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Airport anxiety, real and imagined (11/19/2006)
By Tom Hirsch
If you'll be traveling by air, have your camera ready at the airport because there are many wonderful pictures to be taken while you're waiting to board your plane. You can get some shots of planes taking off and landing, pictures of various activities on the runway, or candids of friends, family, or fellow passengers. Before boarding the plane, though, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to make your trip a more pleasant experience for you, and a safer journey for your camera equipment.

First of all, respect the privacy of other passengers. If you see an interesting scene that you think is worthy of a picture, for example a mother holding a baby in her arms, ask the mother if she would mind being photographed. If she puts up the slightest hesitation, thank her anyway and move on.

To better your chances of getting the picture you want, it might be worth your while to strike up a conversation with the mother ("My, what a cute baby," or "Your child is sure well behaved," might do it for starters). In most cases, people waiting at terminals have time on their hands for conversation, and the setting is usually a nonthreatening one. Chances are good that you'll be able to take a few grab shots, and this is one way of passing the time.

When packing for a trip, never put any of your camera stuff in luggage that will be checked onto the plane. There are two very good reasons for this. For one thing, all checked baggage is X-rayed, and X-rays that are used to examine ticketed luggage are generally powerful enough to fog film, and I have read that they might also affect digital memory cards. The second reason is the possibility of your luggage being misdirected to another airport or stolen from the baggage section, either at your point of departure or your destination.

What about passengers with camera equipment going through the security check? Should film be hand-inspected in order to prevent fogging, or is it safe to let the film be X-rayed? In the past there was no question; X-rays could definitely fog film (I know from personal experience). In recent years, though, the X-ray dosage has been reduced. For assurance, extensive tests have been conducted using hundreds of rolls of film with film speeds ranging from ISO 100 to ISO 3200. Some of these rolls were passed through X-ray machines up to 100 times with slight fog showing up on only the fastest films.

Articles in various photo magazines have examined the X-ray issue very thoroughly. They all agree that airport gate X-ray machines do not damage film. That's good enough for me. The exception is foreign terminals because many of them use higher doses of X-ray than is used in the United States. Regardless of the airport, domestic or foreign, X-ray machines at the gates have no effect on digital memory cards.

Okay, the X-ray question is settled. But are there any real dangers to be aware of in an airport terminal? There certainly are! If you're alone, never, ever put your camera case down. Keep the strap over your shoulder at all times. It's too easy to leave your seat and go two or three rows away to pick up a discarded newspaper. Maybe your camera stuff is insured, but that won't give you all those great pictures you would have taken.

Although it may be uncomfortable, take your camera gear with you if you need to use the restroom. Don't say to an honest-looking stranger, "Pardon me, but would you please watch my stuff so another stranger doesn't steal it?"

Really, when traveling, the best camera insurance to take is precaution. 


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