One of the most common emails we have to send out to lab customers is the disappointing news that their travel memories have been damaged by airport security’s X-ray or CT scanners. The photos generally still turn out - but there is something not quite right. So, what's the difference, and how do X-ray and CT scanners impact your film? How can you avoid this from happening in the future?
Before we delve into the risks, let's provide a quick rundown of how X-rays and CT scanners interact with film. These machines emit ionising radiation, which can penetrate into the film. Due to the film's light sensitivity, when this radiation permeates your luggage and the film canister, the rays interact with the film's emulsion, leading to unwanted exposure and causing a 'fogging' effect.
For years, film shooters were mostly concerned with X-ray machines, which generally only impacted films with an ISO of 800 or higher. However, more recently, many airports worldwide have started introducing CT (computed tomography) scanners, which emit an even higher level of radiation. This is why, in the past, you may have traveled through airport security without hand-checking and had little to no X-ray damage if you stuck to lower ISO films.
The image below shows a portion of 120 film that has been damaged by X-rays, with the lighter areas being the most affected. As mentioned, it usually only affects higher ISO films, so chances are you've been fortunate enough to avoid witnessing this.
The newer, high-powered CT scanners, on the other hand, have been causing issues for film shooters worldwide. The fog produced by these scanners appears more like a gradient along the entire roll, occasionally with smaller sections of banding, as seen in the image below.
This fogging tends to be more pronounced and noticeable, even on lower ISO films, with underexposed or darker photos bearing the brunt of the damage. This effect often results in a general loss of contrast, reduced colour saturation, and increased graininess in the developed images. The blacks in an image completely fade into a flat grey tone, with a significant reduction in shadow detail.
So, what does this actually look like in a photo? The following images provide a side-by-side comparison of a fresh roll of Portra versus a roll of Portra that has gone through only one pass of Melbourne Airport's Terminal 4 CT scanner.
These images were captured using a Contax G1 with Portra 400 film. The image on the right has undergone just one pass through a CT scanner, resulting in a noticeable decrease in contrast and saturation. The image exhibits an overall haziness and a slight increase in grain.
How to avoid scanner damage
While the risks are real, there are steps you can take to safeguard your film from X-ray and CT scanner damage:
1. Carry your film in your hand luggage. Where feasible, ensure your film is stored as carry-on luggage. Avoid placing it in your checked baggage, as the machines used for scanning checked bags are often set to their highest settings and pose a more significant risk.
2. Identify the scanner. You don't have to remember what the heck a Hi-Scan 6040 CTIX is. A straightforward identifier is that laptops and electronic devices typically need to be removed from your bag for X-ray machines, while this isn't required for CT scanners. If you are carrying only films with an ISO of 400 or lower, you can take the risk of using an old-school X-ray machine, but it's advisable to completely avoid CT scanners for all undeveloped films.
3. Request a hand check. Notify the customs officers that you have film with you and request a manual hand inspection at airport security checkpoints. The most effective way to secure this is by taking all the film out of its packaging, including boxes and plastic canisters (and even foil sleeves for medium format film) and placing them in a clear zip-lock bag. If the customs agents have to go through the trouble of unboxing your Portra pro-pack and opening each plastic canister, they might be less willing to accommodate a hand check.
4. Shoot with a lower film speed. Lower ISO films are usually more resilient to scanner damage. Generally, we observe less damage from X-rays on films with an ISO of 400 or lower and from CT scanners on films with an ISO of 200 or lower. Overexposing your film, such as shooting Portra 400 at 200 ISO and developing it as usual, can also help enhance the brighter parts of an image, which are less likely to show a loss of detail.
5. Bring supporting documents. Kodak and Fuji have both released statements on travelling with film. Some customs agents will tell you CT scanners don’t damage film, or that film lower than 3200 ISO will be safe - this is absolutely not true.
6. Be friendly and polite but firm. If the airport staff remains uncooperative, it may be better to prioritise your flight and avoid any potential delays or complications over a film-related issue.
7. Purchase film at your destination where possible. This minimises the risk and is a great way to support the local economy. A good bet is to look up photo stores in the area before you head off. It's important to note that X-ray and CT damage accumulates, meaning that each pass through a scanner increases the potential for damage to your film.
8. Post your film back to us before your flight home. Based on our experience, most mailed-in film doesn't seem to undergo X-ray or CT scanning. However, for added safety, Kodak has provided a printout that you can affix to the outside of your package. Read more about posting rolls in here and download the print-out here.
9. Have your film developed overseas. Definitely do some research on a reputable lab first as some in more remote areas may not be using the freshest chemistry. If you can find a good lab while travelling you can always get your film developed as uncut negatives and bring it back to Hillvale for scanning. Developed film will not be impacted by either type of scanner.