How To: Travel with Film

Traveling with film is a topic I get often asked about and there naturally seems to be a lot of insecurity related to it. Nobody wants to come home from a trip and realize all the negatives are ruined, right? So I wanted to dedicate this blog entry to this topic and share the experiences that I have gained over the years. During the article there is an insight of what both Kodak and the TSA think of this topic and what advice they give.

The question centers around one topic: X-ray. There are pretty much two basic options: checked or hand luggage.

First, I want to talk about checked luggage and the X-ray machines which gets used there. There is one consensus among the people in the film community: do not leave your film in the checked luggage. As the TSA states on their website “the equipment used to screen checked baggage may damage undeveloped film“. Eventually the X-ray there is much stronger and more intense. This will most likely ruin your film and all your precious photographs. Most likely it will result in fogging or cause characteristic wave patterns. My brother once accidentally left a couple of packs of instant film in the checked luggage, which luckily turned out just fine. Never do this though!! Here is an example of what effects X-ray can have on your film and in which ways it can be damaged.

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The solution is pretty simple in my opinion though and this is were we come to the second option for carrying film with you on an airplane: hand luggage. Of course, you will also have to pass your film through a X-Ray machine. But the intensity is much lower and won’t damage film up to a certain speed. This largely depends on the machine they are using. In my experience film up to 400 ISO has never shown any effects. The staff at London Heathrow told me last time, that theirs were even safe for film up to 3200 ISO (cannot confirm that is valid information though). As I am a big fan of pushing 400 speed film to 1600 or 3200, I also needed to test it out. But there have never been any issues, because the film still has a sensitivity of 400 in the end. By pushing you are of course not increasing the sensitivity of the film, you're just underexposing the film and then compensating it with a longer development time.

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Handcheck are also a often quoted solution. I personally don’t bother with them anymore. Eventually in the US you have a right to get your film hand checked, but this does not go for anywhere out of the US unfortunately. This is the TSA’s take on it: “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.“ Handchecks take time, so if you really don't want to risk anything, make sure to plan in some extra time. I vividly remember getting over 100 rolls handchecked flying home from Japan. Please be always polite when asking for a handcheck (especially outside the US) and sometimes, even if you have been as politely asking as possible, they will refuse to carry one out.

Now that I have shared my personal experience, here is some of the advice that Kodak shared with us:
"Don’t place single-use cameras or unprocessed film in any luggage or baggage that will be checked. This includes cameras that still have film in them. If an attendant or security personnel informs you that your carry-on baggage must be stowed with the checked luggage or go through a second scan, remove your unprocessed film.Have your exposed film processed locally before passing through airport security on your return trip. If you're going to be traveling through multiple X-ray examinations (more than 5 times), request a hand search of your carry-on baggage. FAA regulations in the U.S. allow for a hand search of photographic film and equipment if requested. (See below for further FAA information.) However, non-US airports may not honor this request. If you're asked to step aside for a more thorough scan of your carry-on baggage, the film could be harmed if they use the more intense X-ray equipment.You should take your unprocessed film out of your luggage. Consider shipping unprocessed, unexposed or exposed film through an expedited carrier, but first check with the carrier to determine what package examination procedures they are using.Be polite, helpful and patient. Please remember that security personnel are trying to protect the traveling public."

I really see where Kodak is going with their points and can fully agree to them. Buying and getting the film processed locally also seems like a good choice. Just make sure to check availability of both film and development beforehand. Not that you won’t find any there and no possibility for getting it processed. This depends largely on the country and region you are going to. For example in Japan (the image below was taken at Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku, Tokyo) it obviously won't be a problem to find film and a possibility for development. Depending on where you are from, film may be more expensive though.

Finally, I want to touch on lead X-ray bags. First here is Kodak’s take on them: “Lead-lined bags, available from photo retailers, will weaken the X-radiation on film and reduce potential harm. However, the effectiveness of any particular lead bag depends on the intensity and electric potential of the X-ray generator, the lead's thickness, and the film speed. If you use a lead bag, check with the manufacturer for the effectiveness of their products with airport X-ray devices. The inspection process may be triggered by a lead bag on the scanner screen. In a typical airport surveillance situation, the baggage may be pulled aside for additional inspection.“
And I can agree, a lot depends on which bag you are using and if it is in fact able to protect your film from the X-ray waves or not. Personally, if you are carrying film with a maximum speed of 400, I wouldn’t bother buying and using these bags.

Thank you for reading this article! I really hope it helped and could take some of the fear away. Make sure to comment down below if you want to share your experiences or have any questions on this topic.
If you want to contribute to this blog, please write an email with your idea to info@wasteoffilm.com .

Sources (for images and text):
TSA
Kodak
Photo Jojo