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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Previous comments

Lol. Thanks. You know vegetarian and vegan are two different things....right?

Yep. I do. But I've never considered either one until you started with the dominion and edification stuff.

Oh please, don't get me wrong. Dominion for good and edification. Edification is like our pets and cute animals which bring joy to us. The other would be for as in living in remote locations...extreme north or other isolated places and for times past. whatever you want. I do. I am NOT a vegan or vegetarian. Sorry sir. Don't take it the wrong way.

All good!

There is gelatin in both batteries and lcd displays so the 100% vegan approach would eliminate digital photography as well.

Photo-paper also use gelatin.
A starting list is here
I guess vegan can't accept to be vaccine either as it's mainly done with killing a perfectly healthy egg!

Here's a great alternative article on the subject of film

I believe most glues and plastics use some amount of animal byproducts as well, along with lcd technology, which uses animal cholesterol, and batteries, which use gelatin. Also, most tires manufactured for cars, busses or bicycles contain animal byproducts, if you happen to use transportation.

I couldn't care less about Vegans keep shooting film

If silver halide flavour is your thing. On the other hand, I always did like the smell of a freshly popped canister of film. 😉😆😁😀😄

It kinda gives a whole new meaning to “shooting film”.

I don’t see the point in this article. Other than getting clicks. There’s animal byproducts in just about everything.

Truth is, there was some vegan, who was also a photographer, who had pointed out that digital photography uses animal products all along the process, through the electronics necessary, and suggested that “true vegan” photographers ought to do film. This resulted in a very minor movement among vegans who love photography to tout film over digital.

This article is putting the facts out there for such vegans. Not all vegans, not all photographers, just those who were making the move strictly on the premise that film is a vegan friendly choice.

We are sinners as soon as we are born. Time for vegans to get off their high horse and the rest of us to try to be a little more vegan.

I remember unsuccessfully trying to make albumin plates at Kent State. I was also told that gelatin that was unfit for the film industry is called Jello.

I grew up very close to Kent State. Small world!

It produced two Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers in the decade I was there, John Paul Filo 71, and J. Ross Baughman in 1978. NE Ohio is a wonderful place to live.

Couldn’t agree more!!

Good grief... Nobody is going to kill animals just for gelatin, it's more like a byproduct. But yeah, very well-written and documented article about a...non-subject. :)

Stop violence to harmless plants.

I have read that if you cut bacon out of your diet, you can expand your life by another 9 years.

Nine miserable, baconless years. :(


Apparently, if you cut out bacon, meat, smoking, alcohol, fast food and drink plenty of water, exercise and get good quality sleep, you'll still die.

What a crock of crap.

Does that mean we should ALL stop doing the tech evolution / revolution thing and revert back to good old days? Oh wait...

You must have shocked a couple of bearded hipsters to the core. They were convinced they were shooting non-dairy soy latte film.

I like the part about ethically sourced eggs. Does that mean, like picking one up as opposed to clubbing one out of a chicken?:

Pretty much, yes….

…But the club is chemically induced laying, or using eggs without first checking their viability. (No chemically induced layed egg is viable).

Basically, yes - obtaining eggs from chickens who are treated properly.

Given that people will always eat meat, it makes good sense to us ALL of the animal products that it is possible to use. People don't kill animals to make film. People kill animals for meat, or because they have otherwise become unprofitable. The more efficiently you use the animal products, the fewer animals need to be killed to make a profit.

The stupid - it burns!

Please take this kind of post to a religious forum where it mught make sense. Because thinking you're somehow "helping animsls" by avoiding film is a religious view that has almost as little connection with reality as a Republican politician.

I don't think many religious forums will welcome even this level of crass extremism.

Probably, the required gelatin could be extracted from animals that have died naturally, making the article and arguement rather irrelevant.

This has nothing to do with American politics.

Why would I call you racist? There's no agenda here; I was very careful to say this is information for people to use if it's something that matters to them. That's not pushing an agenda. Sorry you don't like the topic.

Yes, we must feel guilty about everything.

Any "vegan" that uses environmentally unfriendly, petroleum-based, products (such as pleather) to replace animal products, is not a true "vegan." The environmental damage of petroleum based products if far more harmful to animals than using leftover products from meat production. If it's not vegetable based, you're not a true vegan.

I got rid of my film camera's and darkroom equipment after buying and using my first digital camera. I have been in the Hobby for 50 years. I sold my Leica M3, Hasselblad 500C, Nikon FE, Bessler 23C Enlarger, film tanks and trays about 20 years ago now. All I can say to people wanting to go back to film is are you kidding. Would you trade in your modern car to drive a Model A Ford of course not. I guess people don't like to see instant results, and edit with a computer. They want to breath in smelly carcinogenic chemicals in a dark room. I would have kept the Hasselblad had I known that you would be able to get digital backs for it.

Would you trade in your modern electronic music synthesizer for an old, smelly, heavy, outdated stringed instrument like a piano (I mean come on, you need a group of people just to move those stupid things)? I wouldn't, but some clearly would. Horse for courses.

It's almost as if people might do photography for completely different reasons and enjoy different things about it.

I love how every time shooting film get's brought up, without fail, someone makes your exact comment. You like digital, good for you!

I am a vegan for the past 2 years. I still consider myself a beginner and every time there is something new to learn. I never knew or rather I will say I never tried to search whether the camera films are vegan or not.

Well, it's not my fault, it's the digital era.

My philosophy is simple for veganism

I don't want to be harsh on me. I try to avoid non-vegan products as much as possible for me. I am still saving at least some of the animals.

Going too harsh on yourself might make you hate every non-vegan out there and this is not what veganism stands for.

If it's not peace in ourselves how can we make peace with others?

I'm vegan and still shoot film. Most of the film I shoot is long expired, anything from 5 to 20 years expired and I very rarely shoot fresh film. I also only got prints once or twice in the past 15 years too. For me shooting film is the lesser of two evils as it has helped me to recover from mental health crises like nothing else-the other option would be meds which may contain far larger amounts of gelatine than any film, along with other animal ingredients, and that were tested on animals for sure. Also I am saving cameras and film from landfill. My main ethical worry with film is the environmental impact of processing it, and it is for this reason that I now keep it to a minimum, having only shot 5-6 rolls in the past two years that I am yet to develop. I have shot digital as well but I have horrible luck with digital cameras, my last two met a sticky end so I am now afraid to invest in any more, even second hand. I have a good camera phone but it just isn't the same as shooting with a 'real' camera.