Flying with Film: How to Handle X-ray Checkpoints as a Photographer

My spouse and youngsters have standardized joking about how lengthy it takes dad to get by means of airport and different safety checks when touring and visiting museums. No, I’m not a supervillain with an evil snicker, I’m only a movie photographer!

Should you don’t know what I’m referring to – unprocessed photographic movie is delicate to X-rays. So, anyplace that X-rays are used to confirm the contents of 1’s belongings, movie photographers ought to take pause.

Not too long ago my household flew from Washington D.C. to Paris, France. I believed it is likely to be helpful to share our experiences getting by means of X-ray factors with different touring movie photographers.

Desk of Contents

Your Mileage Might Differ

Earlier than beginning our personal pictures enterprise, I labored in advertising and routinely flew to quite a few cities in the USA to take tv manufacturing stills and {photograph} enterprise occasions. I’ve discovered that TSA brokers in all main US airports have been tremendous pleasant and accommodating to movie photographers. So thanks guys, it’s a lot appreciated!

Dulles Worldwide Airport – 1930 Leica III + 5cm Summitar + Kodak Tri-X 400

As I perceive it although, issues aren’t at all times really easy touring internationally. I had no issues in Sydney, Australia, however London Heathrow is infamous within the movie group for refusing hand checks. And twice, I’ve had points getting my movie by means of safety at Punta Cana Worldwide. In each instances, my spouse and I had been there for weddings and in each instances, I used to be denied a hand verify when leaving the nation. For important, paid work, that is irritating.

So once we determined to go to France, one in all my foremost considerations was the potential use of Computed Tomography, or CT scanners, at each Charles de Gaulle and Dulles. I haven’t flown overseas since COVID and have learn that CT scanners are beginning to see wider use. So I puzzled in the event that they’d been applied at both of those airports.

CT vs Conventional X-ray Machines

CT scanners are a more moderen sort of X-ray machine that produces three-dimensional photographs of the gadgets being X-rayed. The X-ray emitting head and detector rotate across the object in CT scanners. Objects appear to be uncovered to a better quantity of X-rays because of the thoroughness of CT scanners, which induced Kodak to warn that they will destroy movie of any ISO in a single move. Although ironic, that is most likely excellent news for movie photographers as a result of it removes any ambiguity as to slightly or not one ought to get their movie hand-checked.

Dulles Worldwide Airport – 1930 Leica III + 5cm Summitar + Kodak Tri-X 400

With standard, two-dimensional X-ray machines, the rule is that something rated at 800 ISO or underneath is protected to be scanned. The issue that I’ve with that is that one can’t at all times be sure what number of occasions their movie is likely to be X-rayed earlier than it may be processed. Certain, your 100 ISO Kodak Ektar will most likely present no considerable degradation from a few fast standard X-ray scans. However what when you’re push processing your Tri-X to 1600 and also you’re requested to place it by means of a number of occasions?

Much like gentle and the Publicity Triangle, the quantity of injury that X-rays can do to movie depends not solely on the ISO of the movie but additionally on how robust the X-ray dose is, how lengthy, and what number of occasions it’s uncovered. With out figuring out laborious numbers on every of those variables, it’s unattainable to precisely predict how a roll of movie is likely to be affected by being X-rayed.

It seems that, at the very least on the terminals I used, CT scanners weren’t in place at both Dulles or Charles de Gaulle. This meant that I’d should be ready for an agent to refuse hand checks. (To be clear, brokers working a CT scanner may also refuse hand checks however as I perceive it, that is a lot much less doubtless.)

This was only a household trip so I didn’t anticipate doing a lot low-light pictures like I shoot at weddings. So I left my TMAX P3200 and Delta 3200 movies at house to keep away from considerations about getting these extra delicate movies by means of safety. I narrowed myself all the way down to Kodak TMAX 100 and Kodak Tri-X 400 for 35mm damaging movie. I deliberate to price and push-process the Tri-X to 1600 in some instances. I additionally introduced some Fuji Instax Mini, which is an 800-speed integral instantaneous movie.

At all times Request a Hand Verify

My technique has at all times been to get all my movie hand-checked at each safety level that I can. Irrespective of the ISO of the movie. Irrespective of how I’m ranking it. Irrespective of how I’m processing it. It’s vital although, to needless to say if some movie should get zapped for no matter motive, to not panic. One brief dose from a traditional machine is unlikely to do any hurt to most movies. And as I discovered in Punta Cana, even my 3200 movies that I push processed to EI 6400 had been solely very barely fogged by being X-rayed as soon as and produced completely acceptable photographs. My decrease velocity coloration and b&w damaging movie, from 100 to 1600, turned out effective.

Safety will do what they should do and it’s vital to respect that. The thought is to attenuate scans as greatest as attainable, however conversely to simply accept it if one is completely unavoidable.

Dulles Worldwide Airport – 1930 Leica III + 5cm Summitar + Kodak Tri-X 400

Once we received near the conveyor belt within the safety line at Dulles, I held up my clear Ziploc baggage full of forty rolls of 35mm and 10 packs of Instax. “Can I get a hand verify please?”

With none questions, a TSA agent stepped up and took all of my movie safely previous the X-ray scanners whereas I continued by means of the road. As soon as I used to be out of the steel detector and the remainder of my carry-on baggage made it by means of the X-ray machine, I caught up with the brokers who had been already hand-checking my movie.

The brokers at Dulles had been very fast and methodical with hand checks, which I enormously appreciated. This isn’t at all times the case although. At different airports, I’ve needed to wait appreciable durations for employees to find an agent aware of hand checking and for them to single-handedly check every of my quite a few rolls of movie. That’s why it’s vital to plan on arriving early to safety when you’re touring with movie.

The 2 brokers at Dulles clearly knew what they had been doing and so they had been respectful too. My daughter and I watched as they eliminated my movie very rigorously from the luggage and counted it. They used little plastic wands with disposable sterile cotton swabs on the ends to wipe down the exteriors of about 5 rolls of 35mm or three packs of instantaneous movie at a time. Subsequent, they put the swab into a tool that may detect supplies used to make explosives. If the system finds one thing, all of the movie that was wiped down in that batch must be put by means of the X-ray scanner. If it exams damaging, the agent disposes of the primary check swab and installs one other new one on the wand. They return the examined movie to the Ziploc bag after which rinse and repeat till the whole lot has been checked to be protected.

So Dulles was successful!

Safety Checks at Vacationer Hotspots

Particularly to accommodate my anachronistic pictures, we booked a straight flight with out layovers in order to keep away from any further safety checks. So airport-wise, I’d solely should take care of the departing journey from Charles de Gaulle on the conclusion of our trip. However I wasn’t totally rid of X-rays. We deliberate to go to the Palace of Versailles, Disneyland Paris, and the Louvre – all of which required passage by means of safety checkpoints.

Prior to now, the one place the place my movie was ruined by X-rays was on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. It was 100% my fault although. I actually simply wasn’t pondering after I let my digicam bag undergo the scanner there as a result of it wasn’t a deliberate journey. Most of my negatives from that day had been too fogged to supply usable photographs. At museums and related, in my private expertise, safety is a little more lax about coping with us movie Luddites however there may be nonetheless a risk of injury as I realized the laborious means.

Our tour information on the Palace of Versailles kindly relayed my considerations to safety and I believed I used to be all set. However, when my digicam bag was handed from one officer to a different, the second officer wished me to take away all my movie and X-ray the bag. This isn’t an unusual or unreasonable request, however I didn’t have my Ziploc baggage and naturally, each my Leica cameras had been loaded. After years of letting my movie roll round freely in my baggage, I now maintain it packed neatly in plastic instances made for that goal. It wasn’t tough handy the movie instances and my cameras over to safety and permit my bag to move underneath the machine, assured that no movie was forgotten inside. So on this case, it actually paid to have an organized digicam bag.

Subsequent was Disneyland Paris. Safety was tremendous pleasant there as one would anticipate. They simply did a visible inspection of my digicam bag and despatched me on my means. For these conditions, it’s good to not have loads of random stuff crammed into one’s bag in order that they don’t should undergo all of it.

Mona Lisa at The Louvre – Leica M6 TTL + Leitz 50mm Summicron + Tri-X at 1600

The longest safety line we needed to wait in was for the Louvre. They did the identical factor as Versailles – I needed to take away all my movie and cameras, then let the bag undergo the X-ray machine. However the line gave me time to organize my bag and cameras for it!

Our journey was coming to a detailed and I’d managed to get all forty rolls of 35mm and ten packs of Instax by means of 4 safety checkpoints with out incident! May I make it by means of Charles de Gaulle Airport and have an entire, 100% X-ray-free journey?

Don’t overlook, if there’s a lengthy sufficient delay, cancelation, otherwise you simply plain miss your flight, you possibly can doubtlessly want to depart the airport and move by means of safety a second time. It’s definitely occurred to me earlier than. Conditions like which might be exactly why it’s important to attenuate X-raying.

Moreover, photographer Imran Nuri concluded that movie that has been uncovered however not processed is extra adversely affected by X-rays than movie that has not but been uncovered. Due to this fact, the safety checks on the best way again from a visit are much more important than any earlier than.

False Positives with Safety Swabs

Within the safety line at Charles de Gaulle, I emptied all of the movie from my bag and cameras, held up my clear plastic Ziplocs as ordinary, and requested for a hand verify. As a result of I’m horrible at French, I referred safety to the Do Not X-Ray labels from Kodak inside my Ziploc baggage.

The agent insisted that something underneath 800 ISO is protected. Some photographers will inform you to throw a roll or two of 3200 in your bag as a way to justify hand-checking the remaining. However I’ve heard of cases the place safety responded by hand checking solely the movie that’s marked above 800 however nonetheless required X-raying the rest. So I knowledgeable the agent that I’d be push-processing my movie handed 800 ISO. I’ve given this response again and again and located that few persons are prepared to entertain any extra back-and-forth after it. The agent kindly waived all of my 35mm (uncovered and unexposed) by means of for hand checks.

However for some motive, she refused hand checks on my unexposed Fuji Instax Mini movie packs. My daughter, who keenly adopted my experiences at every verify, was stunned after I accepted this compromise with maybe my most gracious “merci” of the journey. As long as my 35mm was going to be protected, I didn’t care if just a few unspent packs of Instax risked injury.

Charles de Gaulle Airport – Leica M6 TTL + 50mm Summicron + Kodak Tri-X 400

The hand verify at Charles de Gaulle Airport was not as thorough or quick because the one at Dulles regardless of eradicating the Instax from the equation. As an alternative of swabbing the movie in increments of 5, as the 2 brokers at Dulles did, the one agent at Charles de Gaulle used simply two disposable swabs whole; one for every of my two baggage of movie. And she or he not solely wiped down my movie but additionally the printed Kodak Do Not X-Ray labels that I saved within the baggage in addition to the inside of the luggage themselves. This wider sweeping process raised my anxiousness as I watched. If both swab examined constructive, at the very least half of my movie would should be X-rayed.

Since I wasn’t capturing off fireworks earlier than getting into the airport, you would possibly assume I didn’t have something to fret about. However I received a false constructive as soon as at Dulles. Because the agent defined, “it simply occurs generally.” In that occasion, safety solely X-rayed ten rolls as a result of they had been wiping my movie in small batches.

Happily, all my movie examined damaging at Charles de Gaulle. That was a reduction!

In researching this text, I realized that the precise supplies that these exams detect are nitrates and glycerin, which may be present in on a regular basis family merchandise. Hand cleaning soap might be the commonest merchandise that is likely to be on one’s palms and consequently handed onto your movie. This would possibly generate a false constructive. I’ll definitely take this into consideration the following time that I fly.

However for this journey from Washington D.C. to Paris, France, that’s zero X-rays for all my 35mm and one X-ray for my Instax. Fairly near excellent!

House protected – Nikon FM2n + 55mm 2.8 AIS Micro + Kodak Tri-X

A Listing of Airports by Hand-Verify Fame

Under is an inventory of how numerous worldwide airports have reacted to my and different movie shooters’ requests handy checks. (Thanks, Joey Pasco, Justin Tay, and Don Dank!) This data is after all topic to alter primarily based on our politeness and present safety practices, however it might present some extent of reference.

Airports which have accommodated hand checks: Amsterdam (Schiphol), Atlanta (Hartsfield–Jackson), Australia (Sydney), Baltimore (BWI), Boston (Logan), Budapest (Ferenc Liszt), Cancun (CUN), Chicago (O’Hare), Denver (DIA), Houston (George Bush, IAH), Keflavik (KEF), Los Angeles (LAX), Malaysia (KLIA), Miami (MIA), Milan (Malpensa), Munich (Franz Josef Strauß), Paris (Charles De Gaulle), Puerto Vallarta (IATA), Santiago (SCL), Singapore (Changi), Selangor (KLIA), Tampa (TPA), Thailand (Don Mueang CNX), Vietnam (Noi Bai), Washington DC (Dulles).

Airports which have rejected hand checks in some or all instances: Dubai (DXB), London (Heathrow) Mauritius (SSR), Punta Cana (PUJ), Rome (Fiumicino or Leonardo da Vinci).

All My Film Survived Unscathed

Following the eight-hour flight and requisite airport adventures, I loved a much-needed nap at house after which I processed near 30 rolls of 35mm the next day, in my kitchen. After all, having not been uncovered to any X-rays, all my negatives got here out fantastically. I additionally shot a full, ten-shot pack of that X-rayed Instax – simply to see if I would anticipate any points utilizing the remaining packs. Each shot processed simply effective.

So I hope that my household trip gives a helpful real-world account of the way to journey with photographic movie. Some might discover it acceptable to simply let their movie get X-rayed, conceal it in lead baggage or hand over and simply shoot digital! However I firmly consider that we are able to merely talk respectfully with safety as a way to take pleasure in analog trip images.

I’ve had nice luck bringing useable pictures again house and I’m pleased to thank each safety officer who’s helped make that attainable, each on this journey and each different one.


Concerning the writer: Johnny Martyr is an East Coast movie photographer. The opinions expressed on this article are solely these of the writer. After an adventurous 20-year photographic journey, he now shoots completely on B&W 35mm movie that he painstakingly hand-processes and digitizes. Selecting to work with solely a choose few purchasers each year, Martyr’s uncommonly customized course of ensures unsurpassed high quality in addition to trendy, pure & timeless imagery that can endure for many years. You will discover extra of his work on his web site, Flickr, Fb, and Instagram.