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AIRPORT X-RAYS CAN DEGRADE YOUR PHOTOS.

Written by "F-Stop"
Managing Director, Vector Trust / Australia
Original member of the Photos@VectorTrust.com team.

     For years and years, professional photographers have known that the X-ray machines in airports damage photographic films. The amount of damage has varied greatly depending on the type and "speed" of the film, so exact information is hard to come by. Creating greater confusion for the amateur photographer is the insistence, by the airlines, that any damage is "inconsequential" and not a concern. The arguments have raged back and forth for years, but the USA Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA ) has a little known rule on the books, that can be the savior of any serious photographer.

The Air France Concorde, the only passenger carrying Super-Sonic speed aircraft. For size comparison, It's parked next to a 737      September 11, 2001 has changed many things in the lives of travelers, especially those of us who travel a great deal as part of the job. The delays, the security checks, the long queues of weary travelers, and the restrictions and limitation of "carry-on" luggage are subjects for an article in TRAVEL & LEISURE magazine. I want to focus on the X-ray machines at each airport. The fact is, if you travel with film, your precious pictures are at serious risk. Even before "9-11", airport x-ray machines had begun to change. The FAA, and itís world-wide counterparts, had slowly and quietly started to install "explosive detection" systems in airports. The PAN AM Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland created a new focus to air safety. Instead of a hijacker with a weapon, the airlines were concerned about in-flight explosions as a primary threat. The deterrent of choice turned out to be more frequent and more powerful X-ray inspection of luggage. We can debate the plans effectiveness, but the reality is that the strength, duration and intensity of the x-rays bombarding any film in your suitcase has increased greatly. If you want to protect your images, you must avoid having your film come into contact with these machines, while legally complying with the security regulations in place.

     James Blamphin, of the Kodak film company, says it bluntly. "Never, ever again put anything that is photo-sensitive in checked luggage." He says these newer, more powerful x-ray machines will "ruin every picture, guaranteed..... even the film stored in professional lead-lined film bags". Thatís a pretty dire warning. What is a professional photographer, or even a shutterbug on the family vacation supposed to do? On that point, there is good news, some not very good news, reality in the airports since "9-11", and FAA rule 108.17e.

Another big silver bird in the nest, ready to fly.     Before we head out to the airport, lets look at the practical reality of air travel in the average post-September 11 airport. When the Photos@VectorTrust.com staff travels, we look like trouble coming from a city block away. We travel in groups of 2 to 5 at a time. We are all male, ( not a plan, it just happened that way. Donít write me letters. Submit your "CV" or resume to "Vector".) We are all over 6í3 in height ( except "Wheels" and Bart, they look like rugby players). we wear odd clothes ( weíll talk about this in a moment ). For insurance reasons, we must "carry-on" everything and rarely ever have any checked baggage. What we are carrying is all metal, it disassembles into small parts ( lens, camera bodies, tripods, etc) and is not easily identified by the non-photographers. It is not uncommon for each of us to be carrying 200 to 300 individual rolls of film, neatly packaged as Iíll describe below.
If you think you have problems at the airport, Follow us around the world !!

Here's how we protect our film from Airport X-ray machines....

     Donít draw attention to yourself, or demand special attention. Just know the "rules".

     Lets start with the good news. The x-rays used to check carry-on luggage is substantially different than the big machines used on checked suitcases destined for the cargo hold of your airplane. The passenger screening x-ray machines are both less intense in radiation emissions and less frequent. Once you have "cleared security", chances are you wonít be x-rayed again. Passengers are quarantined in secure areas as you move from airport to airport, even if changing planes. That is not the case with your luggage. It will be scanned over and over at each leg of a connecting flight. With that knowledge, the first tip on traveling with film is........

     Never travel with film in your checked suitcase. Put it in your carry-on luggage.

    The not so good news, mentioned above, is that the x-ray machines used on passengers are not harmless. They are just less damaging than the alternative. The thing you need to know about these machines is that their effects are cumulative. Will one trip through the air-side baggage screener "black-out" your film? Probably not. The airlines assure passengers who ask, that these low-level radiation devices "probably" wonít damage your film "in any way" during a single inspection. Unfortunately, while the effects are minimal, they add up exponentially. One scan isnít great, but two is worse. Three scans is 1 +1+1= 5, not three. A common family vacation with a single connecting flight each way could easily degrade, blur or fade the quality of the prints you see in your photos.

     Donít trust "lead-lined" film bags you see advertised. Just avoid the scanners.

    With these dire warnings in mind, What is the solution? In North American airports, our savior is FAA regulation 108.17e. Commit it to memory or write it on your tickets and passport. This regulation has been in place for years, but is the traveling photographerís new "best friend". This rule allows air travelers on regularly scheduled flights to request a "hand search" of any "film or electronic device that may be temporarily or permanently adversely effected by the ( listed ) items subjection to mechanical ( x-ray ) inspection".

     Transport all film in carry-on bags that are easily hand inspected by security personnel.

Airside security screening     In the real world, rudely announcing that "FAA regulation 108.17e says you must hand search me, if I request it", will get you punted to the security office, create greater delays and may cause you the miss your flight. Itís your right to be hand inspected, but security can decide when and how you are searched. "Oops! we are sorry you missed your flight, sir." Your goal is to get through the airport security as quickly, quietly and as "hassle free" as possible. I donít know about you, but Iíd rather not be the focus of attention by anyone wearing a shiny star or badge. Most of the people you encountered at security checkpoints prior to 2002, were minimally trained, low skill workers just "doing their job". The "federalization" of airport security forces will "professionalize" these screeners, but either way they were / are not likely to know these FAA regulations in detail. If you can make the security screeners job easier, your trip through the airport will be easier. Asking ( politely ) for a supervisor will generally bring someone more knowledgeable and also more interested in hurrying you on your way. While traveling solo through a minor airport, in a minor country, I was stuck in front of an insistent security officer. In this un-named country, airport screening is done by the National Police. They donít speak English. A few hand gestures ( and a big smile, always a smile, remember ) brought a "General" in charge to the front. He didnít speak English either, but recognized my "plea" and sent me on my way. Remember the primary job of the security staff is to pass you through, not create a traffic jam in the airport concourse.

     Smile. Be polite. SMILE!. Make the screeners job easier, not harder.Smile, then ask for the supervisor.

    Sometimes you come across an uncooperative screener. They are "sticking to the rules" no matter what. "Everything must go through the x-ray machine, sir"" This is where a little technical knowledge and planning will save the day. The x-ray machines all have "hazard notices" on them. You know the type. A big yellow sticker that says "Warning, Do not operate while pregnant, drunk, or both. I always carry 8 or 10 ASA 1000 or 1600 speed film cartridges in my bags. Why? ( besides the fact that it makes great night photos of race cars) Iíve found that "rule followers" love it when you show them the Manufacturer notice on the side of the x-ray machine. It says Donít use this machine on photographic film of greater than ASA1000. "Check, and Mate ! " If the film rolls are all mixed up in the bag, most screeners at this point just give up, and pass you through.  Since we are focusing on the transportation of film, not equipment, Some of this advice will not work in other situations .

     Purchase non-specialty films at or near your destination.

   Plan in advance. Estimate how much film you will really need, but always take extra. Most serious amateurs shoot consumer speed < ASA 100, 200, 400, etc) film. This is commonly available almost anywhere in the world. Instead of carrying film, buy it at your destination. We hate buying usd$ 8.oo rolls of film at the race track, just like you. Why not visit a discount store like J.Sainsbury in the the UK, Auchan in France, Daiei in Japan, or a Wal-Mart store world-wide. The major film brands ( Fuji, Kodak, AGFA, Ilford, etc)are technically the same worldwide     Any film you decide to carry should be packed to make the security screeners life as easy as possible. We re-pack all film, by removing it from the cardboard packaging and plastic containers. All film is stored in "zip-seal-type" CLEAR plastic bags. The film is protected from moisture and dust. ( better than the factory containers, by the way) and is easily visible for inspection.

     Wear comfortable, but functional clothes. Air travel isnít a fashion show.

    Your wardrobe can help, or hurt you efforts. When the Photos@VectorTrust.com team travels, we wear our ugly photographerís vest and the comfortable pants and shoes we work in. Why? Two reasons. First, this is one less change of clothes to carry, but also because we look like we are "working". Iíve seen a variation on this trick done by motherís with several small children on plane flights. The airline rules say "one carry-on bag", but nothing about how many pockets are in your pants and vest/jacket. The right wardrobe can do wonders for the amount of small items you can carry-on.

     Do not de-rail your complete itinerary, because of a few rolls of film.

Sunrise over the Artic Circle at 40,000 Feet

    Plan for the extra time required for a security screening. This applies to all travel since "9-11", of course. We purposefully wait till the "end of the line". in a highly visible spot. When things are not as rushed, or if it is obvious that you waited until it is more convenient to get a hand check, security sceeners and supervisors appreciate the thought.  Remove the packages of film from the rest of your travel luggage, before reaching the front of the security line. Highly visible in "zip-seal-type" clear plastic bags, Film is easily handed to a security person, while allowing everything else to go through the x-ray machine. When I arrive at the front of the line, Iím many times holding three to five bags full of film. If Iím able to pass through security, the serious amateur or hobby photographer should have no problem with 10 or 20 rolls.
     Finally, If all else fails, let the film go through the scanners. It is not worth "making a scene". Take comfort in the fact that one scan, or two probably wonít cause noticeable damage to consumer grade films. Very few hobby photographers print images larger than 8 x 10 size, and oversize displays are where any damage would be noticed. X-ray damage reduces color clarity. It is noticeable for an overall dull, or gray pallor seen in your prints. Sometimes, X-ray damage appears as a streak of "rainbow" across the face of your film and prints. Before you ask, NO, you have no legal recourse against the airline for x-ray damage to your film. This is why itís better to just work around the issue.

     One last thought. x-ray scanners will not affect the content of your pictures. When you finally arrive at your destination, the job has just started. Now, you must get the shot in focus. Donít cut off Michael Schumakerís head ( in the picture, of course). Be ready to get the "great shot". Shoot lots of film, and come home with great memories to show and tell.

About the author:
     "F-stop" is one of the founding members of Photos@VectorTrust.com.
He first worked with "Vector" when they were both little "baby fish in the big pool".
See some of his photography work and read other technical and "How to" articles on this web site.
His byline appears occasionally in enthusiast publications, world-wide.

All articles in this section are for informational purposes only.
All images and text are Copyright © 2002-2013 Photos@VectorTrust.com.

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