What Not to Bring through Airport Security

Home-made bounce card on flash.

Home-made bounce card on flash.

From the Editor:  We recently started posting a series of travel tips about making the life of the traveling photographer smoother and easier.  In this installment, F. M. Kearney’s inner MacGyver inventiveness comes back to bite him. If you have a favorite tip, share it with us! Send it to publications@nanpa.org and we’ll post it in a future article.

Story and photographs by F. M. Kearney

Life can sometimes be a challenge. Much of it is beyond our control, but every now and then, you can do things to make the journey a little easier. Whenever possible, I try to streamline repetitive tasks. For instance, I always keep a self-addressed, stick-on label in my wallet in the event I need to fill out a form or have something delivered. Each time I hand one over, people marvel at my ingenuity in quickly getting through what could otherwise be a time-consuming process. I see it more as common sense. If I know there’s a high likelihood that I might need something shipped or delivered, why would I want to waste time by repeatedly writing out my name and address on one of their blank labels?

This is nothing new. People come up with their own ingenious ways to make their lives easier all the time. When it comes to photography, I try to channel this ingenuity into creativity. I’ve made several of my own backdrops when I couldn’t find anything available commercially that suited my specific needs. I’ve attached Velcro strips to the side of my camera to hold my wireless Shutterboss when I need to remove it from the hotshoe in order to attach a flash.

Years ago, I worked as a photojournalist. This was back in the days of film, when proper indoor lighting wasn’t that easy to achieve. The quality of high-speed films was nowhere near as good as the results obtained by today’s digital cameras, even when set to higher ISO’s. A flash was definitely a must and, to avoid that harsh, direct flash look, most photographers would use bounce cards to soften the light. Some would hold a loose piece of white paper over the flash, while others, in a pinch, would simply use their own hand. The most convenient way was to use a flash with a built-in card. I used a Vivitar 285 flash, which didn’t have a built-in bounce card. It was just as well, because I found that the surface area of most built-in cards was generally too small to bounce a sufficient amount of light onto the subject. So, I decided to build my own (larger) bounce card out of several pieces of white cardboard. I attached it to the top of my flash with a couple of thick rubber bands. The image at the top of this article is the actual system I used back in the day.

This set-up worked like a charm. The card was big enough to remove considerably more shadows than any built-in card, yet small enough to fit comfortably in my camera bag. It was a sturdy card and I used it for many years. I even brought it with me when I went to a family reunion in Raleigh, NC.

I may know how to get through a supermarket quickly, but getting through airport security is another matter (and this was before the even stricter, post “9/11” rules were in effect). Frequent flyers knew all the “tricks of the trade” to speed this process up, but I didn’t fly that often. What I did know, however, was not to send my film through the X-ray machine. I had placed several rolls in a clear plastic bag and requested a hand-inspection. They refused, at first, stating that everything had to go through the machine. I explained to them that I was carrying photographic film and it could be damaged by the X-rays. Reluctantly, they eventually agreed to my “special” request, and I handed one of the agents my film. I then placed my camera bag on the belt and sent it through the machine. For some reason, it seemed to be taking an extra-long time to come through. Several agents were intensely studying something on the screen. When it finally came out, I was directed to go to another area on the side of the room. Somehow, I didn’t think it was because they wanted to give me their “Customer of the Month” award.

A stern-looking female agent had me open my camera bag and she proceeded to meticulously scrutinize each piece of equipment. She picked up the camera to make sure it was real. She removed the front and rear lens caps of every lens. When she unzipped the side pocket, it was like she hit pay dirt.

“What’s THIS!?,” she demanded, while holding up my home-made bounce card.

Immediately, everything became crystal clear to me. The thing that had everyone so concerned wasn’t the card itself, but what I had attached to the back of it.

Back of the bounce card.

Back of the bounce card.

The reason my card was so sturdy was because I had taped a piece of a wire coat hanger to the back of it. For people who don’t know anything about photography, this was basically a suspicious-looking home-made device – concealing an even more suspicious-looking wire!

At this point, I was pretty much resigned to the assumption that they weren’t going to let me get anywhere near a plane. I was trying to calculate how long it would take to get to Raleigh by Amtrak – provided that I wasn’t taken into custody first.

To avoid having to take the card apart, I explained that the “suspicious device” was nothing more than a harmless wire hanger. I then launched into an impromptu photography lesson. I attached the card to my flash and illustrated how it redirects the light in order to produce a more pleasing-looking photo. Apparently, she was satisfied with my explanation, and I was eventually allowed to board my flight.

I found it ironic that out of all my other expensive pieces of equipment, it was the one piece which literally cost nothing that almost ruined the day.