Tommy Ku Photography

X-ray scans at Airport security checkpoints

Even Kodak said X-ray scan at airport checked bags will damage unprocessed film.

This is an unpleasant news to me, who for the first time post-COVID leave Hong Kong to travel aboard with my film cameras. (by mid 2023, sorry it took so long for me to write this)

X-ray/CT scan both emits X-ray, a high energy light ray of, that's able to penetrate objects and leave a shadow of high density objects its unable to penetrate on the other side. Film is a light-sensitive medium, despite not designed to capture X-ray, will leave an impression due to high energy nature of X-ray.

The effect X-ray on the film varies depending on the combination of film, number of times it's scanned and the machine used to scan it. The film may be fogged partially or entirely, possibly also with varying patterns.

Therefore putting film in checked bag is a definite no-no. Film in carry-on luggage however, is more uncertain as different airports would have different models and configurations of their scanners. Even with the exactly same scanner your film may be stuck inside for longer than others to cause fogging because of how suspicious your/others' bags look from the scan result.

Ignorant folks would be misled by immoral or equally if not more ignorant sellers into purchasing a "lead bag" that would "shield" the film from incoming X-rays. While they do shield the X-rays, that doesn't mean the security staff can't increase the power to see through them. People online claimed these bags do work, it's up to you to decide whether to use these or not.

Look, imagine you were the airport security, if a bag shows up all mysterious on the scan, you would probably want to scan with stronger X-ray, or pull the person away for questioning. To me at least, I would simply ask for a hand check in the first place to avoid any potential troubles, especially in airports that appear more strict around these things like in China or the US.

Repeat after me the magic spell: "Hand check please. No machine."

Since the COVID19 restriction has been lifted in Hong Kong on early 2023, I have been to 2 trips with film on me.

Japan trip with Olympus XA2

I went through Hong Kong and Japan airport security with my ISO I00 C41 color/ISO 250 ECN color film cannisters taken out of the plastic container, and all kept inside a transparent ziploc bag. All my film were unloaded from my camera, even if that meant I had to spam the last few shots to get the film out.

In Hong Kong it was a breeze, I only need to request for hand check by explaining there are film in the bag, and they took it away for the manual inspection. On my way through I didn't see what they do with the film, but I got back soon after my bags passed the machine.

In Osaka Kansai International Airport though, the Japanese security personnel had issue understanding my request. I showed them my bag of film, all exposed and rolled into the cannister, and reqested for hand check in English. He actually went back to me asking if it's not ok to use the machine.

"No machine?"

I crossed my arms 🙅‍♂️ "No machine."

Then he went away telling his colleague "人工検査お願いします。" or something like that.

The film turned out fine. Of course, because I managed to dodge all 2 scans. One thing I could have also done is print out label in the native languages of the country to request for manual inspection, saving the time needed to make my intention clear to the security staff.

Deer and school kids
The locals have grown tired of the tourists
Fancy restaurant and the sock photobombing near the Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The famous socks
Toy museum in Yunogo Onsen
Toy museum in Yunogo Onsen
Izumo Taisha in the morning
Izumo Taisha in the morning

Macau trip with Olympus PEN EE2

In the summer of 2023 I travelled again with film camera on me, this time the half-frame camera loaded with ISO 100 C41 color film. Half of the roll had already been exposed in a prior visit to Ngong Ping.

On the way to Macau via the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau bridge, there was no security checkpoint. We went straight into Macau. Only on the return trip our bags were subjected to scan and we had to walk through a metal detector.

It's China. It didn't look like my request for hand check would be honored so I just threw my bag with film inside the machine.

Looking back, I could have carried the film on my body as I walked through the metal detector.

Again, the film turned out fine. I couldn't have fault the machine for my poor choice of camera and apparently, the machine didn't do any obvious damage.

Yes, without a control the effect could be too subtle to be noticed. But then, if it's barely noticeable, then does it matter?

Overexposed landscape
Stuff blowing way out was probably due to how bright it was, these are salvageable in post-processing
Blurry Macau
Looks fine, in low light situation there's only so much depth of field that can be had with PEN EE2, and I don't think X-ray had made it any worse
Macau people
Most normal looking photo in the set at the very end of the roll i.e. near the center of the roll

From my experience, PEN EE2 has a tendency to overexpose landscape scene under bright daylight and the infamous wave patter didn't show up. This could have been because ISO 100 film is resilient enough against the X-ray at least in Macau.

A few tips

Just to summarize, what I would do when my bags are subjected to X-ray scan at airport/security checkpoint:

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