Flying with Film

TSA information sign at an U.S. airport.

Once we hit the friendly skies with our analog gear, we have a few additional considerations compared to digital shooting. At the top of the list is protecting our film from X-rays that may affect its quality.

In most U.S. airports, TSA officials will hand-inspect your rolls of 35mm. If they are willing to accommodate your request, I would take advantage of this option. Their position is that the luggage scanning machines won't harm film rated at the lower ISOs (25-400). That may or may not be true at any individual site. Plus, if you're traveling for an extended period of time, those rolls could be subjected to X-rays on multiple occasions as you go from airport to airport. 

If you're attempting the hand inspection route, have your rolls gathered in a clear plastic bag that's easy to handle and view. If you have the rolls in canisters, use the translucent type that shows what's inside. Also, asking politely for this option goes a long way towards its success.

If your request is denied, as it has been for me on occasion, then you'll have no other choice than to run the rolls through the scanner and hope for the best. With any luck, this won't happen to you, or if it does, only once (which shouldn't harm your pictures).

Another option that I use is to purchase the film once I reach my destination. I did this recently in Chicago. I had also packed a pre-addressed envelope to send the exposed rolls directly to my lab before departing home. In this scenario, I didn't have to worry about TSA coming or going. I just dropped the film in the hotel mailbox on my way out the door.

If you shoot expired film, ISO 400 or lower, you really don't have much to worry about at the airport. In this case, just leave the rolls in the camera bag and pass it though the scanner. Since expired film isn't typically color accurate, then any effect from the X-rays will just add to the creative surprise that you're already prepared for.

The bottom line is this: Planning your strategy before arriving at the airport will reduce stress and ensure that you're comfortable with how your film is handled.  And if you have any additional strategies to those mentioned here, please share via the comments.


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