Protecting film at airports : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

When I travel on assignment I shoot 4x5 transparency film. Going out all of my film boxes are unopened and thus left alone by the airport security. When coming back I put my exposed film in the now open boxes. So far airport security has not asked me to open them up but if they did I would have no choice but to run them through the X-Ray device. My question is if I were to cut two 4x5 pieces of the material from those lead pouch products used to protect film and then put a sheet on top and on the bottom of my film would that protect my film? I haven't seen a pouch big enough for 4x5 film boxes and I hate to put my precious exposed film on my checked baggage. Any alternatives? Am I missing something obvious? Thanks

-- Bob Freund (, September 17, 1998


When an X-ray scanner sees a lead pouch, it increases the dosage until it can see through it.

If you don't have too much film, put it in your pockets. There's no metal to set off a metal detector. With a little ingenuity, you could probably carry 250 sheets.

-- Alan Gibson (, September 18, 1998.

well one obvious solution is to shoot Fuji QuickLoads or Kodak Readyloads. In my experience the s.g.s give a quick look and leave it alone. They give me more hassle about unopened rolls of 120 roll film (yes i use baggies to carry rollfilm in.) Other than the prepackaged film solution i have in the past just ask me what is in the boxes of sheet film and shake it for them to hear. I have not tried this on overseas flights however. usually the amount of miscellaneous photo gear I am carrying seems to make the point that I really am a working photographer. Forget the lead sheets.

-- Ellis (, September 18, 1998.

I've never used one of those lead bags, so I don't know how effective they really are or not.

It's an urban legend that operators of carry on screeners can increase X-ray dosage until they can see through lead pouches at least on machines used in US airports. Dosages are actually quite low and fixed, and I'm convinced that a small number of exposures in carry on baggage at airport machines has not a problem.

A couple of 25 sheet boxes can fit very easily in jacket pockets, and they won't trip the metal detectors. If I'm only going through airport security twice, I just run stuff through.

Don't put undeveloped film into checked baggage! On top of the loss possibility, there are X-ray inspection devices that can damage film. These are only used for checked bagage, and the FAA won't tell which airports have them.

-- mike rosenlof (, September 18, 1998.

Of course none of us have mentioned the possibility of just handing the film around for hand inspection. No they won't understand what it is but tape the boxes shut and explain politely that it is film. It helps if it is in a box that says film all over it. I'd be interested to see what the FAA or international rules say about sheet film (& film inspections in general) rather than just have us speculate. I'll do a little research and report back here and on

-- Ellis (, September 18, 1998.

Re FAA regulations, somewhere I have a print off of the actual regulation that says a hand search must be given for film if requested. I will try and find it and let you know where it is on the FAA site.

But this isn't any use for somewhere like Heathrow, where the Government regulations are that everything must go through the X Ray - or you don't get on the flight, simple as that. (the result of 30 years of terrorism I guess). BUT, if it is 4x5 film in boxes, they aren't going to know that its in your pockets, if they are big enough!

Tim A

-- Tim Atherton (, September 18, 1998.

Tim's point was exactly what I was trying to say: to only way to avoid putting film through an x-ray is to keep it in your pocket. "Hand inspections", in the UK, just means a slight delay before your film goes through the x-ray.

In the UK, the situation keeps changing. BAA officially claim that they will do hand-inspections, but the situation on the ground is different.

Turning up the dials may be a myth in the USA, but I've seen it happen on this side of the pond.

There's other information in the forum on x-rays.

-- Alan Gibson (, September 18, 1998.

The compuserve BB had a long running thread on this topic. Ctein seemed to be very knowledgeable in this area of airports, x-rays and films. His response was that the xray machines used in the "U.S." are very low radiation and will have no effect on film. However, the xrays machines used to examine luggage is a much higher level radiation and has the potential to fog film.

I think some of the other suggestions of hand carrying through the metal detectors is a good one. The one drawback to that is if security decides they need to look in the box you may not be allowed to pass till they examine the box. This has always been one of my nightmares.

-- Michael Wellman (, September 18, 1998.

I read an article, I'm not sure if it was in Outdoor Photographer or PDN, in which the author claimed that the new x-ray machines will ultimately become more widespread to the point of being used for carry-on baggage.

Rather than risk a scene with the security guards who become suspicious of the buldging object in your pocket, why not send your film back via an air courier such as FedEx or UPS? You could mail it directly to your lab or to your office.

Good luck, Bruce

-- Bruce M. Herman (, September 19, 1998.

Interesting discussion. Now let me add my 2 cent's worth. I am an American living in Europe and travel often - 4-6 transatlantic flights a year. I shoot Tri-X and T-max 100 and 400 and regularly have them x-rayed with my hand luggage. I even pack loaded (undexposed!) film holders in my check-in luggage. Some 100-sheet boxes have even made 2 round trips with me. I regularly fly through London Heathrow and New York JFK, San Francisco and Seattle. In over 8 years I have never experienced any fogging or streaking due to x-rays. Maybe I'm just lucky. Has anyone out there had the dreaded nightmare experience of having film ruined by the airports or is it just a case of photographic neurosis? I'd love to hear.

-- Doremus Scudder (, September 19, 1998.

There are two potential problems when sending your film through via your luggage--(1) potential for stronger x-rays and (2) your luggage may be put through extreme temperature, which isn't goood for your film. Here in Texas, your luggage can sit out there on the runway where temperatures are 100degrees plus. Not to mention the fact that your luggage can get lost/stolen. Seems safer to carry it with you and let them xray it and you don't have to worry about loosing it. The several times I've done this I've never had a problem. Several individuals from Compuserve BB mentioned that they have had no problem either and several of them are frequent travelers. There is one person who responded who has checked his film bag without problems for eight years--so, maybe it doesn't matter. I can't say that I have know anyone who's had problem with xray fogging.

-- Michael Wellman (, September 19, 1998.

According to something I've read recently (sorry, I don't remember where), the new X-ray machines used in U.S. airports use such a high dosage that even the FAA and the airlines have admitted that they can fog film. Although I believe that, in the US, we are technically entitled to hand inspection on demand, personnel at some airports either don't know or don't care about the rules and are likely to insist on running film through the X-ray machine--insisting on the rights which the law gives us is likely to result in arrest at some airports. Moreover, I think we large format shooters are more likely to have a problem than the 35mm crowd, simply because the guards don't see much large format film and are less likely to know what it is. Unfortunately, I don't know of a solution, but I get nervous every time I have to bring film through an airport.

-- Rob Rothman (, September 21, 1998.

If you remove the protective foils in the film boxes, they won't set the metal detector. I always travel with loose clothing and put my film boxes under them. It's easy to be unnoticed this way with up to 3 5x7 boxes (that's 150 sheets). It looks like your smuggling stuff but after all you are just protecting your rights which might not always be honored if you were to ask.

-- Quang-Tuan Luong (, September 21, 1998.

Here's the relevant FAA regulation from the Code of Federal Regulations, which is cited as 14 C.F.R. 108.17(e):

"(e) No certificate holder may use an X-ray system to inspect carry-on or checked articles unless a sign is posted in a conspicuous place at the screening station and on the X-ray system which notifies passengers that such items are being inspected by an X-ray and advises them to remove all X-ray, scientific, and high-speed film from carry-on and checked articles before inspection. This sign shall also advise passengers that they may request that an inspection be made of their photographic equipment and film packages without exposure to an X-ray system. If the X-ray system exposes any carry-on or checked articles to more than 1 milliroentgen during the inspection, the certificate holder shall post a sign which advises passengers to remove film of all kinds from their articles before inspection. If requested by passengers, their photographic equipment and film packages shall be inspected without exposure to an X-ray system."

-- Greg Lawhon (, September 22, 1998.

You should be able to get the full regulation (as already quoted) at:

(you may have to cut and paste this address because of its length).

Then, you can always print it off and stick it in the deep dark recesses of your camera bag. When you get a pain in the but airport rent a cop refusing a hand search, you can decide whether or not it is prudent to argue your case, regulation in hand.

BTW, regarding the new machines for checked luggage (non carry on), there has been extensive debate on other sites about this. The gist seems to be that these can and will fry film in baggage, especially if they come across a lead bag, when they do a much higher power pass to see right through it. This has been confirmed by the manufacturers etc.

I believe film maker David Attenborough got his insurance to pay after several months footage from Borneo or somewhere was fried by British Airways when these machines were new and not publicised.

Tim A

-- Tim Atherton (, September 22, 1998.

This one comes up often and I am in airports approx 45 times a year so I see the security folks at work(USA only. With 4x5 and 5x7 sheet film I have had a few hassles but solved them by doing two things. First, I have started carrying a processed sheet of chrome & B&W film along with an unprocessed one, taped or rubber banded to the outside of the same side film box. Then when asked to open the box, I show the unprocessed but exposed one and the processed one to the attendant and tell them the film in the box is the same, but not yet processed and that if they really have to know what is in the box I will need a totally dark room so we can go in together and I will open the box and they can feel the sheets of film, including end marks to see it is what I am showing them in the light. As to the assertion that the machines are safe, I keep a couple of sheets of Tmax 400 and just say I shot it at 6400ISO and that keeps it from the machines. The airports I have been in now have the small sniffer devices they run over the boxes of film and that usually clears it up quickly. As to the assertion that the machines are safe? Just remember that OJ is not guilty, Bill didn't have sex because there was no male member organ introduced into the vagina and politicians don't lie because they are accountable to the voters. Look at some of the folks at the security counters and then decide if you are really going to trust what they have remembered from a short class & a few bulletins. Get the film hand inspected or carry it on in the boxes.

-- Dan Smith (, September 22, 1998.

By much information is on the web regarding the latest airport security scanners that are better at detecting exposives but will fog even slow speed film that is packed in "checked luggage". Several postings advise that the newest scanners do increase the scanning power substantially if they detect shielded packages (with the smaller carry-on scanners they don't seem to increase power but just run your baggage back and forth several times). So the option of packing film in checked luggage is gone for practical purposes (if a terrorist blows you up into a cloud of vaporized fish food it is likely the film will suffer too).

In the case of carry-on baggage scanners, I have usually succeeded in obtaining hand inspections in U.S. airports, but have to allow time for a guard to open up every one of 80 film cansters. (I can't really object since just a couple of film containers could hold enough plasic explosive to take out a 747).

With 35mm film it greatly helps to use clear plastic cansters (I save the fuji 100 clear containers to use as replacements for dark cansters). In the case of 120 film, its more difficult, particularly with the Fuji foil sealed packages.

I have had 8 occasions in recent years to go thru London and Manchester airports and can attest that it is a total waste of time to try to avoid film going thru the carry-on scanners and just results in supplemental inspections. In fact, lately I have been subject to intensive inspection of camera bodies, film backs, etc after the equipment has gone thru the carry-on scanners -- it helps not to pack the equipment too deep since it is likely you will have to drag it all out -- allow an extra hour of time at both English airports.

One other observation/warning -- twice in my recent trips on American Airline shuttles from Washington DC to NY, passengers have been forced to check their "carry-on" bags at the foot of the boarding stairs since the plane was filled with passengers, leaving no room for carry-ons. Also I have had one transatlanic British Air flight where all passengers had to check at the boarding gate luggage they planned to carry on, including laptop computers, bags with medicine, etc. As a result, I always keep the film in a plastic bag at the top of my carry-on bag.

Having commented upon the problems, I must also state that on many occasions I have had to run exposed Fuji 800 film (pushed to 1600) thru carry-on scanners and have never had any film damaged.

-- art curths (, September 25, 1998.

I keep reading, here and other places, of all those with extensive flight time who have "never had any film fogged".....yet!

Just as most have never been hit by lightning or bit by a rattlesnake, it does happen. It only takes once to ruin a perfect record.

A few issues ago the ASMP magazine showed the results of film going through the airport baggage check, fogged film. It can and does and will happen. One aspect not touched on is the practice of the airgoons going through the checked luggage and opening the film boxes you have stored in the suitcase. Good by your 8x10 original chromes that were carefully packed in the suitcase. Carry it with you or ship by FedEx after checking which labels to stick on it so it will have the best chance of making it home safely.

-- Dan Smith (, September 29, 1998.

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