One of the things keeping vegans from shooting film is the fact that the medium uses animal gelatin as part of the emulsion coating on the plastic film base. The short answer is, yes, film contains animal products, but Ilford attempts to explain this matter in a straightforward and honest FAQ.
If you’re a vegan who’s turned off with the short answer, what Ilford has to say won’t matter much to you. But if you’re not so strict about the lifestyle and would like to know more (or won’t take “just shoot digital” for an answer), it’s worth checking out the information.
While Ilford chemicals don’t contain animal products, their film and paper products do. These come in the form of gelatin, which is part of the light-sensitive emulsion layer coated over the transparent plastic film base. However, Ilford also mentions that the gelatin they use is a by-product of the farming industry, so no extra animals were harmed to make these products. We can say it’s the same for other brands, but at least we know for sure that animals aren’t being harmed for the sole purpose of making gelatin for photographic products.
Despite technological innovations, why is there no substitute to animal gelatin yet? According to Ilford, gelatin “has unique characteristics which act as a membrane matrix for the silver crystals but also interacts with the crystals as they are formed.” Attempts to develop vegetable or Polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) substitutes were made, but none of them were able to work to the same standard as gelatin. Without gelatin, photographic film and paper would be fragile and suffer a short shelf life.
That said, if you’re a vegan still interested in traditional photographic processes but film is no longer an option, the only thing left for you is the more challenging route of wet plate collodion photography. Also be sure to check out all our Ilford coverage, which includes reviews of some of their film emulsions.