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X-rays and film


Never pack unprocessed film in checked luggage


Lead-lined pouches will protect your film during airport X-ray inspections.
Lead-lined pouches will protect your film during airport X-ray inspections.

AIR TRAVEL & THE DREADED X-RAY INSPECTION

On board an aircraft, place your camera and all your film in your carry-on luggage, ensuring your camera is cushioned to protect it from bumps and bangs your bag may receive. Ask airport security officials not to use X-ray equipment to examine your hand luggage - it can be damaging to film (particularly high-speed film), but will not affect a digital camera. (There is no evidence that airport X-ray machines cause any harm to digital cameras.) Ask them instead to physically open it and visually examine your camera and film supply instead. That way, you protect your film from the harmful fogging effects of X-rays. Just be sure your camera is not loaded with a partially-exposed roll if a zealous security officer should decide to open your camera back. By carrying all your film in a clear plastic bag, you can not only make visual inspections easier, but you will be sure that all of your film will be visually-inspected - that one roll in the bottom of your bag wasn't missed.

HOW DO X-RAYS AFFECT FILM?

Fog caused by X-ray inspection of roll film kept in its cartridge may show up as widely and closely-spaced lines across its width. These line patterns are, in effect, shadow images of the cartridge’s plastic spool and the film’s over-lapping layers. If the film is X-rayed at an angle, the fog lines may be wavy due to the ends of the film spool and the film cartridge being recorded on the film. Film in a camera may show shadow images of the camera’s components.

The above line pattern X-ray fogging indicators are more typical of the early days of X-raying luggage. Modern airport inspection X-ray units have a higher, better-focused beam, and usually cause stronger, banded fogging. The bands, which are soft-edged and around a quarter-of-an-inch or more in width, are quite dark on negative film and light on slide film.

WHAT ABOUT MEMORY CARDS? ARE THEY AFFECTED BY X-RAYS?

No, memory cards do not need the same protection from X-rays as film does.

FILM IN CHECKED BAGGAGE

Checked baggage is also often examined by X-rays. Recently-introduced baggage scanning technology employs a combination of x-rays and computed tomography (like a CAT scan) to seek out suspect items. If the equipment spots anything it's been programmed to look for, it turns on a new, high-powered X-ray unit that will positively damage film subjected to a direct scan.

If you pack film in your checked baggage, you would be advised to use special film containers made from lead (available from most camera shops) that will block the X-rays under certain conditions, and protect your film. Airport security, however, may wonder what those strange dark shapes are that their X-rays won't penetrate, and your baggage may be opened for hand inspection. If it is locked, there could be delays.

Better to carry your camera and film with you in your hand baggage. The lead-lined pouches are still a good idea, because they protect your film from X-rays should you forget to ask for hand inspection. The best advice is, never pack unprocessed film in checked luggage.

THE STRAIGHT GOODS ON X-RAYS

You may receive conflicting advice about whether you should be concerned about X-rays used in examining hand luggage. Some authorities say there is no risk to film at all. Others say the X-ray's strength is so low that you can run film through up to five times before you will detect any fogging.

U.S. regulations require that X-ray inspection for domestic flights be carried out with low-output X-ray devices. Such machines, labelled as being "film-safe", use less than one milli-roentgen of X-ray exposure per inspection. (A "roentgen" is a unit of radiation, and is named after Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays.) This amount should not noticeably affect most films, but repeated inspections from the same-strength units can build up the exposure level from X-rays, and will ultimately cause fogging. The effects from low-level X-ray inspections are cumulative. This is why some authorities say you can have your film exposed to X-ray inspection (when you travel within the United States) four or five times before you should be concerned.

Frankly, we don't know who to believe. X-ray levels may be so low that film is not affected, or there could be new X-ray equipment or an improperly-calibrated X-ray machine in use just when your baggage is inspected that will zap your images. And who knows what strength X-ray units have in different countries?

WHY TAKE CHANCES?

Our view is that you are better safe than sorry. It is easy for you to carry your camera and film with you in your hand-luggage. It should not be a big deal for airport security personnel to hand-examine a camera or a few rolls of film. So, why not take the safe route? You will never have to find out the hard way if airport X-rays either damage or leave your film unharmed.

YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO NON-X-RAY INSPECTION IN THE U.S.

The Federal Aviation Authority has issued a regulation (FAA Reg. 108.17 Part 108 - Airplane operator Security) that gives air travelers in the United States the right to request non-X-ray inspection of materials that are photosensitive. There may be no similar provision in other countries.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT FILM AND X-RAYS?

Higher-speed films (any speed above ISO 400), films that were underexposed and films that you intend to push-process are much more sensitive to X-ray exposure, and should always be visually-inspected, no matter what kind of X-ray unit is in use.

WHAT IF I FORGET AND MY FILM GETS X-RAYED?

As we said above, many airport X-ray units are deemed to be “film safe” (and usually bear a small sign that says so), and your film may have been inspected by one of these units, especially if the inspection was carried out in the U.S. If so, it may not be noticeably affected, especially if the film’s speed is ISO 400 or slower.

If the film is fogged, there are, unfortunately, few remedies available. When negative film is fogged over its entire surface, it is possible that corrections can be made at the printing stage, but heavily-fogged film will produce prints that lack shadow detail and have reduced contrast. If the fogging appears as lines on the film, there are no corrective measures.

DON'T LET IT HAPPEN AGAIN

If your on-going travels may involve further X-ray inspections, take precautions to protect your film, since repeated exposure to X-rays, even by so-called “film safe” X-ray machines, may cause fogging.

One way to get around X-ray inspections in perfect safety is to have your film processed locally before you continue on the next leg of your journey. X-rays cannot fog processed film.

WHAT IF I MAIL MY FILM HOME?

If the film is unprocessed, there is still a risk of X-ray fogging since mail may also be examined by X-ray radiation or fluoroscopy. Labeling the package to provide notice that it contains unprocessed film and that it should not be X-rayed may or may not safeguard the contents from radiation inspection. After all, it's only a label, and labels can go unnoticed.

USE A CARGO HANDLER INSTEAD

If you can't carry it with you and you can't get it processed where you are, a more secure way to have your film shipped home may be by a cargo handler who can certify that it will not be subjected to X-ray inspection. Don't forget to purchase shipping insurance.

X-rays can be particularly harmful to high speed film, including infrared film.
X-rays can be particularly harmful to high speed film, including infrared film.

Digital media such as this memory card are not affected by airport X-ray machines.
Digital media such as this memory card are not affected by airport X-ray machines.

X-rays cannot fog negatives. When possible, have your film processed locally before you continue on the next leg of your journey.
X-rays cannot fog negatives. When possible, have your film processed locally before you continue on the next leg of your journey.

You can be sure that all of your film will be visually-inspected by placing all your undeveloped film in a clear plastic bag in your carry-on luggage.
You can be sure that all of your film will be visually-inspected by placing all your undeveloped film in a clear plastic bag in your carry-on luggage.