Film that Travels: the Effects of X-rays

Air travel and unprocessed film. Crazy how mixing these two things together can make us shake in our boots! There’s a lot of mystery around x-rays and their effect on film, especially these days as travel security technology is constantly evolving. But don’t worry, international photogs; Richard is here to shed some light on the subject.

TRAVELING WITH YOUR UNPROCESSED FILM

Lucky you, you jet setter! There are just a few pointers you’ll need to remember (along with your passport) as you travel with your film. First, never put your unprocessed film in your checked luggage. Never ever. Ever ever ever. The equipment used to screen checked luggage utilizes a high-intensity screening technology, and it will ruin any and all film (exposed or not). Eeeeek! Did we mention to never put your film under the plane?

That means your film will need to go in your carry-on bag. “But that goes through an x-ray machine, too!” you say. For the most part, these machines use a less intense x-ray that is unlikely to damage film.

The TSA states that film less than 800 ISO can go through the x-ray machine for carry-ons without a problem. However, Richard suggests you pack your film in a clear plastic bag, remove it from your carry-on bag at the security checkpoint, and (politely) insist that it be hand-searched when carrying any film just to be extra diligent. (Regulations and inspections vary by country, so it is possible some international airports will not honor this request.)

Lead-lined bags used to be an option for protecting film from radiation, but are no longer recommended. Because the x-ray security operator will not be able to see the items within the bag, they may increase the power of the x-ray machine until they can; this essentially cancels the effectiveness of the bag.

UPDATE - November 2019

CT (computed tomography) scanners—the machines your checked luggage is typically subject to—is starting to be used for carry-on bags at the security checkpoint in some airports. The TSA says its goal is to eventually have these machines at every security checkpoint in US airports, with over 300 machines being fully deployed by 2020.

These machines will damage your film! To avoid any risk of fogging your unprocessed film (including loaded cameras), always request that your carry-on be hand-inspected at the airport security check point. Remember, this risk of damage only applies to unprocessed film.

It is expected that airports will post notices if their equipment will potentially damage carry-on film. However, we don't know if these postings will specify the use of a CT scanner. So, be diligent in asking for hand-inspections, and check ahead of time to see if your airport is using a CT scanner. At the time of this update, the TSA is listing all airports in the US that use this technology here.

SHIPPING YOUR UNPROCESSED FILM

First, we’d like to say that we’ve never seen a roll of film that was damaged by x-ray machines during international OR domestic shipping. No, it’s not a scientific study or a cold, hard fact debunking x-ray damage during shipping… but Richard sees a lot of film.

That said, choose an expedited, commercial carrier such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL to ship your film internationally. Contact these companies directly for details by country on their specific shipping methods.

Richard has done lots of research on the subject, and after scouring the internet and carrier-provided info, here’s the long story short: most commercial carriers such as FedEx or UPS do not x-ray their packages. However, when shipping internationally, these carriers cannot guarantee how other institutions, such as Customs, may handle your package.

Because of this, Richard recommends marking any film you are shipping with a label indicating “light sensitive materials” within. To be extra careful, you can use the following text: "DO NOT X-RAY. IF X-RAY IS MANDATORY, DO NOT SHIP / DO NOT X-RAY / CONTACT SENDER URGENTLY: (your contact information)". Check out Kodak’s nifty downloadable labels here.

A last note on shipping: ship with caution when using USPS or a company that may outsource to USPS. The United States Postal Service sanitizes some mail to eliminate potential bio-terror threats, and while we’ve never seen a roll that’s gone through the process, we hear it will literally melt your film.

To read more on traveling with film and the effects of x-ray, check out the following links:

Please note: this blog entry was written using information available at the time. If you have had a different experience, we'd love to hear about it!

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