Photography / Tips and Solutions

Traveling by Land, Sea, and Air with Film

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Despite its greatly reported demise, film is proving to be alive and well among a small yet loyal pool of photo enthusiasts, hipsters, and Luddites. Judging by the bump in price of used film cameras over the past few years, the numbers of this pool are growing.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is traveling with film—especially flying with film—which requires more pre-planning on your part than in the days when hassle-free boarding, leg room, free meals, and piano bars on Boeing 747s were the norm.

How to Keep Your Film Happy

When it comes to keeping film “happy,” your biggest adversaries when traveling are heat, humidity, and X-rays (more on that later). If your film is cool and dry, life is good. Prolonged exposure to heat can fog your film and/or reduce contrast. Exposure to moisture can lead to equally ugly problems.

Humidity can be particularly problematic. When transitioning between hot, humid outdoor air and cooler air-conditioned environments, it doesn’t take long before your camera, your lenses, and your film canisters break into a sweat like a can of pop at a picnic.

If you stow your film and camera gear in zip-style plastic bags before entering an air-conditioned environment, the sweat will gather on the outside of the bag, while everything inside will remain dry. Keep the bags sealed until the contents temper to room temperature and you’re good to go. If you’re shooting 35mm film, keep your film in its original moisture-proof plastic canisters, as an extra measure of safety.

If possible, it’s a good idea to stow your zip-locked film bags in a cooler when traveling in hot, humid, sun-splashed environs. If coolers aren’t an option, consider carrying your film in a light-colored, or better yet, reflective foil bag or pouch. The more sun you deflect from your film pouch, the safer your film shall be.

If you’re a true diehard and you still travel with a 4 x 5 film camera, you should take a look at the f.64 FH4X5" Film Holder Case. It holds up to six 4 x 5" film holders, and features a front mesh pocket for holding your dark slides and the option of wearing it on your belt or over your shoulder with an optional strap.

f.64 FH4X5 4x5" Film Holder Case

Something to keep in mind if you plan on traveling in hot, sunny climates is that as cool-looking as black camera bags may be, in practice they suck up sunlight while slowly cooking everything in your bag—including your film. At the very least, always try to park your bags of camera gear and film in the shade.

When shooting on or around water, you might want to pack your film , cameras, and lenses in a waterproof backpack, duffel, or camera bag. As an extra measure of protection, place moisture-absorbing desiccants into each bag before sealing them. For best results, after every jaunt, your desiccant needs to be dried in the sun or in a low-temperature oven (assuming you’re in a low-humidity environment).

miggo Agua Stormproof Torso pack 65 Pro DSLR

Before we move on to X-rays, here are a few words about shooting film in colder conditions. The good news is that you can freeze film without harming it. What you do have to be concerned about is static electricity. Like many fabrics, when advancing film in cold, dry environments, it’s possible that an occasional spark can occur as the film travels across the film gate. This can cause lightning-like streaks to appear on your film. The best way to prevent static sparks when shooting in cold, dry environments is to bypass the camera’s battery-driven winder and advance the film slowly in manual mode.

In colder temperatures, film also becomes increasingly brittle, and it can crack if advanced too quickly. This is another good reason for manually advancing film with care when working in cold climates.

Are X-Rays Bad for Film?

If you travel by private jet, proceed directly to the tarmac. If you snake-walk through TSA security checkpoints with film, listen up—this is important!

There are two basic rules for flying commercially with film. Rule one is to never, ever pack film in checked baggage, because checked bags have the potential to be mega-dosed with X-rays before being loaded aboard the aircraft. Carry-on bags are also X-rayed, but at far lower doses, which brings us to rule number two: Always ask to have your film hand inspected—and don’t forget to say “please” and “thank you” in the process.

According to the FAA, film with ISO sensitivities up to 800 can be safely X-rayed when packed with carry-on baggage on domestic flights (independent tests seem to concur). The effects of X-rays are cumulative but, according to the TSA, unexposed films no faster (more light sensitive) than ISO 800 can be X-rayed up to six times at domestic TSA security checkpoints without affecting image quality. Lower ISO films are less vulnerable to multiple passes than higher ISO films. Ditto for unexposed film, which is less vulnerable to the effects of X-rays than exposed film.

However, the more you X-ray your film, the worse the story gets. X-ray damage typically appears in the form of banding, streaking and/or an overall fogging of the film.

When exposed to heavier doses of X-rays, color negative films typically display muddy patterns in the shadow areas, while color slide films display muddied highlights. Black-and-white films tend to develop mottled patterns in shadow areas, all of which are difficult if not impossible to correct post-capture.

If you’re an instant film enthusiast, Fujifilm strongly advises against X-raying its Instax film packs. Extreme heat should also be avoided. The same holds true for other instant films from Polaroid and the Impossible Project.

Fujifilm instax mini Instant Film

It’s important to keep in mind that the above rules only apply to domestic flights. Rules concerning X-ray levels vary from country to country and are often based on the discretion of the attending agents, so plan accordingly and take as many precautions as you can.

Protective Pouches

If, for whatever reason, you decide to—or have no choice but to—pass your film through the security machines, consider packing your film into X-ray proof lead-lined pouches.

Domke Film Guard X-ray bags, available in sizes large enough to contain up to 35 rolls of 35mm film (or 3 50-sheet boxes of 4 x 5" film), 15 rolls of 35mm film, or 9 rolls of 35mm film, are made of triple-layered, lead-impregnated, moisture-resistant vinyl sheets with a black ballistic nylon shell. Per InVision Technologies, the manufacturer of the X-ray machines used by the FAA, these bags adequately protect films with ISOs up to 800 against the radiation emitted by the machines used to check carry-on bags.

Other padded, lead-lined film-protective pouches include the Delta 1 Pro Pouch 911, which is reportedly safe for films with ISO sensitivity up to ISO 3200.

Delta 1 Pro Pouch 911 with Leadshield

If there is a downside to lead bags, it would have to be that they’re made of lead and lead is heavy. Secondly, TSA agents have both the ability and authority to increase the intensity of the so-called “safe” X-ray levels of the machine if they need to take a “closer” look at something that might be obscured by other items.

How far can they crank up the juice? A customs agent once showed me how easy it is to crank it high enough to count the number of rolls in the bag. I was also able to count sprocket holes on the exposed film leaders. Fortunately, the film wasn’t mine.

Hand Inspection of Film

Depending on the airport, city, and/or country you’re in, you also have the option of (politely) requesting a hand inspection of your film, which is typically honored by TSA agents (especially if asked politely). If you plan on going this route, strip the outer packaging from the rolls and, in the case of 35mm film, consider ditching the plastic canisters too. Pack your film in clear, resealable plastic bags or, if you prefer, a clear-sided pouch such as the Lightware GS402 Clear Film Pouch.

Lightware GS402 Clear Film Pouch

Tip: If the TSA agent insists the inspection machines are safe for films ISO 800 or less, tell the agent the film has been pushed 2 or 3 stops, making it far too sensitive to pass through unscathed. To make your story more credible, place strips of tape with the words “pushed” or “ISO 3200” scrawled on the outside of the clear film bag, or on the individual rolls.

FedEx or Local Labs?

If all this X-ray talk is getting you weak-kneed, you have two options. The first is to obtain the names and addresses of reliable labs that can process your exposed film at each of your ports of call before traveling on. Processed negatives and slide film is X-ray safe. And if the lab sells film, you can restock before heading out again.

Another option is to ship your film to and from your destination. FedEx, UPS, and the USPS X-ray and/or inspect only a small percentage of the packages they transport daily. Inspections are typically restricted to suspicious packages along with a random sampling of the daily traffic flow.

Traveling with film requires a bit of planning, especially if you’ll be traveling in extreme weather conditions.

Have you encountered problems traveling with film? Tell us about it. Also, if you have any additional film-centric travel tips, please send them along—we can all learn from your experiences.

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Back in the mid-80's we were travelling to the former Yugoslavia to film a mini-documentary for ABC News 20/20. My assistant cameraman came up with a plan to protect our unexposed 16MM color negative film. He purchased a number of lead film pouches that he cut up and then lined a shipping case in order to protect the film from x-rays.

We got to Yugoslavia and we were transiting immigration and customs. Customs placed the lead lined shipping case on a conveyor belt and was going to send it through x-ray. We protested but the military guy standing next to the xray machine and wielding a large gun and using sign language that clearly said, stand back.

What a SURPRISE! We could not only see the cans of 400ft 16MM film in the case but also the actual film that was wound on the plastic cores inside the metal cans! We had no choice but to proceed and do our filming accepting the assurances of Yugoslavian customs that all was OK. When we left the country, we had the same experience.

Back in NYC, the film was processed by DuArt and voila, everything turned out OK. Scary times in strange places.

In the 1970's, Hong Kong xray machines had large signs in various languages that stated that the machines would fog the film and the traveler was instructed to ask for hand inspection.

Recently I purchased a Domke X-ray bag and placed my 8 unexposed rolls of ISO film in it and in my carry-on backpack only to have TSA scan my backup multiple times with higher doses of x-rays (domestic US flight).  The agent told me it would be better to put them in a plastic see through bag and place them in a separate bin.  The film was fogged when I developed it.

I strongly recommend keeping your film in a separate bag and requesting hand screening.  On a trip to Thailand the Bangkok airport heavily xrayed *everything* on the way in the door and fogged about a dozen rolls of exposed film I had with me.  And domestically don't expect TSA to be nice about your film, even if you are polite.  In Orlando I requested hand check of my film (after being burned in Bangkok).  After making me wait about 10 minutes the chief TSA agent there instructed the checking agent to do the "swipe test" (for explosive residue) on my film canisters - which she dutifully did, checking and testing each and every film canister one by one - swipe, put into machine, wait for result, clean machine, move to the next canister - times ten canisters.  Fortunately I had arrived in plenty of time that I was not worried about catching my flight.  But worth it to avoid fogging.

Hey Bill,

Unfortunately the best we can do is be nice, say 'please', thank you', and hope for the best.

Like the rest of us, TSA agents have good days and bad days - we just have to hope we catch them on the good ones!

Thanks for your feedback and keep on shooting!

AW

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