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The Traveling Photographer After September 11th, New Rules of the Road
by Jim McGee

Every month we get emails from readers who are about to travel and who are asking for advice. Unfortunately until recently the only answers we could give were "it depends".

Now that time has passed and things are settling down we can finally provide some real answers regarding travel, equipment, and film. For this article we contacted several U.S. airlines, FedEx, UPS, several hotel chains, film manufacturers, and the U.S. Postal Service.

Your Person
Expect there may be some additional delays compared to flying before 9-11. But the long lines the media obsessed about seem to have gone by the way side - though there may occasionally be some exceptions to this rule during heavy travel days, or when security is on alert for some reason. 

A good rule of thumb is to arrive two hours before you flight time. This gives you time to get through security even if there is a hitch. Nine out of ten times there won't be so you'll have time to catch a cup of coffee or a meal. But you'll be glad for the little extra time when you do run into a delay. Actually, this is the same advice I gave prior to 9-11.

When you go through the metal detector expect security to pay a little more attention than they did in the past. Things like scissors or a Swiss Army knife will be confiscated. Also expect that you will be "wanded" by a hand held metal detector. Random passengers are pulled out of line either at the metal detectors or at the gate before boarding for a closer look. It's not personal so don't be offended. Those pulled aside will have their bags opened and inspected and may be patted down.

You'll need to have a photo ID on you at all times. Most states now have photo driver's licenses. If yours does not, you can use your passport. Corporate IDs or any type of ID not issued by the government will not be accepted. Keep your ID handy as you will be asked to show it again before boarding.

It' worth checking out the FAA's new travel guidelines which are updated periodically. It's also worth calling the airline the day before your flight to see if there are any delays specific to the airport you'll be departing from.

Your Equipment
Despite the fears of some photographers the camera has not yet been classified as a deadly weapon. Having camera equipment in your carry-on bag won't raise any eyebrows. After polling a number of photographers who've traveled recently, a few had their bags checked but only one had been asked to demonstrate that his cameras were working (he had to demonstrate this for each body, lens, and flash). I would consider that a rare case.

Those of you who carry tool kits in your camera bag beware. If there is anything in your toolkit that could be considered a weapon you will have to place it in your checked baggage. This includes the above-mentioned Swiss Army knife, Leatherman style tools, screwdrivers, knives, etc. 

A check of major airlines provided a unanimous recommendation that tripods be placed in your checked baggage. Bats, golf clubs, ski poles, etc. are all banned as carry-on items since 9-11. Though tripods don't officially appear on the banned list, everyone I talked to felt there was a pretty good chance that security at the gate would bar you from taking a tripod on as it could be used as a weapon. So it's best to play it safe and check your tripod. Mine fits nicely in a suitcase with the head removed.

We've also received questions about whether photo backpacks present a problem. The answer is no. As long as the backpack meets the normal carry-on restrictions for size there should be no problem.

Digital shooters have an advantage here. Memory cards and digital cameras are unaffected by x-rays. You can run your equipment through without worry.

For film shooters, remember to unload any film from your camera body(s) prior to running them through security. This will prevent accidental fogging of high speed films by x-rays, or the accidental exposure of film due to security opening the back of your camera.

If you decide to check your equipment rather than carry it with you make sure you purchase a high quality hard case thatís both shock resistant and waterproof. It also needs to be lockable with a padlock. Don't plaster it with logos or stickers that would indicate that the box is filled with camera equipment. Don't put your equipment in your suitcase unless you want to unpack assorted camera parts or find your gear has been stolen.

X-rays and High Speed Film
Unfortunately security guards will tell you anything to keep the lines moving in a crowded airport. The truth is that x-rays can fog any unexposed film ISO 1000 or faster (1000, 1600, 3200, etc.). X-ray effects are also cumulative. Run that 800 speed film through once and you won't have a problem. Run that same roll through six times on consecutive trips and you're playing Russian roulette.

Forget about hand checks. They are a thing of the past. I spoke with photographers who had come through Charlotte, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas recently. ALL were refused hand checks for their film. One photographer suggested using lead lined pouches for all of his high-speed film. His logic being that the x-ray scanners at the gate raised a red flag with security, causing his bag to be pulled and hand inspected. The delay he felt was worth it so he could hand-carry his high-speed film. If you've already been thinking about this one I would NOT recommend this approach. First the inspection could turn into a half hour or forty minute detailed inspection of your bag and person. Not to mention the fact that if security personnel are busy with you, they may miss someone who SHOULD be checked out.

Any lower speed film you are carrying should be removed from its cardboard boxes and stored only its plastic canister. These canisters should in turn be kept in a see through film pouch. This makes it easier for security to examine your film.

Never put undeveloped film (exposed or unexposed) in checked baggage. High-powered X-Ray machines for checked baggage are becoming more common and the pace at which they are being installed has increased since 9-11. They 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 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.

A good source of information on x-ray damage, and one you should definitely check out if you think your film has been exposed to x-rays, is Kodak technical information bulletin 5201. This bulletin has a lot of background information regarding x-rays and film as well as sample images of both photos and film that have been exposed to x-rays. You can read it by clicking here

TIB5201 also points out that under FAA regulations you have the right to request a hand inspection of any photosensitive materials (film). Those rights are spelled out in FAA Regulation 108.17 Airplane Operator Security. If you want to know your rights you can read the regulation by clicking here. However, as stated above, it has been our experience that security at airports is routinely denying hand checks. So regardless of what the regulations say I wouldn't count on getting a hand check no matter how much you insist.

Shipping Your Film or Memory Cards
An alternative to worrying about x-rays and carrying your film is to ship it ahead to your hotel via a shipping company. Fed-Ex indicated that they don't x-ray packages and or do anything to packages that could hurt film. However they don't recommend shipping magnetic media (such as memory cards).  UPS also indicated that they do not x-ray packages within the U.S. If you are shipping film ahead, it is important that you notify the front desk in advance that you are doing so. If the hotel has a computer, ask them to make a note that you will be shipping a package ahead in their computer so everyone gets the message. Address the package to "Joe Smith, checking in on 2/23/2002". This helps to avoid confusion preventing the front desk from trying to match the package to guests currently at the hotel. 

When shipping overseas however all bets are off as regulations and inspections vary from country to country, and some countries may not reveal whether they x-ray packages or not. To find out in advance check with FedEx at 1-800-463-3339 (within the US) or UPS at 1-800-782-7892 (within the US). Both companies recommend you check their Web sites for contact information outside the US at or

Neither company recommended special labeling for film. But special labeling is recommended when shipping memory cards. It's recommended they be wrapped in bubble wrap, boxed, and labeled as containing magnetic media so they can be kept away from magnetic fields. 

DO NOT USE THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE TO SHIP FILM. To quote directly from a Fuji technical bulletin "As of October 27th , the USPS (U.S. Postal Service) has begun purchasing electron beam scanning equipment for use in sterilizing mail and eliminating any possible exposure to anthrax. This electron beam technology will fully expose undeveloped film as if it were exposed to sunlight."

Not the End of the World
Now that we know the new rules of the road, we find they're really not all that bad. The trick up until now has been figuring out what those new rules were.

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