Flying With Film: What You Need to Know

I was discussing film with a friend on the weekend, and the subject of x-ray machines and airports came up. I told him my experiences (which I’ll go through later in this post), but it reminded me of how often this comes up.

Overall, flying with film is fairly safe, but there is always a small chance of damage to the film. Luckily there are some easy precautions you can take to significantly lessen any chance of problems.

The question of whether flying with film is safe is a very common one. I think that everyone likes to take a camera on vacation, even people who rarely use one in day-to-day life, and I think that even people who mostly shoot digital may be tempted to take a film camera on a trip — there’s something very timeless about shooting a few rolls on vacation. Now that Fuji Instax is so popular, a lot of people are interested in travelling with instant film as well.

Now, there are numerous articles online about this, and I’ve read a lot of them, and I thought I’d try to summarize the bullet points. Here we go:

  • The higher your film’s ISO, the more sensitive it will be to x-rays.
  • Most modern x-ray machines are supposed to be safe on normal ISO film. They have a stated limit under which they claim to be fine.
  • The more times a roll is scanned, the more potential damage can accumulate, so taking film on a multi-leg trip is potentially more problematic.
  • If your film does show effects, the machine may fog your film, or leave wavy x-ray lines on it.
  • The scanners for carry-on baggage are weaker, and therefore safer, than the ones used to scan checked baggage and suitcases.
  • Developed film is safe, so if you got your film developed on your trip, your negatives are safe.
  • Instax pictures are also safe once they’ve come out of the camera and are actually photos.


What you can do:

There are a number of things you can do to make sure your film is safe:

  • Ask the officials to do a hand-check instead of putting the bag through the machine. I’ve read that some countries are obligated to do this, and some aren’t, so cross your fingers, but be polite if they deny this.
  • You can buy lead-lined bags, like the Domke Filmguard. (I use this and will talk about it in the bit about my personal experience later)
  • As mentioned, the x-ray scanners for carry-on baggage are not as strong as for checked luggage, so always put your film in your carry-on bag, not your suitcase.
  • If you’re requesting a hand-check, carry your film in a plastic zip-loc bag, taken out of the film cans, so the airport security people can see it and don’t need to waste time opening boxes or tubes.

There are other tips out there, but if you just read forum and/or Facebook posts, it becomes very tough to really figure out what’s fact, and what’s just stuff people sort of imagine. I’ve noticed that anytime anyone asks about this, you immediately get a few people chiming in “I flew with 3 rolls of film last year and it was fine – there’s no danger!”, which is not really as helpful as they may think it is. A common statement seems to be that different airports have different scanners, and newer scanners are safer to go through. People will often speculate on what countries probably have old scanners, but there doesn’t seem to be much proof behind it.

Another common thing that people say is to not use the lead-lined bags, because screening personnel will just turn up the x-ray machines really high until they fry the bag and the film inside. I’ve never seen anyone say this actually happened to them, so it seems like speculation (for one thing, even if they can turn up the machines to the point where they see through the lead bags, isn’t that just hitting the film with the same amount of radiation as if there was no good and the scanner was set to normal?)

I took a lot of film on a trip with four legs (and therefore four security scans) last year, and I carried my film in a Domke Filmguard bag. I just put 35mm rolls in there, with no plastic cans around them, and I asked for a hand check each time. For three of the flights, they happily did a film check and it was a quick and simple experience. Only once, late at night in Barcelona, did they not want to do it, and the guy kept pointing at a sign that said that any film under something like 10,000 ISO was safe. There wasn’t anything I could do, so I said okay, put the lead bag into my camera bag, and ran it through the scanner, and everyone was happy, despite the fact that they presumably couldn’t see inside the lead bag anyway. One thing I did do on all my flights was to leave film inside my camera, which went through the scanner unprotected, with no problems.

However, this was just one person’s single experience, and you shouldn’t take it as definitive. A lot of people commenting on this issue only really have their own experience to go on, and in my opinion the best thing is to read articles online if you want a full view. There’s a terrific article about this on JapanCameraHunter, and an older, more technical paper from Kodak.

My personal view is that you should do what you can, and not worry too much, because it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll have problems. (And obviously be polite to the security folks, but I don’t feel like I need to add that, since this blog is about film photography in Canada after all 🙂

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