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Film photography is cool and all, but do you even know what’s in it? Do you know it’s not vegan? How many of you know there’s gelatin in there? And did you know there’s a layer in some film that caused Fujifilm to discontinue a film in America? Well, apparently, yet another ingredient is under fire: silver. This precious metal is an integral part of film. As a result, the price of silver can affect the price of film and development. Those of us who shoot film are often pretty loyal to specific labs. But we also tend to go shopping around when the price gets too high. And while companies tell us that their pricing is stable, I’m still a bit concerned.
What’s Going On Exactly?
The subreddit r/Wallstreetsilver has been trying to find a way to increase the price of silver. Silver is in the $25-per-ounce range right now, but they’re trying to increase the price to $1,000. In case you missed it, a bunch of Redditors caused a big commotion in early 2021 by collaborating to drive up the price of GameStop’s stock. I wouldn’t really put anything past a bunch of folks on Reddit if they’re given enough time.
The price of silver has had its ups and downs. Over the past century, the price has swung between $5/oz to $125/oz. In recent times, silver reached the summit in 2011 over the past two decades, according to Bullion Vault. Then it went down and stabilized until going back up again in the past two years. CNBC says that the price of silver soared 70%. Still, silver isn’t as high as it was back in the last decade.
Silver is a big part of many important things we do. In fact, most folks probably aren’t even aware of how big it is. But here’s a quote from the Royal Society of Chemistry:
“Sterling silver contains 92.5% silver. The rest is copper or some other metal. It is used for jewellery and silver tableware, where appearance is important.
Silver is used to make mirrors, as it is the best reflector of visible light known, although it does tarnish with time. It is also used in dental alloys, solder and brazing alloys, electrical contacts and batteries. Silver paints are used for making printed circuits.
Silver bromide and iodide were important in the history of photography, because of their sensitivity to light. Even with the rise of digital photography, silver salts are still important in producing high-quality images and protecting against illegal copying. Light-sensitive glass (such as photochromic lenses) works on similar principles. It darkens in bright sunlight and becomes transparent in low sunlight.
Silver has antibacterial properties and silver nanoparticles are used in clothing to prevent bacteria from digesting sweat and forming unpleasant odours. Silver threads are woven into the fingertips of gloves so that they can be used with touchscreen phones.”
Royal Society of Chemistry
So silver is in high demand. And the pandemic isn’t making things easier. Lots of components are in very high demand right now.
Why is Silver so Important to Film Photography?
This is a question that has tons of answers. When you think of silver in photography, you’re probably thinking of the silver gelatin development process. This black-and-white darkroom magic is one of the more common development methods. In fact, it changed the world, according to Ellis Vener. In an article he wrote for La Noir Image, Vener explained how it helped democratize photography:
“Like those other great technological revolutions this one is built on discoveries that came before it and in turn launched a flowering of possibilities. Silver gelatin photography changed the world by democratizing photography. If you had the desire and the means to afford a camera and film, you too could record the world around you and share your visions with others on a previously unprecedented scale. And if you had the desire, you too could learn and practice the craft of developing your own film and the art of making your own prints.”
For transparency, I owned and operated La Noir Image for years until shutting it down. The articles live on The Phoblographer now.
Indeed, Silver has been an integral part of photography for pretty much all its history. That goes for negative film and even instant film, according to the Silver Institute.
In analog photography, it’s a part of both photographic film and photographic paper. When you develop film or make prints in a darkroom, silver compounds are part of the gets effluent. Here’s a quote from Canon on silver in film photography:
“Camera film uses silver halides (such as silver chloride, bromide or iodide) as the materials exposed to light. When the silver halide layer absorbs light, electrons within the layer attach to the halide crystals, creating what are known as sensitivity specks. Light accordingly effects chemical changes in the silver-halide layer, leaving a latent image on the film.
When exposed film is placed in a developing agent, the surroundings of the sensitivity specks are converted to silver, as a result of which the exposed areas start to turn black, and the image begins to “be developed.”
Lots of folks who develop at home probably just dump the effluent down the drain. But regulated labs don’t do that. They have a machine that takes the effluent and separates the silver out. Then the silver is given to a refinery, and the lab gets a check in the mail for all the silver.
Dumping silver compounds into drains is otherwise very toxic to the environment. A document from the EPA dating back to 1999 talks about silver recovery methods. Note that the EPA is the same government agency that said Fujifilm Velvia 100 now contains a carcinogen.
What Does a Silver Price Increase Mean for Film Photography?
First off, increased silver prices mean that the cost of film could go up even more. So we reached out to Kodak. A rep told us, “We don’t speculate on future price increases.” As a journalist, I interpret this to mean that it could probably increase. Ilford never got back to us in time for publishing this article.
Here’s where it sort of gets weird. Photographic development labs get charged on a rolling basis for the price of silver. Here’s what happens:
This quarter, silver is $25 per ounce. That’s what the lab gets charged for accordingly. The lab has bought a massive stock of paper that has silver and doesn’t need to buy again for another year.
The next quarter, the price of silver goes down. So the lab gets a credit.
The following quarter, the price of silver goes up, so the lab gets charged accordingly.
The entire time, the lab is taking silver out of the photographic paper and films, giving it to refineries, and then getting paid for it.
It’s a bit confusing, but labs could pass that cost off to the customers if the price goes up. We reached out to Duggal, a personal favorite lab of The Phoblographer. Duggal’s Ken Bledsoe told us:
“Duggal purchases photographic chemistry and substrates in such volume, to meet the demands of our global customers, we realize only incremental change over the long period. Duggal also provides a wide variety of services and solutions that helps off-set cost fluctuation of materials containing silver compounds, allowing us to refrain from price increases to our clients.”
Ken Bledsoe – Digital-C Master Print Manager at Duggal
At least with the big labs, we can bet that the prices won’t change. But most of the photographic labs out there are the smaller folks. And they’re the ones who might get hit. Suddenly, your development might go theoretically go from $5 to $15. You haven’t even paid for scans yet. If you’ve shot and got film developed for a while, you know for sure that prices can fluctuate. They’ve changed a lot in my 12 years running Phoblographer.
Returning to the original point, if the sub-Reddit manages to get the price of silver to $1,000 an ounce, then the labs might have a tough time. They’re being charged by manufacturers on a rolling basis. Further, they might not be able to make money back from the silver refineries, depending on how often they get paid.
Obviously, we shouldn’t give up on film. If you’re concerned about it, this is a good time to stock up on film. Grab as much as you can. If you’re buying large format, 120, and 35mm film, then store it in the freezer. Treat it like frozen goods. Only take out what you’re going to use, let it defrost, and then use it. If you’re thinking of stocking up on Instant film, then store it in the fridge instead.
Silver is a component for making film. And we can be sure that the manufacturers have stockpiled a lot of it just in case. But a jump in the price of silver could still mean film and processing prices will soar. To be frank, I wouldn’t blame the businesses affected. The industry has struggled to make film photography more profitable for years. A major shift in the price of silver, though unlikely, could prove a problem.
For anyone that says that it’s very unlikely to happen, just remember that stranger things have occurred. 10 years ago, I’d laugh in your face if you told me Donald Trump would’ve become President. I also wouldn’t have believed all the things he did. Even four years ago, I’d have never believed that a worldwide pandemic would’ve shut the world down. When I was much younger, I would not have believed that the Twin Towers would’ve fallen. Stranger things have happened.
Additional editing for this article was provided by Aimee Baldridge and Gretchen Robinette.