On our trip to Europe this year, I didn’t realize until it was too late that the Indianapolis airport has installed CT scanners in security. My backpack went through with ten rolls of film in a plastic box, plus one roll already in a camera.

Conventional wisdom is that a CT scanner will ruin your film, but that the older X-ray scanners generally won’t.

Yet only the images already on the takeup spool in the camera were ruined. The rest of the film — three rolls of Fujicolor 200 and eight of Kodak T-Max 100 — turned out fine.

Here’s what one of the ruined images looks like. It came out of my Reto Ultra Wide and Slim.

Perhaps the metal 35mm canisters provided some protection to the film inside. I don’t know. I’m just glad the rest of my images worked out. Here’s another image from the Reto UWS on Fujicolor 200. This is Sans-Souci, a summer house of Frederick the Great, in Potsdam, Germany.

It’s possible that the CT scanners did degrade this film somewhat, but not so much that normal exposure and development wouldn’t produce good results.

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25 responses to “Are airport CT scanners as bad for your film as everyone fears?”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Even old X-ray machines would wreck film, as different airports had them set at different strengths. There used to be a manufacturer that made lead lined bags to transport film, but you always had to open them up for the tech to hand check them anyway. At the dawn of all this security, I was told that you could request a hand check, and they would have to do it, BUT, we ran into problems in Europe, where in many airports, they refused to do it, and the team I traveled with were told many places, that we could either send the bricks of film through the scanner, or they would confiscate them. Lest we think that the Europeans are wildly more professional than we are, and have their stuff together; our experience as professional photographers trying to do assignments in Europe was met by really lackadaisical and hugely undertrained security people that always gave off the “vibe” that they couldn’t be bothered, and didn’t seem that professional at all! They all seemed like disaffected american high school students working at a discount store! Europe also had wildly varying settings on their machines. You could have your film scanned in London, and it would be OK, and in Greece, and it’d be all f’d up! My pals that worked on docs, were totally happy not only when they could stop carrying 16mm film around, but when they could stop using tape and the storage media became solid state.

    1. Johnny Martyr Avatar

      This is interesting – the only airport that has given me trouble internationally was Punta Cana in the DR. Twice, they refused hand checks for me but both times I used 3200 film pushed to 6400 and it came out fine. I hear Heathrow refuses checks. I had no trouble in Australia years ago and recently through France and Italy, they were happy to hand check. I’ve traveled alot through the States with issues only at Dulles once. I still haven’t seen a CT scanner though!

  2. Kosmo Foto Avatar

    Useful real-world results!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hard-hitting investigative journalism from Down the Road! 🤪

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    BTW, the consensus seems to be that even one pass through a CT scanner will degrade, but that unexposed film seems to degrade less than exposed film? Never have your film scanned, but most certainly not after exposure! I’ve seen numerous online reports of tests run where they scanned both exposed and unexposed film, and the previously exposed film show far more destruction, whereas the unexposed film, after post scan use, just shows additional granularity and contrast changes.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t worry about the X-ray scanners at all. Maybe I’m too cavalier. But clearly one pass through the CT scanners didn’t noticeably degrade my film, thank goodness.

  4. Johnny Martyr Avatar

    Hope you enjoyed your trip, Bill! Glad you brought some film and had good results for the most part. I decided to leave a roll of Tri-X in my M6 through Iceland in January and surprisingly with just one pass, many of the last photos on the roll were damaged with horizontal banding. Yet I’ve been through Punta Cana with TMAX P3200 without a handcheck and without issues. I still have yet to experience a CT scanner – they don’t seem common yet. But for me, I always recommend requesting a hand check on all film, no matter the ISO but also remaining calm if someone refuses it. With the goal being to get as few passes as possible. Anyway, looking forward to more of your Europe photos!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      If I had noticed the CT scanner ahead I would have had my film hand checked for sure! I didn’t look, because my local airport has always had X-ray scanners. I didn’t expect that to change! We had a terrific time in Europe and more photos are to come.

  5. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Being easily amused as I am, I find the damaged shot interesting!
    As a bit of an experiment, I recently brought a camera with a partially exposed roll of film in it through the airport scanner with no apparent damage or degradation of the film.
    To be honest, I have no idea what kind of scanner it was, but I was hopeful because there were signs posted that said their scanners only damage very fast films. My film was very slow, ISO 20.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I hear that the slower films are more resistant to the rays. I wonder if ISO 800 film would have been okay through the CT scanner like my 100 was.

      1. Keith Avatar

        I went to Ireland several years ago, and my 200 speed film was fine. The 800 was zapped, and none of the pictures were usable.

  6. Joe from the Resurrected Camera Avatar

    Yikes, when it’s bad, it’s bad! I’m firmly in the camp of Take-no-chances. It’s hand-inspection or nothing for me!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’d be nice to know which airports don’t hand check then, so you know to just go digital on that trip.

  7. David S Elder Avatar
    David S Elder

    Thank you so much for the warning! I remember always trying to hold my film out from the X-ray machines & the
    [Pre-TSA] security always said it was ok… Well Tri-X in plastic not so good.
    Now the proud owner of 3 Nikon Film Cameras, the urge to try again is strong.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I predict you’ll have a good time if you do try again!

  8. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

    Jim, might be a good idea to include an open source image of a CT scanner for those of us who don’t travel often. I like the effect on your first image and glad the rest was safe.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s simple enough for folks to just Google “airport CT scanner.” They are tubular and usually white, while X-ray machines tend to be big metal boxes

      1. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

        Yes, I suppose so. That description was even more helpful.

  9. Jim Graves Avatar
    Jim Graves

    I think they only way to travel with film these days is buy it at your destination and if possible and have it developed before you leave.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I thought about doing that. I even Googled “buy film in Berlin” before we left. But the places to do that were not convenient to where we were going, and we weren’t going to be there long enough to necessarily have them processed and scanned in time.

  10. Reinhold Avatar

    Just to mention, at the Airport in Munich (MUC) they refused to hand check already in 2022. I‘m not keen in ruining my film, so when flying, I‘ll go digital only.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d heard that Munich won’t hand check anymore. If we come back to Germany we’ll visit Bavaria, so agreed, that’s a good trip to go all digital.

  11. Steve Rosenblum Avatar
    Steve Rosenblum

    In the USA the policy of the TSA is to hand check film when asked. They state that on their website. Obviously, asking politely and having your film out of boxes and in a clear plastic bag helps. The decision is still up to them, but, I haven’t had any problem getting film hand checked in US airports in recent years. In the past I have been refused a couple of times in Europe and Asia. I suspect that much of the problem was due to my lack of fluency in their languages.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Helpful to know – thank you!!

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