Camera Film and Airport Security

I’m off to the US for Christmas so I bought myself a nice film camera to take some decent pics.
What should I do when I go through the metal detectors at customes though? Should I make sure there isn’t a film in the camera at the time or will it be OK?

You don’t need to worry about metal detectors, it’s X-Rays that damage film.

Fortunately, airport X-rays are low-enough in intensity that they shouldn’t harm your film, unless it’s very high-speed film. If you’re paranoid, ask (politely) for the X-ray dude to hand-inspect your bags.

It might be easier, though, to simply buy film in the US and get it developed at a one-hour place before going home. That way you don’t have to worry about it at all.

You can also go to a camera store and buy a lead bag to store your film in. This will protect your film from the x-rays. In the past I would take the film out and hand it to the security personel at the airport for hand inspection. I doubt you could do this now after 9/11. I’d go the “lead bag” route.

Here is a link to a Kodak Technical Bulletin on airport X-Rays.

I recall reading in an old photography magazine that the lead bags are worthless as the machine/operator will see that he can’t get a clear view of what’s in the bag and then uses stronger rays that will penetrate the bag. Has anyone else heard of this/is it true?

The first time I flew I had to put my camera through the x-ray machine. I was worried that it might ruin the film, but the security staff assured me the x-rays wouldn’t harm the film. They were right. My photos turned out just fine.

Film is ok. I’d be careful with digital media though. I just returned on a flight where my mini DV cassettes (digital video cam) were scrambled by the xray machines. I had two others in my pocket that did not go through x-ray and they were fine, so this seems to support my suspicion that the scanners ruined my DV cassettes.

On my trip to Mexico two months ago, I had both exposed and “raw” film in both my camera and my carry-on baggage outbound, and went through security at two different airports. Inbound, all the film was exposed and placed in carry-on baggage.

No problems at all.

We did not check luggage on that trip, but I had no problem with film being ruined the last time I checked it.

The last couple of times I’ve flown they said that 800+ should be handchecked. I had some 800 film that I did not have checked a year ago and it came out very grainy so make of it what you will. This was at Baltimore-Washington.

For digital cameras there is no danger of your memory cards being scrambled by x-ray machines. I’m not sure what happened to your mini-DVs but for digital cameras it’s not a concern.

I’ve been using lead pouches for my film with good results. But the inspectors have to open each one, then open each individual canister, to make sure there’s a roll of film inside.

The only downside is that the pouches noticably add to the weight of my luggage.


Best way to travel (in the US at least) is to remove your film from the cans and put them all (exposed and unexposed) in a clear plastic zipper bag and ask (politely) for hand inspection.

From This Site

I’ve had no trouble with 400 film in carry on.

The real problem is putting film in your luggage. It takes a whopping strong beam to examine those suitcases. If something odd is noted, the beam is intensified.

The official recommendation is that anything below 800 speed film is ok through the X-Ray. But we will usually hand check any film on request, unless we are extremely busy. The effect is cumulative, so if you will be going through multiple checkpoints it is best to have your film hand checked. And, no we do not turn up the power on the machine if we can’t see through something, the power is not variable, we just call a bag search.

I would absolutely not try to bring a lead-lined bag through security, in this post-9/11 world. Best case scenario there is that they end up hand-checking all of the film… Which you could just politely ask them to do in the first place. The summer after 9/11, I flew from the US to Ireland, and the security on both ends was perfectly willing to hand-check our many rolls of film. I would imagine that the UK would be similar.

> no we do not turn up the power on the machine if we can’t see through something

I specified luggage. Check this out:

Just an FYI, as someone noted previously, NON-US airports are NOT required to hand check your film upon request. Recently while flying out of Schipol Airport (Amsterdam), security absolutely refused to hand check approximately 40 rolls of exposed film in a clear ziplock and required that they be put through the x-ray machine. The agent said they would only make an exception for film ASA 1600 or higher. Otherwise your options are to send it through the machine or not board the plane.

The only reason I was trying to get them hand inspected was that we were coming back from a fairly distant location and had gone through lots of connections - each requiring at least one (if not two) passes through security. If it wasn’t hand inspected, the film would have been xrayed approximately 14 times over the course of the trip.

And I should have added that I always toss a few rolls of 1600 speed film into my clear plastic bag, whether I intend to use it or not. Having different speeds mixed together seems to help persude hand inspection.

Of course, the standard caveat applies about airport, time of day, busy or slow periods: YFFMMV. (Your Frequent Flyer Miles May Vary.)

I’ve thought about taking some 16mm film with me on a commercial flight. 400-foot rolls are not protected from light, except by the packaging. I’ve thought about getting the exposed film through security. I imagine myself presenting a couple/few metal tins with camera tape around them.

“We’ll have to open the tins to make sure it’s really film.”

“That’s unprocessed film. It can’t be exposed to light. Still, the film is in a black plastic bag inside of the tin.”

The security clerk opens the tin and finds a black plastic bag that’s been taped shut.

“I’ll have to open this…”

What now? Do I carry my changing tent with me and give the clerk a quick lesson on how to use it, and hope s/he grasps the concept?

I had to deal with a similar situation once, Johnny. I needed to bring some very sensitive specialized roll film to a special project. I ended up sending a box of the film to the hotel via UPS instead of taking it through the airport.

Always make sure the hotel is willing to hold a package for you ahead of time, though.