Air Travel with Large Format Sheet Film, Post-911

One of my recent Large Format workshop attendees emailed today with a horror story:

I had a horrifying experience a few days ago when I had asked TSA at the Rapid City, South Dakota airport to hand inspect my 4×5 sheet film. I had the boxes taped shut and the stupid idiots opened each box in broad daylight. At this point I don’t know how much was ruined, but certainly some was. I had spent two days shooting in the Badlands, part of which was in a violent thunder and lightning storm, which was a wonderful time for photographing.

I am lucky to have never shared Ken’s misfortune, but my rule is to always travel prepared and to expect the worse. Take comfort in knowing that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has published policies (available online) regarding traveling with film. In short, “[s]heet, large format and motion picture film” are “Specialty Films” for which a hand-inspection can be requested. Bear in mind that the TSA protects only U.S. transportation centers, so do not automatically expect pleasant and cooperative assistance when requesting hand checks abroad. Accordingly, the following recommendations may be of little use at the airport in Nice, France (this airport is not mentioned at random!)

Here’s what I do when traveling through U.S. airports:

1. Print out and carry with you at all times the TSA ‘Traveling With Film‘ document.

2. Make sure you understand the contents of this document and what protections it affords you.

3. When the TSA advises you that it’s perfectly fine to run your ISO100 film through the scanner, politely decline and request a hand-check. No matter what you are told regarding film speeds and scanner strength, the best precaution is to avoid ALL scanning ALL the time. The best policy is to not assume that there are a certain number of safe passes before your film fogs: Do not allow your film to be scanned! Be assertive and request a hand check or a supervisor if necessary. Refer to the TSA’s own document when they tell you it is safe to scan.

4. I highly recommend carrying in the airport with you a changing bag or changing tent. If you request a hand check for an OPENED box of cut sheet film – one on which the seals are broken – the TSA will likely want to open and inspect/swab that box. This is what the changing tent/bag is for. If they insist on open-box inspection, explain to them the nature of accidental exposure and then proceed to set up the tent. My experience with TSA and sealed/unopened boxes is that they’re OK with swabbing the outside of the box and and will not ask to open it. Your experience may differ.

4. Should you still posses and be traveling with Quickloads or Readyloads (remember those?), TSA can safely open the box and inspect the film packets, but make sure that they don’t pull on the metal clip sealing the packet end and accidentally expose your film!

5. When you’re done at security check, thank the TSA for their courtesy and cooperative hand-check. Feel free to ignore silly comments that ask why you haven’t yet switched to digital.

If this all sounds to be a bit of a headache, you might consider FedExing your film to and from your shooting location. According to FedEx, undeveloped film can be safely shipped with prominently marked packages and special labels. Ask your FedEx courier or call 1.800.GoFedEx 1.800.463.3339 (say “order shipping supplies”). Contact FedEx for more details about shipping professional large format sheet film.

I hope this information helps you and your film to travel safely and effortlessly. Happy large format shooting!


Want to learn Large Format photography? My next Introduction to Large Format Photography workshop takes place November 16-18, 2012, in Death Valley National Park.  NO PREVIOUS LARGE FORMAT EXPERIENCE IS REQUIRED! Please click here for more information and to register.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

8 thoughts on “Air Travel with Large Format Sheet Film, Post-911

  1. I have always been able to get all film hand checked at airports in the USA. Not so in foreign airports. The worst is in the UK: I have traveled through Heathrow, Stanstead, Gatwick , London City airport, and Bristol. They flatly refuse to do it. I was told I have no “right” to request a hand check, and if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to travel with film.
    The go-to excuse is that there is more radiation inside the cabin than in their machines. They don’t even offer to do it for high speed film.

  2. Hi there,

    just for the record:
    you’re correctly assuming not be treated as politely when travelling international. (especially not on US airports!) Since we do that a lot (a lot), we never have our film handchecked. Damaged film in 18 years. 0 (zero)
    It’s the reality of international travel today. (in Nice or whereever, although you can expect to be treated politely and should so)
    We also get asked quite frequently about this and usually try to calm down folks, not to be too concerned about it. So if Ken would have been less concerned and had his film x-rayed, chances are (well 99,999999%) he would still have all his images.
    Still, you are correct, when traveling within the US you can handcheck it and I would advise everyone to make use of that, but – please – don’t blow this up to a big problem, especially with filmspeed ISO 400 and under. Some photographers have a tendency to get a bit paranoid about it, causing more damage and problems then necessary.

    Cheers from Vienna/Austria – Georg

    • There’s no hysteria here – it’s a mere public service announcement for those who don’t know how to deal with film at airports (which is a larger group than you’d realize).

      I don’t believe there’s any paranoia with regards to hand checks. If one has the right to a hand check, there’s no good reason to permit potentially harmful scanning of your film. While your success rate (luck rate?) has been perfect, it has not been so for others. My best advice is to know the law and to travel prepared.

      Thanks for your contribution, Georg.

  3. Michael,
    Thanks for the travel tutorial. It was thorough and thoughtful. I have only traveled once with 4×5 film, to Kauai,. I researched the process and the risks of airport scanning and my conclusion was that scanning would be safe as I tend to use slow film(iso50). I was wrong. I noticed a distinct haze over all of my transparencies after development. Only my most under exposed sheets were useful. I wish I had found your advice before I traveled! Thanks again for the thoughtful information.
    Mike Putnam

    • Mr. Putnam: I sincerely thank you for your reply. This is obviously helpful information for those who are told that sending slow speed film through the scanner is just fine!

  4. A late response, but wanted to add my recent experience…
    I often (although not constantly) travel outside the US with both roll and sheet film, and have been since the early 1990s (so before 9/11). I found that in the 5 or so years following 9/11 the US TSA people were pretty hard to get along with, and would either be officious/paramilitary or simply goofy (“I’ll only open the box for a moment”). More recently, however, they seem to have relaxed a bit, and I have not had any difficulties in some time. I usually just tell them that it’s “professional film” without elaborating about the ISO. (I saw a post on another site where a traveler simply writes “Push 1600” on the box, and says that works too!) In any case, I have not had any resistance to a hand check in long time.

    Outside N. America I’ve had pretty much entirely positive experiences, in contrast to what some of the posters above describe. I’ve been through security in Europe, Scandinavia, Africa, and Australia, and generally security staff seems to be simultaneously more relaxed and more business-like; I think that may reflect more of concern with security and less with “security theatre”. Again, screeners almost invariably do the hand check without question. I also mention to them that whether the film is slow or fast, I am trying to minimize the number of scans in a trip.

    I travel to Alaska with film more than anywhere else. There I FedEx my film both ways, labeled “no X-ray.” Cargo on cargo-only aircraft doesn’t have to X-rayed (not to say that it *can’t* be), and I’ve never had any problem.

    Last point – I just checked the TSA site for their film inspection policy, and I can’t find it! I used to carry it with me (which never did any good if the inspector wanted to X-ray the film), but if it’s still posted, it’s not obvious where it is. I hope this isn’t TSA forgetting that film still exists! Life could get more complicated again.

    • Hi Tad: THANKS for adding your thoughts and experiences here. Indeed, that film inspection link to TSA is now 404/dead; I suspect that this is not a courtesy that they want to provide any longer as they’re too busy inspecting belts, shoes, and shampoo (!). Regardless, I still carry a printout of this page and will produce it for TSA when necessary. Thanks again.

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