As the photography world has gone mostly digital, there remain some veterans who continue to expose on film. Although their numbers are becoming smaller year by year, some younger generation photographers – like me – are rediscovering the old art of exposing on film as the necessary equipment has never been cheaper on Ebay and the likes. Luckily, companies like Kodak are now offering films better than any available ever before, so shooting on film should be more fun than ever, right? Well, it’s true unless you take into account the enormous hassle that photographers have to go through when they travel with film.
Film, especially after it has been exposed already, is a very sensitive medium. It’s easy to ruin film. All it takes is too much heat, too much radiation, a critical amount of moisture and so on. While handling and taking care of film is usually no problem within the comfort zone of your home town it becomes much more inconvenient when you enter public transportation with all its modern, post 9-11 security requirements. One of the most dangerous sources of radiation that can harm your film are X-rays as you will encounter it in numerous scanning devices at all airports and many train and bus stations in many countries of the world. Also, covering a lot of distance inflight at great height will expose your film to a some radiation unless you shield it properly.
To what extend do X-rays harm your film?
Well, X-rays can fog the film, rendering it virtually unusable. The effect depends on the total amount of radiation applied to a film and the speed of the film. Faster films (with higher ISO ratings) are more sensitive. Films already exposed but not processed are also more sensitive. Kodak has done tests with slow and medium-speed films (rated at up to ISO 200) and they were found to be able to handle up to 16 passes through the X-ray machines used to check hand luggage at modern Western airports. Faster films, starting at ISO 400 are much more sensitive to X-ray damage. They probably won’t handle more than four or five passes – less if you already exposed them. If you push film – for example exposing an ISO 400 film at ISO 800 within your camera – the problem will be more severe as well. The X-ray machines in remote regions of the world will most likely emit a much higher dose of radiation.
How can I protect my film while traveling?
Answering this question is fairly easy. Keep your film dry, keep it away from direct sunlight and don’t let it get X-rayed. Securing the first two items on that checklist is fairly easy. The biggest problem will be dealing with countless security workers at airports, train and bus stations and many public sites that require a security check. A few general rules of advice apply:
- When flying, don’t put your film with your checked baggage. Checked baggage X-ray machines use a much higher dose of radiation.
- Don’t put your film in a shielded container. Once inside an X-ray machine, the operator will just increase the radiation volume until he’s able to see what’s inside.
- Put all your film in a transparent Ziplock bag and store that bag inside your carry-on luggage where it’s easy to reach and pull out. Nothing is more annoying than someone in line in front of you, digging for a piece of luggage deep down inside his bags. Don’t be that guy.
- Mark the exposed rolls of film, so you can easily sort those out if needed. Also, mark rolls pushed beyond their ISO value. Having an organized system helps when dealing with airport security while they hand-check your film.
- When traveling with film, plan for up to an hour of additional time in security. Yes, you can get that unlucky.
- Don’t put film into your camera(s) when going through a security check. The camera will be scanned, there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re really unlucky, it will be hand-checked and maybe opened, ruining the film anyway. If you have an already half-exposed roll of film in your camera, consider the risk and decide if you want to rewind it and get it out. That’s your call.
Dealing with the airport security staff can be frustrating at times. In general, security workers will try to persuade you to just put your film through the X-ray machine. Always bear in mind, that you absolutely need to be friendly and respectful – or you will achieve the opposite of what you intended. Also, always be honest about what you say. If you don’t have exposed film in your luggage, don’t say so. I have encountered countless airport security workers at airports around the world and the discussion about checking film always boiled down to what I have formatted as a dialog guide with the security staff’s arguments and your possible answers:
Security: It’s safe to put the film into the machine. The X-ray machine has been designed for this (a “photo safe” sticker on the machine indicates this).
You: It may be safe once or twice, but I will be traveling through quite a few security checks and each one adds up to the total amount of radiation the film will be exposed to. Can you please hand-check the film?
Security: What do you have there? ISO 1600? Anything below ISO 1600 is safe, put it through the machine! (This version often comes with a sarcastic tone when they notice your ISO 100 rolls)
Security: You will expose the film to a higher dose of radiation anyway when you take it on the plane. Just put it through the machine. (Also, this one often comes with a sarcastic tone)
Security: It’s safe to put the film into the machine. I’m a photographer myself, I have tested the machine with my own film and I could not detect any negative effect on my film.
You: Kodak has tested the effects of modern X-ray scanners on unexposed film up to ISO 200 and test results have shown that this film can be rendered useless after 16 passes through the machine. As I will be traveling through a lot of security checks with this film, I cannot take the risk of the film being exposed to unnecessary radiation. Can you please hand-check my film?
You: I have film already exposed here too. Exposed but unprocessed film is more sensitive to radiation. I cannot risk damage to this film. Can you please hand-check it?
You: I have pushed some of the film beyond its ISO value (for example exposing ISO 400 film at ISO 800). The film is more sensitive now, can you please hand-check it?
When I expose on film I actually always have film rated at ISO 400 with me and a lot of times, I push ISO 400 to ISO 800. For the sake of being able to argue that way, it doesn’t even hurt to take one or two rolls of high ISO film with you. If you store everything in one transparent bag, it doesn’t make much sense to sort out the slow film, put it through the machine while the fast film is hand-checked, so everything will get hand-checked.
I experienced that it helps a lot if you’re able to speak the native language of the security staff. At Amsterdam/Schiphol (which is a horrible airport by the way), an additional security check with X-ray scanning is necessary before/while boarding the plane. The security staff was extremely uncooperative as there wasn’t much room or time to hand-check baggage items. As I switched to Dutch in our conversation, they became extremely helpful and hand-checked my film – while plain refusing it beforehand. I experienced the same on the return flights through Amsterdam/Schiphol.
I have never managed to get my films hand-checked in Heathrow. The security staff working in Heathrow is ruthless and they refuse to accept any of these arguments. When traveling through Heathrow, I never take any film.
Some countries have a weird attitude of high respect towards foreigners which might work to your advantage. In China for example, I just acted like it’s the most ordinary and usual thing that film gets hand-checked. While I put all my carry-on luggage through the machine, I just handed the security staff the bag with my film, asking them in a more or less “matter of fact” way to hand-check the film. I never had any problems. If you want to try this, just remember to stay polite and respectful. At most train and bus stations in rural mainland China, you also have to walk through a security check with a regular metal detector to walk through and an antiquated X-ray machine to check your carry-on luggage. I usually grabbed the bag of film – often showing it to the security guard next to the machine – while passing through the metal detector without subjecting the film to the X-ray scanner. Almost nobody in China wants to deal with a “foreign devil” it seemed, so this worked out neatly all the time.
In hindsight, I will probably avoid traveling with film in the future. While it’s still – or now even more than ever – a great medium for photographic exposure, it’s just a lot of hassle and worry when you’re passing through airport security. Ideally, if you really want to expose on film, you might plan your trip in a way that you’ll buy the film on location if that’s possible and get it processed on location as well. Unless you’re traveling to under- or non-developed countries, that might probably work out fine as long as you research a suitable local store beforehand. In fact, for trips to modern Western countries, passing through major cities, there shouldn’t be any problem with that approach.
For more information regarding this topic, check out Kodak’s pages about traveling with film. They even have a “do not X-ray” print-out label for your luggage to download. I don’t want to argue about how useful that really is. Maybe it’s useful to you. For feedback, your comments will be most welcome.