How can I pass through airport security without them X-Raying all of my camera film?
April 7, 2008 3:24 AM   Subscribe

How can I pass through airport security without having my camera film X-Rayed?

I've flown a bunch of times with camera film and although I've never had any problems, the batch of film I just bought (lots of Fuji 100 medium format print film) specifically reads on the side DO NOT X-RAY.

I'm flying from the UK to San Francisco and back again so the idea of ruining all the film from my trip is heartbreaking. What do I do?
posted by stackhaus23 to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can ask for it to be hand inspected. Print out that page and bring it with you.
posted by grouse at 3:37 AM on April 7, 2008

Or you could buy the film online from a San Fran camera store, taking advantage of the cheap dollar, and have it shipped to your first night's accommodation.
posted by roofus at 3:49 AM on April 7, 2008

very simple: get clear and small ziplock bags, take all the film rolls out of their canisters, put them inside the bag, add at least one fast roll (3200 speed or 1600 will do, you may need to buy one at a photography store) and when you get to the machine take them out, hand them to the security person and ask for a hand inspection. they should just do it anyway but if they ask why just say you have fast professional film in there. I promise you this is not going to be an issue at all. you will go through the xrays and at the end someone will have your film and do the cotton swap thing in front of you. takes two minutes tops.

going to samy's in SF is a decent idea as well as they will have everything in stock but you would probably still have to take it back.

for the record: the grain does increase on slower film as well when xrayed. it's just not as bad as on a 3200 roll.
posted by krautland at 3:58 AM on April 7, 2008

This was about twenty years ago now, but I distinctly remember my parents having a special lead-lined bag to protect their film from x-rays - we'd been to London for a month and had a ton of exposed film, all of which came out fine. Anyone else know if camera shops still sell this sort of thing?
posted by clavicle at 5:44 AM on April 7, 2008

As a data point, a few years ago a friend of mine, a respected rock photographer, was on tour with a very big band in the US doing all of their photography for the tour. At one of the major US airports he handed the DOHS security guy a clear plastic bag full of high end fast film rolls and asked for it to be hand inspected. The guy leered at him and slammed the precious film straight through the xray machine. My friend in his annoyance turned to a nearby rifle toting National Guard and said something along the long the lines of "Can't you shoot this guy for being an idiot?" and then spent the next 3 hours in a side room being told to stare at the Stars and Stripes hanging in the corner for attemting to incite an officer of the National Guard to shoot a government employee.

posted by merocet at 6:11 AM on April 7, 2008

You're either going to be lucky or damned because it's medium format. Lucky, perhaps, because the screener will realize that it's more likely to be used by a professional who would be more concerned about what the xrays could do. Damned, perhaps, because the screener might not recognize the film as film and because it's 100 speed. As krautland suggested, a roll or sheet of faster-than-800 will get you past the low-speed hurdle.

Grouse is right that you can ask for film to be hand inspected in the US, and TSA guidelines will do so for any speed film. In my experience, you'll be able to do the same virtually everywhere else in the world. I've been through probably 25 airports around the world with hundreds of rolls of 35mm, and the only place where I absolutely could not talk my way into hand inspection was in Blantyre, Malawi (and I'm pretty sure they were xraying everybody!). Everywhere else--Haiti, Russia, India, Dubai, China, many places in the US, Kenya, Heathrow & Stanstead, various big and small airports in western and eastern European--a little bit of talking and showing up as early as you can will get you a long way.

Say it's professional film, say it's really expensive, say it's already exposed, offer to have them pick one roll randomly and open it up all the way (which will likely be important if you've got rolls in the little bags), etc.

As with all matters involving security in airports, the important thing is to be patient and calm and friendly. Often, I've gotten into talks with the screener about their kid who just started a photography class or maybe the screener really likes to take landscapes. Who knows, but jump on it and use it to keep your film safe.

Definitely keep away from the xray bags. They're expensive and small and the techs will just take the film out of the bag or turn the xray up (if that's possible).

One thing that might work really well is to have your camera visible when you go through security. Easy if you've got a Mamiya rangefinder, just sling it around your shoulder; harder if you've got a Hasselblad. But since you're carrying your camera with you anyway, use it to your advantage to let the screeners know that what you have is really film and it's weird-looking because your camera is weird-looking. Works in the same way that you're pretty safe with a big view camera and asking to take pictures of the roughest and toughest looking people in the roughest and toughest neighborhoods. If you can get the screeners curious about you, your film is safe.

These are all things to keep in mind and some quick things to do if things get dire. I really don't expect you to have any problems, however. In my experience, in the US, at least, now that it's the TSA and not individual airports managing security, the application of regulations is more consistent throughout the country, whereas in the 90s, it was a bit more of a gamble with film.

And for good measure, here's a handy flyer to keep in your camera bag regarding the legal rights of photographers in the US.
posted by msbrauer at 6:14 AM on April 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

They will give you crap about doing a hand inspection, but they are REQUIRED to do it no matter what, even if it's not fast film.

Last time I flew with film I had a bunch of medium format, mostly ISO 100, and every time I would hand them a zip lock bag and politely ask for a hand inspection. They would always try to get me to skip it ("This film will go through fine" etc.) but you just have to press them a little bit ("I'm a professional and can't afford to have it messed up" usually worked for me, I think having 120 helped because no one really knew what it was).
posted by bradbane at 6:20 AM on April 7, 2008

If this is just regular color negative or transparency film with a rated speed of 100 ISO, just leave it in your carry on bag and let it be x-rayed. 100 ISO is too slow to be harmed by the machines used to scan carry-on bags. I've put slow film through the machines dozens of times with no effect. I've decided that demanding a hand-search isn't at all worth the hassle, especially with airport security the way it is these days. As an experiment, after reading so many people on web photo forums worrying about airport x-rays, I left an 800 ISO rated film in my camera bag for five trans-Atlantic trips. No effect after processing.

Note that this only applies to carry-on. Checked bags get a higher dose and there's a very real possibility your film will be damaged in a checked bag.
posted by normy at 7:07 AM on April 7, 2008

Lead bags are, I've heard, useless. If they can't see through the bag they'll reportedly raise the power of it until they do, and then the film's got at least as much exposure as it would otherwise, probably more as it's sitting there until they get a clean image rather than scrolling by. And if not they'll just have to inspect it by hand anyway, so save your money and just ask for the hand search at the start.
posted by edd at 7:21 AM on April 7, 2008

And if you're flying out of the UK, your film will be put through the machine - no option, however politely you might ask.
posted by normy at 7:24 AM on April 7, 2008

Be aware that even asking politely can land you in an interrogation room for several hours.

At JFK airport, in 2003, I asked to have about twenty rolls of professional-grade film hand-examined. They were out of their canisters and in clear ziplock bags. They did hand examine them, swabbing them and putting the swab in some kind of chemical scanner. Afterwards, they bustled me off to an armored room to pick throgh my hand baggage and ask me dozens of questions. If I hadn't been at the airport almost four hours early, I would definitely have missed my flight.

You might be better off having your film developed before you fly.
posted by sindark at 7:53 AM on April 7, 2008

Thanks for all your answers. I wouldn't normally worry about the low speed film, the highest I'm taking is 400 speed. It's just that is says in a red box DO NOT X-RAY, which to be honest I haven't even noticed before.
posted by stackhaus23 at 8:10 AM on April 7, 2008

what about just putting the film in your pocket?
posted by swbarrett at 8:42 AM on April 7, 2008

Flying from the UK to the US last year, the UK inspectors were very reluctant to hand-inspect my film. Having some very fast film might have helped, but I don't know. Good luck!
posted by amtho at 8:48 AM on April 7, 2008

Buy film locally, if possible. At the end of your trip FedEx your exposed film back home.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:25 AM on April 7, 2008

what about just putting the film in your pocket?

It probably contains enough metal components to set off the metal detector.
posted by odinsdream at 10:10 AM on April 7, 2008

Seconding everything msbrauer said, especially the parts about having a roll or two of fast (iso 1600 or higher) film, being nice, and using the words "I have some professional film I need hand-inspected". Even if they huff and puff about it and say "oh, it's only 100, it'll be fine" (and they will...and it all honesty, it probably WILL be fine, but I wouldn't take the chance either), they are required to hand inspect it at your request. Again, be nice but firm about it. If they refuse to, ask (politely!) for another screener to look at it. (This is why having the fast film helps.)
posted by AlisonM at 12:27 PM on April 7, 2008

As an experiment, after reading so many people on web photo forums worrying about airport x-rays, I left an 800 ISO rated film in my camera bag for five trans-Atlantic trips. No effect after processing.

I had some 100 ISO film in my carry-on once that I figured would be fine - it was completely ruined by the X-Ray. I'm sure there are a lot of factors at work, you might get unlucky like I did.

I either ask for a hand-inspection or get it developed (if possible) before flying just to be safe.

Some friends of mine have said they have a lot less trouble requesting a hand-inspection of film (or bringing on the extra carry-on bag that photographers are allowed) when they show their ASMP cards.
posted by bradbane at 2:14 PM on April 7, 2008

As you can see from the responses of varying success with hand-inspection, it's luck.
I've no idea about what to do leaving the UK - one poster seemed to say that it gets nuked regardless. In US, SFO (my local airport) it's a roll of the dice - one inspector may, one may not, same person may/not depending on what they had for lunch that day, etc.
Rather than worry about what you're going to get, just go around it. You say you've already bought the film; if you can't return it and buy your film in the US, ship it to your 1st night's accomodations, taking care to indicate that it's film and should not be xrayed (this will be your single risk, that the shipper might make a mistake and zap it before you use it). Have it developed before you leave, and take the prints, CD with you. Done! If your schedule doesn't permit that, a good film developer (I like Photoworks ) will do your developing and send you prints, or a CD of your photos for printing back home.
posted by penciltopper at 3:29 PM on April 7, 2008

they are required to hand inspect it at your request

Not in the UK, they're not. They might, on a good day, but I gave up asking a few years back after several refusals. Most machines are rated "film-safe" to 800 ISO. Faster film than that might get you a hand search.

It's just that is says in a red box DO NOT X-RAY, which to be honest I haven't even noticed before.

Fuji says something like this on all their film boxes along with a warning about heat (just as harmful to film, in excess). They can't predict what sort of x-ray exposure, nor write an essay on that little box, so they go for the blanket rule. Medical or checked baggage x-rays will very likely ruin it, after all.

At the risk of adding something more than hearsay to this thread...
...what the TSA say ...what BAA say ...what Kodak say ...what Fuji say.

If you're still worried, buy your film in the US and have it processed before you go home. It's much cheaper here, anyhow.
posted by normy at 3:47 PM on April 7, 2008

Here's what I do when traveling. Find the local pro labs that handle medium format. Pro labs often have a 24 hour or less turnaround service. Don't wait until the last minute - take your film to the lab as soon as you shoot it. Drop it off every morning. Build up an inventory of developed negatives. That way, the last couple rolls you shoot will probably have to go back home to be developed, but you have protected as many as possible.
posted by conrad53 at 8:29 PM on April 7, 2008

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