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Taking Film Through An Airport X-ray Machine? Here's Everything You Need To Know

Updated: Jul 2

If you're travelling throughout the year and are new to film photography, it's likely you will have seen posts on social media crop up about taking film through x-ray machines and how much, or how little they damage film.

Travelling with film can be nerve-wracking for photographers who want to ensure their precious shots aren’t ruined by airport security.

The concern lies primarily with X-ray machines used for security screening. But could this be the biggest myth when it comes to film photography?

Join us as we take a deep dive into it to understand the risks, if it really does damage film, and the best way to protect your film whilst travelling.

Do X-ray Machines Actually Damage Film?

X-ray machines emit a small amount of radiation that can fog and damage undeveloped film. The risk is higher with higher-speed films (ISO 800 and above), but even lower-speed films can be affected with multiple exposures to X-rays.

The key part of this here is the multiple exposures to X-ray machines. A similar analogy is having a one off X-ray on your leg, yes, it emits radiation, but it would require multiple x-rays over and over again for there to cause any kind of lasting damage. The same goes for travelling through X-rays with films. A one off trip through one is unlikely to cause any issues, and you probably won't notice any difference on your developed shots.

In fact, Michael Fil put this to the test by taking Kodak ColorPlus 200 on a trip which passed through 10 different X-ray machines, and the result? The shots looked great still. He added that if X-rays did cause damage to photos, it’s nearly impossible to tell.

Note that he tried this on a lower ISO film. If you are shooting for an important project, then you may want to take additional care when travelling.

I can also vouch for this. I recently travelled to Japan and took Fujifilm 200, Fujifilm 400 and Kodak Ultramax 400 which passed through a X-ray machine twice during the journey. The shots were developed and came out perfectly with no signs of fogging detected.

However, there is a complete mix of opinions and anecdotes of people across the internet, but the general rule of thumb tends to be, if it's ISO 800 or below, then you'll be okay.

What About CT Scanners? Can They Damage Film?

CT scanners (Computed Tomography scanners) are advanced security devices used in airports for screening luggage. They are relatively new, and not all airports current;y have them.

These scanners use X-ray technology to create detailed 3D images of the contents of bags, allowing security personnel to more effectively and accurately detect prohibited items, explosives, and other security threats.

As we've discussed, traditional X-ray scanners used at airports have been known to potentially harm film, especially high-speed film. The new CT scanners, use more powerful and sophisticated X-ray technology, which can also pose a risk to photographic film.

Technically, they might pose more of a risk, yet it's the same situation where there is varying opinion across the internet. In the 35mm Film Photography community on Facebook, there are many accounts of people sharing their images having had their film go through a CT scanner and there is no fogging or signs of damage to the shots.

There are measures you can take to protect your from from the scanners, whilst also giving you some peace of mind that your film roll won't be ruined. Holiday blues are bad enough!

Carry-On vs. Checked Baggage

However, aways carry your film in your carry-on luggage. Checked baggage is screened with much stronger X-ray machines that are almost certain to damage film.

The X-ray machines used for carry-on luggage are less intense, but they still pose a risk, especially if your film is exposed multiple times during a trip.

Other Ways Around Avoiding An X-ray Machine

If you have a higher ISO film and are concerned that it may impact your images, there are a couple of solutions around avoiding the impact of the X-ray machines.

Request a Hand Inspection

The TSA and security agencies in most countries allow travellers to request a hand inspection of photographic film.

Hand checking a camera and film does not take much time. It's the best idea to keep your film safe. Just have all of your film in an easily accessible area and pull it out before your items go through the x-ray. Here’s how to do it:

  • Be Polite and Prepared: Approach the security checkpoint and politely request a hand inspection, explaining that you are carrying undeveloped film.

  • Use a Clear Bag: Place your film rolls in a clear, zip-lock bag to make the inspection process smoother.

  • Know the Rules: Familiarise yourself with the specific regulations of the country you are traveling to and from. Most countries comply with these requests, but it’s always good to be prepared.

Use a Lead-Lined Bag

Lead-lined bags are available specifically for protecting film from X-rays. These bags can be helpful, but they are not foolproof.

Security might increase the X-ray strength to see through the bag, which could still damage the film. They might also ask to inspect the contents of the bag, which defeats the purpose of using it.

Develop Your Film Before Traveling

If possible, develop your film before you travel. Developed film is not sensitive to X-rays, so you won’t have to worry about damage.

This might not always be practical, especially for long trips or if you’re shooting a lot, but it’s worth considering.

Travelling with film requires some extra precautions, but it’s entirely possible to protect your valuable shots from airport X-ray machines.

It's important to remember that there is not full conclusive evidence that it actually damages films after passing through an X-ray machine once, but do whatever makes you feel most comfortable when travelling with your films.

Also, trialling it yourself to see if it impacts your own shots is the best place to start to make you feel more comfortable with doing it regularly. If fogging is ever apparent, this can often be corrected on post production anyway. Happy shooting and safe travels!

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