How to travel without ruining your film

One constant in our globalized world is the love for travel. And if you actually want to do something with your vacation snaps (other than post them on your Facebook story, which no one will see or remember), you’ll probably be shooting film.

Whether you’re interested in taking some professional landscape or street photos in another world, or you’re just taking some vacation snaps, film is by far the best way to really get the most out of your photos. Drop the rolls off at the lab when you get home, and two weeks later you’ll get to relive every moment worth capturing.

But film emulsions are sensitive to so many parts of our environment that it’s a wonder film even exists on the massive scales that it has been created. Travelling with film is no vacation. But here’s what to do when you absolutely don’t want to leave your film camera behind.

Keep the film you want to hand check in an accessible place on luggage like this. Photo by Josh Sorenson on Unsplash.

Hand check your film at the airport

The first and second rules of film club is that you don’t expose it to x-rays. These rays will penetrate the camera and leave some unfixable wavy density lines and fog across the film where they excite the electrons in the film emulsion. It’s not pretty — unless you’re really into lo-fi photography and random effects.

Many airports use x-ray machines that they suggest won’t hurt film under ISO 800. That said, some of the newer CT Scanning machines in Europe and North America will harm film, no matter what ISO it is.

So the easiest way to make sure your film comes through the airport unharmed is to nicely ask the agents to hand check it. Many security personnel are nice people and will hand check it for you no questions asked. But if it’s a busy, frustrating day, they may not be all that happy to oblige your request.

The best thing you can do is to make the film as easy for them to check as possible. I personally keep mine in a plastic case like this one on Amazon. That allows them to quickly swab each roll to check for drug powders, and physically see the film. Other people do suggest bringing film in a clear plastic bag, which can work if you have a lot of film. But if it’s hard for them to search through the rolls, they’ll likely just send it through the x-ray machines instead of bothering.

These cases on Amazon can fit 10 rolls of 35mm, or 8 rolls of 120. It’s not much, but it should be enough to get you through most of your vacation. Personally, I like to keep the expensive and high ISO films in this case for protection, and then run my cheap Kodak Gold, Colorplus, and Pro Image 100 film stocks through the machine to reduce the hassle. I’ve processed a number of low ISO rolls that have gone through those scanners, and so far haven’t noticed any issues.

Lead pouches lead to angry TSA agents 

I’ve read a few people mentioning the use of lead bags, and that is by far the worst idea. TSA agents have one purpose in life: snooping through your private belongings making sure you’re not smuggling drugs. 

If you try to hide something from the TSA agents — like hiding the good snacks from your nosy brother — they’re going to get suspicious and send it through that machine a second time, but with more power. And if they can’t see through it after that, they’ll just empty the bag and send it through the scanner again.

If it’s a busy airport, and you’re trying to sneak something past them, they’re going to go the extra mile to make sure your images come back fogged as heck. So the best thing you can do is give them the film outside of its packaging in an easy-to-manage bag or case. 

Keep your film out of checked baggage

It might seem like the best way to reduce the hassle of travelling with film is to place your film with your checked luggage. But those scanners behind the scenes are actually far more powerful.

Those scanners have to pierce through larger amounts of luggage quicker than the smaller bags going through security. So the easy way to do that? Blast it with a carcinogenic load of x-rays.

This car is not a place to store your film. Don’t do it. Photo thanks to Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

Don’t leave your film in a hot car

Rule number one about film: if your baby wouldn’t like those conditions, your film won’t likely, either. The exception to this rule is, of course, in the fridge or freezer. But it’s still a good rule to follow. 

Hot cars will ruin your film. Color film will suffer if stored above 86°F (30°C) for more than 8 hours. But gelatin in general melts at 95°F (35°C). So storing it above that temperature for any amount of time could result in a gooey, unusable mess. 

If it’s in your bag or camera for a walk around town when it’s hotter than 95°F, that film should be okay. But don’t leave it out in the sun. 

The best films for travelling to hot and humid climates

Kodak and Fuji both have films that they don’t really sell in other photography markets. For Fuji, that might just be because they want to keep the Americans interested. But for Kodak, it’s just because their film doesn’t do well in hot and humid environments.

So Kodak actually created a film stock that would be able to withstand hot and humid climates far better than regular films. This one is called Kodak Pro Image 100, and it is finally available in the US by consumer demand.

Kodak Pro Image 100 is saturated like Kodak Gold and Ultramax, but in a cheap ISO 100 package, making it a fantastic film for everyday shooting — even if you’re not travelling to the Caribbean or South East Asia. This one also benefits from being safe in the x-ray machines due to its low ISO.

Hotel fridges can ruin your film

Mini fridges in hotels are not to be trusted. Especially the mini fridges with freezer compartments tend to have horrendous control over humidity. This can result in some ice buildup on the sides. When the temperature increases, that can melt all over your film, leaving you with a hand full of soupy rolls.

The best method to store film in a hotel minifridge is in a plastic bag, or inside of the film cases mentioned above. It’s not the most glamorous, but at least it’ll protect your film.

The other alternative is to keep the film out of the fridge altogether. Black and white film doesn’t need to be kept in the fridge at all, and color film can last up to 6 months without refrigeration.

When in doubt, keep it out of it the mini fridge.

This store doesn’t sell film. But there will be other stores that do sell film wherever you’re travelling — unless you’re going to the Faroe Islands or Antarctica. Photo thanks to Forencia Viadana on Unsplash

Buy your film fresh at the location

Film photographers tend to have a bad habit of hoarding film. I get that its tempting to purchase it in bulk when film goes on sale, or is being discontinued. But that means nothing if the rolls get ruined with age or in transport.

The best way to keep your film fresh is to buy it fresh. And when you’re on vacation in another country or region of the world, there’s likely to be some new films that you’ve never been able to try before. For example, Orwo and Agfa in Europe, or some of Fuji’s premium stocks in Asia.

Even though you’ll still have to find a way to bring the film back home with you, at least you’ll only be able to run into trouble once. But if you’re around some reputable labs, you can also get your film developed locally and sent back home in the mail.

Minimize your camera gear to a single format

I know this is going to be heart breaking for a lot of you. But you can’t bring all of your cameras if you want to get the most out of your vacation.

Sure, I’ve been tempted to forgo everything but clean underwear to squeeze a couple extra lenses in. But being able to enjoy your trip is much more important than squeezing in a tilt shift lens incase you decide to get artsy for a single shot.

And on vacation, something is always bound to go wrong. And you’ll feel much better if you only lose a single camera rather than your entire collection.

Carrying around all of that gear is a burden, and it won’t help you take better photos. If I’m going to take some serious digital photos on my trip, then I’ll only bring my Canon EOS 630, which allows me to share lenses between systems. If it’s a solo trip, I might just take my fully manual Pentax S3 and three lenses since they are lightweight, and still punch well above their price point.

Another great option is to purchase a reusable camera like the Ilford Sprite 35-II. This camera is extremely fun and easy to use. The camera also comes with a flash, ensuring that you’re always able to get shots exposed correctly. When travelling with friends, a camera like the Ilford Sprite 35-II is likely to be the camera that produces your favorite photos. Read over here to see my full review of this camera.

Keep it simple, because that extra gear will not spark joy while climbing a mountain for sunrise.

Be nice to security people, be prepared, pack light, don’t leave your film unprotected in a hotel fridge and everything will be okay. Photo thanks to Andrew Gwizdowski on Unsplash.

Final thoughts

Travelling with film isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. The magic of film is that the images always have a fun, and more real aesthetic than digital photography. There’s nothing better than getting those shots back from the lab and reliving all of your memories.

The film photos are usually my favorite, because it’s so forgiving. The photos don’t have to be clinically sharp to be good. And you’ll also have the option of making physical prints, which are much more fun to show your friends and family than digital files on a mobile phone.

Do you have any tips and tricks that have helped you when travelling in foreign countries? Let me know in the comments below!

By Daren

Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.

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