Sunday, March 20, 2016

the x-ray specialist



ok. so, i'm waiting in line at the airport, about to go through security, shoes off, no belt, and a lead bag full of film in my hands.
"could you check this by hand please?"
suspicion now floats over me, all the agents turn around to take a look at me.
"what is it?"
"film" i say
"ok. you can put it through, the machine doesn't affect film."
"this is high speed film." i lie.
"anything under 800 iso is fine."
"well, this is 4000."
"it's written 400 on it. hp5 400."
"i shot it at 4000 iso."
i have no problem lying about film speed when it's a matter of preservation. anyway, someone takes my lead bag, i go through the x-ray, so do my cameras, while keeping an eye on my film bag. once, an agent took 3 rolls out of my sight for a moment, and somehow these very 3 rolls got fogged.
so now i empty the rolls of film into a tray, and the hand inspection begins. it's pretty quick actually. a swap for explosives and another for drugs. i have to separate film from camera, much like gun and bullets, because some people (no comments) do carry guns and ammunition in planes... just take a look at the lunacy on tsa instagram.
"you're clear!" i'm told.
i put the film back in the lead bag, on on i go.
but, before i go, the security guy who inspected my film says:
"it doesn't even affect film, you know, you really don't have to do that."
"well, actually, it does."
"you know, i've been an x-ray specialist for 15 years, trust me, it doesn't do anything to film..."
so i pulled rank on him.
"i've been a photo lab technician for 25 years, trust me, it does. it fogs it. it leaves a continuous hyperbola throughout the length of the roll."
he turns around and mutters "impossible."
quick reminder: this is taking place at an airport security check point, i'm not there to win an argument, i just want to get on the plane, or home.
"i just want to be safe."
honestly, i don't know how one trains for the effects of x-rays on silver halides, but if i was testing, i would put a roll through, develop it, look at it and say: "oh yes, x-rays fog film."
now, what i'd like to know is, who came up with x-rays being safe for film 800 iso and less? it makes absolutely no sense, it's completely arbitrary. everyone knows high energy photons, with a wavelength similar to atoms, and emitted by electrons, will photoabsorb the radiated -bluish if we could see it- light.  x-rays have a much shorter wavelength than visible light, therefore the silver crystals trapped in gelatin are bombarded intermittently by waves much shorter they are used to. i'm not making this up, here's a quote from kodak: " the orientation of the fog stripe depends on the orientation of the film relative to the x-ray beam. the banding may be linear or wavy and can run lengthwise or horizontally on the film. it can also undulate, depending on the combination of the angle of exposure and the multiple laps of film on the roll." i shoot 120 film, so the stripe runs as a very tight wave, almost vertical across the width. 35 mm film will run a much longer wave along the length of the roll.
i'm not trying to change, or even improve, the situation, i just want to travel and shoot film. so i smile and i move on. i don't care what the customs agent thinks anymore. the good part is that in the last 3 years or so, i've had no problem having my film inspected by hand. but, what if you do get your film x-rayed and you want to print it?
fogged film is bullet-proof -thick- meaning pretty much all halides on every layer of the emulsion have been darkened. there is no toe region on this sensitometric curve. flatness blurs the line between shadows and highlights. plus, when that happens, the grain structure become more apparent. you got yourself a flat piece of film, you compensate by adding contrast, which gives you more grain. not good in most situations. in this case, split filtration comes in handy. first you expose the grays, the general patterns of the image, diffusing clumps of grains for a smoother feel, and then, zap, just an accent of pure black to define the said patterns. i close down the f-stop for the high contrast and open up for the low, obviously, every little bit helps. a 90/10 ratio, perhaps 80 % low, 20 high, it varies with every image.
my point is you can't just casually print x-ray fogged film. once i was so frustrated with the whole experience i told them to throw away my film if they must x-ray it, because i wouldn't be able to use it anyway. yaddi yaddi yadda, we agreed to disagree, and somehow, since that day, no problem to hand check photographic film. they do fingerprint me every time though...
now, in the chance you like your film as it gets through airport x-ray scanners, i can help you replicate that look without the hassle of going through customs at an airport. i 'discovered' that trick in an unfortunate event; you simply leave your film in the developer after regular development, as if you forgot it somehow, retrieve it a few hours later and continue through the fix. i only did this once, but i'll never forget the look of it.
ps: no, it wasn't my film.

6 comments:

George Staniland said...

Awesome article. I am a young photographer and have travelled with film a few times now but i am still unsure of the effects of x-ray machines on my film, i sort of intermittently asked that my film be hand checked. I have not see any obvious examples of damage in my scans though

laurent girard said...

hey george, one thing you can do is check the film base, side by side comparison of rolls you know didn't get x-rayed and others you think have. the darker the film base the more fogged the film...

Ballantine said...

Excellent information and requesting the film to be hand checked can certainly help eliminate issues - and that type of banter.

Paul Raphaelson said...

The trouble is if you shoot sheet film. If it's in a 4x5 box, they want to open it. If it's in holders, there's the chance (this only happened to me once, but it was enough) that they'll figure out the dark slides and dutifully pull them open to look inside.

I always shot ISO 50 black and white, and fortunately found no noticeable fog from 2 or 4 passes through the x-ray machines. I decided it was safer than handing my holders to the gorillas.

But that last part is an issue ... how many times through the machine? Like any exposure it's cumulative. On a long complicated trip with lots of flights you could face real problems.

sebastianmejiaphoto said...

Great article! I had a brunch of color 400 iso film fogged by x-rays. Does anyone know a way to clear the base of the film so that I can at least use it for black and white?

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