Why It’s Time to be Careful When Flying with Film

Why It’s Time to be Careful When Flying with Film

Photographing with film is my absolute favorite method of capturing images. If it wasn’t for the cost and sometimes inconvenience, I’d photograph with film all the time.

Alas, there are costs and inconveniences that result from photographing with film.

It would seem that inconveniences have been added to the film photographer’s process.

Normally, I like to include posts about inspiration and tips on this blog. However, after what happened to me, I feel the need to inform anyone out there who shoots film.

Last Thanksgiving we planned a trip to Estes Park, Colorado for Thanksgiving. We could fly from our small town, but it’s almost always less expensive to drive two to four boring hours to a larger airport to not only save money, but also to reduce layovers.

Denver, Colorado

For camera gear, I chose to pack about seven rolls of Kodak Portra 400—my favorite film—and my Leica M6.

Our flight was early and we cruised smoothly through the line to have our identification checked.

Arms raised and feet in position, we made it successfully through the scanners. Once I arrived on the other side, though, a Transportation Security Administration officer leaned over the counter. She told me that their scanners were stronger now, and that it would be advised for me to hand check my film.

This was completely new to me.

For years I’ve flown with film of all formats and haven’t had a problem. I’ve never used a lead bag because I’d heard (read) stories of the x-ray technicians simply increasing the power of the x-ray, thereby ruining the film.

Denver, Colorado

Sweat forming and worry commencing, I was appalled at this advice I’d just received.

As surprised as I was, I was also extremely thankful to hear about the new scanners. Being an avid film photographer, this type of information is invaluable.

While in Colorado, I photographed as if my film would turn out completely fine. We stayed in Denver and my plan was to photograph some of the incredible architecture that exists in the area. As far as worrying that my film had been possibly ruined, there was nothing I could do at that point, so it was my priority to simply make the best out of a bad situation.

When the day came to return to Michigan, I made sure to have the TSA agent hand check my film. This was the Sunday after Thanksgiving weekend, so the airport was quite busy.

The agents involved with my film couldn’t have been more polite, patient and helpful.

Only about ten minutes of time were taken to check the film, and we were on our way to our airline gate for home.

Denver, Colorado

Once home, I immediately sent my film off for processing. My lab of choice is The Darkroom Lab in California. Their service, quality, turnaround time and price has been unbeatable, for me.

When the day came that my negatives had been scanned, I received an email telling me that my downloads were ready. I was equal parts scared and excited.

As soon as I saw that some images were downloading I was relieved. My main concern was that the powerful x-ray had ruined all the negatives. I knew that as long as I had some images to work with I’d be okay.

Upon examining the images further, in Lightroom, I could tell that there was some degradation in quality. After flying with Kodak Portra 400 35mm film for as long as I have (and not having problems), I could tell fairly quickly that there was a graininess, and what can best be described as ‘muddled’, look to the images.

The photos I’ve presented here may not look too bad, but this is after a lot of adjustments to grain, color and contrast.

Denver, Colorado

Thankfully, I was able to salvage a lot of the photos in post processing.

Having the advice to hand check my film was so important, I wanted to make sure to let you all know about it. So, the takeaway here is to give yourself a few extra film-check minutes and account for that when planning your travel.

Your photos may turn out fine if you don’t, but why take the chance?

Denver, Colorado

Film photography has enough hassles, challenges and costs associated with it. Put high-strength x-ray machines on the list of challenges, I guess.

As film photographers—or photographers in general, I’d say—go though, we forge ahead. We do whatever it takes to make art in the magic that is film photography.

Here’s to film photography, it’s grain and all it’s perfect imperfections.

2 thoughts on “Why It’s Time to be Careful When Flying with Film”

  • I think it is the new CT scanners that are the problem – I have never had any issues with the old x-ray machines for cabin baggage, usually I ask for a hand check but that has been refused in some places. But the CT scanners that are being introduced will apparently fog any film. Kodak have a PDF notice that you can print to go in the plastic bag with your film saying please do not x-ray. I might have to start carrying that with me.
    Having said all that, I have always bought film locally and had it processed locally when traveling overseas on holidays of more than a few days. If I were doing an assignment using film I would definitely not be wanting to carry it by air now!

    • Thank you for your comment Steve! I completely agree. Film is so fulfilling to photograph with, I know you understand. With these new scanners and the expense of photography as high as it always is, along with the importance of making sure photos aren’t damaged, I don’t see many options other than using digital when traveling. Hope you’ve had a great start to your 2024!

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