How to travel with film (and not risk ruining your photos)

The world was a much simpler place before the digital revolution. Back in the film photography days, there were rarely any circumstances where a photographer would have to deal with X-Rays, CT Scanners, or any other kind of cosmic rays that could damage film.

But now that 2022 is fast approaching, and the borders are beginning to open, there will be a large number of people bringing their film across borders.

Whether you’re taking professional photos or just vacation snapshots, you’ll likely have a couple rolls of exposed or unexposed film in your bag. Part of the magic comes after you arrive home and drop the newly exposed film off at the lab. A week later, you get to relive all of your memories once again.

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. Traveling 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.

1. Hand check your film at the airport

The first and second rules of film club is that you don’t expose film to x-rays. These rays will penetrate your rolls of film and even film cameras. If the film is exposed to a powerful x-ray machine, the images may come back from the film lab with some unfixable wavy density lines and fog across the film. It’s not a pretty look — 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. But many airports in Europe and North America are beginning to adopt new CT Scanners. Unless your film goes through a hand inspection, the new CT scanners will damage unprocessed film.

So the easiest way to make sure your film comes through the airport unharmed is to nicely ask the TSA agents or airport security to give the film a hand inspection. Many security personnel 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 the film in a clear plastic bag, which can work if you have a lot of film. But if it’s hard for TSA agents to search through the rolls, they’ll likely just send it through the x-ray machines instead of bothering.

These cool metal cases on Amazon can fit 10 rolls of 35mm or 8 rolls of 120. It’s not much, but having a couple of these will be enough to get through a good chunk 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, Color Plus, 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 again with more x-ray 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. 

2. Keep your film out of checked baggage

It might seem like the best way to reduce the hassle of traveling with film is to place it inside your checked luggage. But the scanners snooping looking through checked baggage are actually far more powerful than the ones that scan your carry-on bags.

Those scanners have to pierce through larger luggage quicker than the smaller carry-on bags you take with you. They are also designed to contend with laptops, metal containers, bottles of wine, and other electronics that you have to remove from your carry-on bag.

The easiest way for them to see what’s happening is to use either new fangled CT scanners or the extra powerful x-rays. The Transportation Security Administration doesn’t mess around when it comes to finding liquids over 1L.

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

3. Don’t leave your film in a hot car

Rule number three about traveling with photographic film: if you wouldn’t leave a dog or a baby in those conditions, your film won’t like it 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 film. Color film will suffer if stored above 86°F (30°C) for more than 8 hours. But gelatin (the material that holds the image-forming silver) melts at 95°F (35°C). So storing it above that temperature for any amount of time could ruin your film.

The film inside your camera will usually be okay when you’re walking around for the day in hot weather. But leaving rolls of unprocessed film in the hot car is not a good idea.

If you’re going out for the day, make sure to bring only the amount of film that you need with you. I usually carry small film boxes that’ll hold just the right amount of film for a day or two, so that I can leave the rest of it behind in the cool lodging.

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 climates, like in South East Asia.

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 traveling to the Caribbean or South East Asia. This one also benefits from being safe in traditional x-ray scanners due to its low ISO.

4. Hotel fridges can ruin your film

As much as possible, I try to keep all my film in the most stable temperature possible when I’m on vacation. If there isn’t any air conditioning, or if the room is subject to wild temperature changes, then you may want to resort to using the fridge.

Be beware: 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 ziplock 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 films don’t need to be kept in the fridge at all, and color-negative films can last up to 6 months without refrigeration.

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

5. Buy your film fresh at the location

Film photographers tend to have a bad habit of hoarding film. I get that it’s tempting to purchase film in bulk when film goes on sale, before price hikes, or if a certain stock 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.

Shooting film originating from other countries can be an absolute blast, and can even add to the story of your vacation.

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 with your undeveloped film in one direction rather than two.

The other option is to have your exposed film developed at a local lab. Then you can mail the developed film back home, or safely bring it in your carry-on through the x-ray machines on the way home.

6. Develop your exposed film on location

Once film is developed, x-rays and CT scans won’t be able to harm them anymore. So the best thing you can do when you travel with film is to have it processed in the country that you are traveling to.

Most places in the world have labs where you can buy and develop film. Although it is always good to do a little bit of research before traveling.

For example, some places in Eastern Europe won’t have a reliable supply of medium format film. And if you can’t find the film format you want to shoot, you also won’t likely find a place to have it processed either. In this case, the only way forward is to bring some film with you or switch to 35mm for the trip.

The processed film can either be mailed home in bulk or left in a safe place in your luggage. At this point, it won’t matter if the negatives go in your carry-on or underneath the plane. Airport security won’t bother it in the slightest.

7. Bring the smallest possible number of film cameras

I know this is going to be heartbreaking 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 of extra lenses in. But being able to enjoy your trip is much more important than squeezing in a tilt-shift lens just in case 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. Plus, the TSA agents hand-checking film may be less willing to do a hand inspection if you have a variety of different film cameras and formats.

In the end, when you have some precious rolls of exposed film in your hand, it’s always better to make their job as easy as possible to avoid having airport security take the easy road by sending your film through the x-ray machine.

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.

35mm is better than medium format when traveling with film

Many travelers going to new locations will want to use their favorite cameras on vacation. And I totally understand the desire to bring your Hasselblad or Pentax 67 to the other side of the world.

But there are a number of reasons why you should leave the medium format beast at home.

  1. larger film cameras attract more attention. When you’re a tourist, you already stick out to the locals. But carrying around a large, shiny, obvious camera makes you stick out that much more. The last thing you want is to lose your most precious camera on the trip of a lifetime — where you are the least likely to get it back.
  2. Medium format cameras are also more fragile than 35mm. If you have a medium format camera, either you spent a lot of money on it to get one that was in really good condition, or it has been to the repair shop once or twice before. If you’re on vacation, there likely won’t be enough time to get your camera repaired if something goes wrong.
  3. Medium format film is harder to find. I mentioned this one above, but in some parts of the world, you will have trouble finding medium format film. But because 35mm is the most popular and affordable film, it is readily available almost everywhere in the world. So long as you aren’t going to Antarctica, Greenland, or the Faroe Islands, you should be able to find a good amount of places to purchase and process film.
  4. You can pack more 35mm lenses and films than medium format. 35mm cameras and gear are way smaller than medium format film cameras. They are also far lighter weight, making them ideal companions when fighting the weight and baggage size limits of discount airlines.

If those aren’t enough reasons to only bring a 35mm camera, I don’t know what else can convince you. But even knowing this, I still am going to be tempted to bring my Hasselblad overseas.

The fact is, if you’re a professional photographer, medium format film might just be required. If you’re going to make a lot of money off of these photographs and you’ve built your style around a certain film look, a certain lens, then there is nothing that can stop you from bringing your camera and shooting film the way you do back home.

But as a general rule, you will always be better served by bringing a single small film camera with a couple of small lenses than you will be with a large, heavy, and fragile medium format camera.

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 traveling 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.

Leave a Comment