The impact of airport luggage scanning x-rays on photographic film has been debated ad nauseam. Many of those debates rarely involve much in terms of actual evidence. Apparently, the problem is feared much more than that it is encountered. Well, seems like I might have some news. Read on.
This is actually a bit of a continuation of that blog where I discussed the many ways I messed up some rolls of color film earlier this year. Turns out there was one defect I had overlooked, until now. And I’m quite sure this one isn’t exactly my fault.
A brief recap of what happened to those rolls of Kodak Vision3 250D 35mm film: I spooled these 36-exposure rolls off of the same 400ft master roll, which I purchased fresh earlier this year. In processing and handling, I made a couple of mistakes here and there, as you can read in the post I linked above. Kodak also contributed an extremely rare mishap in the form of an isolated (I hope) emulsion defect.
After testing the film at home and finding it perfectly usable, I took 10 rolls along on a trip to Sicily. We departed from Eindhoven Airport in The Netherlands, and this airport is equipped with the latest CT scanning technology for carry-on luggage. Because of this, I always ask for a manual inspection at this airport, and so far, staff have always been incredibly friendly and helpful in manually checking my little baggy with 35mm film rolls. This time was no exception.
Our flight was an indirect one, through Pisa airport in Italy. Here, we had to go past a security check again, this time employing regular x-ray carry-on luggage scanners. I was not granted the courtesy of a manual check, but was pointed out the sticker on the x-ray machine that said it was safe for film. I’m not the kind of guy to start a ruckus, let alone with security personnel on a busy airport, so I complied and went on my merry way to Sicily, where I shot 6 out of those 10 rolls. On returning home, we had a similar experience at Catania airport: regular x-ray machines, no manual check granted. Fair enough; as far as I know, in the EU, we’re not legally entitled to a manual check, as opposed to the US and the UK (apparently).
On the rolls I shot on Sicily, I noted no problems I could nail on x-ray damage. Indeed, on none of my previous travels I observed anything pointing in that direction, despite having taken film through regular x-ray machines in many occasions.
But when I processed one of the remaining rolls earlier today, which I exposed over the course of the past few weeks, I noticed something very odd as the film hung to dry. Very odd, indeed.
Here’s what the cut leader looks like on a light table:
No, I didn’t shoot any panoramas of waves by the seaside. That perfectly sinusoidal waveform is a wholly unintended exposure. And despite that it appears to taper off by the end of the leader, it extends right throughout the entire roll, as it’s visible in the margins between the frames and it’s there right through the unexposed trailing piece of film. Same shape, same location.
I wasn’t puzzled, to be honest. I knew immediately what I was looking at, because it’s really a textbook illustration of airport x-ray scanner damage. Check out this Kodak web page with illustrations. Scroll down to some eerily similar sinusoidal waveforms.
Now, if this roll had been passed through one of the newer CT scanners, I wouldn’t have been surprised. They’re known to use higher-energy radiation than the old-fashioned scanners, and damage is to be expected (but apparently not necessarily guaranteed according to some). But this roll has only gone through two old-fashioned scanners, and nothing else. Other film from the same 400ft master roll doesn’t show anything like this defect.
The only conclusion I can reach is that one of those old-fashioned, supposedly film-safe scanners has actually managed to visibly expose my film. Mind you, this is 250 ISO film (alright, CineStill rates it at 400, if you want to be generous with its performance). It’s supposed to be unaffected by these scanners. And yet, it isn’t.
How bad is the situation? I haven’t printed anything off of this roll yet, but some fidgeting with the scanner produces encouraging results – albeit that I’d rather see no x-ray exposure at all on my film. Here’s the trailer, leader and a couple of frames from this roll, scanned side by side and straight on the platen of the trusty old 4990:
If we zoom in on the leader, here’s what it looks like:
No surprises; this is basically the positive of the initial illustration.
The main question of course is: does it affect the actual photos? Taking the (deliberately, if you’re wondering) unfocused frame as an example, it seems the damage is minimal:
If you look at the space between the frames in the left margin, you can tell where the x-ray pattern is. It’s about 1/3 from the top of the exposed image. Inside the image area itself, I can’t really see it. Yes, there’s a horizontal narrow band of Newton rings in the center of the film strip, but that’s just a scanning fluke (shiny side of the film on the scanner glass in humid weather).
If I boost the contrast of this frame drastically, the defect only becomes very faintly visible – and only if you know where to look:
Can you tell where it is? I bet you can’t – all that’s there is a little remjet muck along the bottom edge. Remjet is no fun, although I’m getting better at removing it. And there’s that row of shadows of the sprocket holes along the edges, but that appears to be a reflection between the film and the scanner glass – it’s not in the actual negative.
One scenario where I imagine this might pose a problem, is when trying to recover dramatically underexposed frames in digital post processing, lifting the shadows in particular. But I’d consider such frames as basically lost to begin with.
Still, the whole thing leaves a nasty aftertaste with me. To be frank, I’m not sure I’ll be flying with film anymore. This time, the damage was minimal. Who’s to say next time I’ll be just as lucky? Besides, the situation with manual baggage checks on European airports is hit & miss at best. And those CT scanners are being rolled out across the airport landscape at a rapid pace, so at some point, no major airport will have (supposedly!) film-safe x-ray facilities anymore to begin with. All considered, why risk it?
I think next time we fly, I’ll just shoot digital, and save the film for home and road trips.