air travel questions

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    Hi everybody.

    I’m planning a trip to Mexico and thought “This calls for large format film photography”. I’ve seen a lot of talk about rolls of film being x-rayed, but what about sheets? Will they open the box of sheet film while I protest and scream and end up being cavity searched? Would it be better to load as much as I can into film holders and hope the metal slides protect the film? Should I wrap them in foil? Will a monorail camera look like a pipebomb? Anybody want to drive with me to Mexico? Please help. Thank you.


    I don’t personally have any experience travelling with film (at least not in the last 15 years or so) but according to the signs posted at the screening lines, the x-ray machine is not supposed to affect film with ISO 800 or slower so if you trust that (and your film isn’t faster then ISO 800) then you should be fine running it through the x-ray machine.

    The signs also say that if you have concerns about running the film through x-ray, you can ask them to hand-check it. Again, I’ve never done that so I don’t know how they do it (surely they don’t open unexposed film, right?) or how happy they are to do it either.

    You DO NOT want to put your film in checked baggage though. Bags get x-rayed with a much more powerful beam that would surely destroy your film.

    Good luck, have a safe trip, and post pics when you get back!


    I had a lead-lined film bag. TSA agent laughed and cranked the x-ray power up. My film was ruined.

    After roughly 40 flights with camera equipment, these are the rules I live by:

    1) Everything is carry-on. Period. I use a Pelican 1510 with padded dividers. My “personal item” is a laptop bag with a change of clothes in case my main bag gets lost.

    2) If TSA CAN open it, they WILL open it. This includes large format film boxes, dark bags, and film cameras. {insert rant about education level of the typical TSA Agent here} {Insert deleted rant featuring an anecdote about that time a classified piece of submarine equipment needed to be carried through TSA with a DoD Courier pass and inspection exemption and the supervisor ended up punching the inspector in the face and the crowd started cheering}

    3) Keep film under ISO 200. Even though the sign says 800, if they cranked the power up for someone else and forgot to turn it down, you lose. At this point, I like to carry the lead-lined bag AND ask for hand search of the film rolls. I put the film in the bag while I’m waiting at the gate. Your flight from Chicago to (I’m assuming) Mexico City, will net you about 100 mRem of natural gamma exposure from the sun and other cosmic sources each way. This is not really a lot, and certainly not enough to worry about, but your film will mildly granulate from it.
    3a) They seem to have no problem hand checking 35mm rolled film. Most of them remember having a shitty plastic camera as a kid. 120/220 can usually be explained to them without issue. Sheet film? Even when you tell them it’s a special film, and that the sealed black bag cannot be opened, they will open it. I’ve had this 100% of the time (out of three times attempting, and one time watching someone else). Once, they then threw the opened bag through the x-ray just to make sure.

    4) Stay polite, even if they’re wrong. They will always win. You will miss your flight, and you will lose. Sometimes it helps to politely ask for a supervisor. The supervisors usually have at least a tenth-grade comprehension level.

    5) Never let your gear out of your sight. If they tell you it has to be inspected in a “private area” calmly explain that it is your property, it will not leave your sight, you are requesting a local LEO to simultaneously observe the search, and that if it does leave your sight, the moment you lose eye contact with it, you will be calling the FBI to report felony grand larceny across state lines.

    6) Get gear insurance before you travel.

    7) If you’re at an airport that uses milimeter wave or low-energy neutron scanners, ALWAYS ask for the pat-down. I’ll spare you the physics, but basically, they used the sales flyer instead of actual science studies to determine that the machines were safe. One trip through a milimeter wave is literally equivalent to standing in a microwave for 30 seconds. One trip through a low energy neutron is equivalent to 20,000 x-rays (or ten seconds of sitting on a nuclear reactor at full power). They claim it’s okay because it’s only skin deep.

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