for solid objects and don't want to open everything up.

David A. Goldfarb
18-Oct-2004, 14:38
I've never had film damaged by X-rays (I also don't shoot anything faster than Tri-X), but have a friend who lost a box of 5x7" (thankfully before it was shot) due to a careless inspector. I just put it through the X-ray machine now, but if I know there will be several trips, I try to buy film locally and occasionally I'll ship it home. I also make note of what things seem to bring about inspections and check them--cable releases that look like syringes and rangefinder cams that look like blades are two.

Darin Cozine
18-Oct-2004, 14:41
Chris, thx for the heads up.

Tom, I think you have a great idea there. I have some extra black bags from 8x10 paper and 4x5 film. I could double or triple-bag the film so that I can take it out before going through security. Then they could feel it in daylight without having to bother going into a dark room.

This would be a very good opportunity for someone to manufacture daylight film bags.

QT Luong
18-Oct-2004, 14:42
As inconvenient as it is, I must say that the policy "we have to open it or X-ray it" does make sense,
but it is not applied consistently. Last time I flew from Seattle (September 2004), they only swabbed the boxes. If you really insist on no X-ray you could carry a changing bag with you, which
certainly beats trying to find a dark room or using a cloth.

18-Oct-2004, 14:57
Photographers' film is not a high priority on airport security. The fascinating thing from guys down the local processing lab is that over the summer they found more rolls of film being fogged, most likely due to X-rays left in the main luggage compartment; possibly due to the use of higher doses of x-rays at the hand-check..

Like most forum users here, none of the hand-luggage which is submitted for xray (mostly film) ever suffered from x-ray fogging.

One way to make a nuisance of oneself is to insist on carrying a large format trunk in the overhead cabin as well as a separate stash of film. Most airport officials are not acquainted with large format camera material, consequently inspecting it with more caution.

If anything, US laws sound generally tighter than across the Atlantic, although variations in local practice exist. Courtesy and respect to airport officials, and accepting the fate that travel may involve x-raying hand-luggage is not so frightening if the doses of the x-rays are minimal and cumulatively minimal. I don't know if any of us here are legalistic enough to carry a copy of the airport rules and regulations, or a printed statement to effect a personal hand-search with the airport supervisor?

Bruce Watson
18-Oct-2004, 15:04
A changing bag beats taking the chance of light exposure by bringing those little foil lined bags into the light. They are not considered lightproof. They are used for moisture protection, IIRC.

OTOH, make sure the inspectors wash their hands before handling any film. Just what you need is a big old greasy finger print in the middle of a shot that you flew across country to get.

Me? I don't fly in country any more. If I were going to fly, I would send my film on ahead to a destination hotel (iffy) or friend (better), and send it back the same way.

If only all this pain actually made flying safer....

Michael Kadillak
18-Oct-2004, 15:21
Is Fed Ex that inconvenient or expensive such that photographers are opting to not use them to and from locations? Last I checked they were allowing the sender to opt for no X Ray during shipment. The hassle and the potential downside from my last major airport experience through security makes me believe that this will remain the last reliable option to travel with light sensitive materials and it will only get worse (particularly as we approach election day).

I am getting set up with a corporate account with Fed Ex and forget about it.


Kerry L. Thalmann
18-Oct-2004, 15:40
This won't help the 8x10 shooters, but when I fly with large format film these days I only take Quickloads/Readyloads. I carry my boxes of film packets in a small shoulder bag - separate from my camera gear (in a small daypack). Before the trip, I remove the film packets from their foil pouches, place them in clear ZipLoc bags and put them back in the original boxes. When I get to security, the daypack with the camera gear go on the belt and through the x-ray machine (where the operator stares at it, scratches his/her head, runs it forward and backward about 10 times and then asks me to open the bag so they can check the contents by hand). If I have sufficient time (which I usually do), I ask for a hand inspection of my film bag - which goes quickly since the boxes have already been opened and the film packets are in ZipLoc bags. If I'm in a hurry to get to catch my plane, I just place the film bag on the conveyor belt. Since there is nothing but film in the bag to arouse suspicion, it passes quickly through the x-ray machine on a single pass. As I never shoot anything faster than 100 ISO film, I've never had a problem with fogged film in carry-on baggage. The scanning x-ray machines they use for checked luggage use MUCH stronger x-rays that WILL fog even the slowest film in checked luggage.


Brian Ellis
18-Oct-2004, 15:50
I used to jump through hoops to get a hand inspection, then started shipping my film by Fed Ex to my destination and back to my home. Both methods were a hassle. On my most recent trip I just said the hell with it and let the film (T Max 100) go through passenger x rays going and coming back (Tampa to Newark to Shannon and back). The x ray machines did no harm to the film that I've been able to see. So from now on I'm not going to worry about hand inspections, Fed Ex, etc. I think perhaps we're all a little paranoid about x ray machines, at least with slow speed film.

Bruce Watson
18-Oct-2004, 16:18
I did that once - said the hell with it and let them Xray - a couple of years ago. I left a couple of sheets of Tri-X in film holders coming back. The rest of the film got hand checked coming back but the film in the film holders went though the carry-on Xray with the camera.

I lost both sheets of Tri-X to fogging.

Now, this film was Xrayed once before it was exposed, and once afterwards. I've heard that exposure is sort of like pre-flashing for Xray, making the film that much more susceptible to fogging.

In any case, I'm not going to let them Xray my film. The risk of damage is too great.

It's drive for a couple of days, or send the film ahead for me. Everyone else, YMMV.

18-Oct-2004, 18:13
My advice for B&W film: go ahead and put it through the carry-on X-ray machines. Just be sure to carry a new box of film on your next trip. Color should be okay if it's low speed (<125).

18-Oct-2004, 18:20
Has anyone had any experience using those lead lined bags? The last time I went overseas(summer of 2004) I let about 20 rolls ranging from 100-800 iso go through checked lugage in a small lead lined bag that cost about $30. As far as I can tell no harm came to the film and this involved changing planes a couple times on both the flight out and the flight back(though the luggage was checked through to the destination so it probably didn't go through the machines more then 3 times, and of that only once through a U.S. airport). The rest of the film(35mm) was kept on my body with a photo vest that never went through the machines. This worked pretty well but at times when the film wasn't in the vest they had me remove the vest and scan that as well... Even though I was using 35mm film in that bag, I am pretty sure you could fit at least two boxes of 10 sheet velvia in each bag. Not terrible for $30...

David A. Goldfarb
18-Oct-2004, 18:22
There was a good website up for a while--I'm not sure if it's still around--with an article by a photojournalist about the effects of X-rays and examples of fogging with high-speed film. These were not a general fog like pre-flashing, but very distinct bars of fog across the film, as if light had gotten through the light trap on a 35mm cartridge.

Graeme Hird
18-Oct-2004, 18:23
The bloke from J&C film says on this thread on APUG ( http://www.apug.org/forums/showthread.php?t=9590&page=1&pp=10) that there is no effect on film from the x-ray machines. I'd be inclined to believe him.

I've never had a problem with films that have even gone through 15 x-ray machines. Admittedly, they were 50 ISO Velvia, but no ill effects that I could see. I'm not going to worry about getting hand inspections done any more.

Rob Hale
18-Oct-2004, 19:52
Hi Guys and Girls

I had to go from NZ to UK via LA. And back via LA. The trip started on the 3rd. Sept. And returned for the 9th Oct.

So I ran a simple test. Two rolls 120 NPC 160. One roll through freight X ray and the other through hand luggage X ray.

I exposed alternate frames – picture – blank – picture etc 12 on each roll ( idea being to test if the roll thickness made any variation in the penetration of the X ray).

I also took small pile of 35 mm which I instead on “hand check” – this was quite interesting, on the return trip at Heathrow I had such a major battle with a particularly agro. young supervisor I thought my wife was about to disown me. Any way after I had pointed out to him that his machine said “ do not put limbs into machine while turned on “ clearly indicated that there was a lot more X ray in the machine than I would subjected to while flying he condescended to hand check – he had insisted that the film would be subject to far more X ray while in the air than in his machine. Other places, on the way north – AKL – polite but unhappy. LA a bit of a battle. Heathrow as above. LA on, the way south utterly charming, the moment I produce my plastic bag with about a dozen films in it , it was “ Oh you would like hand inspection, here I’ll take it and the lady will wait for you to go thro. before she inspects them”. AKL – inwards MAF inspection “ No trouble – here you go” ( we get quite tetchy about food products etc which might bring farm related nasties being food export dependant ).

Now the interesting bit – the two rolls of 120 NPC 160 no fogging at all. If I had “important” images I would probably be pretty nervous. Why ? well I can’t see why these machines are not certified by Kodak Ilford Agfa et. al. with the certification there for all to read, this would save so much time. Also on the north bound trip prior to the freight being X rayed at LA we were asked to remove “any undeveloped film !!!” so certification would seem a key but what ?perhaps they cant be certified ? Are these machines erratic – do they dose at huge quantities if paused or worse stopped – if so what is happening the operators ?

Regards Rob.

Andre Noble
19-Oct-2004, 13:32
Kerry, if they open your ready load box with your blessing, they're going to wonder why the next LF photographer w/ regular sheet film triple box is claiming his film will be ruined by opening the box :>)

In the US or Europre let's all do ourselves a favor: Simply bring your film with you onto plane and just put the damn film through the carry-on luggage XRay machine. I don't want a hand inspection by someone who is going to fondle my film with his bare hands. I have enough problems doing that myself by accident. besides, I'd rather risk getting it nuked than fogged by daylight in the new airport hand inspection procedure.

Frank Petronio
19-Oct-2004, 17:36
I guess that the bottom line is going to be that we should try to only take fresh film on these trips, not film that has already been through the airport X-ray a couple of times; use ASA 100 film if possible; and try to split your take up between hand carrying, FedExing home, and getting processing on location.

Using the changing bag or double taped plastic bags seems the most risky to me, by far.

If I was going to a third-world country with extra strong X-Rays? Arrange to have film waiting for me at the hotel... shoot negative materials... keep a unprocessed Polaroid in with your film to see if it got fogged in transit... pray... buy a 22mb digital back...

CP Goerz
20-Oct-2004, 12:00
I just got back from a few stops in Europe(9 seperate airport X-ray passes) and all the 35mm which included HP5 and 400 ISO slide look perfect. I do mail sheetfilm to myself and back again too as it doesn't have a little metal can to protect it but the few times I've popped it through the hand luggage on a one or two pass trip its been fine.

Is it my imagination though or are more people bringing two or more carry on items with them and stuffing the overhead bins trying to avoid the carousel?

CP Goerz

Brian Ellis
20-Oct-2004, 16:59
I got up the nerve to let my T Max 100 go through the passenger x ray because a friend who flies all over the world all year long said he doesn't worry about how many times the film is x rayed and has never had a problem. It occurs to me that not every problem we might have with our film is necessarily caused by x ray machines. Surely some photographers had a problem with their film at least once in their lifetime even before there was such a thing as x ray machines in airports (yes, I actually can remember a time when you just walked onto the plane carrying whatever you carried, didn't even have to take your shoes off). .

Greg Miller
21-Oct-2004, 11:12
In January I flew from Newark to Lima Peru, Lima to Santiago Chile, Santiago to Balmaceda Chile, and all those same connections on the way home. I stayed overnight in each city so separate security checks were done on each city. I also had several flights on float planes. So in total there were 6 security checks (4 in South America) and well over 24 hours in the air.

My film (50 rolls of 35mm Velvia 50 & Provia 100 - no LF on that trip) went through x-ray machines at each security check.

End result = no fogging and happy client.

Conrad Hoffman
21-Oct-2004, 20:33
I avoid all air trips as the experience is just too lousy these days. No one has mentioned another approach- chance the carry on x-rays or ship your film, and carry a few trays as well. Process the film in your hotel room. The bathrooms almost never have windows. Once you have good negs, the return trip will be no problem. You could even process a sheet on arrival to be sure it passed through intact. Hint- put a half fogged sheet (masked) on top to be sure of detecting additional exposure.

24-Oct-2004, 03:14
I am currently traveling in China and have about 63 rolls of 35mm exposed film and another 25 unexposed rolls. I have asked for hand inspection every time. My cameras do go through x-rays and those films are exposed to x-rays but each roll will only get one exposure at the most. Have never had any problems from fogging in the past with this practise. In china they x-ray your baggage at airports, train stations, and bus stations. I dont trust any of the machines here and push hard for hand inspections all the time. Sorry for the misspellings, there are no characters on the keyboard here, all worn off.

Dave Moeller
24-Oct-2004, 09:08
My personal record so far is nine passes through x-ray machines during one trip (eight at airports and one at St. Chapelle in Paris) with no fogging. Film was all 120 size, with speeds ranging from 100 to 400. Airports were in the US, France, and Italy.

I have yet to fly with sheet film, but if I was going to do so I'd just let it go through the x-ray machine at the airports. I have a sneaking suspicion that things would be just fine. (I would, however, carry a changing bag on the off chance that someone wanted to open the box of film...I'd hate to have that happen, but I'd like to be prepared.)