Does airplane travel “kill” digital camera sensors?

by Ned Levi on August 22, 2011

Nikon D200 DSLR, photo by NSL Photography

You might have read about the controversial comments Rob Hummel, president of Legend3D, Inc. made in June, at the Cine Gear Expo in Los Angeles, about problems for travelers’ who bring digital cameras on their plane flights. Hummel claimed gamma ray radiation destroys digital camera sensors’ pixels while flying above 20,000 feet.

Hummel delivered his remarks during his presentation, “Primer on Film and Digital Capture.” The controversial statements, which begin about eight minutes into the presentation, have received much play on the Internet and in the press.

Travelers in many photo and travel forums have been asking if Hummel’s claims are true, ever since the presentation was posted on YouTube. They’re concerned about their vacation photos, and digital cameras being ruined while flying.

Hummel stated,

“There’s a little problem though with digital cameras, I promise you. Anybody ever take their cameras on an airplane? OK … Every time you do that you kill photosites on your camera, because of … When Canon, Nikon, Casio, Panasonic ship cameras to North America, they do it by boat. And that’s because you need about …  at at altitudes of 20,000 feet and higher you need about 125 feet of concrete to shield yourself from the gamma rays at higher altitudes. They don’t hurt us, but gamma rays induce voltages in sensors that fry out pixels.”

Before Hummel completed his presentation, I became leery of his statements, and questioned the claims made in the presentation. When Hummel said, “They don’t hurt us,” referring to gamma rays, I was astonished!

All ionizing radiation causes damage at a cellular level, but because alpha and beta radiation are relatively non-penetrating, they are not nearly as hazardous as gamma radiation.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency,

“Because of the gamma ray’s penetrating power and ability to travel great distances, it is considered the primary hazard to the general population during most radiological emergencies.”

In fact, high doses of gamma radiation are extremely harmful to humans, and can cause cancer and radiation sickness. To say without qualification that gamma radiation isn’t harmful to humans, as Hummel stated, is ridiculous.

In the presentation, Hummel talks about a Canon camcorder which he claimed was damaged by gamma radiation. Popular Photography staffers, thought what he said was so dubious they went directly to Canon to see if they were familiar with the problem.

Canon’s official statement about the issue, published by Popular Photography on their PopPhoto.com website states,

“Canon disagrees with these findings based upon the lack of customer complaints, shipping methods and specific Canon technology that eliminate the issues Mr. Hummel describes.”

Hummel stated, “Film is immune from gamma rays.” French physicist Antoine Becquerel, discoverer of radioactivity along with Marie and Pierre Curie, (All three won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics) proved that isn’t true in 1896. Becquerel discovered he could detect gamma radiation, as its invisible radiation affected silver emulsions on photographic plates just like light rays.

In the presentation, Hummel stated that by killing sensor “transfer pixels,”  gamma rays, would deaden an entire row of pixels, producing a black line on every image. If this were happening regularly to air travelers’ digital cameras, considering the number of people flying with them, there would be a ground swell of complaints. To the best of my knowledge air travelers haven’t been making such complaints.

Delving into the numbers, a 2002 study about the effect of Gamma-ray radiation on color CMOS image sensors, like those used in many DSLRs, showed 600Gy (Grays) would kill them, but a 2008 UN report about the effects of radiation on people points out that the average annual effective dose of overall radiation for airline flight crews, including gamma radiation, is only 3.0 mGy (Milligrays).

Combined, these studies would seem to clearly indicate the typical digital camera sensor is pretty safe from gamma ray damage when travelers take them on their plane flights to destinations across the globe.

Can gamma radiation kill pixels of digital cameras? Absolutely. This has been known for a long time. NASA’s been using Nikon digital cameras in space for years.

A NASA spokesperson has said, “The space environment (both inside the vehicle and on spacewalks) is tough on the electronic cameras. The radiation damages pixels on the sensor.”

That being said, there is a world of difference, in radiation exposure, at the altitudes travelers fly in commercial jets, even on long distance flights, compared to flying in the Space Shuttle, or the International Space Station.

Since I purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D70, I’ve flown more than a hundred thousand miles as a travel photographer, and on vacation. So far, my digital cameras haven’t had any dead pixels on their sensors.

I think you can bring your digital camera on your next vacation flights, and safely expect it will arrive at your destination without gamma radiation damage.

Ned Levi is a long time professional photographer with a passion for wildlife and travel photography. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.

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  • http://cometocapetown.com Nikko

    I’m glad I read the full article, I almost freaked out on the part that the altitude kills photosites on the camera. Is there any hand bags, protection bags for this thing not to happen on our DSLR’s?

  • Kairho

    Right on the money here, Ned. I’m betting Hummel has no physics training nor basics of statistics even. However, it’s a good lesson in how to stir up unnecessary controversy and fear.

    … Kairho, posting from Antigua, GT

  • Deanstar

    Nikko,
    Like Ned points out, there is no likelihood that gamma radiation will harm your camera unless you are riding regularly on the Space Shuttle (yes, I know the last one was the last flight), Soyuz or the International Space Station.

  • klm

    It really seems that Hummel skipped high school Science class. Here’s what I remember from 20 years ago:
    alpha radiation: lonely protons, the positive-charged bodies in the atomic nucleus. Being relatively big, they cause serious damage… but they can’t get far, either. Air will stop them.
    beta radiation: electrons. It takes a lot of them to get enough force to go very far, as in a lightning bolt. They cause more damage to cells than gamma, but less than protons because they’re so small.
    gamma radiation: photons, just like the light we see, X-rays, microwaves, UV, and radio. Photons are much smaller than electrons, but it’s their frequency, beyond X-rays, that gets them through lots of matter. Still, enough gamma in one place can cause damage, hence the no-go areas near Fukushima and Chernobyl. Otherwise, it’s just a fact of life

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=576001031 Jeff Linder

    I’m of the opinion that the presenter has no clue as to the science..  Any amount strong enough to damage a camera that fast (as Ned noted) would also pretty much  be bad for the person carrying it. 

  • PauletteB

    Sounds as though Hummel has an anti-digital agenda. Is he being fronted by some film company?

  • MeanMeosh

    I have to call fertilizer.  Like you, Ned, I’ve taken digital cameras of one kind or another on a good 500,000 miles worth of flights over the past 6 years, including numerous 8+ hour nonstops.  I’ve fried two digital cameras over that span, but both were because of an accidental dunking in water, not because of radiation. 

  • http://cometocapetown.com Nikko

    Deanstar,

    Thanks for that, but if in anyway it damages a camera I think someone should make a way of protecting or should i say preventing damage to this cameras, what do you think?

  • http://www.tourvey.com Jim Kem22

    I travel with my digital camera but i don’t face such type of problem.

  • KhunPapa

    I always travel with 3-4 cameras. One must be in my carry bag for shooting from take-off to landing. Others are in luggage. NONE is damaged. NO picture is ever destroyed by any radiation. 

    Tens of thousand of pictures taken in-flight should be more than enough to proof Hummel’s Illusion.

  • http://www.mauritiustourtravels.com Joseph Smith

    If it is true, it’s shocking news for me.

  • Jonathan

    This may be a bit of an old thread, but I had to throw in my two bits here.  As a practicing astronomer, there are a few points I’d like to make:

    (1) astronomers have been using digital sensors at altitude for decades.  We quite routinely see spots and streaks in our images, due to what we call cosmic rays (which include gamma rays, but most CRs are high-energy particles.  Also, these are not limited to just  alpha- and beta-particles; several sub-atomic particles such as the positron, muon and pi meson were first discovered as CRs).  These CRs are present in any exposure longer than a few seconds.  However, despite this continual bombardment, we continue to use the same CCDs for years without much if any change in the number of hot or dead pixels.  Granted, observatories are not quite at 20,000 ft (Mauna Kea in Hawaii is qround 13,800 ft), but the difference between 13,800 and 20,000 ft is much smaller than the difference between 0 and 6200 ft because the atmosphere is much denser at low altitudes.

    (2) we also use CCD cameras in orbit.  Not just for a few days in low Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle or a few months in a similarly low orbit on the Space Station, but for years in orbits both low (Hubble Space Telescope, Swift) and high (Chandra X-ray Observatory, XMM-Newton).  In this much higher radiation environment, we do see some gradual degradation of our CCDs, but this is after years in orbit above the atmosphere, not hours on a plane within the atmosphere.

    (3) putting aside my experience as an astronomer, I strongly suspect that the whole argument about camera companies using surface shipping instead of air freight is specious.  I expect that this is an economic decision, because it’s far less expensive to ship a full container on a cargo boat than to send the same weight and volume of cargo on an airplane (not to mention the difference in carbon footprint…).  Besides, digital sensors are most at risk when they are in use (i.e., when voltage is applied to the CCD array), which is most certainly not the case when cameras are being shipped by the manufacturer.

    These flaws and others in Mr Hummel’s statement makes me wonder what he’s trying to sell…

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

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