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Safe Traveling with Your 
Cameras & Film 

by Jim McGee

When traveling with a bag full of film and expensive camera equipment you need to be aware of some things that your fellow travelers can blissfully ignore.  Thieves may covet your gear, x-ray machines can fog your film, and baggage handlers will try their best to turn it all into a bag of miscellaneous camera parts.

Luckily a little common sense and preparation can go a long way toward eliminating these worries.

Airport X-Rays - Checked Baggage
Rule one.  Never put undeveloped film (exposed or unexposed) in checked baggage. Hand carry ALL film. 

New high powered X-Ray machines for checked baggage have become more common in the last 18 months. Airports using them scan checked bags with a low powered X-Ray to look for suspicious items. If something looks suspicious, or is opaque to the low level X-Ray, the machine does a second pass with a high powered X-Ray. It is this second high powered pass that damages your film by fogging it,  causing color loss, or causing color shifts. This damage affects ALL speeds of film. 

Lead Lined Pouches Aren't the Answer
Lead lined bags DO NOT protect your film against a high powered scan.  If that second pass is unable to see through an opaque object (such as a lead lined pouch) your bags may be pulled and searched by airport security. The procedure differs from airport to airport and country to country and may include your being pulled off of the plane and/or the plane being delayed while the search is conducted (making you very popular with fellow passengers). 

So packing your film into lead lined containers may actually CAUSE your film to be damaged because they are likely to prompt a high powered scan. Because they may still show up as opaque to the second scan (depending on the thickness of the lead) they may also cause your bag to be pulled for a hand inspection.

Airport X-Rays - Carryon Baggage
In the U.S. X-Ray machines for carryon bags are low powered and will not harm film under ISO 1000. You should ask that ISO 1000 or faster film be hand inspected (although I ask for hand inspection of ALL film). Outside of the U.S. the safest bet is to always ask for a hand inspection.

Hand inspection goes much faster if the film is in a see through film pouch such as those that come with Tamrac & Lowepro bags. I use a similar, but larger, pouch from Eagle Creek that I found at a luggage store. It has a mesh top and can easily carry 50 rolls of film. You can find similar bags at most camping and travel shops or in the travel section of most department stores.

Remove all film canisters from their boxes. Not only does the film store in a much smaller space, but airport security may require you to remove all film rolls from their boxes for inspection. If you do this at home it's less mess, faster, and you can record expiration dates on all the film canisters.

The danger of theft will vary greatly from airport to airport and country to country.  The best way to avoid being a target is a combination of common sense and not looking like a target. 

What does that mean?  I'm sitting in an airport restaurant.  My brightly colored camera bag with the CANON logo stitched on in even brighter colors is sitting on the floor behind my chair.  I'm having a beer and watching the TV behind the bar, and I haven't looked at my bag in 10 minutes.  Can you say target?

When I travel I keep all of my gear in one of those carry on bags with wheels and a handle.  Airports are big places.  The wheels make it easy to move around my shoulder appreciates it.  My camera bag is loaded in the carry on and invisible to thieves.  I look like every other bored traveler with a bag full or dirty t-shirts and socks - not an interesting target for the average thief.

Don't leave your bag unattended, and when in a bar or restaurant put your bag so that it's in your line of site or has a strap looped around a leg of your chair.

In third world airports you may be approached by someone offering to carry your bags through the airport.  This is very attractive when you're tired and jetlagged. If you are tempted, you might trust your porter with your checked baggage (on the return leg), but never with your carry on and equipment.  It's too easy for bag, camera, and porter to disappear.

Don't Ever Put Your Gear in Your Checked Baggage
On a connecting flight through Miami last year a fellow traveler put his DayTimer in his checked bag - forgetting that his AMEX card was tucked into one of it's side pockets.  

He arrived home, unpacked and went to work.  A couple of days later he received a call from AMEX about suspicious charges to his card in Miami.  The thieves had taken the time to search his bag, find his DayTimer, search it, pocket the card, and repack his bag neatly enough that he never knew it had happened.  Another time traveling through Miami all of our checked bags were left sitting in several inches of water on the runway during a storm delay.  Most cameras don't appreciate a water immersion test.

Forget about locking your bag to deter theives.  All the lock does is help keep the catch from springing open when the bag is thrown around by the baggage handlers.  For one large luggage manufacturer there are a total of two keys that open all of their bags.  That's if the thief wants to bother carrying the keys.  You can open many luggage locks with a bent paper clip - as was demonstrated to me by a luggage repairman recently.

Traveling Smart
The best way is to travel with a man servant named Jeeves who follows you around, deals with officials, and carries all your bags.  Since most of us can't afford Jeeves' ridiculous salary here are some suggestions: 

  • Pack all your camera gear in your carry on. It's much more likely to make the trip in your hands - not someone else's. Unfortunately theft is a major problem at some airports. 
  • If you arrive late for a crowded flight you may be asked to check your carry on bag. If it is full of camera gear and film explain politely but firmly why you cannot check your bag.  Ask if they can pull someone else's bag or make a second effort to find room for yours in the overhead or in crew storage. Airline personnel know the realities and are usually willing to help if you're reasonable. If not ask for a supervisor. 
  • A change of clothes, socks, and underwear make great padding for your gear and will make tomorrow more livable if the airline loses your checked baggage.  Don't worry about things like tooth brushes and deodorant.  Almost any hotel can provide you these things.  If you pack your favorite brand of tooth paste, bottle of sun block etc., pack it in a sealed container or bag in a separate part of your carryon.  Changes in cabin pressure, and jostling around can spring these babies open all over your gear.
  • Hand carry all film.  The X-Ray threat to film is very real.  Last year a BBC documentary crew lost several months footage in their checked baggage to an X-Ray machine. 
  • Pack your film at the top of your carry on or in an outside pocket where it is easy to reach. Carry it in a pouch with a clear or mesh top so it is easy to see that it contains film. 
  • Ask for a hand check of your film. 
  • Arrive early (good advice anyway). You never know how closely your gear will be inspected. My experiences have run the extremes from a quick glance in the camera bag to one officer who opened every film canister, opened my camera backs, test fired my flash, and asked that I mount each lens to one of the bodies so that she could see that it was really a working lens. These two extremes happened in the same terminal of Philadelphia International three weeks apart, so don't make assumptions about procedures because you've flown through an airport before. 
  • No matter how stringent the inspection be patient and be polite. Security folks are doing a tough vital job as best as they can. If they are being particularly thorough it may be because of a tip or a crack down. Giving them grief will definitely cause you to be there longer. 
  • If you simply have too much gear to carry purchase a professional hard case.  It has real locks and it's not easily opened without doing serious, and noticeable, damage to the case.  Thieves want to be anonymous so that's not a risk they want to take if they don't know the contents.  Obviously it's not a good idea to plaster your hard case with Nikon stickers.  
  • Be nice.  Sounds simple, but in your travels you'll deal with a lot of airline employees, security folks, and customs officials.  Most are just doing their jobs. Some are jerks.  But since they deal with so many jerks every day being nice can sometimes go a long way.

If you have travel stories that are at odds with this
 advice or if you have additional tips email us and 
we'll include them in an upcoming issue.

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This bag easily swallows a large camera bag, a laptop in the front pocket, a net film pouch for easy reach in the top pocket, and a change of clothes for when the airline loses your luggage. 











text and photography copyright 2001 Vivid Light Publishing