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.

Alternatives

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. 

Conclusion

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! 

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100 Comments

Robert K Baggs's picture

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"....

Wes Perry's picture

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.

Wes Perry's picture

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

Alex Cooke's picture

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.

Alex Cooke's picture

Would love to see some of your work, Robert!

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

Patrick Weichmann's picture

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 !

Alex Cooke's picture

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 ?

Patrick Weichmann's picture

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.

Alex Cooke's picture

Well played 😂

James Madison's picture

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!?

Adriano Brigante's picture

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

T Scarb's picture

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

Alex Cooke's picture

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.

Alex Cooke's picture

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."

Edward Blake's picture

Appeal to hypocrisy.

Logic be hard.

Spy Black's picture

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

Scott S's picture

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.

Michael Holst's picture

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.

Timothy Gasper's picture

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?

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