Film Isn't Vegan: Why You Should Potentially Reconsider Shooting It if You Care About Animals

Film Isn't Vegan: Why You Should Potentially Reconsider Shooting It if You Care About Animals

Film photography is enjoying a bit of a resurgence at the moment, with many people flocking to it for reasons ranging from the abundance of cheap used equipment, to the enjoyment of the process, or the look of the results. And while film can certainly be both a fun and rewarding way to shoot, it is important to be aware of its downsides as well, one of them being the fact that it is not friendly to animals.

Film has seen a surge in popularity the last few years, which I personally think is great. Arguments about its viability against digital aside, it is a process that many people seem to enjoy, and if it makes them happy, more power to them. However, film obviously uses vastly different media than digital storage, and it is in this media that the issue arises. Of course, we all have different beliefs about the appropriateness of using animal products, and I certainly don't mean this article to sound like I'm preaching at you. Rather, if this is something you care about, this article is here to give you more information.

The Ingredients of Film

Film is made of several things. The base is normally made of nitrocellulose, polyester, or cellulose acetate. The emulsion is typically made of silver, nitric acid, and gelatin. The gelatin serves multiple crucial purposes. It works as a binding agent that holds the silver nitrate crystals in place and also holds them to the base. The gelatin is the issue here.

What Is Gelatin?

Sheets of gelatin (photo by Danielle dk, used under Creative Commons)

Gelatin is a protein derived from collagen, obtained by boiling the skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones of animals (usually cows and pigs) in water. It has many uses beyond photographic film, including food, medications, cosmetics, and more. Worldwide, approximately 400,000 tons of gelatin are produced every year. Gelatin has been around for centuries, with documents showing its usage in the 1400s. The use of gelatin in photographic film means that it is not a vegan-friendly process.

Why Is There no Vegan-Friendly Film?

In order to create a vegan-friendly film, something other than gelatin would have to be used. The problem is that gelatin has specific characteristics that allow it to function as a structure for the silver crystals to be held in — it is an excellent binding medium. There have been experiments with polyvinyl alcohol and vegetable alternatives, but none have performed as well as gelatin. Without it, Ilford says film would be "fragile, slow, and have a short life." The difficulty is that any alternative has to fill numerous roles well, ranging from good mechanical strength on dry film, permeability for processing solutions, good drying properties, a strong matrix that keeps silver halide crystals separated, to even more. Thus far, gelatin is the only thing that can aptly fill all these roles.


Time for a throwback (photo by Carlos Teixidor Cadenas, used under Creative Commons)

If you want to try analog photography but want to avoid film, all is not lost, though it is a mixed bag. The best thing you can do is try wet plate photography. The drawback here is that it is not like 35mm film in that you can just drop it in your camera, shoot with it, then mail it off to the lab to have it developed. You are getting into hardcore analog processes here, which means using a large format camera and darkroom techniques. And even then, if you are coating your paper with compounds containing albumin (a globular protein taken from egg whites), you still won't be totally vegan-friendly, though you might be more comfortable using something derived from egg whites rather than dead animals' bones, especially if the eggs were sourced ethically. If you really want to go the extra mile, use this recipe and substitute the gelatin with commercially available vegan gel. While this is obviously far more involved than 35mm or medium format film, if you are interested in film photography for the process or the look, it doesn't get any better or more unique than large format work, at least in my opinion. 

Some Good News

It is not all doom and gloom. The good news is that no animal is killed specifically to make gelatin. In other words, animals are not being slaughtered to make photographic film. Rather, gelatin is a by-product of the meat and leather industries, a by-product that other industries then buy for their own uses, such as making photographic film. Furthermore, the amount of gelatin that the photographic industry uses as a proportion of the total is extremely small; Adox estimates it at less than 1 out of 1,000,000,000 (.0000001%). This is both because the film industry is very small compared to some of the others using these byproducts and because it is impressively efficient. Adox says they coat with 3 to 9 grams per square meter of film (which creates 16 rolls), meaning the bones of one dead horse create enough gelatin for over 10,000 rolls of film. 

Essentially, this means that while not eating meat can definitely have a measurable impact, it is less likely that not using photographic film will have any sort of appreciable impact. Of course, you can still choose to not use film if that is consistent with your beliefs and what you feel most comfortable with. On the other hand, you might take comfort in knowing that no animals are killed specifically for film, and on a practical level, the impact it makes is quite small. If anything, consider more so the potential environmental impact of the chemicals involved and be sure to act in an accordingly appropriate way. 


It is unfortunate that gelatin is used in film production, but at the same time, it is important to know that a lot of research has been put into finding alternatives without much success, as no potential alternatives offer the low cost and stability of gelatin. At the same time, no animals are killed specifically for their gelatin; rather, it is a by-product of the meat and leather industries, meaning the film industry does not cause the direct death of any animals. Furthermore, the amount of gelatin it uses is extremely small compared to total usage. Still, if your impact on the environment and animals is important to you, it is good information to know. There is always the old school wet plate method (with the aforementioned modifications), or you can just stick with digital. Happy shooting! 

If you're passionate about taking your photography to the next level but aren't sure where to dive in, check out the Well-Rounded Photographer tutorial where you can learn eight different genres of photography in one place. If you purchase it now, or any of our other tutorials, you can save a 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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It'll be interesting to see what vegans make of this. No one can be the perfect vegan due to how pervasive the use of animals are in so many unexpected ways, but they don't have to be perfect; they aim only to exclude the exploitation of animals as far is possible and practicable. The problem is, not using film is very much practicable so therefore the decision to use or not use film ought to be an easy one, right? I'd love a vegan to step in with their perspective on this!

You are describing "common sense" vegans.

We all know vegans that won't eat in the same plates as meat because "contamination"....

Contamination’s no joke, Blah. I’ve been vegetarian for 16 years and can no longer digest meat. If I get just a little meat mixed into my food, I end up with the runs. Not fun for me. And a little animal fat seeped in from a sauce or grease running? Horrible gas (not fun for others 😂).

You probably have IBS. Which has nothing to do with veganism.

One is a medical condition, the other is almost a religion.

I definitely don’t have IBS, but thanks for looking out for me anyway ;)

Heh, I've been vegetarian for 15 years and can't tolerate any meat either; I actually started partially because of IBS I had as a kid. I feel your pain!

Oddly enough, I'm vegan and I've been shooting wet plate for about a year now for exactly this reason. I've always wanted to get into analog and large format photography, but couldn't bring myself to use any animal-based medium (which isn't just film, also silver gelatin photo paper, gelatin dry plates, albumen printing, etc.). I've experimented with cyanotypes, salt printing, platinum palladium printing, wet plate, dry collodion (not to be confused with gelatin dry plates), and most recently daguerreotypes.

Would love to see some of your work, Robert!

Alex Cooke probably the best place to look would be my instagram, I'm bieberphotographic

I'm living vegan for about seven years now. In recent times I've been thinking about trying analogue film since I've found an old Minolta Dynax 3000i in my parents house attic. I'm vegan because of ethical reasons and therefore I don't care a lot about the environmental impact of products I buy. I'm not religious about it but when someone has questions about the way I live, I don't hesitate offerring them information and support. An example of how "normal" or "common sense" vegan I am: I have some old leather shoes which I bought years before I made the change and I still wear them occasionally. Throwing them away (have you ever tried selling old leather shoes? Especially in a small country like austria?) would not revive the animals which died for them. Ordering rice with vegetables and getting egg rice with vegetables instead? Well, I'm not allergic to eggs and I know the restaurant would dump it, so in the rare case this happens, I just eat it and next time I'm eating there I'll tell them to please give me plain rice.

Thanks to this article - which I really enjoyed reading - I will now think twice in terms of using film in my projects. I'm sure I would've figured that out for myself in the future but reading about the gelatine here on fstoppers saved me a lot of research time. Thank you Alex Cooke !

Sounds like you and I have very similar life philosophies! I really appreciate the kind words too! :)

"I'm vegan because of ethical reasons and therefore I don't care a lot about the environmental impact of products I buy" how is caring about environmental impact not a subset of ethics ?

It can be a subset of ethics but there is no need to. I've thought about my decision a lot and am constantly trying to reduce my environmental impact too but it's not the main reason why i went vegan. It's a nice feature or bonus that my diet's impact is smaller than "normal" (whatever that means).

From a non-vegan p.o.v., I can have my steak and photograph it too.

Well played 😂

What an interesting post. It's not going to change my habits away from film but it does put a new perspective on what goes into making it. I knew some beers weren't vegan but I had no idea something so far removed from being edible or wearable wasn't vegan. Who knew!?

I always mention gelatin when a hardcore vegan shoots film. Seeing their face when they hear it is priceless! :D

... good grief. Let us know when you learn about Cobalt Mines... Google it on your phone while driving in your Tesla....

Why does it bother you so much when someone presents information they hope might improve the world without being overbearing (that you willingly clicked on)? Being concerned about one issue doesn’t mean one can’t be concerned about another.

Exactly how much of the world's animal products do you actually think goes into creating film? It's so insignificant as to be effectively non-existent... Roadkill is probably a bigger killer of animals in a given year than a decade's worth of film production.

I gave an exact percentage in the article.

So what's the problem? Why even bother bringing it up? Looking to scare vegans away from shooting film because a few animal byproducts are used in insignificant quantities? In what meaningful way does this information contribute toward improving the world? I get that the site needs articles, but I can't imagine that this is all that's going on in the photography world right now...

New information is scary to the insecure....

"improve the world"

A bit overreaching. Or as Greta-the-Hypocrite says, "Empty words."

Appeal to hypocrisy.

Logic be hard.

This is gonna be the best entertainment article here on FS for the next week...

Get paid by the click, so that leads to sensational headlines and arguments, right? :)

I tend to eat a seaweed based gelatin with our jello kind of food popular in Asia. I know that Jello uses meat based gelatin. Perhaps seaweed might offer an alternative but the market may not care enough.

Aren't animal products used in most electronics? I thought adhesives and plastics sometimes use some level animal products in production. Both are going to be included in nearly every camera, both analog and digital.

As I also understand, gelatin is used in the production of photo quality papers. Even LCD screens have been found to use animal products in their production.

At some point, every vegan has to draw a line on where they can and cannot control how they consume. I say that at the same time as mentioning that thankfully, most of the vegans I know aren't what many get annoyed about. Most of the time I have to be eating with them to find out. Not to say there a vegan can't be obnoxious but I think it's more the person than the practice. Anyone being evangelical about their beliefs and philosophies (religion, politics, sports teams, choice of micro brewery) needs to chill the eff out.

Yes sir. They are used in just about anything you can think of. Even electronic and electrical wires use oils and other animal materials for their production. Makeup as well uses urea from certain animals not to mention other parts of animals for perfumes, etc. It's like....I can't think of anything where animals aren't used. Maybe someone can help me with that?

Not the full story. Gelatin is also used in batteries, so vegans will have to reconsider taking photos of any kind, and also reconsider using their phones.

JM, yes, good info: "It’s also not possible to know if gelatin is used in the batteries you own..." Best to play it safe!

I don't care a whit about who/what/when/where vegans do what they do. I hope they enjoy themselves. I only become concerned if they, or anyone else with an agenda, tries to interfere with my ways. I like bacon way too much. :-)

You do what makes you happy :)

That is an inconvenient truth my friend!

Ugh, when we have nothing important to write about. Yes gelatin comes from animals mainly bone marrow. Big discovery; a revelation. In case someone don’t know, Jello is made with gelatin also. Stop causing trouble, and vegans can just shoot digital.

Thank you for a really funny article.
By the way, aren't some people vegans over concern for their own well being? Does being vegan necessarily entail caring about animals?

It can certainly be either.

There are ethical vegans who are mostly concerned about the treatment and exploitation of animals and the others are vegan for their health concerns.

Give me a break! More click bait?! This article appears to use the sensationalist approach... again.

I read an article about this some time back. This article is much better written. It was not condescending, (to either camp), it is fact-filled, omitting emotional arguments, and excludes needless personal stories.

Thank you for writing a better article on this topic. As a meat-eater, it does not impact me at all, but I certainly appreciate you bringing the facts to life.

Really appreciate the kind words!

Is this an admonishment to those using film? If so then my rebuttal is legal. I can buy it whenever I want and use it. Therefor, I shall. Along with my digital. Now stop this nonsense and let people use what they choose to. Just another article to stir controversy.

Legality and morality are not the same thing. Furthermore, no, it’s not an admonishment: “ Of course, we all have different beliefs about the appropriateness of using animal products, and I certainly don't mean this article to sound like I'm preaching at you. Rather, if this is something you care about, this article is here to give you more information.”

Your point was to bring to foreground the issues of using film in respect to vegans. For what purpose? Anyone who has any education at all is aware that you'd be hard-pressed to find anything which humans use or eat which doesn't include the use of animals. From makeup to the clothes we wear and even photography. Even electrical wiring uses oils and other materials which are animal base. If it is your intent to bring this "knowledge" to our attention...then you have done so. So the hell what. Not going to change what I or others will shoot with. But I do understand why you wrote this.

As regards to 'morality', all animals on this earth were placed here for our use. We have been given dominion over the animals for our own use and edification. Soaps, building materials, tools, clothes. They are NOT here for us to abuse or elsewise. We use them to help us as well as be companions and, something I don't like, for the purposes which have been discussed here. Morality is only an issue where abuse is concerned.

Bible thumper....HELL NO!! I don't belong to ANY religion..period. As for vegans.....could care less what they do. As for know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about me. So your opinions and ASSumptions mean nothing to me. Bible thumper...screw that.

You are now free to copulate with your pets and livestock. Like you usually do...reverend.

Dude, I've never even considered being a vegetarian but the way you worded that is so creepy, I might actually think about it.....

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