Don’t look down – Getting your film x-rayed when flying

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.

Addendum, 15 November 2023:
While rummaging through some photos, I found a roll that was also affected on the same trip. Here are the trailer and leader of that film, with enhanced contrast to show the x-ray damage clearly:

Ignore the aurora-like fog at the bottom edge of the top strip; this is an artefact from my bulk loading procedure. The item of interest are the pairs of vertical bands. Note how they are approximately the same width as the ones that made the undulating line along the length of the other film in this post.

I have no doubt that this happened during the same scan as the other one I reported on; this particular roll just happened to be oriented differently in relation to the radiation source, causing a different kind of pattern. The similarities are still striking, however.

Oops, one more. Yes, I carried this on the same trip:

6 thoughts on “Don’t look down – Getting your film x-rayed when flying”

  1. Thank you for the testing. We have take care when we travel.

    Do you make RA4 print from 250d? I made a few with a roll developed at C41. Strong contrast and a little purple in the shadows. I went back to Gold200.

  2. Interesting and creepy. I mean the wavelets in the film look creepy, but maybe this is how scanner works – it uses focused narrow beam, rastering through the luggage and when it happens to go through film canister and in skewed direction, it makes on the film such wavelets after unwinding.
    Anyway, several days ago I ordered 400ft can of Ektachrome from U.S. (it was much cheaper than from our local Kodak supplier). It was delivered by DHL Express. As I read your article, I immediately realized that air mail parcels are being x-rayed, too.
    Yesterday I opened the Ektachrome can and respooled a bit into 135 film canister. Because I don’t have E-6 chemistry, I developed it in ECN-2 chem, which I always have, because I continuously develop my Kodak vision films.
    I expected contrasty color negative on clear film base. But it came out different – the frames were as expected, strong contrasty images, but unexposed areas are not clear, but rather with overall purply-reddish fog, with similar intensity like a mask on masked color neg. film is. I am not sure now – is it normal, that there appears such a fog in cross process, or is the film itself fogged (maybe by x-ray scanner in postal facility), and therefore damaged?

    1. On the rare instance I cross-processed E6 film in C41 developer, I got pretty much what you got. High reddish fog, lots of density. I don’t think x-rays have much to do with it, if any at all. I’m not an expert on cross-processing E6 film, though.

      1. Thanks, I wanted to be sure, even though I thought it was some cross-process artifact. I was only little anxious, because the film wasn’t cheap…
        This was only a quick test, to make sure the film is OK. But it’s interesting. The magenta curve has perhaps higher foot, maybe to compensate for something happening in E-6 process.
        Side note only – I also realized that my grandfather’s color negatives from ’60s (pre-mask era) have slight magenta fog and overall magenta cast, too. If there’s some coincidence with this effect, I don’t know. Other unmasked color negs from ’70s (Agfa CN) I have are on the other hand neutral – with almost colorless base.

        1. That’s interesting, about the old negatives. I don’t have experience with those; the oldest color negatives I have only date to the late 1980s; prior to that, the family shot slides only. I’ve got loads of slides, partly faded to cyan and magenta tones (mostly cyan though) from the 1970s in particular. I think the magenta fog and cast in your old negatives may be due to the magenta color coupler somehow forming visible magenta dye. I was talking to someone well-versed in photo restoration and she said something to that effect in the context of color papers from that era. Maybe it was similar for color negative?

          1. Or maybe the ones from sixties just faded, with magenta dye being the most persistent. Yellow dye is least stable and cyan dye is the second least stable. When they are gone, only magenta stays there…
            However I read some source in the internet (I cannot find it anymore) that old Agfa negatives had, in effort to make colours separated as much as possible, had their yellow and cyan dyes most absorbent in UV and IR area, which makes them visible only faintly, so such a negative should be virtually magenta for naked eye.
            But even my oldest book about colour photography (1953) doesn’t support this theory, showing spectral transmitance of a negative material basically the same like modern negative films.

            Yeah, my grandpa made tons of color slides, too, color slides were a norm back then. But unfortunately someone threw them away. I only managed to save (part of) his negatives, but they are mostly BW.

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