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Keep Your Film Safe on Plane Trips

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The airport x-ray machine is a dastardly villain with his sneaky invisible light.

If you’ve ever come home from vacation and found your film exposures looked really foggy or strange, your film might have been a victim of x-rays.

Thankfully, there are ways to keep your film safe on its trip through airport security. This is one time you might want the security agents to get more hands-on!

How to Travel with Film

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How the Wavy X-Ray Works

paper-sm If you’ve ever been to the dentist, you probably know that x-rays can expose film just as much as light can.

When the dentist returns with little snap shots of the ins and outs of your teeth, the film he used to make those exposures are similar to the film in your camera.

Although we can’t see x-rays with our eyes, they’re on the same electromagnetic spectrum as visible light. They’re hard to see with the naked eye because they move at a higher frequency than all lovely colours we photographers worship.

How X-Rays Affect Film

paper-sm As the scanning head inside the machine takes a look in your bag, it’s also exposing your film. This leaves you with exposures that are fogged or have lines running through them, ruining the shot.

Also note that checked luggage isn’t a safe haven for film. Though you might not personally see it, all checked luggage passes through an x-ray scanner, too – and that one is much more powerful than the one your carry-on goes through. The stronger the scanner, the more damage it does to your film.

Protecting Your Film

paper-sm Like at the dentist, lead can be your friend. Instead of a big lead vest though, a little lead bag will act as armour for your film, protecting it from the notorious x-ray.

For about $20 in most shops, the lead bag will be a lifesaver. It can hold about 15-25 35mm rolls, and you can work a few extra in there if you’re okay with leaving the plastic canisters at home.

There is one small caveat, though. Most lead bags will only protect film below 800 ISO/ASA. There are bags that protect higher speed films, but they run more expensive.

For more examples of what happens to film on its journey through an airport scanner, check out Kodak’s sample photos.

Turn on the Charm

paint-sm If you have to travel with 800 ISO film (or higher), break out your friendliest smile and politely ask for your film to be hand checked. While most TSA and security agents will oblige, some won’t. If the security agent you’re working with insists your film be put through the scanner, politely ask to speak to a supervisor.

According to TSA regulations, you are entitled to having your film hand checked. Let them know your film is 800 ISO+ and you should get your wish.

Different airports and agencies might have different policies, so it never hurts to check the regulations on their respective websites. You can always print out the section on film handling and take it with you, too.

Scan it to Digital & Overexpose

paint-sm If you have film that has been through the x-ray scanner, it doesn’t mean you have to throw it out.

Aim to use the film on bright, sunny days. While it may not look perfect, the bright sun will mask some of the x-ray fog and lines.

You can also opt for having your film scanned to digital when you get it developed. Then you can fuss with the levels and colour balances in post-processing to get rid of the fog.

Black & white conversions will get rid of any stubborn strange colour tinges that persist through colour balance adjustments, too!

Tips For Getting Through Unexposed:

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  • Find the right sized x-ray bag. Consider how much film you’re bringing and find a bag that will hold it all.
  • Some x-ray bags protect films higher than 800 ISO/ASA, but are more expensive.
  • If you have to have your film hand-checked, put it in an easily accessible spot of your carry-on. It’ll make going through security faster.
  • Get to airport security well before your flight. If you have to ask for your film to be hand-checked, it can take as much as 20 minutes longer to get through to your gate.
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