Dawn from plane

Airport X-ray check for film photographers

personal experience by Vadim Makarov, a part of his Photo Pages

What is really important to know is that X-ray machines used for luggage that you check in are NOT film safe, even for low-speed film (sample photos). You should keep all your film in your carry-on luggage.

X-ray machines for carry-on luggage are considered safe.

Having said that, I always try to ask for hand inspection.

I usually carry 20-30 rolls of ISO 100 slide film, in a clear plastic bag, of course. If security staff checks the film speed and says something like "our machines are safe for up to ISO 1600", I say the following:

If this doesn't work, don't wrangle with the security. Let them pass your film through the machine and sleep well. The goal is to minimize X-ray exposure, not to eliminate it. I've never had my film damaged.

Besides, there might be different levels of security alert at the airport. On some days (10% or less of the time) they simply cannot grant you hand check.

If you are granted hand inspection, the usual treatment by the security is to open all the plastic canisters to look at the rolls. Sometimes they take each roll out, shake it and try to rotate the spindle or pull the leader slightly to better check what's inside the film container. Sometimes, they will touch the canisters with a swab that is subsequently run through a chemical analyser for traces of explosives (if they have such equipment).

Copenhagen airport Regarding the roll that is loaded into the camera, it is less likely to escape the machine. If your camera allows it, you may rewind the roll, take it out and then reload after the check. With cameras that have no 'leave leader out after rewind' option, you can use a leader retrieval tool.

Modern Canon SLR camera bodies count sprocket holes and the film is perfectly registered every time you reload it. After reload, shoot at the smallest aperture and fastest shutter speed with lens cap on until the counter shows the same number of frames as before rewind. For SLR brands other than Canon, consult the manual/ tech support/ search photo.net on safe reloading procedure.

Here is my up-to-date experience with airports I've been through:
Airport Type of checkpoint Experience
Refused hand inspection
(no film damage resulted)
Hand inspected after hard discussion Hand inspected, nice treatment No security check
Toronto       2007  
Copenhagen       2000—2001  
Helsinki International transit 2004
(right after the Russian plane bombings)
International departure     2004  
Ajaccio       2001  
Marseille Domestic     2001  
Paris [De Gaulle]   2001      
In general, I’ve experienced tightened security checks in several German airports in 2008, both during transit and departure. Plan for an extra half an hour just to pass it with camera equipment.
Berlin [Tegel]       2000  
Frankfurt   2008   2004, 2008  
Departure terminal C     2008  
Hamburg Departure 2008
(Sure they did hand check the film, but carrying on a Gitzo wrench and two hex screwdrivers was refused — something I carried through the security at every other airport on this page until 2008. As the result, the plane was delayed for 50 minutes (to unload my bags), I had to pay extra 150 euro and wait for the next flight. Lesson learned: two of the three offending items are now kept in my checked-in bag.)
München       2008  
Nürnberg       2008  
Turin [Caselle]       2001 after September 11  
Korea, South:
Incheon       2007  
Kuala Lumpur       2007  
Bergen [Flesland] Domestic     2002 1999
Oslo [Gardermoen] Transit   Hand inspection at the transit checkpoint is usually refused. In this case, you can go through arrivals and ask for hand inspection at the main (departure) checkpoint, which has a chemical analyser for such tasks. 2003  
Departure   2000—2001, 2001 after September 11 2003, 2008  
Sandefjord [Torp] Domestic     2003  
Stavanger [Sola] Domestic     2003  
Trondheim [Værnes] Departure, for all flights     2008  
Domestic     2001 after September 11, 2002—2003 1998—2001
International     1998—2001  
Moscow [Sheremetyevo] International transit     2007  
St. Petersburg [Pulkovo I]       2007  
St. Petersburg [Pulkovo II]   2007
(They installed no less than three consecutive security checkpoints after the 2004 plane bombings. The first one located at the entrance refused hand inspection.)
  1998—2001, 2004  
Customs check for trains coming from Malaysia       2007  
Stockholm [Arlanda] International 2000, 2003 1998    

Vadim Makarov

Reader's Comments

Not all airports have high intensity checked baggage scanners - but it is difficult or impossible to find out which ones have them. By the end of 2002 all US airports will be required to have them.

Nearly 100% of airports worldwide have carry-on luggage scanners. The level of X-ray intensity is impossible to determine ahead of time.

-- Darlene LaMont (jimndar@sonic.net), February 23, 2002

Here's my experiences: I'm 6'6" (1.98 m) and I may seem a bit imposing to security. Even with National Guard troops about. But I ask very nicely and quietly for hand inspections. I reiterate the FAA regulation 108.17 section 5e granting me hand inspection on domestic US flights. In addition I'm planning to drive 7.5 hours to board a non stop flight from SFO to Paris (CDG) to avoid multiple passes through X-ray if pleading with security doesn't succeed.

-- Anonymous contributor, April 9, 2002
I thought I'd add to this list of my post 9-11 experiences at various airports carry-on bag screening. Always remove film from checked bags! In the USA, when you ask for a hand inspection, they will always try to tell you that low speed film is ok. Sometimes they'll grant a hand inspection if you ask again nicely. The screeners don't understand the effect is cumulative, meaning that one, two (or three) passes are fine, but for frequent travellers multiple passes may not be fine. I'm on occasion tried to explain this to the screeners, but it seems to go in one ear, out the other. That said, in my expereiences, when I'm too rushed (or lazy) to ask for a hand inspection, 1 or 2 passes has had no effect on my photos.
-- Ben Lin (ben_lin@sb.net), July 14, 2002
I was just travelling in June internally in Russia, Mongolia and China, and not a single airport would allow hand inspection. Absolutely no way, they said, regardless of how high speed the film was or anything. Either it went through the machine or it didn't go on the plane. Luckily, I had brought a lead bag, and that didn't seem to bother them, except for in Chicago!

-- Kate Irelan, August 7, 2002
I just returned from Ireland by way of Gatwick. A hand check there was absolutely refused and I was treated quite poorly by three separate security officers. All of them are apparently experts in the field of photography and X-ray technology. They said there new machines were safe for film speeds up to 3200 which happened to be exactly what I was carrying. I passed through on the way there and the way back. Guess what.....FOG!!!!! Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis and Dublin airports were completely pleasant and PREPARED for this situation. Just thought you might like to know.

-- Sean McFerren (smac170@yahoo.com), September 28, 2002
All US airports MUST grant you hand inspection. It is written in the FAA Airport rules. If you are denied Hand Inspection, ask for the FAA manager, they will know the law. You can print this information from the FAA website, carry it with you to grease the wheels when needed.

-- F. Roche, May 5, 2003
This might be helpful for all photographers going through US airports to print out and carry: faa-regulation-108.pdf (37KB).

-- Dominik Eckelt (de@n-d-e.de), August 6, 2003

Note for Germany, Tegel Airport

I was returning to the US from Germany via Tegel airport. Going through security I removed my camera and a bag of film for hand check. In my experience, in countries like the USA, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam I have never had a request to hand check film denied (although in the US it sometimes takes a little persistence). However, in Germany, at Tegel airport the security man adamantly and rather rudely refused — the gesture he gave me was either I run my film through their machine or he will pull the film apart — a belligerence I would associate with an ‘Iron Curtain’ country. I hadn’t expected this in Germany and was wondering if others have had the same experience?

— contributor who later requested for his name to be removed, February 12, 2006
I just wanted to say I am an airport screener at PHL (Philadelphia International Airport — note by VM) and my advice for people is this: We are instructed that film speeds of 800 and above are not safe to send through the X-ray and that passengers are entitled to a hand inspection of their film. If the screener at the Metal Detector refuses, politely ask to speak to a supervisor. If they refuse then ask to speak to a manager. That’s probably as high as you can easily go. You are entitled to a hand check on film, just like one can request a full body patdown instead of walking through a metal detector, just try and be polite even if the screener is rude. Being rude back will probably make things worse for you.

— contributor who wished to remain anonymous, February 2006

Israel: warning to photographers

Just returned from a trip to Israel.

In Israel film was put repeatedly through x-ray machines entering and leaving the country. No hand inspection was allowed. I had 400 ASA and 800 ASA film which has clear signs of X-ray damage. I have traveled throughout the world in recent years, Asia, Europe, North and South America. I have never experienced security even a fraction as severe. My advice to any photographers traveling to Israel is to not bring film, or find a place to buy it and process it in Israel. Even carry-on baggage was subject to powerful X-ray security machines.

— contributor who wished to remain anonymous, January 2007

I got recently a film camera in eBay UK and got in advance 3 rolls of film. Travelling from Kaunas (LT) to London Gatwick (UK) with the brand new unopened films showing a warning in red not to X-ray them, the screeners were definitely not keen on hand checking the films; I then opened all the canisters in front of them and asked: if there is only one possibility of damaging a personal property when you can clearly see what you have in front of you, why would you want to do it? At the end they didn’t check them in the machine.

Got the camera in London, unfortunately the lens was badly affected by fungus so I didn’t use the films, which had to come back with me. Again, in Gatwick screeners were not happy to hand check them, and the guy told me that nobody never had problems to which I promptly asked if he really thought that somebody would come back just to tell him that he messed up their pictures. I then asked if they were going to reshoot my three 7-hours long star trails sessions in the event the film got damaged (a bluff), and at this point somebody higher in rank appeared and he said “for this time...” And the film were hand checked also this time.

As a side story I left in the wrong bag my shaving pouch and my Gillette Mach3 razor passed through with no issue whatsoever. May I say buffoons?

How do they see a metal roll in a x-ray machine anyway? As far as I know as they see it with naked eye, so why all this mess?

— contributor who wished to remain anonymous, March 23, 2012

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