Frequent analog photographers likely know that flying with film can be a risky endeavor. But beyond anecdotal experience and what airport scanning companies say, the impacts of flying with film haven’t been very thoroughly examined. However, photographer and YouTube creator Lina Bessonova set about to change that in a large-scale test.
In her YouTube video seen above, Bessonova discusses the confusion surrounding the impacts of airport scanners on film. Lots of photographers report issues when taking film through airports, and Bessonova herself recalls a time she had 20 rolls from two full days of commissioned work ruined by an airport CT scanner. But there are also plenty who say they have never had problems. I have traveled with film frequently and haven’t noticed issues. But I also haven’t been comparing those rolls to film that didn’t go through a scanner and, admittedly, haven’t looked too closely.
To clear up some of the confusion and discover the actual impact of airport scanners, Bessonova devised a test involving a rather absurd amount of film. She picked rolls of just about every ISO option in color and black and white from a range of companies in both 35mm and 120 format. Her test rolls included the likes of Cinestill 50D, Portra 400, HP5, Delta 3200, Kodak Gold 200, CHS 100 II, and more.
After acquiring all her film, she set up a still life with flowers in a studio to create a controlled environment. Her flowers contained a range of colors to better show any impact to color. She also lit the scene in a way that included deep shadows since that’s where most of the damage would be visible. Under the flowers, she placed a note about the film type, the amount of X-ray or CT scan exposure, and the exposure from -2 to +2 stops. She also labeled each film roll to keep it all straight.
After shooting all the rolls, which she says took roughly 15 hours straight, she headed to the Berlin airport. There, she went through security six times, resulting in six total passes through the X-ray machine, although rolls saw varying levels of exposure, from one pass to six. Some rolls were placed in protective bags, while others weren’t. These rolls then went directly to the lab for processing.
The next stage of the test took place in Amsterdam, where she sent film through CT scanners between one and three times. She notes in the video and on her website that CT scanners expose film to more radiation since the device rotates around luggage as long as security needs, whereas X-ray machines send rays from a single direction.
The results of Bessonova’s test were a little surprising in just how much airport scanners can impact film. For those who prefer stills, Bessonova shares tons of test shots on her website.
It’s worth noting what the damage looks like on film that passes through security scanners. Typical damage from regular X-rays looks like waves, fog, or both. Damage from CT scanners results in soft vignettes instead of waves and fogging. Both can result in color shifts when working with color film.
Bessonova’s results show that whether film will survive airport scanners depends on whether the film is color or black and white, if it’s 35mm versus medium format (or higher), and what ISO it is. It also matters if the film is going through a CT scanner or an X-ray scanner.
Airports typically say that film below ISO 1600 is safe for X-ray and CT scans, though individual airports may provide lower ISO numbers. However, Bessonova’s results show damage to film at as low as 50 ISO. It is minimal but noticeable, especially when compared to a control film. For example, a 200-speed film saw a visible loss in contrast and a strong blue-green color shift. High ISO films did see more damage than lower ones, with Delta 3200 becoming unusable after a single pass.
Bessonova found that X-ray and CT scanners impact color film more significantly than black and white film, typically showing a color shift to green or green-blue, fogging, and an increase in grain. Black and white film did have fogging and impacts to grain, but it is easier to save than color film. For example, HP5+ showed only very minimal fogging even after six passes through X-ray without a protective bag. Porta 400 also showed minimal damage, but there was a slight color shift and fogging.
She discovered that 120 film was worse off than 35mm, likely because of the addition of the film canister on 35mm film. She also noticed that film on the exterior of the roll was more impacted than frames near the center. Underexposed film was also worse off, as were those with heavy shadow areas.
Protective bags definitely helped minimize damage but didn’t stop it. For example, a 3200 ISO film was destroyed after a single pass, even in a protective bag.
It’s worth noting that Bessonova is not the first to test X-ray scanners on film. Last year, a photographer sent one roll of ISO 3200 black and white film through X-ray scanners 19 times on his travels. He did see some fogging and waves from the X-rays, but the film was very much still usable, even though it was a high ISO film.
So, what’s the moral of the story here? Though Bessonova’s test is by no means a definitive test, it provides useful insight for those who fly with film. And at the end of the day, how careful someone needs to be depends on how particular they are and how important the images are. For those who are shooting for fun and don’t have something to compare the images to, it’s not as big of a deal as someone with exceptionally high standards and needing pristine results from their film.
All that said, there are some general best practices to keep in mind when traveling with film. For low ISO films, especially black and white film, there’s no need to panic if it goes through an X-ray scanner a few times. Color film and high ISO films are best hand-checked when possible, however. Finally, for those who frequently travel with film, invest in a protective bag to at least somewhat minimize the effects of scanners when hand-checking isn’t an option.